It was July 2020, and Nakia Wallace was on the streets of Detroit when, she says, police threw a young man to the ground and placed a knee on his neck. Along with dozens of others, Wallace was protesting the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The action was just one of more than 100 she said she went on to organize in the city, and now it seemed like cops might be recreating the nightmarish arrest that sparked a nationwide uprising.
According to Wallace, she yelled at the cops attacking the man, and soon found herself swarmed by police herself—before being thrown to the ground and placed in a chokehold.
“They began to just beat everybody up,” Wallace told The Daily Beast.
The violence, she continued, was just one episode in what body-camera footage and lawsuits against the police department suggest was a veritable orgy of violent crackdowns on almost exclusively peaceful protesters. Among other highlights, cops allegedly used a car to ram into protesters, showered them indiscriminately with rubber bullets, and tear gassed them, sending many to the hospital.
The crackdown came under the leadership of James Craig, the Black chief of police in Detroit who took the reins in the city in 2013 after previous stints in Maine, Cincinnati, and the Los Angeles Police Department. He has since retired from the role.
But in interviews on Fox News with the likes of Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham that began well before his retirement, Craig has defended his aggressive response last summer as the reason his city didn’t “burn” like Portland or Seattle. He paints his officers as coming under vicious attack despite mounting lawsuits, court-ordered injunctions to stop their use of force, dropped charges against protesters, and calls by local lawmakers for an independent probe into the police response.
Now, Craig, 64, is pointing to his officers’ brute force last summer as a reason why he should be the next governor of Michigan. In his first campaign ad released on Wednesday, Craig drives around Detroit in a car, touting his leadership during the unrest. “We know Seattle burned, Portland burned. Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia—burned,” he said. “But not Detroit.”
The reason? “We never retreated,” he said of his police department.
The line seems to be the core message of his still-nascent campaign. (After announcing his candidacy on Fox News, Craig has suggested he is still exploring a run.) It’s also one that community leaders like Wallace believe is a calculated misrepresentation intended to serve as catnip to right-wing blowhards like Carlson. If the early returns from cable news are any indication, the strategy is working—or at least reaching the MAGA faithful Craig needs to have a shot in a Republican primary.
The human beings who lived under his stewardship may feel differently.
“At every point that there was violence, it was at the hands of the police. They just were completely unrelenting,” Wallace, 24, told The Daily Beast.
Craig declined a request to be interviewed for this story, and the Detroit Police Department also declined to comment.
Despite Craig’s tagline, a slew of lawsuits have been filed against him, the Detroit Police Department, and the city over last summer’s police response to the local iteration of a nationwide revolt against racist cops. One of the largest includes 14 protesters; Wallace is among them, along with other members of Detroit Will Breathe, a nonprofit Black Lives Matter organization founded days after Floyd’s murder.
The suit alleges that in at least six protests from last May to August, the police used excessive force, and called for a court order that the police department not be able to use batons and shields, chemical agents, rubber bullets, or cars to attack protesters.
A judge granted the order in September.
In response, city lawyers argued the police department experienced nearly 100 straight days of protests, and that officers had been attacked with railroad spikes, frozen bottles of water, bricks, and rocks, and had lasers pointed in their eyes. They parroted Craig’s favorite line, writing that the protesters’ narrative “ignores the reality that Detroit has largely avoided the catastrophic damage such as has been seen in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Portland” because of the police department’s “strategic and lawful responses.”
In response to Wallace’s personal claims, the city has suggested that she was taken down by an officer with two arms, and that as Wallace allegedly resisted, an officer briefly had their arm around her neck for a time period that was too short to count as a chokehold.
After the court order against use of force by police was imposed, the city filed a counterclaim this past October, saying activists used social media to encourage violence against officers and promote the destruction of property as part of a “conspiracy.” A judge tossed out their claim. The original suit on behalf of protesters against the police department and city is still ongoing.
Lawyers for the city did not respond to a request for comment.
“There has been no evidence to support Chief Craig’s narrative that they had to punish all this crime in the streets. And yet he’s sort of clinging to this narrative,” said Amanda Ghannam, an attorney representing the protesters in the suit.
She argued his talking points were showing his “true colors” as a right-wing politician.
