Detroit City Council to call on Duggan to stop working with attorney who mocked activist with disabilities

click to enlarge Spirit of Detroit at city hall. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
Spirit of Detroit at city hall.

A municipal attorney who mocked an activist who uses a wheelchair should no longer work for the city of Detroit, a council committee said Wednesday.

Detroit City Council members are set to vote Tuesday on a resolution that calls on Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration to stop working with the Allen Brothers law firm once its $825,000 contract with the city expires.

A council committee endorsed the measure Wednesday, citing a Metro Times story that first uncovered a series of insulting email messages sent by the law firm’s James Allen, Sr.

“The Detroit City Council reaffirms its commitment to providing a respectful, welcoming, and safe environment to our residents and all visiting our city, and vehemently condemn discrimination and hate speech,” the resolution, introduced by Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López, states.

In a letter to Detroit Corporation Lawrence Garcia, Councilman James Tate said he is “deeply disturbed” by the emails to Charles Blackwell, a 28-year-old government transparency advocate from Farmington Hills.

Blackwell sued Allen, arguing that the demeaning emails were intended to chill his right to free speech and deter him from “further engaging in activity protected by the Constitution.” The lawsuit was filed by Tony D. Paris, of the Maurice & Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice, and Hannah Fielstra, of Ernst Charara & Lovell.

In one of the emails, Allen wrote, "God recognized evil and sentenced you to sit while people like me run free and spread our DNA into the universe like you can’t" and called Blackwell a "pathetic little wheel boy." In another email, he said, "You surely deserve that bullet that God sent to put you where you are."

The emails came after Blackwell, who was paralyzed in a random drive-by shooting about eight years ago, sent a Freedom of Information Act request for contracts between Hamtramck and Allen’s law firm Allen Brothers.

The emails drew criticism from advocates of people with disabilities.

"Like white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, and poverty, ableism costs its victims opportunities, joy, and growth as well as simple safety and human dignity,” Dessa Cosma, executive director of Detroit Disability Power, wrote in a Metro Times op-ed. “And many people live under the weight of these oppressive systems combined. The repugnant comments of James Allen, Sr., aren’t an anomaly. They are examples of systemic ableism that has real impacts on real people.”

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Duggan is receptive to severing the city’s ties with Allen’s firm. Metro Times couldn't reach him for comment.

Last month, the city of Hamtramck placed Allen on leave, and one council member called for his resignation. But Hamtramck recently lifted the suspension.

Here are some snippets of the emails:

• “Sit down and stay down where that bullet justly put you, punk. Back to your regularly scheduled sit down.”

• “I love to walk. And run. And do things that others can’t. God doth have a great sense of humor and, in your case, a keen sense of justice.”

• “I won’t be thinking of you later tonight when I do that thing that you can’t.”

• “I want you to know that you are where you are because you so clearly and richly deserve to be there.”

In a statement following the lawsuit, Allen said he regretted sending the emails.

“I can explain what led me to the point of stupidly using inappropriate and hyperbolic language directed at Mr. Blackwell, but I cannot excuse it,” Allen said. “I resorted to language born of frustration built up over 18 months, but I do not condone and I apologize for the language I used. I was wrong.”

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About The Author

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling is an award-winning investigative journalist who operated Motor City Muckraker, an online news site devoted to exposing abuses of power and holding public officials accountable. Neavling also hosted Muckraker Report on 910AM from September 2017 to July 2018. Before launching Motor City Muckraker,...
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