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Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N3 (November 1991)

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A Firebell in the Night

By William M. King, Afroamerican Studies, University of Colorado, Boulder

At 2320 on Monday, 24 July 1967, Lyndon Johnson, at the request of then Michigan governor, George Romney, ordered 4700 members of the 82d and 101st Airborne units, who had begun arriving in the area earlier in the day, into Detroit to supplement 7000 National Guardsmen already in the city. Twice before, under Eisenhower in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, and under Kennedy in Oxford, Mississippi in 1962, troops from these two divisions had been called into action to protect life and property and restore civil order that was beyond the ability of local authorities to handle. Detroit, with 7200 persons (most of them young black males) in temporary detention, 43 dead, 33 of them Afroamericans, and 50 millions of dollars in property damage, was but the loudest cry for justice in America by black people in this fifth year of urban unrest that had begun with Harlem in 1964. This decision was taken after some negotiation between the president and the governor to avoid nullification of extant insurance polices that would occur if the locals declared that the riot was beyond their ability to control. Clearly, in a capitalist society, property, being more important than human life, must be protected at all costs.

In the "Two Societies: 1965-1968" episode of the second series of Eyes on the Prize, once the troops had been deployed, a newsman asked a black sergeant, who had just returned from Vietnam, how it felt "to come from one zone of combat in a foreign land to one in [his] own land?" He replied, "Not a good feeling, not one I'm kind of proud of. But it's a job, it's a duty. It have to be done." But what was it that had to be done? Moreover, as Johnson would ask his National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, whose report he ignored, why did it happen, and what needed to be done to prevent its happening again and again?

These questions are of particular importance here, because, like now, the United States then was more concerned with foreign than with domestic affairs. Like now, there was then great disparity in the distribution of opportunity that effectively invalidated the rhetoric of freedom and equality. Black people in particular had been frozen out by an insensitive power structure that was more interested in preserving itself and the privileged classes in whose interests it had been designed than it was in living up to its national creed. Expressways had been built to speed the translocation of resources and talent to the suburbs, sundering at the same time community networks that had once provided modest amounts of hope to the dispossessed. Yes, there had been a civil rights bill, and a voting rights act. But these shallow pieces of social engineering had more to do with the elimination of de jure segregation in the southern regions of the country than with the nation as a whole. Authority, which we might define as socially legitimized power, was still being exercised arbitrarily.

Yes, there was the Great Society. And yes, there was the Model Cities endeavor. But the Congress, in attempting to pay for Lyndon's war in the jungles of Southeast Asia, was bleeding these programs because the society could not afford both guns and butter; there was simply not enough money to pay for both. And so the promise of the one was compromised to sate the illusions of the other in the mistaken belief that ideas and the desire of a people for self -determination, however much we might disagree with those ideas and the desire of that people to throw off the ties that bind them to abiding by the expectations of others, might be pursued.

The triggering event for Detroit was a raid on a "blind pig", an after-hours joint in the black community early Sunday morning, 23 July 1967. The after-action analyses and investigations made clear that the police arrived with inadequate intelligence about the resources they would need to quell the disturbance they had catalyzed. Their continued presence in the area, the fact that the police force was 95 per cent white and their track record of acting like an occupying army in the provinces, gave impetus to the need of the citizenry to vent the frustration and rage that had intensified over the years as a consequence of tilting against the racial barriers white America had thrown up in education, employment, housing, government and the media in an attempt to make the fact that the economic order of this society was incapable of responding to the needs of all its constituents. Indeed, we had designed a society that was predicated on the principle of exclusion and then we had sought to rationalize away its inequities by blaming the victim for not being able to compete, overlooking the differential distribution of opportunity the land in accordance with certain ascriptive criteria over which the victims of American democracy, as Malcolm pointed out, had no control. It is not so much the fact of oppression that destroys a people as it is acceptance of that oppression made manifest in disingenuous social policies and practices that in the case of Detroit and other cities of long hot summers were symbolized in the presence and conduct of the police who are charged with maintaining law and order.

