ACLU: Saving our asses

Mar 3, 2010 at 12:00 am

Imagine this, if you can. You and your friends are out at an art gallery — the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit, or CAID — for something called "Funk Night," basically an all-night dance party.

The party, open only to members, happens once a month. So there you are, reelin' with the feelin', when suddenly, at 2 a.m., the place is invaded by screaming cops with guns drawn.

Except you don't even know they are cops. They are dressed completely in black paramilitary gear, with flashlights mounted on shotguns. They force some patrons to lay face-down outside in the mud for hours. Eventually, you are informed that this is a police raid.

You are ticketed for "loitering in a place of illegal occupation." They let you go — but tow your car, leaving you on Rosa Parks Boulevard with no way to get home. If you want your car back, you'll have to show up later and pay $900. That is, if they can find it; one man says his car was evidently stolen from the cop lot. 

Does that sound like a fascist nightmare?

Welcome to Detroit. If this sounds familiar, that's because it actually happened, on May 31, 2008. Though I haven't gotten a response from a police spokesman, they don't seem to dispute this account of what occurred that night.

According to Michael Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the police allege that CAID didn't have a license to host "Funk Night." There were also allegations that the art gallery was serving liquor after hours.

"But the police had no reason to suspect that the CAID's patrons knew that Funk Night was not properly licensed or that it was in any other way an illegal operation," Steinberg said.

Yet the cops did what they felt like doing. They make a lot of money impounding cars, for one thing. Everybody present was searched — without a warrant — and no drugs or weapons were found. But some of the patrons, mostly young people in their 20s and 30s, say they were kicked, shoved and hit.

So imagine that were you, and you don't have money or connections. Where do you go for help? Eventually, a handful of these kids found their way to the most authentically American institution I know: the ACLU.

Freedom is a fragile thing, and the ACLU's whole reason for being is to defend your constitutional rights. They get a bum rap a lot of the time. Blowhard right-wing morons call them "left-wing radicals." Some liberals and Jews are uneasy because they've defended American Nazis' constitutional right to protest.

Virtually everyone was grossed-out when they defended the free speech rights of NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association, which is just what it sounds like it is.

But you know what? They defend those creeps to show that our freedoms apply to everyone.

The ACLU is now suing the Detroit Police Department in federal court over what they did to those poor art gallery patrons. Earlier, Steinberg told me, they got all the criminal charges dropped. They'd like it if courts order compensation for the victims, and maybe direct the city to pay their legal fees.

But that's not what the ACLU really wants most. They want the courts to declare what the Detroit police did that night was unconstitutional, and to issue an injunction forbidding them from doing it again. By the way, those cops did Detroit's image terrible harm.

Some of the people brutalized that May night were suburban residents who say it will be a cold day in hell before they ever spend a day or a dime in Detroit again.

So ... suppose, for a moment, that you are idealistic and want to make a difference, and make this community and this country a better place for all, frankly, including yourself.

Well, you could throw your money and energy into promoting some politician who might or might not get elected, and then might or might not live up to their promises when in office.

Or you could support the one group that is all about helping Americans live up to their ideals, helping protect the young and innocent from fascist-minded or sadistic cops, and keeping the promise of America real.

You could volunteer to help the ACLU, because freedom can't defend itself. Check They'll leave the light of liberty on, and keep the Constitution working for you.

Farewell to Steve Wilson:
You could criticize his style and tactics, but nobody doubted who the No. 1 investigative reporter in the Detroit TV market was. WXYZ-TV's Steve Wilson was going after Kwame before beating up on His Dishonor was cool.

Last week, it was announced that Wilson's contract wouldn't be renewed, evidently to save money. Investigative reporting takes time and costs a lot. If you do it right, sometimes weeks of work don't result in a single story.

However, if you send a reporter out to discover that cars get stuck when it snows, you are guaranteed lots of cheap, usable footage. That's what counts in the news business these days.

I don't know Wilson well, but some years ago, a friend who runs a nonprofit called me in a bit of a panic. Stevo wanted to check out their operations, look at their records. "Have you done anything wrong? Do you have anything to hide?" I asked her bluntly.

"Not at all," she said. In that case, give him everything he wants, I advised. She did exactly that. He spent days looking at her records. Result: He did nothing. 

The bean counters at Scripps-Howard, the corporate parent of WXYZ-TV, couldn't have found that cost-effective. I was dismayed to learn he'd be gone, but not greatly surprised. A few days before, I got a confidential note from a well-placed source at another station, bemoaning the demise of investigative reporting at local television in Detroit.

"WXYZ may not renew Wilson. They are down a producer and have cut back on travel and staff photographers. WDIV never had much of an investigative unit to begin with. Efforts to bring in big journalistic guns like [Detroit Free Press reporter Mike] Elrick didn't work. Oh, they also hired a guy from Flint who was supposed to do investigative, but he wound up doing daily news. ... 

"Fox (WJBK-TV) had the largest investigative unit with three reporters, three photographers, a producer and a managing editor. They are down now to one reporter and two photographers who also fill in for daily news stuff. The reporter is Rob Wolchek, the 'Hall of Shame' guy. He's good, but he is actually more like a consumer reporter than an investigative guy. The bottom line ... is that the TV stations aren't supporting investigative reporting any more.

"And that's a damn shame from the citizens' standpoint."

Well, my source is right, but clearly didn't have his priorities straight. True, TV newsrooms in the future may no longer uncover corrupt politicians and businessmen who are stealing our money. They may not look into who is permitting the destruction of the Great Lakes by the Asian carp. But they intend to leave no jackknifed tractor-trailer truck unfilmed, and will still show us pictures every time the cops find the body of a local sex crime victim.

What more could an informed citizen possibly need to know?

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]