February 10, 2008


Present at the Destruction The eyewitness story of the 1967 riot: how programs that were supposed to create a heaven turned Detroit into a hell. (Michael Barone, January/February 2008, The American)

In the small hours of Sunday, July 23, Detroit police raided a “blind pig” (an after-hours bar) at 12th and Clairmount—about a mile from where my mother grew up. There were protests as police made arrests, but then people in the crowds started breaking windows, looting stores, and set­ting fires. The police, heavily outnumbered, made no efforts to stop them; Commissioner Ray Girardin felt that would only invite more violence.

“A spirit of carefree nihilism was taking hold,” said the Kerner Commission Report, which was supposed to be the definitive statement on America’s urban unrest. It was an odd descrip­tion of what was going on. Firemen, unprotected by police, abandoned 100 city blocks. The loot­ing and arson continued during the day even as Representative John Conyers, then serving his sec­ond term in the House and now chairman of the Judiciary Committee, called on rioters to stop and as Cavanagh met with black leaders at police head­quarters at 1300 Beaubien (a building site familiar to readers of the crime novels of Elmore Leonard). I arrived at the City-County Building around noon and found my way into meetings. At one point Mayor Cavanagh asked me, fresh from my first year of law school, whether he had the power to declare a curfew. He ordered one at 7:45 p.m., and by 9:00 p.m. Governor George Romney had declared a state of public emergency.

I kept no diary, and my memories of the days and nights that followed are jumbled. State police were sent in by the early hours of Monday, and the National Guard was summoned from summer training camp 200 miles away. But as the looting, arson, and killing continued on Sunday night and Monday morning, it was plain that city and state police forces were too small to be effective and that the National Guard, with no riot training, was shooting off its weapons far too much. By noon Monday, President Lyndon Johnson had ordered troops to a nearby Air Force base. After a late after­noon tour of the city, Deputy Defense Secretary Cyrus Vance and General John Throckmorton decided the soldiers weren’t needed. But when darkness fell after 9:00 p.m. the rioting continued in full force, and by midnight the decision to deploy federal troops had been made. The Army wound up using much less firepower than the National Guard had—and it was far more effective.

I remember listening to the police radio in the commissioner’s office, probably on that night. A call came in that police were withdrawing from one square mile of the city, followed by a simi­lar call a few minutes later. I knew large parts of Detroit block by block: the neighborhoods where my relatives lived; the long avenues radiating out of downtown Detroit, lined with stores and churches and auto dealerships; the big auto factories well into town but on its periphery when they were built between 1905 and 1930. When my father used to take me with him on his Saturday hospital rounds, he would point out neighborhoods—whole square miles—that had been all white the year before and now were well on their way to becoming all black.

When I got my driver’s license in 1960, I liked to drive around Detroit, exploring and seeing the effects of what we called neighborhood change. It didn’t occur to me then not to spend the evening in an art theater or a jazz club in what had become a black neighborhood. Now, I was in what was called the Command Center as large parts of the city were being looted and torched. As I drove home on the freeway in the daylight I could see smoke rising from the fires; at one stoplight I pulled up next to a tank.

The rioting continued on Tuesday and Wednesday, then ceased Thursday; it had gone on for five nights and much of the days in between. In all, 43 people were dead, 33 of them black; 7,200 people had been arrested. (At one point I was told to find 2,000 mattresses for prisoners; after much calling around, I got them from the Salvation Army, to which I contribute every year.) My initial reac­tion to the riot was that we needed to show that we could maintain basic order. The official response was different. Almost all political and civic lead­ers sought to understand the rioters’ grievances. The Kerner Commission Report, issued in 1968, pontificated, “What the rioters appeared to be seeking was fuller participation in the social order and the material benefits enjoyed by the majority of American citizens.” Certainly, blacks in Detroit had grievances: the residential segregation then universal in America was a disgrace, and the city’s police force was only 4 percent black. But I believe the rioters were making a different calculation. They knew about the riots in other cities, and they figured that if enough people started looting and firebombing, no one would stop them. Riots occur when people expect a riot to occur and think they can get away without punishment. That may not exactly be “carefree nihilism,” but it’s also not “seek­ing fuller participation in the social order.”

The riot set in motion decisions and actions that physically and spiritually destroyed much of the city over the next four decades. It sped the exodus of whites from the city to the suburbs north of Eight Mile Road; it staunched the flow of investment into the city; it led to a vast increase in crime. Coleman Young, Detroit’s mayor from 1973 to 1993, was blatantly hostile to whites and seemed entirely unperturbed by the city’s crime. Today when I drive in Detroit I see neighborhoods with burned-out, abandoned houses and empty lots once inhab­ited by middle-income homeowners. Detroit had 1,600,000 residents at the time of the riot. The lat­est Census estimate is about 919,000.

My political views have changed over those years, more because of what has happened to Detroit than anything else.

A couple weeks earlier, The Other Brother and I were playing in our East Orange, NJ yard and we could see smoke rising from Newark. Then a cop car went by and it had some kind of strange plastic thing bolted over the window (it turned out to be bulletproof glass). The cops came back and told us to go inside, lock the doors, and tell our parents to listen to the radio to find out what was going on.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 10, 2008 7:01 AM

MLK called the Detroit riots "food riots." Proving that, by then, he had already jumped the shark.

Posted by: Palmcroft at February 10, 2008 10:48 AM

"Food riots"? Sounds like something out of Soylent Green.

My mom was born and raised in Detroit, she is 74. She said Detroit used to be a wonderful city. Along with North Philly, I found it the worst city in America.

Posted by: pchuck at February 10, 2008 11:16 AM

"We shall let the fools loot and burn their own districts," the politicians plotted. "Then we shall convene a 'commission' to 'find' that the pillage had been understandable and justifed, and that future depredations must be averted by a colossal internal Danegeld, a 'War on Poverty,' we shall call it, payable to out political clients and administered by ourselves."

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 10, 2008 5:48 PM

'Broken Windows Theory'.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 10, 2008 7:19 PM