Swat Team Storms Art Gallery Event, Guns Drawn, Property Seized, Over ‘Dancing and Drinking’ Permit
The moment the assault rifles surrounded her, Angie Wong was standing in a leafy art-gallery courtyard with her boyfriend, a lawyer named Paul Kaiser. It was just past 2 A.M., in May, 2008. Wong was twenty-two years old and was dressed for an evening out, in crisp white jeans, a white top, and tall heels that made it difficult not to wobble. The couple had stopped by a regular event hosted by the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID), a red brick gallery with the aim of “turning Detroit into a model city,” and arrived to find a tipsy, jubilant scene: inside, gallerygoers were looking at art and dancing to a d.j.; outside, on the patio, several young women were goofily belting out the lyrics to “Hakuna Matata,” from “The Lion King”:
Hakuna Matata! What a wonderful phrase.
It means no worries for the rest of your days.
It’s our problem-free philosophy. Hakuna Matata!
Only then did masked figures with guns storm the crowd, shouting, “Get on the fucking ground! Get down, get down!” (I document the basic details of what happened in my story, in this week’s magazine, about the police’s use and abuse of civil-asset-forfeiture laws.) Some forty Detroit police officers dressed in commando gear ordered the gallery attendees to line up on their knees, then took their car keys and confiscated their vehicles, largely on the grounds that the gallery lacked the proper permits for dancing and drinking. (More than forty cars were seized, and owners paid around a thousand dollars each to get them back.) “I was so scared,” Wong told me. At first, she thought the raid was an armed robbery. “Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Paul getting kicked in the face.” In the dimly lit security footage, the scene looks like something out of a thriller about Navy SEALs. Paul said, “I was scared for my life.”
In my magazine article, I focus on one key question about the raid, and about countless others like it across America: Does it make sense that civil-forfeiture laws, which allow police to confiscate and keep property that is allegedly tied to criminal activity, are often enforced at gunpoint against, say, nonviolent partygoers? But there’s another important question, highlighted by the operation at CAID: What, fundamentally, are SWAT teams for? When does it make sense to use machine guns, armored vehicles, and flash-bang grenades on a crowd of people or on a family, and how are these warfare-inspired approaches to law enforcement changing America?