Clearly, the conduct of black people during that five day period of barely controlled chaos was exacerbated by the "revolutionary" climate of opinion that had been building in Black America since World War II, which I contend is second in significance only to the War Between the States in understanding the history of black people in the United States. By the beginning of the 60s, there was sufficient momentum in the struggle by black people for self -determination, for the objective of black control of black communities, that any attempt to thwart that realization without the use of massive force was bound to inflame extant passions and heighten tensions in the community. Moderate leaders who entered the riot area were as ineffective as Martin Luther King, Jr had been in Watts in 1965 necessitating a show of massive force to reimpose that thin veneer of civilization that distinguishes us from other members of the animal kingdom. And so, some 12 hours after the raid that initiated the riot as an event, it having become evident that things were getting out of hand, Romney mobilized the Michigan National Guard and ordered them into the city, heavily armed and without any training in riot control tactics that would prove most tragic in the hours and days ahead.

What existed in Detroit during the riot was an atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty fed by rumors and fear. Not unlike in the bush, in Vietnam, the guardsmen saw themselves surrounded by an enemy they did not understand; an enemy that appeared willing to sacrifice itself to achieve its objective of ridding its turf of oppressors and exploiters who did not belong. All those folk ever did was take from the community. Seldom did they give anything back. As in the jungle, there was no front line against which to focus the forces that had been brought in to quell the disturbance. Detroit had become a place, during this most recent rebellion, where everyone was at risk, civilians and soldiers alike.

The national guard, virtually all white, young and inexperienced, possessed tremendous firepower which they used indiscriminately. They shot out the streetlights making it difficult to distinguish the friendlies from the foe. Backlit by burning buildings, their pale faces, like in the jungles of Southeast Asia, made them easily identifiable targets of opportunity for the supposedly large numbers of black snipers that crept across the rooftops firing down into their massed numbers causing them to break discipline in the belief that their numerical and technological superiority could put things right again. They could not and so federales were sent in albeit with unloaded weapons, because the President did not want it said that any of his boys had killed anyone, to demonstrate the national commitment to restoring order. As Johnson would say later, "No society can tolerate massive violence anymore than a body can tolerate massive disease. And we shall not tolerate it." But the actual truth of the matter was that large numbers of Americans were disturbed by what they were seeing on their TV screens. The political climate of the country had begun to shift, becoming more conservative, retreating within itself as a way of coping with the changes that were occuring daily. The reins of power were slipping away. A sense of impotence and ennui were loose in the landand TET was yet to come.

And then it was over. Whether it was due to exhaustion or the presence of some 17,000 law enforcement personnel is still not clear. But it was over. No new programs would be created. The war would see to that. Many of the young brothers who had taken part in riot activities would soon find themselves fighting again; this time in a war whose objectives were not as clear as they had been in Detroit. And they would take with them changed attitudes, a new and different consciousness that the big green machine would respond to with great difficulty further straining an army that, unacknowledged, was already in a state of collapse.

The primary significance of Detroit and the numerous other riots that took place between 1964 and 1967 was that they were all for naught. The sought-for change of national will called for by the Kerner Commission did not and has not yet come to pass. Indeed, if we might conclude anything, it is that, relatively speaking, the status of inconsistency and black powerlessness that was present in the United States before the riots is still with us today. The deaths, the arrests, the destruction of property in the community, much of which was owned by outsiders, was an injudicious use of the talents of black people forced by a society to resort to extreme means to seek a just end. Like the firebell in the night, the riots were the acts of a desperate people who sought only to acquire what others before them had achieved but which had been denied them: some semblance of influence or control over the events effecting their lives. Perhaps, though, they were better off in one manner of speaking. They did not need to create a series of illusions to shield them from the awful truths of their powerlessness. Yet they did make an attempt to point out, to make known to those with the means to make alterations in the asymmetry of life chance, that there is a danger in keeping a people powerless for too long.

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