By Scott Kurashige, author of The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit
Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Detroit rebellion, famed director Kathryn Bigelow (whose film, The Hurt Locker, swept the Oscars) has a new release simply titled Detroit. The title is somewhat misleading, as the focus of the movie is on a specific instance during the 1967 uprising in which three African American teenagers were killed by the police, while others were brutally interrogated and tortured overnight in the Algiers Motel.
Bigelow is a master of her craft, and the film has garnered widespread critical acclaim for bringing this horrific incident to greater public attention at a time when police killings continue seemingly unabated and the president is goading the cops to rough up suspects. The acting, especially by Algee Smith and dozens who have bit parts or are extras, in many cases is nothing short of phenomenal.
At the same time, the film has served as a lightning rod for criticism. One can expect the film to be dismissed by the “Blue Lives Matter” chorus as bashing the police. However, the film has also been scorned by #OscarsSoWhite critics demanding more African American talent behind the camera, as well as those who abhor police brutality yet are exhausted by the media’s constant replaying of actual and dramatized scenes of black suffering and trauma.
I fully appreciate the polarized response to the film, which should not come as any surprise. It offers one perspective on one of the many stories about Detroit we should know. One thing worth highlighting, however, is that the film is part of a cultural shift toward portraying the events of 1967 as a “rebellion” rather than a “riot.” Indeed, it generally gets right that the police were a primary source of the lawlessness that threatened innocent civilians.
Drawing from Sidney Fine’s Violence in the Model City and the Kerner Commission report, this is a point I emphasized in the following excerpt from chapter one of my book:
Regardless of opinion, when we look closely at the deadly violence that took place during the rebellion, one pattern stands out: the killing of African Americans by state actors. Of the 43 who died, 33 were black and 30 were killed by law enforcement, as the streets of Detroit were covered by 17,000 Detroit cops, state police, National Guardsmen, and finally U.S. Army troops. Authorities had hoped initial outbreaks of violence would play themselves out. When they instead expanded into full-fledged rebellion, the police became the aggressors in one confrontation after another. “This is more than a riot,” said one police officer, reflecting the view of many peers. “This is war.”
When Governor George Romney called in the National Guard, they were poorly prepared and rushed into action. Many had signed up to avoid being sent to Vietnam, yet they also had little prior experience in or knowledge of Detroit when they were deployed to the city. “I’m gonna shoot anything that moves and that is black,” one declared. In one of the most horrific episodes, a four-year-old African American girl named Tonia Blanding was struck 27 times after the National Guard mistook the lighting of a cigarette for sniper fire and saturated her apartment building with .50 caliber machine gun fire. When the final count of the dead was tallied, most had been killed by the police and guard. The army, under direct orders, exercised comparative restraint and carried unloaded weapons.
From the vantage point of thousands of black Detroiters, the civil disorder was experienced largely as a violent police riot, recreating what had occurred in 1943. Whatever resentment the black street force may have felt toward “whitey,” the rage was almost uniformly directed at property rather than human life. Nonetheless, the police systematically rounded up, illegally searched, beat, and arrested scores of black Detroiters, including members of the press and citizens doing nothing more than observing events. Hundreds of suspects were detained in poor and unsanitary conditions; most notoriously, up to a thousand were forced to sleep, urinate, and defecate on a cement floor of the police department’s underground parking garage. Many were subsequently railroaded by an overstressed legal system with little regard for due process. Misogyny underlay abuse, as well. One woman was falsely arrested and then groped, molested, and forced to strip for a photograph with an officer fondling her half-naked body.
Scott Kurashige is Professor of American and Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington Bothell and coauthor with Grace Lee Boggs of The Next American Revolution.
Learn more about his latest book, The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit, available now.