Summer in the City
Detroit and Newark are still recovering from the violence that erupted 40 years ago
As the charred house behind him crumbles under a backhoe, William Donner yells above the din. It was over there, he gestures, that Detroit police pumped bullets into a house from which they claimed they were taking fire. A few blocks down Rosa Parks Boulevard, two bodies were found inside a drugstore that had been set ablaze. Donner points down Euclid Street toward the home he fled when he feared the whole neighborhood was going to burn.
Once a truck driver for Ford Motor Co., Donner, 67, now hauls ruined wood and broken brick away from Detroit's many condemned housesstructures that survived the deadly riots of the summer of 1967, but not the grim aftermath. "It's kind of sad to see this torn down," Donner says of the modest mid-century home. "It takes away memories of when things were good around here."
That would have been a very long time ago. Things were far from good even before the violent summer 40 years ago this month, when Detroit and Newark, N.J., were roiled with some of the worst upheavals of the tempestuous 1960s, bringing national exposure to the plight of urban blacks. But in the years that followed, the two cities steadily collapsed, hemorrhaging residents, tax bases, and jobs. Today, leaders in both places are touting sports stadiums, new housing, and other signs that their cities are livable again. But away from the newly polished downtowns, many of the neighborhoods feature the same dangerous mix of poverty and powerlessness that brought frustrations to the boiling point four decades ago.
In Newark, the catalyst for violence was a simple traffic stop. On July 12, a black cab driver who had illegally passed a police car was badly injured by policethey claimed he resisted arrestand was brought to the 4th Police Precinct, where false rumors quickly spread that he had died. An angry crowd gathered, and residents of a nearby 13-story housing project hurled bottles and trash at the police station. The situation escalated the next night after a rally got out of hand, leaving many of the shops along Springfield Avenue looted and burned. Six days later, 26 people lay deadmost killed by the police or National Guard725 were injured, and nearly 1,500 had been arrested.
Moise Abraham, 16 at the time, recalls that his mother had ordered him to stay inside during the violence. But on the night of July 14, she found him outside on Blum Street and sent him home while she went to talk to a friend. A few moments later, Abraham heard gunfire. "She was running; it was a slow run," he recalls, "and then she started to limp and that's when I knew something was wrong." The family rushed her to the hospital, but Rosa Lee Abraham bled to deathshot, her son believes, by the Newark police.
Blind pig. Not a week after Newark quieted, Detroit exploded. As with Newark, the Motor City's racial tensions were fueled in part by a police force with few black officers, unemployment, and urban development programs that paved over predominantly black neighborhoods. On July 23, city police raided a "blind pig"an illegal, after-hours clubthat happened to be holding a celebration for two returning Vietnam veterans. Following the arrest of the partygoers, angry black Detroiters took their frustrations out on nearby stores, setting off six days of looting and vandalism that ended with 43 dead, over 2,000 injured, and about 7,000 arrested. As with Newark, black residents bore the brunt of the casualties, and most of them fell to police or National Guard bullets.