A Conversation with Nakia-Renne Wallace, Co-Leader of Detroit Will Breathe

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Nakia-Renne Wallace '20, is a co-major in African American Studies and English at Wayne State University. But first, she is a Detroit girl. In her own words, she is a “Detroiter resident, Detroit employee, Detroit youth, the girl in the front of the marches that you claim are led by outsiders.” Nakia’s co-leadership of the #DetroitProtest against police brutality and towards a liberated future shows she is the best of us.

When I learned that Nakia-Renne Wallace was one of the co-leaders of the #DetroitProtests that erupted in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, I was amazed but not surprised. I had the privilege of teaching her in my English department senior seminar during Winter 2020, now forever known as the semester the pandemic hit. From day one in the class, Nakia shined. The depth of her intellect and the complexity of her thinking are matched by thorough compassion for those most vulnerable in our society.

As Nakia puts it, she was both “thrown into” and “pulled into” the streets. Until the first day of protests, she had been taking the pandemic and quarantine seriously, leaving the house only for work. By the third night of protests, after witnessing police violence against protestors violating the curfew, Nakia and her uncle, Tristan Taylor, who is co-leader of the #DetroitProtests with Nakia, had emerged as leaders committed to being with the people in the streets. As she says, “I’m not at a place where I can consider the pandemic. Like, I can’t consider it because there are little Black and Brown children being murdered, and we gotta fight back and resist.”

On "Juneteenth" (June 19, 2020) and day 22 of the protests, Nakia and I sat down over FaceTime to talk about her leadership of the protests. By then, Nakia had already inspired a crowd of over 1000 to stay united, calm, and in place in the face of police intimidation to resist the newly-ordered city curfew meant to disperse protestors. Nakia and Tristan had formalized the coalition of activists, medics, and supporters into a new organization, Detroit Will Breathe. On the day of our interview, Nakia and Tristan were planning a public tribunal the next day to hold the Detroit Police Department and Mayor Duggan accountable for the police attacks on protestors, deliberately drawing examples from the 1967 public tribunal held in the wake of the July 25, 1967, police killings of three Black teenagers, Aubrey Pollard, Fred Temple and Carl Cooper at the Algiers Motel. This march would culminate at the Algiers Motel, where The Water Warrior, Detroit human rights activist, and educator, Monica Patrick Lewis, gave the fiercest of speeches that both celebrated the fire and work of the protestors and fortified them for the continued struggle.

Nakia’s work and the protests have continued non-stop since the day of our interview. On June 29, Detroit Will Breathe led a march and rally in Southwest Detroit, “Tu Lucha es Mi Lucha/Your Struggle is My Struggle,” in solidarity with over 30 community organizations. In her simultaneously gut-wrenching and incisive testimony about witnessing her fellow protestors at the solidarity march (including WSU African American Studies major and native Detroiter Lloyd Simpson) being hit by a Detroit Police car, we can hear echoes of Fannie Lou Hamer, one of Nakia’s heroes. On July 2, Nakia published an open letter to Detroit City Council president and congressional candidate Brenda Jones that placed the #DetroitProtests within both a historical and contemporary context of the multifaceted disfranchisement of Detroit’s Black citizens. On July 5, Detroit Will Breathe held a teach-in on Cynthia Scott, bringing together an intergenerational group of activists to give testimony to and context for the Detroit-specific history of resistance to police violence. And this week, Detroit Will Breathe is bringing the protests to the neighborhoods, bringing the movement to the people.

Nakia holding sign during protestThroughout the protests, Nakia and Tristan have consistently and deliberately emphasized the interconnections between police and state violence and the multifaceted disfranchisement of Detroit’s Black and Brown communities. Detroit Will Breathe’s demands thus include: the restoration and maintenance of water for all Detroit residents; the cessation of evictions; and the establishment of Detroit as a sanctuary city. Nakia and her co-leaders and co-protestors understand clearly how the violence of evictions, water shut-offs, and ICE are part and parcel of the police violence endured by generations of Black and Brown Detroit residents.

