Saturday, September 02, 2017

America's Current Political Crisis Started 50 Years Ago in Detroit

npr |  The event is often referred to as a "boiling point" of racial and economic inequality in the city. And at its center was tension between the police and black Detroiters.

"There was an undeniable sense that the police were there to protect some, and to contain and intimidate others," says Scott Kurashige, who teaches American and ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He notes in his book The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit that in 1967, 95 percent of the Detroit police department was white.

While many of the facts of that week have long been documented by historians, one big question remains: What should the chaos of that summer be called?

"Everybody who saw this, everybody who heard these stories has a different take on exactly what happened," says Joel Stone, senior curator at the Detroit Historical Society. "Drawing all these different perspectives together, we realized everybody had a different term for it, too."

Last month, the museum opened an exhibit titled "Detroit '67: Perspectives," part of a massive community engagement project that's gathered over 400 oral histories of people who were there or have been living in the city since 1967.

Part of the exhibit explores the tension around what to call the July '67 events. Before they walk in, visitors are asked: "What do you call it?" Responses range from riot to revolution.

"If you use the word 'riot,' you're really putting the onus for whatever bad happened on the people who were looting, the people who were lighting the fires, the people doing the vandalism ..." Stone explains. "Whereas, if you turn to the word 'rebellion,' there's a sense that the people who are doing that stuff are pushing back against some force. In this case it was a government force, a police force and that they had a good reason for pushing back against that."

The most common term to describe what happened is "riot." On July 24, 1967, the lead headline in the Free Press declared: Mobs Burn and Loot 800 Stores; Troops Move In; Emergency Is On.