Lessons From A Riot

By Eilene Lyon

Every year for four days in March, I attend the local film festival. Though I love the feature films, I try to see as many shorts and documentaries as possible. After watching a series of international narrative shorts this morning, which were excellent, I went to see the documentary, “12th and Clairmount.” You can check out the movie trailer here.

I’d heard of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, but was unaware of the Detroit drama in July 1967. This film uses home movies, oral history, interviews, newspaper headlines, television footage and other media to tell the story in a very compelling overall narrative.

At the time, Detroit was led by a progressive mayor, who though white, was respected by the black population of the city. Unfortunately, he did not have enough influence on the Detroit city council or over the police force to deflect a dangerous trajectory.

Discriminatory housing practices, overbearing law enforcement harassing blacks, and the construction of a major freeway through a black neighborhood, were some of the issues that led to the riot in the heat of summer.

At first the police, and even the National Guard, tried to quell the looting and burning, as the area around 12th Street and Clairmount imploded. The effects of the riots most hurt those who were already in jeopardy. During a five day period, 43 people lost their lives, over a thousand were injured, more than seven thousand arrested, and damages were in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Governor George Romney requested federal troops to intervene. President Johnson did not like the idea, but seeing that law and order was broken conceded. Soon tanks were rumbling down Detroit’s streets. Because these were primarily Vietnam veterans and many were black, they actually did help to calm the situation. They exuded a professionalism and unbiased attitude that had been lacking among the police forces and the inexperienced National Guardsmen.

Sadly, the event spelled the end of the mayor’s promising political career. It took another decade for the rift to really begin healing in Detroit. The film covers a earlier Detroit visit by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but Dr. King’s message of non-violent protest apparently didn’t sink in. Building better race relations is a constructive, not a destructive, process.

I was sitting in the theater with a gentleman who told me he’d been born in Detroit, though he’d moved away by the time of the riot. I asked him what he thought about the event and the film. He likened it to an adolescent period in race relations – that awkward, insecure but passionate time of self-discovery – that a society must pass through to get to maturity. He acknowledged we aren’t there yet, though progress has been made. He seemed a bit misty-eyed watching the home movies that evoked his childhood in a city he clearly remembered fondly.

Feature image: Front page of the Detroit Free Press on July 24, 1967. The “blind-pig raid” refers to a police raid on an after-hours bar, that sparked the riot.

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