Wallace echoed that argument, explaining that she wasn’t sure why some people were shocked Craig has come out as a right-wing conservative since retiring from the Detroit Police Department on June 1. She recalled that when he first took office, in 2013, he was featured on the cover of an NRA publication advocating for citizens to arm themselves as a way to combat violence.
“That was his solution to crime in the city,” she said.
After his retirement, many leaders in the community familiar with Craig said they expected political ambitions despite his background in a Democratic stronghold.
Some, like Horace Sheffield III, a longtime city civil rights leader and pastor, said they even believed he had a good shot at winning a portion of the solidly Democratic Black voters in the city of Detroit. After all, Sheffield said, Craig was a popular chief because of his willingness to appear at community events and seemingly hear folks out.
“We’ve always had ease of access,” he said. “Anything we brought to his attention, he responded to. In that regard, I have no complaints whatsoever. I think he did an outstanding job as chief.”
But he said Craig’s appearances on Fox News and his hard-right rhetoric were only serving to alienate the very crowd of Black voters that he will need if he intends to make a serious run at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer—assuming he makes it through the GOP primary.
Other candidates he’ll face off against if he makes his run official include conservative radio host Tudor Dixon, Garrett Soldano—a chiropractor who opposed COVID stay-at-home orders—and Ryan Kelley. The local planning commissioner in Allendale Township attended the infamous Jan. 6 rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol, calling it an “energizing event” in an interview with MLive.com.
Although Craig said he was running on national television this week, he appeared to walk back that claim on a local Detroit radio show, stating he’d launched an “exploratory committee” and would be going on a “listening tour” before making a formal announcement after Labor Day.
If he does run, Sheffield said, he might consider altering his tone.
“The best chance he has of being successful as governor is to not alienate the African American base in Detroit that likes him. Now, when he turns to Fox News and starts making scurrilous claims about character and portraying things in different ways and trying to be closer to Trump,” he said, “now you got a problem.”
“They like the job that he did,” Sheffield said of the Black community in Detroit. “But they’re not going to vote for him if he is characterizing us worse than white conservatives.”
Since the beginning of his tenure in Detroit, Craig appeared frequently on local television outlets and was even nicknamed “Hollywood Craig” when it was revealed he’d mentored Denzel Washington for police-related roles while he was a cop in Los Angeles. Representatives for Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
But Craig’s appearances on Fox News began in earnest in the midst of the social unrest sweeping the country in 2020. He was often called on to defend the police response and rail against liberal leaders in states like New York and Chicago, becoming something of a conservative cult hero for his harsh criticism of Black Lives Matter and embrace of Donald Trump during the protests.
Adding to his luster was his willingness to frequently admonish other cities for their rising crime rates, a genuine trend that has in fact shown signs—at least when it comes to shootings—of continuing this year.
So far this year, Craig’s face-time on Fox News has only increased—he has appeared on the network at least 37 times on shows such as America’s Newsroom, Your World with Neil Cavuto, Tucker Carlson Tonight, and The Ingraham Angle. Craig has also made an additional 14 appearances on the network’s sister channel Fox Business. These appearances have continued to build his image as a tough-on-crime, ultra-conservative alternative to Whitmer and the (further to her left) “defund the police” crowd.
Among other preferred punching bags, Craig has taken regular aim at cities like Chicago and its mayor, Lori Lightfoot.
“Lori Lightfoot talks about what’s dangerous. Are the cops who are dangerous? No, she’s dangerous! People who live in the most vulnerable communities in Chicago and south and west Chicago, vulnerable communities, who speaks for them?” he exclaimed on Maria Bartiromo’s Fox Business show in June.
He’s also engaged in rock-ribbed Republican punditry. “It’s absolutely wrong, Tucker,” Craig told Carlson this month about the Biden administration inviting the United Nations to investigate America’s racism. “It’s misguided, it’s irresponsible. They should go to Cuba! That’s what they should do. Go to Cuba and find out what’s going on over there.”
The main impact of most of Craig’s TV appearances in recent weeks, however, has been to stoke speculation about his potential campaign.
Many of his Fox interviews ended with him teasing an upcoming announcement. “And if I make that decision,” Craig told Laura Ingraham on May 10, “should I come on your show or should I come on Tucker’s show? Which show should I go to?”
He ultimately decided on Carlson’s show, appearing on Wednesday to announce “I’m running” and continued to try to differentiate Detroit from cities that were “burning,” while painting himself as the man who kept it safe.