Nakia is a leader who knows and has learned from the history of the long struggle for Black freedom in the United States. Her speeches deliberately draw from the likes of Fannie Lou Hamer and Ida B. Wells, while her thinking about movement and solidarity draw from writers like Kiese Laymon and Darnell Moore. Since the first days of the protests, Nakia and Tristan have embraced collectivist, people-led ethics of leadership that follow the example of Ella Baker. Most important to Nakia is that people join the fight, come out to the streets, and support the movement however they can.

Of course, we at Wayne State University are proud of her and want to proclaim from all the rooftops that she is our student. But we also want it to be known that part of what makes us so proud is that she came ready — she is doing the work and is the one teaching us so much in this historical moment of the fight for Black freedom.

If many of us have wondered what we would have done during the '50s and '60s era of the Civil Rights Movement, Nakia-Renne Wallace is showing us now we don’t have to wonder where she would have been. Like the college students at the lunch counters, on the Freedom Rides, and during Freedom Summer, Nakia is on the front lines, with the people. And she invites all of us to join her.

What was supposed to be a 45-minute interview turned into a two-hour-long conversation about the pervasiveness and spectrum of police violence in the lives of Black and Brown children, the transformative possibilities of restorative practices and social justice, and the ways that her experiences at Wayne State led her to the work of leading a movement.

What follows below are excerpts from the conversation, lightly edited for clarity. What the transcription of her words cannot capture are the contemplative pauses, the chuckles — sometimes real laughter and sometimes to keep from crying, and the search for the right words, questions, and answers, that flowed through one of the loveliest and most profound and challenging conversations I have ever had the privilege to have with a student. We at Wayne State African American Studies and English are both privileged and honored to call Nakia-Renne Wallace one of our own.

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Nakia on police violence and childhood

So, I always tell the story of when I was like five, and we were evicted, and it was the police officers who came and physically removed us. And I was trying to hide under the bed, and the police officer grabbed me — actually, the story starts before that, my interaction with the police starts before that.

I was two years old, and my mother decides she wanted to take us to a family reunion. So, she gets permission from my [paternal] great-grandmother [who had custody] to take us, and then she decides she doesn’t want to give us back. So, what happened is that the police storm into this family reunion with guns drawn and they snatch me out of my mom’s arms, and they throw her and my grandmother to the ground.

And my sister, who is two years older — so she’s four at the time – is trying to comfort me. So, they throw us into the back of the police car, with no adult back there with us, they don’t put seatbelts on us and I’m crying. My sister’s petting my head, [telling me] it’ll be okay, it’ll be okay, stop crying.

And the cop that is driving is telling us to shut up, and the female cop, she’s not driving, she’s like visibly annoyed, saying, “I don’t know why you guys are crying” and I’m watching my mom, hysterical, and I remember it vividly. And it’s interesting because at that point I did not have a concept of who my mom was to me, but it was still like, this is a lady whose arms I was just in, and she’s being thrown to the floor by an officer.

And that was certainly a situation that could have been handled differently. There was no comfort, there was no social worker, nobody told us, "Hey, we’re just taking you back to your granny." There was none of that. We were just snatched and thrown into the back of this police car, this violent affair that interrupted this family moment. And, so, that’s my interaction with the police.

[…] I was actually in sixth grade, no, seventh grade, when Aiyana Stanley-Jones was murdered, and I had her cousin in my class, so I remember that so vividly because all of this was everywhere, and we were sad about it, and we came to school and we talked about it, amongst each other, because no adult talked about it with us, unfortunately. But I remember this girl, she just broke out crying in my science class, and we were like, "why are you crying?" And she was like, "she’s my cousin."

And so, this thing that was very real to us already, it became more real. For me, as a poor Black girl whose family had a lot of interaction with the police, I still was a child, so, those interactions, while they were horrible and I could remember them, there’s a way in which, you think, you don’t realize, that they’re there to kill me. So, what Aiyana Stanley-Jones meant — she was seven and we were what, 12 or 13 – was that oh no, they’re here to kill us.

 

On what young Nakia would think of her leading the protests

So, for me when I was younger, the connection between my family’s interaction with the police was just that we were poor; that we were poor and that nobody had gone to college.

