Monday, July 23, 2007

When Detroit burned

In the early hours of July 23, 1967, a riot jumped off in the black part of Detroit. One week later, 43 people were dead, more than 7,000 had been arrested, and 2,500 stores had been looted or burned.

The city never did bounce back from it.

Here’s how the riot began, as vividly described in the pages of “Nightmare in Detroit: A Rebellion and Its Victims,” a 1968 book by two Chicago Daily News reporters, Van Gordon Sauter and Burleigh Hines.
VAN GORDON SAUTER and BURLEIGH HINES: Early Sunday morning, Twelfth Street is vibrantly alive. The sound of the street is Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding and the Miracles, rolling from car radios and transistors and juke boxes. The smell of the street is $1.95 “Soul Food Specials” – pigs’ feet, mustard greens, baked yams – in all-night restaurants.

But the feel of the street is energy – energy fired by an unwillingness to surrender the weekend, to give up and go home when there is still the chance for another drink, another laugh, or an invitation to fall into another bed. ...

Everybody was out for a good time, except Sergeant Arthur Howison and his clean-up crew from the Tenth Precinct.

They were out to knock over what Detroiters call a “blind pig” – an illegal, after-hours drinking establishment. When the bars close at 2:00, the crowds descend on the numerous “pigs” along the street....

Howison had been watching the United Civic League for Community Action, whose offices were above the Economy Printing Company in a soot-stained two-story building at 9125 Twelfth. The Civic League claims numerous goals, including the ambition to “fight... for housing for disadvantaged people.”

But social uplift was at a minimum Sunday. The bar in the Civic League headquarters was crowded with boisterous members and guests, and the juke box boomed out the latest Motown hits.

Howison had raided the building last in August, 1966, and picked up fourteen offenders. It was time to call again.

Patrolmen Charles Henry and Joseph Brown, Negro plainclothesmen attached to Howison’s unit, had made their first pass at the Civic League about 10:30 p.m. Saturday.

When the peephole clicked open, Henry identified Brown as a basketball player from Cincinnati looking for some action. The eye behind the peephole told the two men to move on.

About 3:45 a.m. Sunday, Henry posted himself outside Economy Printing looking for a break. He saw three women turn into the entranceway to the Civic League and quickly followed them up the steps. Again the peephole opened, but this time the door opened too. Henry made his way to the bar, glanced at his watch, and ordered a beer.

On the street below, Howison checked his watch. If [Henry] doesn’t come out within ten minutes, the men on the street are to presume that a buy has been made and that there is sufficient legal evidence for an arrest. About 4:00, Howison and three men stormed up the steps. They didn’t bother to knock. Using a sledgehammer, one of the men pounded open the door.

“We heard these noises,” said a woman in the club. “Pow. Pow. Pow. We thought it was gunshots. Then we heard glass breaking. Then somebody shouted, ‘It’s a raid.’ ”

“You couldn’t hardly move for everybody getting under the tables,” recalled the club’s director.

Howison was surprised by his catch. He had expected about thirty persons but there were more than eighty; he called the precinct to ask for assistance in transferring the prisoners to the stationhouse.

The shuttle service took nearly half an hour; in the meantime, the raid provided some live drama for the people on the street. Negroes clustered around the printing shop. Passing traffic slowed, and this in turn attracted gawkers from farther down Twelfth.

Under the best of circumstances, the relationship between the police and the Twelfth Street regulars is edgy. Each side is ready to believe the worst about the other. Rumors, gossip, and charges are generally accepted as facts.

Thus it came as no surprise to people in the crowd when an onlooker told of seeing a policeman manhandle a Negro woman coming down the steps to a paddy wagon. Someone else heard a woman yell, “Brutality!”

And it came as no surprise to the police that the bystanders began to “jive” the authorities. From the anonymity of the crowd, people hurled taunts and insults at the cops.

“We had no trouble with [the] prisoners,” said Howison. “Just those loudmouthed onlookers. They were across the street and bunched up on both sides of the building.”

At 4:45, just forty-six minutes after the raid began, an unidentified person hurled something more than an insult from the crowd. A bottle arced into the air. Rolling lazily and glinting in the light of the streetlamps, it fell on the back window of a squad car just as the last prisoners were being loaded into cars.

