Romanticizing the Detroit riots

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riots of 1967. Michael Barone reminds us that the rioting went on for six nights, with some 2,500 stores looted and burnt, some 400 families displaced, and property damage estimated at around $300 million in 2017 dollars. Forty-three people, many of them innocent bystanders, were killed. More than 1,000 people were wounded.

Even so, the riots were always going to be romanticized with the passage of time. With the rise of Black Lives Matter, the anti-Trump resistance, and antifa, the romance is turning into a love fest.

C-SPAN is doing its part. It televised a discussion in which several leftists declared the riots an “uprising.” They attributed the lawlessness and violence to police brutality and the black community’s sense that, for all the talk of civil rights, nothing had changed or was likely to change for them. In the portions of the program I watched, there was no suggestion that the rioters share the blame.

However, the discussion of how the riots started — the statement of facts, if you will — made me wonder. At around 3:30 in the morning, Detroit police officers raided a club known as a “blind pig” and arrested 85 customers for after hours drinking and gambling. According to one of the panelists, the club was called a blind pig because the police — “the pigs” — turned a blind eye to the unlawful after hours activity that took place there. [Note: It turns out that the term “blind pig” has nothing to do with police officers]

Now, illegal drinking and gambling do not justify roughing perpetrators up. Moreover, it would be foolish to deny that white racism existed in the Detroit police force of 1967.

Still, it’s clear that the police had grounds for the arrests. It also seems likely that many of those arrested for late night drinking were intoxicated. Thus, it’s likely that the police officers encountered more than a little belligerence.

In fact, they did. According to this account by a retired police officer who was there, people started throwing billiard balls at the officers. The violence escalated when white police officers tried to pull their undercover comrades, who were black, out of the room. It took about an hour to arrest everyone and load them into paddy wagons.

In the meantime, a crowd had gathered outside the blind pig. Its members saw their fellow black citizens being loaded, perhaps roughly in some cases, into the vans. They may not have been aware of the violent belligerence the police encountered.

The rioting was triggered not by the shooting or beating of any black, but by the actions of the unstable son of the blind pig owner who, in his words, “was seeking the pleasure of hitting [a police officer] in the head, maybe killing him,” When he threw a bottle at an officer for that purpose, all hell broke loose.

Did it break loose because the rioters believed that, for all the talk of civil rights, nothing had changed or was likely to change? I don’t think so.

Plenty had changed by 1967. In 1964, Congress passed sweeping civil rights legislation. In 1965, it passed major voting rights legislation.

Detroit had elected Jerome Cavanagh mayor. Barone describes him as “a young, bright and ambitious liberal” He was “elected with near-unanimous support of black voters [and] had aggressively launched anti-poverty programs, trying to make the nation’s fifth largest municipality a model of the Great Society’s War on Poverty.”

Things probably were changing for African Americans in Detroit more rapidly than ever before.

To be sure, the black community still had obvious reasons for discontent. However, as Barone says, “people throw bottles, break windows, loot stores and set fires when they think that enough other people will be doing the same as to make them immune from punishment.” That was the case in Detroit beginning shortly after the rioting commenced, when police officers were ordered not to shoot.

The riots were not premeditated. They had no explicit policy goals. A crowd fueled by hatred and, most likely, liquor tested the “web of civilization” (as Barone puts it) and found it weak.

It’s an old story and one that should never be romanticized.

NOTE: I edited this post slightly after a reader informed me that the term “blind pig” was not a reference to the police.

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