My only interaction with the Black middle class until, really, high school was my teachers and the people working in the schools, and they seemed to have just much more stable lives than what we had. So, very young, around 4th grade, I knew my dream and goal was to go to college.

And while that goal remained the same, there was also some kind of reckoning or awakening at some point where I realized that it didn’t really matter if I went to college or if I had a nice job because my life would still be the same, and I don’t know when [what age] that was a visible thing for me.

So, I think this would be very painful for young Nakia because I devoted so much of my energy and time into the notion that if I went to college, I would no longer be at risk of going to prison, of being in the position where the police could harm me, or being in a situation where I was unsafe or unstable. So, I actually don’t think younger me would be happy or see me as heroic. I would love to lie and say I would be my own best hero, but I wouldn’t be. I would be very distraught.

 

On what she’s fighting for

It's the question of Black humanity! I mean, it's literally are Black lives valued? Do we see Black people as human beings? Do we have the right to murder them?

Do we have the right to kick them out of their home and literally leave them on filthy streets? 

Do we have the right to make sure that Black and Brown schools are the worst schools in the nation? They're underfunded; they’re under-resourced.

I mean, it's the question of Black humanity; whether or not we're saying Black people and Brown people are humans in this country.

Or does ICE — which is a police force, make no mistake — have the right to put people in cages because they don’t have a piece of paper? Like, what? That's ridiculous! Nobody could ever do that to a white woman. Nobody could ever take a white woman’s children and throw them in cages because she didn’t have a piece of paper because she wasn’t born in a certain area. Why? Because white children are seen as humans. Because white women are seen as humans. When you admit that people are humans, there are just certain things that you are not able to do.

 

On reform vs. abolition

I have several responses to that. First, reform is off the table when you murder people. The police in this country kill about three people a day. Reform was off the table at the point it became genocide. That’s number one. And they kill white people too!

Number two, anybody also making that argument is ignoring the function of the police and what it is they actually protect and who it is they actually serve. Right? It would be very difficult to find a police department that doesn’t already do some type of racial bias training. The reason that doesn’t actually work is because of what their job is, who it is they serve, who it is they protect. So, what they serve is the protection of privilege, property, white supremacy, and the interests of the government. Not the people. Not the people. So, the reforms can never work. The reforms can never work.

[…] So we get rid of their asses. And we put money into one, stopping those kinds of avenues that create criminals — I hate that word — but just the ways in which we see people having no options, so, they resort to things that are illegal or creating an underground economy. So, we create options in the first place, so people don’t do that.

We also don’t kick people out because what happens when you're a homeless person and you may or may not have a job? You are certainly gonna be hard-pressed to keep it if you can’t take a shower every day, so we provide the actual services that people need.

We fix the schools, we make the schools integrated, we make the schools state-of-the-art, we give our kids everything that they need to be able to thrive and survive as adults in the world, which we don’t do right now. We don’t give our children any chance.

 

On being Black at Wayne State University

So, my first experience on campus was kind of the pre-orientation that they gave to us before classes start. And there was a great deal of focus on the question of safety. So, literally, it’s like a six or eight-hour orientation, and part of it was spent with a report from the Wayne State Police Department.

And I just remember being annoyed and frustrated because I didn’t care. But I also remember them saying, we have these stations set up all over campus and our response time is under ninety seconds. If you hit one of those little blue buttons on one of our safety poles, whatever it’s called, we will be to you in under ninety seconds, and we also give a monthly and weekly report on crime, and we send it out to you, and all of that.

So, my first reaction to that was, "well, that’s terrifying." That someone could call the police and in under ninety seconds, and they could have me arrested. So, that was my first reaction because I was like, "who are they calling the police on but Black Detroiters?" So, I was like, "ok, they want these white people and their parents to know that they’re gonna protect their kids on this campus at all costs." So, I just remember that really clearly.

[…] In my first semester, I had a 3.9 [grade point average], and that felt really great. But, I also cried myself to sleep every night.

And it was because I grew up in a city where, to my left and to my right and in front of me and behind me, there were Black people everywhere. And to be in that same city—I mean, I walked around like I owned this city because I felt like it. I am a Detroit girl, this is my city. And, I was suddenly on campus in the middle of my city, and it was clear that none of this shit was for me, it was clear that I didn’t have a right to anything, that I didn’t own anything, and that I better know my place.

