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Rebellion in Detroit

August 3, 2007 | Page 10

PATRICK DYER tells the story of the biggest of the urban uprisings in the late 1960s.

FORTY YEARS ago this summer, the city of Detroit was rocked to its core by what became known as the "Great Rebellion"--clashes with police and federal troops, and destruction of property in the leading city of American industry.

A July 23, 1967, police raid on a "blind pig," or illegal bar, was the spark. Patrons were peacefully celebrating the return of two Vietnam veterans when police stormed in and arrested all 82 people.

Over the next week, Detroit was set ablaze in a mass revolt, in which an estimated 10,000 people participated. By the end of the week, 43 people had been killed and more than 7,200 arrested, and more than 2,000 buildings were burned to the ground.

Detroit was one of the high points of the Black political rebellions of the late 1960s, as mass protest against racism shifted from the Jim Crow South to northern cities. Between 1964 and 1968, more than 500,000 Blacks participated in some 300 revolts across the U.S.

Each time, African Americans were accused of making their lives worse--by "burning down their own communities." But in reality, the urban rebellions drove forward the tide of social reforms associated with the 1960s, particularly in challenging discrimination and institutional racism, and establishing government poverty programs.

What else to read

Violence in the Model City by Sidney Fine is a detailed account of what happened in the Great Rebellion and why. Thomas Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit explains how Detroit went from being a prosperous industrial city to facing persistent poverty.

Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, focuses on the revolt of the Black autoworkers in the wake of the 1967 uprising. Jack Bloom's Class, Race and the Civil Rights Movement has a chapter on the urban rebellions as the anti-racist struggle from the Jim Crow South to the North.

For an overview of the struggle against racism in the U.S., from slavery to the present day, get Ahmed Shawki's Black Liberation and Socialism, recently published by Haymarket Books.

 

The effect of what left-wing writer Manning Marable calls the "Second Reconstruction" was profound on the lives of African Americans.

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DETROIT WAS the focus of sharp class and racial battles throughout its history.

During the 19th century, the city had two race riots in which white mobs attacked Blacks, but it was served as the last stop on the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves and a meeting spot for abolitionists. During the 1920s, Detroit had a strong Black nationalist movement, yet the Ku Klux Klan's membership was 200,000, and its candidate won the 1924 mayoral election (although he was later disqualified on a technicality).

In the infamous Ford Massacre of 1932, thousands of unemployed Ford workers marched peacefully march on the carmaker's Dearborn plant, only to be machine-gunned by Henry Ford's private army. For the rest of the decade, Detroit was the center of the Black Legion, a fascist organization affiliated with the Klan--but the most important labor struggles of the era were fought and won in its factories.

During a 1943 race riot, the Detroit Police Department led a mob of whites on a spree of violence against Blacks. Armed self-defense units were set up by African Americans to protect their neighborhoods, but 34 people were killed in the end.

Detroit's Great Rebellion also occurred in the context of a global revolt against imperialism. By 1967, liberation struggles were fighting colonialism throughout Africa. In Vietnam, the National Liberation Front was fighting the U.S. military machine to a standstill, while in the U.S., hundreds of thousands had begun to protest the war.

Leading up to the explosion, the Black working class of Detroit had accumulated a large number of grievances.

While Detroit could boast of a relatively sizeable and politically active Black middle class, the mass of working class and poor Detroiters, Black and white, were politically and economically marginalized. African Americans faced higher unemployment, racial pay disparities, long hours, speedups (known to Black workers as "niggermation") and the racism of United Auto Workers leaders (the union's initials, according to Black activists, actually stood for "U Ain't White").

Detroit's rulers had also been carrying out a program of "urban renewal," with entire communities of Black and poor residents bulldozed. City schools were overcrowded and underfunded, and wide swaths of substandard housing existed in Black and poor neighborhoods.

Police violence and abuse was rampant. A Detroit Free Press survey revealed that Black residents said police brutality was their number one problem in the period before the Great Rebellion.

In August 1966, a white cop shot a Black youth on Kercheval Street, and an angry crowd quickly mobilized, demanding the arrest of the officer. Local Black leaders joined with police to stop the protest from spreading--in what became known as the "Kercheval Incident." Detroit leaders received national accolades for this police-community tactic of dampening down discontent, and hoped to deploy it in the future.

The summer of 1967 saw even more racist violence. A Black prostitute was killed in June 1967, and it was widely believed that she was murdered by the police vice squad. That same month, Danny Thomas, a 27-year-old Black Vietnam veteran and Ford worker, was murdered by a gang of whites, who were heard yelling, "Niggers keep out of Rouge Park." Media outlets minimized the story, but the anger could only be contained for so long.

Days before the uprising, radical leader H. Rap Brown spoke at a Black Power rally in Detroit, telling the crowd that if " Motown" didn't come around, "we are going to burn you down!" His words proved prophetic.

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DURING THE early morning hours of July 23, as police were arresting the last of the 82 people from the blind pig at 12th Street and Clairmount, a crowd had gathered in the street, and were raining bottles and bricks on police and their vehicles. By dawn, residents of the area were in open revolt, and it was a no-go zone for police.

