In 1967, they watched their city erupt. Fifty years on, how has Detroit changed?

Detroits riots were some of the most violent in US history. As Kathryn Bigelows new dramatization of the unrest hits screens, Detroiters who lived through it reflect on how far their city has come

In 1967, when Marsha Music was 13, her father owned a record store and studio that recorded some of the most famous American blues and gospel of the 20th century. Artists who had graced the building included John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, and the very first gospel song recorded by the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin.

But the family was forced to move their store when a freeway was built in the neighborhood. The new store was located on 12th Street in Detroit just blocks away from the epicenter of where the civil unrest of 1967 would become one of the most violent and destructive disturbances in the US since the American civil war.

I can remember the change in atmosphere on 12th as the younger black people had a sort of bristling energy that was very different than the old days they were not going to take some of the humiliation and discrimination that had been endemic in the community for so long, Music recalled. There were rebellions happening all over the country. Everybody knew it was a matter of time before it happened in Detroit.

Sitting in her bedroom, just as the cherry trees were beginning to fruit on her block, Music looked outside the window and saw something she would never forget.

A tank driving down the streets of Detroit.

With the police and national guard overwhelmed by the five days of violence that would eventually leave 43 people dead, more than a thousand injured and destroy 2,000 buildings, President Lyndon Johnson sent in the US military. The unrest had been sparked when a welcome-home party for two black Vietnam veterans held in an after-hours drinking club known colloquially as a blind pig was raided by police. But the roots of the rage were much deeper.

Musics record shop was looted and eventually shattered. Black and white people took part in the looting.

Marsha
Marsha Music: Everybody knew it was a matter of time before it happened in Detroit. Photograph: Alexandre da Veiga

This violence is the backdrop to Kathryn Bigelows Detroit, which focuses on the Algiers motel incident, where three young black men were killed and others assaulted by white police officers claiming self-defense. The three white officers and a black security guard were acquitted.

The film comes as Detroit is experiencing a much-touted economic resurgence. Yet one in four homes in the city has been foreclosed upon; one in six homes has had its water shut off in what the United Nations calls a violation of human rights; and the city sits in the single most racially segregated metro area in the US.

It raises the question: has much changed?

Back then, Music said, blacks were watching a horn of plenty in front of them [in 1967], and were on the verge of being able to have a real engagement with the American Dream. They were employed in the auto plants, but they couldnt have higher paying jobs. They could live in decent housing, but they couldnt live where they wanted. We were on the cusp of equality, but were not there.

She mused upon 50 years to the day of history. Today, you do have what I would call a potentially volatile situation, but the forms of that may be different. Because of the water shutoffs, because of the foreclosures. Those kind of situations I believe in contrast to the wealth people see penetrating the city, is the type of juxtaposition that is ripe for conflict.

Policemen
Policemen arrest black suspects on 12th street on 25 July 1967. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The 1967 unrest is still so politically fraught that Detroiters cannot even decide what to call it, alternatively referring to the disturbance as a riot, an uprising, or a rebellion.

Former Detroit police chief and deputy mayor Isaiah McKinnon is one of those who refers to 1967 as a rebellion an uprising against the humiliation, iniquity, and brutality inflicted on African Americans unabated since the beginning of slavery. McKinnon worked as an adviser to Bigelows film, and is now an associate professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, working to get young black men to continue education and become teachers.

As a high-school freshman, McKinnon had gone back to his middle school one day to thank a teacher when he was stopped by the big four a group of four white policemen in a squad car. They beat him from his neck to his belt.

McKinnon never told anyone, fearful he or his parents would be arrested for filing a complaint. But that night, he decided to become a Detroit police officer to try to effect change from within.

Pre-1967 Detroit was considered a bastion of the black middle class and racial tolerance by many elites in politics and media. Wages for African Americans were higher than average, Detroit had the highest rate of black homeownership in the nation, and mayor Jerome Cavanagh famously said just weeks before the disturbance that citizens dont need to throw a brick to communicate with city hall.

The assumption was everyone was happy, McKinnon said. The reality was that was not the truth.

McKinnon was in his second year on the force when the disturbance in 1967 erupted. One of the approximately 75 black police at the time in a force that was about 93% white he was assigned to the precinct at the epicenter. Driving home one night, still in uniform and wearing his badge, he was stopped by two white police officers.

Isaiah
Former Detroit police chief Isaiah Ike McKinnon in his office. Photograph: Alexandre da Veiga

The lead officer approached the car, held a gun to his head and said: Tonight youre going to die, nigger. He began to pull the trigger.

Speeding away in his Ford Mustang convertible, pushing the accelerator with his right hand and steering with the other, McKinnon was shot at as he drove for his life.

Upon filing a complaint with his sergeant, the extent of the investigation was: Ike, we got some assholes out there.

If these guys are behaving this way to me, a fellow law enforcement officer, McKinnon said, what are they gonna do to people in the street?

In a Detroit Free Presssurveyin the aftermath of the 1967 events, far and away the No 1 cause that drove people to destruction, behind housing segregation, employment discrimination, and abuse in stores among other humiliations, was mistreatment by police.

Although the Detroit police department has vastly improved its diversity, with more than half of the force African American, the US has recently seen a rash of large-scale civil disturbances following incidents of police misconduct, including in Ferguson and Baltimore.

And although there have been no large-scale public disturbances in Detroit since 1967, the city did recently have its own turmoil, when seven-year-old Aiyana Jones was shot dead by a bullet from a police machine gun on a no-knock raid on her apartment the incorrect one. The white officer, who claimed the girls grandmother grabbed the gun before it went off, was acquitted.

The whole question of police brutality is very active, said novelist and playwright Pearl Cleage.

Home in Detroit from Howard University at the time of the unrest, Cleage rode out the disturbance at her mothers. She remembers seeing the homes of friends burning, and went to high school with Aubrey Pollard, one of the slain men at the Algiers motel depicted in Bigelows film.

Her father, Albert Cleage, a prominent separatist minister, was on the side of the civil rights movement that was not advocating non-violent protest [like Malcolm X] he understood the necessity for self-defense.

After the unrest, the elder Cleage convened a peoples tribunal at his church, the Central United Church of Christ. The mock trial examined the events and the three white officers and black security guard acquitted of the murders. The civil rights icon Rosa Parks and prominent novelist John O Killens sat on the jury that convicted the men.

It was electric. The atmosphere was just rage and sorrow and anger at what was happening, and the fact that we didnt seem to be able to protect ourselves and to get a police force and a mayor who were on the side of the black people in Detroit.

Cleage said she sees vast similarities to what is happening now with the killings of young black men by police.

Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, all of those people are black men killed by police in questionable circumstances and thats putting it mildly, questionable its the same feeling of absolute frustration at our inability to protect ourselves from the people who are supposed to be protecting us. The same problems with the police exist, and the same problems with the social issues around it.

She referred to a speech Donald Trump gave last week to a group of officers in which he urged them to be rough and not too nice with suspects.

To have the president of the country say thats what we need to do, and have a room full of police officers applaud that, that doesnt lead anyplace but a feeling of, Well, we got nothing to lose, Cleage said. And thats where the riots come from. A feeling of, Weve got nothing to lose. Lets just burn it all up.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/aug/06/detroit-riots-1967-protests

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