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While Detroit Burned

July 24, 2013

The shenanigans and backroom moves from Lansing make some of us uneasy about Detroit’s bankruptcy filing.  However, the city left itself open to this poor treatment and cynical behavior from the state capital.  These are the risks that come when those in charge don’t solve the underlying issues.  Decades of impasse and not working together on the challenges that came with changing times, gave the state and other outsiders the upper hand.  Instances of corruption and self-dealing only exasperated an already difficult task.  The city rotted.  So here we are – the work will now have to be completed with the courts’ involvement.  Tomorrow, a state court will hear the challenge to the bankruptcy filing from retired police, firefighters and other city employees, who have claimed that it is illegal because Michigan state law precludes adjustments to accrued pension and benefit accounts. 

Twelfth Street before the 1967 riots.

Twelfth Street before the 1967 riots.

Detroit’s troubles go back many years, but some still point to Sunday, July 23, 1967, forty-six years ago today, as a time when a path to decay accelerated.  At about 3:30 in the morning, after a failed earlier attempt to sneak undercover into a private party for returning Vietnam veterans on Twelfth Street, in a densely-populated and beleaguered section of town, police officers tricked themselves into the party and decided to start making arrests.  One problem that they had was the lack of paddy wagons for the eighty that they had arrested, so they called nearby precincts for help.  While they waited outside for their support to arrive, the neighborhood woke up and gathered in the hundreds to voice their anger at the treatment shown to those at the party.  By the time the wagons pulled away, many more had arrived and a riot had started.  By noon, an estimated 10,000 people were out on the streets – some were looting and vandalizing, some were observing and others were trying to stop it all. 

Over the next week, the riots spread into other neighborhoods and Detroit became a war zone.  The US National Guard, US Army paratroopers from FortthCAOY3LQ1 Campbell, Kentucky, Michigan State Troopers and Detroit’s police force were engaged in battles throughout the city.  Buildings burned to the ground, as snipers made it difficult for firefighters to do their work.  By week’s end, 43 people were dead, 1,189 injured and over 7,000 people had been arrested. All these years later, many of the areas struck by the riots have never recovered or been redeveloped.

On the first day of the riots, about five miles away at Tiger Stadium, 34,623 watched the Tigers split a doubleheader with the Yankees.   The mayhem forced rescheduling and the Tigers, who finished one game back of the pennant-winning Boston Red Sox that year, would not play again until July 27th, when they traveled to Baltimore to play the Orioles.

While all this was going on, Walt Disney was preparing to release The Happiest Millionaire, a movie starring Fred MacMurray.  The musical features a song that could not have been more incongruent for the time.  Titled Detroit, this cheery little ditty touts the prosperous conditions of the city, “Detroit, it’s a land where golden chariots are molded out of trees.”

What else was going on in July 1967?  My father, who was a young man then, celebrated a birthday.  The National League won the All-Star game in the 15th inning when Tony Perez hit a home run off of Jim “Catfish” Hunter.  A nuclear bomb test was performed in Nevada.  The Who were on a U.S. tour.  Construction was started on San Francisco’s Market Street subway and a short distance away, the hippies rejoiced in their Summer of Love in the Haight District.  And there was trouble all across the country.  Indeed, the raid on the party for the Vietnam vets was not cause of the Detroit riot; it was only a catalyst.  The nation and its cities were full of unrest that summer.  In July alone, it came to the surface with race riots in Newark, Memphis, Durham and Milwaukee, and even in the small towns of Cairo, Illinois and Cambridge, Maryland.  On July 28th, while Detroit was still in flames, Lyndon Johnson appointed a commission lead by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner to study and report back on the riots.

While the returning servicemen were being arrested at the party in Detroit, the war raged on 8,000 miles away in Southeast Asia.  On a single day alone, the day that the Detroit riots started, thirty-three young Americans lost their lives in Vietnam.   They were as young as 19 years and none were older than 27.  Dean Mitchell Beranek, from Rice Lake, Wisconsin, my mother’s corner of the country when she was a child, was among them.  Sargent Beranek was killed ten months after he started his tour in Vietnam, shortly after his 21st birthday.

From → America

  1. I read this today and well you know, Baltimore, nothing’s changed.


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