Where Do We Go From Here? Part 1: A Contested Commemoration

Until Sunday, no marker commemorated the site where the 1967 unrest began.

[This is the first part of a three-part series on the past, present, and future of Detroit in the light of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 rebellion.]

“I think it’s best to leave that night in the past.”

“You sure it’s gonna stay there?”

  – from Dominique Morriseau’s play Detroit ’67, performed at Rosa Parks and Clairmount on July 23, 2017

This past Sunday, July 23, as the Motor City’s top elected officials gathered to commemorate the most traumatic event in Detroit’s 316-year history, they painted a hopeful portrait of a city on the rise.

Not everyone in the crowd agreed with that optimistic picture.

As a teacher of mine once observed, anniversaries are not only a means of linking the past and present, but also a means of remaking past and present alike.

Many people today might like to put the memory of 1967 to rest under a tidy memorial – if not an unmarked grave. But as Sunday’s event suggested, the present being what it is, the ghost of rebellion past is not resting easy.

“It does not define us”

A half-dozen politicians, ranging from Congressman John Conyers, Jr. to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, had taken the stage in Gordon Park at Rosa Parks (formerly Twelfth Street) and Clairmount, where it all began in the early hours of July 23, 1967, following a police raid on an after-hours bar at that site.

The dignitaries were there to mark the anniversary, but more importantly, they said, they were there to celebrate the progress that had been made.

Congressman Conyers had tried in vain to calm the crowds on Twelfth Street 50 years earlier. Now 88 years old, the longest-serving current member of Congress, he began his remarks by asking the audience, roughly equal parts black and white, to repeat after him: “Never again.” Continue reading “Where Do We Go From Here? Part 1: A Contested Commemoration”

“Detroit” Movie Sets Sights on Algiers Motel, Police Violence

Up against the wall in the Algiers Motel: screenshot from the “Detroit” trailer.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the upcoming movie, scheduled for an August release, about the 1967 Detroit rebellion.

But the two-minute trailer released this week suggests that the movie, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) and titled simply “Detroit,” could, fingers crossed, be one of the stronger artistic efforts so far to dare to try to come to terms with the Motor City’s biggest unfinished business.

The biggest revelation from the trailer is that the movie is centered on the rebellion’s Algiers Motel Incident, the never-resolved killing of three black teenagers by law enforcement personnel. The Incident became a cause célèbre for Detroit’s black community in the months after the rebellion and the subject of a 1968 book by investigative journalist John Hersey, author of Hiroshima.

Hiroshima broke ground by presenting the gut-wrenching stories of ordinary Japanese residents of that city in the wake of U.S.-induced nuclear annihilation. In The Algiers Motel Incident, Hersey dramatized the cost of state-sanctioned violence on the home front, placing police brutality at the center of discussions of the Detroit rebellion at a time when most white Americans were still struggling to comprehend it.

By choosing to follow in Hersey’s footsteps, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal appear to have made a fateful, and laudable, choice to focus attention on the police violence and official racism that brought the rebellion about, rather than rehashing the all-too-common white narrative that the “riots” were an inexplicable outburst of random violence by blacks. Continue reading ““Detroit” Movie Sets Sights on Algiers Motel, Police Violence”