I felt it every day in classes, and just the comfortability of the white people and the un-comfortability of the Black people around me. It was clear and it was depressing and I didn’t know what to do about it, so…I mean, I was a good student because the classes were really the only places I felt were for me.

It was Professor Flatley’s class and Professor Goldberg’s class – something about those particular four or five classes I had that first semester, that made that depression…like I could compartmentalize. That even though I cried myself to sleep every night, I went to class, and I would do all the readings. I’m a student who read everything that’s assigned, like I’d stay up until 3 or 4 [AM]. I would do that because you assigned the readings, so you should do that.

So, I would stay up, I would do all the readings, I would study, I would do my homework, and then I would get up and I would cry. And that was every day that first semester. But the great relief in the classes, even though there was a lot of racism that I had encountered, I mean I would just go back and forth between not saying anything and just yelling in the class.

[…] I wish I had known that there will be professors that take you seriously, who will love you, who will guide you. I wish I had known that there will not be as many support systems for you as a Black student, as a Black woman, ok. And so the importance of leaning on people who are prepared to help you is paramount, it’s the only way.

Like, what I know is but for Jonathan Flatley and David Goldberg and having their classes that first semester and knowing come hell or high water I could go back to their classes, I probably would have dropped out. What I know is that without your senior seminar, I actually don’t think I would have finished. That’s a fact.

So, as a freshman, I just wished there was like a Black student cheat sheet. And they try to give you one, where they’re like, go to office hours, and I did that. I went to office hours when I didn’t have questions because you’re told that’s what you’re supposed to do... So, I did that, but it was also like, do not count on the university to actually care about you. They don’t. But what you can find is, certain people who will care about you.

 

On her mentors

I actually went to Wayne State as an education major and so, I took Professor Flatley’s [ENG/AFS] 2390 class, and as foolish freshman, I took [AFS] 3160 with Professor Goldberg, which was Black urban history. And I was the youngest person in that class and I loved every second of it.

In Professor Flatley’s class, it was really refreshing because he was teaching African American Literature. We read Phillis Wheatley, we read Kiese Laymon’s Long Division. And simultaneously, in [AFS] 3160, we were reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, he was teaching us about the Scottsboro Boys, we talked about Greensboro, we read Beryl Satter’s book Family Properties, talking about its relationship to Black neighborhoods.

What that did one, to have two professors who took me seriously. Because they did, from day one. Even when, like we read Gwendolyn Brooks, and I did not, I remember, I kept saying, I’m not a fan, and Professor Flatley could have laughed that off, which is what some other professors did and just treated me like, you know, you’re just whatever.

But, instead, he engaged me, asked me, what is it about her that makes you uncomfortable, what is it about her that makes you uncomfortable, and so that was like, that was great, he took me seriously, he was willing to actually engage with me.

And just Professor Goldberg’s commitment to centering Black people, and the shared experiences of Black people as something that should be studied, as something that could be studied, and that something to study seriously, that meant a lot to me, and especially in the wake of just feeling so uncomfortable, to have these two professors take me seriously, and to take Black people seriously, I guess that’s really, like, they took Black people seriously, and that was not happening in some of my other classes. So, I would follow them anywhere, and I did.

 

On institutional statements supporting social justice

I think all those statements are great, but again, they’re not radical. If you’re saying you stand with the protestors, then you’ve gotta actually stand with them in getting rid of these police departments. So, anything short of that Wayne State is a joke, so you’ve gotta get rid of your ties to the police department, um, you’ve gotta create some quick and immediate and radical change to the support you provide Black students. If that’s not what you’re talking about then, you’re lying.

So the thing is, everyone knows we’re at a historical turning point, everyone wants to be remembered on the right side of that history, but what it actually means to be remembered on the right side of that history is to do something radical, so Wayne State should disband the 55 officers they have because they don’t need them.

Create something better in terms of like dealing with the various issues your students are having but also make sure the African American studies department is [funded well.]

