De­troit at cross­roads 50 years af­ter ri­ots dev­as­tated city

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Deb­o­rah Chenault Green is 62, a writer. But 50 years ago she was a pre-teen, sleep­ing on the porch to es­cape the op­pres­sive heat, awak­en­ing to see a sky that glowed un­nat­u­rally. Az­er­ine Jones is a re­tired baker. But in 1967 she was the 12-year-old daugh­ter of a bar­ber who watched his busi­ness go up in smoke. Gi­rard Townsend is 66 now, liv­ing in a se­niors build­ing near the De­troit wa­ter­front. But a half cen­tury ago, he was just a kid on a city bus.

The bus stopped near 12th and Clair­mount streets. Townsend stepped off and into the very start of the De­troit riot. “I saw all th­ese guys with masks and shields,” he said - city po­lice of­fi­cers, most of them white, far out­num­bered by a seething black crowd. In the days that fol­lowed, he would wit­ness - and take part in - an epic erup­tion of vi­o­lence that still re­ver­ber­ates in his life and the life of this city. Five days of vi­o­lence would leave 33 blacks and 10 whites dead, and more than 1,400 build­ings burned. More than 7,000 peo­ple were ar­rested.

A de­cline that had al­ready be­gun would ac­cel­er­ate; De­troit was the na­tion’s fourth big­gest city in 1960, but would rank 21st by 2016. The mid­dle class fled, and a proud city fell into poverty, crime and hope­less­ness. There are signs of re­birth in De­troit. But the men and women who lived through the ri­ots are get­ting older, and most doubt they will live to see De­troit re­claim its for­mer glory, when its very name was syn­ony­mous with Amer­i­can know-how and in­dus­try. “De­troit still hasn’t come back to where it was,” Townsend said sourly, sort­ing through 50 years of me­mories.

Blind pig raid

De­troit wasn’t the first of the ri­ots in the sum­mer of 1967, and it was far from the last. Buf­falo, New York, and Newark, New Jersey, pre­ceded it; in the course of the sum­mer, more than 150 cases of civil un­rest erupted across the United States. De­troit’s started af­ter a July 23 po­lice raid on an il­le­gal af­ter-hours’ club - a “blind pig” - at 12th and Clair­mount. The raid, though, was just the spark. Many in the com­mu­nity blamed frus­tra­tions blacks felt to­ward the mostly white po­lice, and city poli­cies that pushed fam­i­lies into ag­ing and over-crowded neigh­bor­hoods.

“We had a fear and kind of a ha­tred to­ward the po­lice de­part­ment,” Green said. “They would ha­rass peo­ple, es­pe­cially young black men. Stop them for no rea­son. A lot of men and women were beaten. A lot of that led up to the city ex­plod­ing.” When Ger­ard Townsend got off the bus that night, he stum­bled into the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the blind pig raid. By the next day, the riot was in full bloom: “I got up the next morn­ing and the whole west side was on fire. Ev­ery­thing was burn­ing. Peo­ple were run­ning around with clothes in their hands, TVs and all kinds of stuff.”

Townsend was among them. He made off with a tele­vi­sion from a fur­ni­ture store. “We stole liquor and stuff,” he said. “I watched it. I lived it. I was part of it.”There is gen­eral agree­ment that the ri­ot­ers did not fo­cus their fury on whites. Theresa Welsh and her hus­band, David, rented an apart­ment early that sum­mer about eight blocks from where the riot started. “No­body bothered us. We were a cou­ple of white peo­ple wan­der­ing around,” said Welsh, 71. Deb­o­rah Chenault Green re­calls she was at a cousin’s home. They slept on a mat­tress on the porch be­cause it was such a hot night.

“The noise, I think, is what woke us up,” she said. “You could hear cars and peo­ple and po­lice sirens. I looked in the sky and I saw red. There was loot­ing. It was may­hem ev­ery­where. Ev­ery­body was just go­ing crazy.” Na­tional Guard tanks and other ar­mored ve­hi­cles rum­bled through the streets. There were re­ports of snipers fir­ing on law en­force­ment, the Na­tional Guard and even fire­fight­ers from rooftops and other se­creted spots. Au­thor­i­ties fired back.

The city lost more than 2,000 shops to fires or loot­ing, many of them owned by blacks. Among them was the bar­ber­shop on War­ren Av­enue owned by Az­er­ine Jones’ fa­ther. “They were burn­ing some of ev­ery­thing,” she said “It wasn‘t a mat­ter of them say­ing this was white-owned or black­owned. Stuff just got caught on fire.” When the smoke cleared and the mil­i­tary rolled out, De­troit stood bruised and bat­tered. “A lot of the fires may have started in white­owned busi­ness and spread,” Green said. “A lot of black busi­nesses were de­stroyed. A lot of peo­ple had jobs in those shops. The ma­jor­ity of them didn’t re­open. Af­ter the riot, it looked like a war zone and the burnt smell still lin­gered.” Jones said her fa­ther never re­built his bar­ber­shop. He took on other jobs af­ter the riot. “Own­ing your own busi­ness as a black in the 1950s and ‘60s was an ac­com­plish­ment in it­self,” she said. — AP

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