The crowd cheered as the window shattered.

The angered policemen looked at the more than two hundred persons and knew it would be impossible to get anyone to step forward and identify the bottle thrower. ...

When the police departed without any further investigation of the incident, the crowd, jubilant and anxious for more fun, suddenly realized the source of its excitement was gone. But the sound of the bottle hitting the glass seemed to live on. To the crowd, it was a good sound. It had produced a delicious response.

Without leader, plan, or direction, the crowd began to break up into smaller groups and surge down the street. Teams of men shredded metal screens off windows. Bricks, bottles, and ashcans were hurled through the exposed glass, and hands shot into display window cases and yanked out merchandise.

Minutes after the bottle had been thrown, it was open house on Twelfth Street.


jena6 said...

Before visiting your blog I first went to to check out Mumia Abu-Jamal's radio commentaries. I saw "1967 Year of Fire, Year of Rage" but skipped it. So when I saw "When Detroit Burned" at UBM I thought: "What a coincidence." Then I realized that your post and Mumia's commentary were highlighting the anniversary of events that mainstream media will probably overlook just as I had when I came across the radio commentary.

Thanks for the heads up.

SJ said...

I just finished reading George Pelecanos' book "A Hard Revolution", which was about the '68 riots in DC. Pretty scary what took place.

Do you think that it was "important" that the riots took place? I wonder if violence is the answer sometimes...

DAK said...

These kinds of riots seemed inevitable when we were growing up, but inconceivable now. And yet, I was in LA for 1965 in Watts and 1992 in Koreatown and it shows nothing had changed much, just the neighborhoods. What happens afterwards is always the question...usually, not much. DAK

bjk said...

Good times. I lived in Toronto, City of the Good after the LA riots and even in Toronto there were riots. Albeit well contained, courteous Canadian riots. What I wouldn't give for a good riot about right now.

Kate said...

Actually, here in Michigan there has been lots of coverage of the anniversary. NPR has been running a radio documentary for the past week with interviews from all sorts of people. The most striking conclusion is the absolute division to this day of Detroit from the rest of Michigan. As a kid who grew up outstate in southeast Michigan I can attest to this truth. Whether because of racial fears, urban (not code word, literally the urban/rural divide, which can be racial or no), fear of violence or otherwise, we rarely ever went to Detroit. Back in Michigan now, I still have no idea of the geography of Detroit or how to do much other than get to a Tigers game.

Some say until this division is fixed, neither the state nor Detroit will be able to recover socially and economically.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Interesting, Kate. The D.C. riots in 1968 has a similar effect, which doesn't really get talked about.

In the early '90s, when I was with the Washington Post, I interviewed a nice white lady in Northern Virginia on a topic unrelated to race -- celebrity fan clubs, actually. Somehow it came out that she had not set foot in Washington, D.C. in decades.

She lived a few miles from the District line. But somehow, the city of Washington was, in her mind, this place you did not go to.

I didn't probe her about it. But obviously the riots had a lot to do with that. And surely she's not the only white person who, after '68, just classified D.C. as No Man's Land.

Kate said...

UMB, that's interesting about D.C. I was going to write that when I lived there, I never thought of D.C. as dangerous, and that I couldn't imagine living ten miles from the District and never visiting. But then I remembered comments from friends about entire metro lines and quadrants of the city. And I'll admit it--my knowledge of the city from my time there is fairly limited to the Hill, N.W and northern Virginia.

I always assumed it was a racial and socioeconomic divide, and still believe that, but I never thought about/took into account the D.C. riots. That's a very interesting parallel.

Another depressing statistic making the rounds here in Michigan is that the average Detroit-er is now worse off than he or she was at the time of the riots. I'm not sure how they are measuring it, but I don't doubt it.

Undercover Black Man said...

Those riots -- and all riots -- do tremendous, long-lasting psychic damage to a place. Which is why I resent when some "political" black folks try to dignify or romanticize a riot by calling it a "rebellion" or an "uprising."

Rebellions and uprisings have a plan and a purpose. And even then, the results might be lousy. (Look at Haiti. Two centuries after black people rose up and kicked the white man's ass, Haiti is the basket case of the Western Hemisphere.)