Monday, July 23, 2007

July 23

Today is the 40th anniversary of the start of the Detroit uprisings, which over the course of five days took 43 lives and injured more than a thousand while causing at least $40 million in damage. The city has still not recovered from the events of July 1967.

While the riots were sparked by a single event -- the arrest of more than 80 black patrons of an illegal saloon -- the roots of the conflict can be traced to the evacuation of the auto industry as well as severe overcrowding and impoverishment in Detroit’s black communities. By the mid 1960s, Detroit was in a state of pronounced crisis, as rapid demographic and economic transition destabilized the city. For African Americans, conditions were exceptionally bad. Moreover, the nearly all-white Detroit police department had established an elite unit known as the “Tac Squad,” which focused its attention on prostitution and illegal bars in the black neighborhood along 12th street, the eventual epicenter of the riots. The Tac Squad verbally and physically harassed residents of the community, arresting those who were not carrying proper identification. The conduct of the police was so notorious that blacks surveyed by the Free Press in the spring of 1967 listed police brutality as the greatest problem they faced in Detroit.

Two days after the 12th street neighborhood erupted in violence on July 23, President Lyndon Johnson sent 400 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne as well as 8000 National Guardsmen to suppress the violence. Coleman Young, a Michigan state senator who would later serve as mayor of Detroit, characterized what followed as a “police riot.” Nearly half of those killed were shot by police, soldiers and guardsmen; most of these were shot in the back, and nearly all were unarmed.

Among the dead were 23-year-old Nathaniel Edmonds, who was shot in his backyard by a white man who accused him of looting his store; William Jones, shot by Detroit police officers while looting a liquor store; Julius Lawrence, a 26-year old white man shot by police while he and some friends were trying to steal a car from a junkyard; Roy Banks, a 46-year old black man who was mistaken for a sniper; Charles Kemp, 18, shot by police for looting five packs of cigars; and Tanya Blanding, a 4-year old girl shot through the window her apartment by a National Guardsman, who fired when he saw a small flash that turned out to be a relative lighting a cigarette.