While most of the national headline-grabbing incidents of violence against unarmed Black people, from Treyvon Martin to Michael Brown to George Floyd, have involved male victims, Black women and Black transgender women also experience police brutality and are often the backbone of the fight to raise awareness and change minds. This is why we’re turning the spotlight to the women leaders who so often go unsung. A part of our Black (Women’s) Lives Matter feature, this story focuses on Detroit Will Breathe co-organizer Nakia Wallace.
On the 16th consecutive day of Black Lives Matter protests in Detroit, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the city’s police headquarters at Michigan Avenue and Third Street. And at the center of it all on that Saturday in mid-June was Nakia Wallace, the 23-year-old co-organizer, who welcomed everyone and then invited participants to share personal stories, offer encouragement, call listeners to action, and reiterate the demands that are propelling the movement.
Consuela Barber-Lopez, executive director of Amandla, a collection of local groups focused on crime against children of color, led the crowd in a call-and-response chant prominent from the 1980s movement against Apartheid in South Africa. Tristan Taylor, Wallace’s co-organizer and uncle, reminded the crowd that such protests across the nation since the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis cop two weeks earlier had already changed the conversation about policing in America. And disability advocate “Baba” Baxter Jones declared there’s no middle ground in the fight for Black lives. If you’re not a part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, he declared.
More than two hours later, Wallace took back the mic as the final speaker before the group once again weaved its way through the streets of Detroit. “In this country, any time we see progress on the question of equality and justice, it’s been because of our ability to take the streets,” bellowed Wallace, a hand gripping the mic stand. “Any time we’ve seen true justice or progress towards equality — the question of public education, the question of housing, the question of segregation — it has been because we took the streets. It’s been because we held the streets. This is the fight for our lives.”
This fight is not new to Wallace, co-founder with Taylor of Detroit Will Breathe, the group organizing the daily marches. Her family, like many other Black and brown families living at or below the poverty line, has long felt the system fails them, she says. She knows housing instability. She knows police mistrust, to the point of leaving places when cops were present. And, as part of the first generation of her family to graduate high school and college, she knows the obstacles to a quality education.
“I don’t necessarily see my education as a means for a career, but definitely an expression of my freedom,” says Wallace, who earned a dual degree in English and African American studies from Wayne State University after attending Cass Technical High School in Midtown. Her fascination with reading about the civil rights movement, in fact, prompted her to found the Black Millennial Book Club. “It didn’t matter to me whether or not I could get a job. Like, it mattered, but [what mattered was that] I was able to really partake in an education in a meaningful way — something my parents and my grandparents never did.”
The first political fight of her activist career came at age 12 when she marched and attended school board meetings to oppose the closure of Detroit’s Cleveland Intermediate School, which her older sister attended. The school shut down anyway, and Wallace says that destroyed the neighborhood because students were dispersed to schools miles away in Detroit and Hamtramck.
“We were facing mass school closings throughout the district and the takeover of our schools, and it just meant mass devastation,” Wallace says. “We knew that not being able to walk to a school in our neighborhood was a very dangerous thing. We knew that the answer was not to close our schools and make our class sizes bigger but to just give us more money and to make school a better place for us.”
Since then, there hasn’t been a time when she wasn’t involved in some cause alongside Taylor. Forming Detroit Will Breathe together, then, was a natural progression.
Originally known as The People’s March, the group originated out of the earliest Detroit protests following Floyd’s May 25 death. The name was changed to echo Floyd’s last words — “I can’t breathe” — and as of early July, the group continued to organize marches that would begin in the late afternoon at various starting points around town.
Within weeks of Floyd’s death, Wallace and Taylor met with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and police Chief James Craig to deliver a list of demands that included defunding and demilitarizing the police; ending the Project Greenlight program that allows police to post surveillance cameras at private businesses such as gas stations; halting the use of facial recognition technology; stopping all evictions; and restoring and maintaining running water for all Detroiters.
The demands reflect what the term “defund the police” means to Wallace — a redistribution of public money away from law enforcement and toward programs that ensure affordable water and access to quality health care. If the city took better care of its residents, Wallace argues, the need for policing would diminish.
“They don’t need $317 million, and crime is still running rampant in the city,” she says, citing data from the nonprofit Detroit Justice Center showing the Detroit Police Department’s 2020 budget. “What we need to do is create social institutions and methods in every neighborhood that are accessible to people to handle the issues that we see lead people to do crimes.”
Initially, Wallace says, Detroit Will Breathe declined invitations to meet privately with Duggan and Craig, insisting the city leaders speak publicly to the crowds. As the days became weeks and the list of demands grew more detailed and complex, the movement voted to send Wallace and Taylor to meet with Duggan and Craig to lay out their case. It was a one-time concession to the city’s leaders, Wallace says.
“We were refusing to meet privately because, quite frankly, that’s how sellouts are made, right?” Wallace says. “The movement is stronger when it’s together and when it’s collective, and that was why we refused to meet with them. And, quite frankly, why we won’t meet with them again.”
The meeting in the Mayor’s Conference Room at the Coleman Young Municipal Center amounted to 90 minutes of Duggan, Craig, and other officials listening to demands and then trying to persuade the duo to cooperate with the administration on new initiatives to improve the policing, water, and housing problems, according to Wallace and Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett. Mallett described the interactions as cordial and professional and said the outreach is a genuine and well-established way of addressing problems with the help of advocates who already have in-roads to the community. He says he expects and hopes for further talks with Wallace and Taylor.
Wallace, however, says she and Taylor found these efforts patronizing and hollow and intended to co-opt them into taking the movement on a “long route to a slow death.” Duggan and Craig didn’t even stay for the whole meeting, she notes.
Regardless of their different takeaways, Mallett — former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and a one-time key adviser to Mayor Coleman Young who joined Duggan’s team on June 1 — says he’s impressed by Wallace.
“What Coleman Young would have seen is a version of himself when he was the age of Nakia Wallace,” Mallett says. “He would have been profoundly respectful of what they were attempting to cause to happen.”
But since that meeting, relations have only become more tense. In late June, the group called on the police to drop charges and citations issued against protesters after police at times deployed tear gas and made arrests. Then, on June 28, a police SUV threw protesters off its hood when the driver sped through a large group of demonstrators who had crowded, climbed upon, and pounded on the vehicle. Detroit Will Breathe then called for Craig’s resignation after he defended the officers’ actions by saying they were startled when one of the vehicle’s windows was shattered amid the commotion. No significant injuries were reported, and at press time Mallett said an investigation into the incident was ongoing.
The protests will continue as long as they must, Wallace says, pointing for inspiration to the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and 1956 sparked by Rosa Parks’ refusal to sit in the back of a bus. The boycott ended only when the U.S. Supreme Court deemed segregation on public transportation unconstitutional.
Wallace says whatever long-term plans she had for herself before all of this started are now on hold. She’s found a calling in what she refers to as “love in the streets.”
“My personal plans or hopes or dreams don’t actually matter,” she says. “What I need is tied to what the people of Detroit need. What I need is tied to what the people of Minneapolis need. What I need is tied to what our undocumented brothers and sisters who are in cages need.”