[...] Like, you know, now they’re like, oh, Nakia is so great and we’re so proud of her, but you don’t get a Nakia without that department.

Create safe havens, safe spaces for your students that are more, like the Office of Multicultural Student Engagement, I think they do some great things, but they’re also extremely limited in what they’re able to accomplish. So, while it’s certainly great to hold a safe space for Black students to always come, and they can study there, while it’s certainly great to build programs centered around educating people, and, and, you know, a lot of the things they do are great, but it’s also not, not enough.

So, the university needs to really be engaging Black students. And don’t send out a statement saying we understand it’s a difficult time for Black people. What are you going to do to make this time less difficult for your students? Why is the graduation rate so low for Black students? Why is the retention rate so incredibly low for Black students? So, unless you’re talking about a 5-step plan to fixing that, you’re not talking about anything.

 

On working with and for children

So, I really believe in legacies. And part of it is just because I’m a poor girl, and no one passed down anything to me, and I’m mad about it [chuckles]. So, I really believe in this notion of legacy, and so that’s why I was really proud of going to Cass Tech, because of the legacy of that institution, being a part of one. Um, but also like, ok, if my family is too poor to give me a house, if they weren’t like, if the Wallace name or the Taylor — you know the family that I come from doesn’t hold any weight, then what is the legacy that I can relate to.

So, certainly, the legacy that is the legacy of all Black people in this country, which is refusing to lie down and take anything, and that’s our legacy, that’s my legacy. And I believe in that so strongly. So my heroes are Fannie Lou Hamer, who’s just an incredible woman, and Ella Baker, and these women who did these courageous things, and I’ll never forget, we read, Freedom’s Daughters in Black Women in America [AFS 5110], and so this is my legacy as a Black woman, as a poor Black woman, is to stand up and fight.

The other thing is, I spend a lot of time thinking about the ways we protect and don’t protect and prepare our children, and so that’s why I wanted to be a teacher. I ended up deciding that I didn’t want to do that, but knowing that who I am is so tied to this community, because there were limitations on what my mother could do, there were limitations on what my father could do, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, there were limitations, and but for the reaching out of other people, I would have been condemned to squalor and despair. I know it. Just devastation.

And so, it was always really important to me, and I knew that I had a responsibility to give back to the kids that are coming up, in any and every way that I could, to help ensure that their futures were robust. So that’s a really long way of saying that it’s always been really important to me to ensure that our children are safe, and loved [ …(inaudible)] and it’s always been important to me that to the extent we have something to say about it, we fight for them, we are prepared to fight for them at all costs. And you know anybody who doesn’t agree with that, to me, just, is despicable.

[…] What it means to me is that the fight for Black lives is also the fight for Black futures for our children. I spent so much of my childhood being beaten-up, being terrified, in a way that I am not sure why I have the mental fortitude to sit upright. Like that’s how much fear I lived through.

And, so, I just want to do whatever it is I can do that our children don’t have to live like that.

[…] I want them to know people are out in the streets every day because they love them. Just that, I want them to know we’re out in the street for them.

Because in a lot of ways, even if we abolish the police tonight, the damage is done to me. Like, it’s already done. I’m already ruined in that way. So, what that means, hopefully, I live to 80, another 60 years of that kind of freedom, the damage is there, the damage is done.

But, we’re out there because we love you, and know that whenever you see people out there standing up, and fighting, and talking about Black people, Black futures, it’s for you. So that’s the thing I want them to understand. Because this can be a confusing time.

It also means they have to reckon with the understanding that there are some people who don’t love them. But they should know that those people have a lot of money, have a lot of power, but those of us who are fighting for them, we won’t be afraid, and we won’t back down from the police. We are gonna fight for our kids no matter what.

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Nakia Wallace and Detroit Will Breathe are in this for the long haul. The protests are daily, and they invite you to join them. To find out more, including their full list of demands, visit Detroit Will Breathe. The full transcript and recording of this interview will be deposited at the Walter P. Reuther Library.


Interview by Lisa Ze Winters, Associate Professor in the departments of African American Studies and English.
Photos courtesy of Daniel Orhorhoro (feature image) and Aiyana Stanley Jones (Nakia with poster).

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