Movie, play encourage new perspective on Detroit history

Jack L. B. Gohn
BridgeTower Media Newswires

Until I saw Dominique Morrisseau’s 2013 play “Detroit ‘67” and Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s new movie “Detroit,” my understanding of the 1967 disturbance in the city was fragmentary, based on knowing a bit but not understanding the essentials of the story. This is kind of surprising, considering that at the time it all happened I lived only 40 miles away in Ann Arbor.

The fact that it has only finally swum into focus for me, 50 years later, is simultaneous testimony to how much has changed in the intervening years and how little. The information environment is drastically different, or I would have learned more sooner. The underlying realities of urban policing and race are depressingly similar.

I found out almost nothing through my own social network at the time. Admittedly, I was out of town in New York the weekend the uprising started, during the summer between my high school graduation and college. But insofar as I or anyone I knew was concerned, the uprising might have been in another world. We had a family friend who canceled a visit to some party in Detroit; that was about the extent of the impact among those I knew.

That might be counterintuitive: Our college town, like so much else in southeastern Michigan, owed much of its livelihood to the economic engine of Detroit. But it was possible to grow up where I did without ever visiting the metropolis, or even knowing its basic geography.

Distorted picture

And without the Internet or cable news, I was left to what I could learn from the newspapers and the broadcast media, which wasn’t much. Being in New York on the critical days, I would have read first about the uprising in my father’s New York Times. An op-ed by William V. Shannon, titled “Negro Violence vs. The American Dream,” which ran on July 27, was typical of the paper’s coverage: lots of windy theorizing, but not one word about the police. The picture I got instead was simply of a confusing mania driving a black population to burn and loot its own neighborhood. And when I got back and discussed it with others, that was the consensus as well. No way would that kind of superficiality have survived amidst today’s tweets, citizen cellphone photojournalism and Facebook rants, of course. But that was then.

After that summer, I was off to college in another state and I missed out on the reassessment that Detroit and Michigan entered into, on the way Gov. Romney pushed through a fair housing law and on the trials and acquittals of the policemen accused of murdering three black men in custody at the Algiers Motel. I missed out on John Hersey’s book about events at the motel, which also form the centerpiece of the new movie.

Then that memory was overlaid with so many other race-related cataclysms, including Newark, the assassination of Martin Luther King and the riots which ensued, and the Vietnam-related disturbances like Kent State, that it all blended together, and I never had reason to recall, let alone reconsider, my initial impressions.

Consequently, I can plainly remember the initial narrative I understood. And that narrative contained nothing about a white police force or white flight or unequal justice, the things that, when you read Hersey or see “Detroit ‘67” and “Detroit,” are the obvious prime movers of the uprising.

Connecting the dots

It’s not that I and my friends were totally wearing racial blinders. Our parish priest had marched for voting rights at Selma. I can remember following his lead by personally taking photographs of slum housing in my hometown to assist in an effort by some folks at my church to agitate for a local fair housing law. I was aware of and sympathetic to the civil rights litigation going on around the country. But when it came to seeing the connection between black civil unrest and white policing, I never connected the dots.

I did not grasp how white police officers could become an occupying army. (Detroit was then 30 percent African American, but the police were about 93 percent white, 45 percent of whom working in black neighborhoods reported “extremely anti-Negro attitudes,” according to the nonpartisan Kerner Commission.)

I did not then grasp how the police’s behavior was or could have been the primary cause of the unrest. I think I’d heard about the police raid on the “blind pig,” the unlicensed after-hours drinking-and-gambling joint, had touched off the riot. I knew about blind pigs; my black next-door neighbors frequented them. But I did not understand how integral blind pigs were to African American culture in Detroit or how raids on blind pigs were brutal and humiliating, effectively acts of cultural warfare.

I did not understand the widespread abuse of stop-and-frisk. I had no idea about how the justice system had become a tool of oppression, leaving most young black men with arrest and/or conviction records that were often nothing more than artifacts of police harassment. It is easy to understand how coruscating community rage could result.

It has taken dramatizations to revive my attention and I suspect the attention of lots of people who only had the contemporary media to inform them to this context.

Unfortunately, all this tells us is that a style of policing we’ve come to know all too well in today’s world, the world of Freddie Gray, of Walter Scott, of Michael Brown, of Eric Garner and countless others, of the overuse of stop-and-frisk so definitively demonstrated in New York, has been around longer than we may have understood.

Counter-rituals

In Detroit 50 years ago, legal justification for police interference with black people was always at hand. At the blind pigs, there was rampant administrative violations, unregulated drinking, illegal gambling, and prostitution and there was more prostitution at the Algiers. Similarly, there are usually drug activity and weapons violations on today’s ghetto streets though, as recent New York stop-and-frisk data has demonstrated, there’s even more in our white ones.

But when so many people choose to engage in these activities, the laws forbidding them lose the perception of legitimacy, and police interference with just certain communities in which they occur is less law enforcement and more ritual dominance and stigmatization. And, as we’ve recently seen in Baltimore, in Ferguson and in Baton Rouge, these rituals always eventually provoke counter-rituals of community outrage.

Thanks to these recent re-enactments of what went down 50 years ago in Detroit, we can now understand, if we could not before, how long this has been happening. Time to fix those holes in our memories. And time to fix the police.

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Jack L.B. Gohn is a partner with Gohn, Hankey, Stichel and Berlage LLP.

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