Looking back at the Detroit Riot

In the early morning hours of July 23, 1967, an after-hours club celebrating the return of two Vietnam war servicemen was shut down by a mostly white Detroit police force.

The 85 people inside the bar were taken away in police cars. By the time they were all escorted out, a crowd had formed and began throwing bottles at the police. One bottle even went through the window of a patrol car.

By 4 a.m., the disturbance had turned into a riot, and through the five days of violence and arson, 43 people were left dead.

In the 50th anniversary of this atrocity, many news organizations have been looking back at their coverage of the now infamous incident. Though it didn’t at all relate to Oakland University, The Oakland Observer went on scene to see the aftermath of the riots and looting.

The riot happened on the corner of 12th Street and Clairmont, where many of the businesses were owned and operated by middle and upper-class white workers who commuted into the city from the suburbs, which are now flourishing in the metro Detroit area.

Tensions were high in the area, and not just because of the class and race imbalance, but the lack of liveable space for low-income people. Recent construction of highways had forced many residents out of their homes. 60,000 people lived in a 460 acre space at Virginia Park, mostly in sub-divided apartments.

The riot was considered as being one of the largest in U.S. history, and in the riot’s five day lifespan, 43 people were killed, 342 were injured,and nearly 1,400 buildings had been burned and looted. National Guard troops had to come into the city to calm the rioters after Detroit police were unable to contain the crowds.

When the flames died down and it was all over, 5,000 people were left homeless.

Janice Means, a contributor to The Observer, wrote in the August 3 issue about her experiences leaving a theatre during the riot.

“While in Detroit Sunday evening, I was ordered out of a theatre and upon leaving witnessed the turbulence along Woodward Avenue,” she said. “We took that route only because it was impossible to get to the expressway due to the fires.”

Lee Elbinger, another contributor for The Observer, wrote about Detroit in an article entitled “City is Dead.” In it, he wrote about the ugliness of the scene in Detroit.

“It is a huge dirty machine that grinds out plastic products, plastic promises and plastic people,” he said. “The recent riots express one shining affirmation among all the lost lives and destroyed property; it confirms the fact that the human spirit will not tolerate ugliness indefinitely.”

He argued in his article that the concept of Detroit had fallen, and that the riot occurred in response to its collapsing landscape.

In an almost prophetic piece, he claimed the riots would be just the beginning of Detroit’s downfall. Many historians agree that the ‘67 riots are what kicked off the season of poverty that the city is just recently recovering from.

“Sometime in the distant future Detroit will be turned into a huge museum and our descendants will walk down Woodward Avenue wondering how people in the 20th century could endure life in such a primitive, unhealthy environment,” he wrote.

After the passing of the event’s 50th anniversary this year, dialouge surrounding the event and race relations in Detroit has expanded. New films and documentaries have brought the discussion to a new audience.

Though many agree that rascism still rears its head in the Motor City, residents and administration have proved that the city is still a force to be reckoned with in recent years.

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