Unlike previous instances in the city's history, the Great Rebellion wasn't a "race riot"--though, of course, racism was its chief spark. In reality, Detroit was gripped by a multiracial uprising, with Blacks and whites participating. In general, whites weren't targets for attack--the icons of exploitation, racism and private property were. Black-owned stores displaying "Soul Brother" signs were left alone.

Throughout that Sunday, the rebellion escalated in intensity. Molotov cocktails, guns, stones, bricks and bottles were used against police. At least 2,500 rifles were stolen during the uprising.

Both whites and Blacks broke into stores and went "shopping for free," often burning credit records in the process. Very often, entire stores were torched after being looted. Cars and trucks were used to haul away furniture and other merchandise.

All the while, a carnival-like atmosphere was prevalent. One eyewitness reported a "carefree mood, running in and out of stores, looting, laughing, joking." Another witnessed young people "dancing amidst the flames."

Like police, firefighters were stoned and fired upon--they were forced to withdraw a total of 283 times over the course of the rebellion.

After the first day of the rebellion, Michigan Gov. George Romney--father of the current Republican presidential contender, Mitt Romney--reported that during his flight over Detroit, "It looked like the city had been bombed on the West side, and there was an area...with entire blocks in flames."

The next day, the authorities attempted to use their "Kercheval" tactic--sending Democratic Rep. John Conyers to try and defuse the situation. Standing on a car while trying to placate the crowd, he was booed and pelted with rocks and bottles. Conyers told a reporter, "You try to talk to these people, and they'll knock you into the middle of next year."

With city and state police unable to put down the revolt, Romney knew that he would need to declare a state of "insurrection" to get federal troops. Yet he was also aware that insurance companies had clauses written into their policies exempting them from payouts for damage during an insurrection. Hoping to win the 1968 Republican Party presidential nomination, Romney stalled--while Detroit burned.

In the end, President Lyndon Johnson had to dredge up a 1795 law authorizing a federal troop mobilization to put down an "insurrection against the government." With Johnson's decree, National Guard troops were federalized, and paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were deployed.

The 101st Airborne occupied an East side Black neighborhood that the rebellion had spread to, albeit on a much smaller scale. The unrest was quickly put down, yet the paratroopers remained. Most Detroiters knew why--Johnson was using them as a buffer to prevent the revolt from spreading further east, to neighborhoods like Grosse Pointe where Henry Ford and others of the city's ruling class lived.

For the next several days, tanks, armored personnel carriers and 15,000 police and combat troops took over the streets of Detroit.

Engaging in firefights in the streets, the cops and soldiers used overwhelming violence to put down the uprising. Entire buildings were sprayed with machine gun fire. In one case, a machine gunner on a tank opened fire on an apartment building, and 4-year-old Tonya Blanding was killed.

Mass arrests ensued, including many members of the press. Hundreds of those arrested were forced to spend several days in an underground garage that lacked toilets. Police inflicted sexual abuse and brutality on prisoners, with many requiring hospitalization following "interrogations." During the course of their assault, many police used the excuse of "sniper danger" to remove their badges and cover their license plates, thus remaining even more anonymous.

The Algiers Motel incident during the rebellion exposed to the world the racism of Detroit police. Three Black men were having a party with two white women in a motel room when police broke in and killed the three unarmed men with shotgun blasts at close range. The women were beaten by the cops, and witnesses were threatened.

Initially, police reported that three "snipers" had been killed at the Algiers. Murder charges against two of the officers were dropped, and three cops and a guard were eventually acquitted of conspiracy charges by an all-white jury.

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DURING THE course of the Great Rebellion in Detroit, troops had to be deployed in five other cities to suppress uprisings, and at least 160 urban rebellions were documented in 1967 alone. And this was prelude to what turned out to be an even hotter 1968.

One immediate result of the Great Rebellion was a heightened Black militancy that made itself felt in the coming years. By the fall of 1967, a new Black-run revolutionary newspaper, the Inner City Voice, began circulating.

Black radicals who worked for the paper were instrumental in taking their ideas onto the shop floor in Detroit's auto factories. Within nine months of the Great Rebellion, a wildcat strike of 4,000 workers shut down the Dodge Main plant. The key force in the wildcat was the nucleus of what would become the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, which set its sight on the overthrow of capitalism.

The issues that provoked the Great Rebellion in 1967 have not been resolved. In some ways, they are worse today. An early editorial from the Inner City Voice remains relevant:

In the July Rebellion, we administered a beating to the behind of the white power structure, but apparently our message didn't get over...We are still working too hard, getting paid too little, living in bad housing, sending our kids to substandard schools, paying too much for groceries and treated like dogs by the police. We still don't own anything and don't control anything...

In other words, we are still being systematically exploited by the system, and still have the responsibility to break the back of that system. Only a people who are strong, unified, armed, and know the enemy can carry on the struggles which lay ahead of us. Think about it brother, things ain't hardly getting better. The Revolution must continue.

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