Everybody probably knows by now that the decade known at the 1960s saw some tumultuous times in America. Besides the many accomplishments in technology and civil rights and such, there seemed to be an offsetting event that balanced the scales. As riots go, the 12th Street Riot has got to rank pretty high on the list when it comes to damages done to people, property and livelihoods. By the time all was said and done, 43 people were dead, approximately 1180 were injured, 1400 buildings had been torched and over 7000 people were arrested.
The year is 1967, the date, July 23rd. A neighborhood by the name of Virginia Park in the city of Detroit was just waiting to explode.
I guess there are certain ingredients that go into the making of a riot and the Virginia Park neighborhood seem to have them all. When you consider that the vast amount of people living there were poor and you combine that with overcrowded living conditions, the stage is set. If you factor in a virtually non-integrated police force with a reputation of taking a “no holds barred” approach to controlling the area, things seem bound to get of hand. And that’s just what they did.
12th Street was a hub of activity in the inner city. The goings on there ranged from legal operations to after hours drinking establishments. One such establishment, run by a man named William Scott became the target of the Detroit Police Departments vice squad on the evening in question. It was approximately. 3:35 in the morning in question when they decided to make their move.
At the time, there were about 85 people in the bar. They were holding a party for some servicemen that had just returned home from Viet Nam. Perhaps they were fed up with the police or perhaps they were drunk but one thing is known for certain, they weren’t ready to leave for the night. Sensing that they were outnumbered, the police called in for reinforcements and soon the paddy wagons began arriving en masse to haul them away.
Word began to spread throughout the neighborhood and soon the streets were lined with people watching the goings on. Interest in the actions of the police was fueled by a rumor that a black prostitute had been shot and killed by them a few days before. Although the rumor turned out to be untrue, it left a bad taste in mouths of the residents. Another rumor began to take hold. Word spread that the patrons were being beaten as they were led away from the bar.
It took about an hour to clear out the place and it looked as if things had calmed down when a bottle was thrown towards the police. Seeing that they were severely outnumbered, they decided to ignore it and to try get the hell out of Dodge. It wasn’t long before an avalanche of bottles began to rain down on them and they beat feet to safer pastures.
Soon, thousands of people took to the streets and the looting began in earnest. Around 6:30 in the morning, the first fires broke out. Not long afterwards, entire blocks were in flames. By around noon, every cop and fireman on the payrolls in Detroit was called into duty. Their numbers weren’t enough and the rioting continued throughout the day. Firemen were assaulted as they tried to put out the blazes that were rapidly spreading through the city.
Recognizing that disaster was imminent, the then mayor of Detroit, Jerome P. Cavanaugh looked to the governor’s office for help. The governor, George Romney, responded by sending in another 300 members of the state police. Still these numbers were not enough. By this time, the riot had spread to about a 100 block area and it was time to call for more reinforcements.
The next call was made and a local unit of the National Guard numbering about 8000 personnel was mobilized but didn’t arrive until the early in the evening. By that time, over 1000 people had been arrested and five people were dead in the streets. Still, the rioting went on.
The next day, Monday, was to fare no better. 16 more people were killed by either the police or by members of the National Guard. The people began to arm themselves and began taking potshots at firemen as they tried to put out the flames. Things were beginning to spill even further out of control at an amazing pace. Sensing a city under siege, George Romney called upon President Lyndon Johnson to bring in the troops. Johnson responded by shipping in nearly 2000 army paratroopers replete with tanks and armored personnel carriers in order to quell the riots.
The next day, Tuesday, saw the streets being patrolled by tanks and soldiers armed with automatic weapons. 10 more people would die that day and still the fires burned throughout the night. Wednesday saw another 12 people die as the fighting in the streets continued.
By Thursday, some semblance of order had returned. I guess by that time, what could be stolen or burnt had already been stolen or burnt and quiet began to return to the streets.
As I mentioned earlier, the price the city of Detroit had to pay was huge. Besides the human toll in the form of deaths, injuries and arrests, the monetary toll was also staggering. Estimates range that it cost the city anywhere between 50 to 100 million dollars to clean up the aftermath.
There are other intangible factors that came about as a result of the 12th Street riots. An additional 5,000 people were now homeless and the city began to experience what became known as “white flight” as thousands upon thousands of white folks began looking to migrate to safer environments. The city was in freefall and would remain that way for many years to come.
The mayor, thought to be rather liberal for the times, probably summed it up best when he had this to say after surveying the carnage after 4 days of rioting.
” Today we stand amidst the ashes of our hopes. We hoped against hope that what we had been doing was enough to prevent a riot. It was not enough."