Adolph Mongo, a longtime Detroit political strategist for Democrats and Republicans, as well as a former city spokesperson, said Fox News was a natural fit for Craig, who he said has never been shy before cameras.
“He never met a microphone he didn’t like,” Mongo told The Daily Beast.
But while Craig’s talking points might be a hit for the Fox News crowd, Mongo said he believes they’re falling on deaf ears in Detroit.
“While he’s patting himself on the back, we have had more murders, more shootings, more carjackings, and more rapes than we’ve had in a long time,” Mongo said. According to city data, that is partly true: Violent crime in 2020 was up in the city 13 percent from 2019 numbers. Non-fatal shootings were up 53 percent, and homicides were up 19 percent from 2019. “He can’t run from that,” said Mongo. “He didn’t stop anything.”
Al Bartell, the owner of a Detroit clothing store that counts Craig as a longtime customer, defended the former chief. While he admitted that crime was high, he said “it takes a team” to combat that problem that includes educators, parents, and churches. “We all could do a better job,” he said. “You can’t put that on the chief’s shoulders.”
Bartell said he believed the police department’s force over the summer was helpful for small business leaders in the city. “They kept businesses from burning,” he said. “They thought about us.”
(Despite being put in touch with The Daily Beast by a representative of the ex-chief’s, Bartell didn’t say he would vote for Craig in 2022. “That’s a private matter if I decide to do that,” he said.)
In addition to heightened crime and his brutal protest crackdowns, Craig has drawn criticism for integrating controversial facial-recognition technology into the police department that led to the wrongful arrests of at least three Black men during his tenure.
Dan Korobkin, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, represents one of the men falsely arrested in January 2020 in a federal lawsuit. According to a complaint, Robert Williams, a 43-year-old Black man, was arrested on his front lawn as his wife and daughters looked on. He was accused of stealing watches and was in custody for over 24 hours before police realized they’d arrested the wrong suspect. Craig called the arrest “sloppy investigative work” in an interview with 60 Minutes this year, but Korobkin said the chief continued to use the software despite the wrongful arrests and calls from lawmakers to pause the program.
“The unchecked use of this technology is really one of the great threats to a free society in the 21st century,” said Korobkin. “So when you have a police chief that is cheerleading this kind of technology without any real apparent recognition or engagement with the threats that it also poses, I think that’s a real cause for concern.”
Despite this disconnect, Mongo said Craig wasn’t a candidate that should be written off.
“There’s no question that he’s a threat to Governor Whitmer,” he said. “She can’t play him cheap.”
Whitmer’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
In what was perhaps his first major political speech after stepping down as chief, at an event in Jackson, Michigan, marking the 167th anniversary of the Republican Party’s founding, on July 6, Craig detailed his conservative credentials. He said he voted twice for Donald Trump, valued “self-reliance” over government “handouts,” and supported the Second Amendment. Twice, he paused to open his suit jacket to show off a pistol on his hip.
That might seem like a trope of right-wing politics, but it also echoes a now infamous vow by the presumptive next mayor of New York City, Democrat Eric Adams, that he will carry a gun in office. Adams won a crowded Democratic primary in large part by calling for police reform even as he bemoaned surging crime.
Craig seems unlikely to thread that same needle in a state that went narrowly for Joe Biden last year.
“The truth is, I’ve been a Republican for many years,” Craig said in the speech earlier this month, adding that he had to remain non-partisan as a police chief. Although he hadn’t begun teasing his possible run for governor in earnest yet, he said he hoped to lead the Republican party into areas that don’t traditionally vote Republican and counter the “victimhood mentality” pushed by leaders of the Democratic Party.
While the jury is still out on whether Craig can actually attract the Black voters who make up nearly 80 percent of Detroit’s citizenry, Wallace said she was more concerned that his style might go over well elsewhere in the state, where Republicans are more dominant. After all this is the same state that has stood out for hordes of armed pandemic lockdown protesters at the state capitol, a plot to kidnap its governor, and Stop the Steal clowns’ disruption of 2020 vote counts.
“It’s a very dangerous situation to have a chief who is pandering to and aiding these kinds of violent hysterics,” Wallace said. “To have this man run for governor and appeal to that and point at the city of Detroit and say I am the guy that has terrorized them and that’s why you should vote for me? That’s extremely dangerous.”