As we approached Detroit at 5,000 feet, I could see a dozen columns of black smoke climbing into the still July air. Hitting an inversion layer, the smoke spread out forming a great vaulted ceiling over the city.
It was all quite surreal. I was conscious of Lenin’s return to revolutionary Russia in a sealed train. No ego-mania, just a sign of how seriously we took our politics back then.
Early that Sunday morn, July 23rd, I got a call from a comrade in Detroit advising me to return immediately, “The revolution is on!” “Revolution” was a bit over the top, but it was most certainly one hell of a rebellion.
I had been in Chicago (45 min. flight) the previous two days meeting with other national vets in order to help build a Vietnam vets organization to run point in the growing mass antiwar movement.
History shows that we and others were eminently successful. By May of 1970, there were some 50,000 Vietnam vets in the VVAW.
At the time I was in the Young Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Workers Party (YSA-SWP) and a member of the Executive Committee (EC). I was also faction leader for the antiwar movement and chairman of the Detroit Committee to End the War in Vietnam [DCEWV], co-founder and chair of the Veterans Against the War [VAW], and in charge of security for Deb’s Hall, our headquarters in downtown Detroit.
The rebellion had spread from the early morning hours over on 12th and Clairmount (nine blocks from my home) when the police raided a “blind pig” where a 80+ partyers were celebrating the return home of a couple of Vietnam vets.
The night was a sweltering 86º and despite the early morning hours there were plenty of people on the street. Not much air conditioning back then.
As the cops waited for reinforcements and paddy-wagons, some of the crowd busted the windows of a local store and began to loot it. Police tried sweeping the street but it was like pushing back the tide, it just swirled around them.
When the cops finally retreated, the rebellion spread to the main Woodward corridor and over to the Eastside. By the time I got back to Detroit, it was early afternoon.
The racial character of the “rioting” was quite integrated. Blacks in black areas and mixed black and white in other areas. Over on Trumbull by Wayne State University I observed a line of blacks and whites passing out products from the broken windows of the supermarket to the crowds outside.
Police had withdrawn from confrontations as they were vastly out-numbered. The crowds swelled and were looting stores even as the police were only a few doors away securing the banks and major retail stores.
For me, I was quite conscious of the fact that this was all a dress rehearsal for future actions. Imagine what could be accomplished with a significant section of these crowds being class conscious?!?
Visiting a comrade over at the Jeffries’ Projects I observed from a 10th story window long snake-like lines of people from the Projects helping themselves to warehouses full of appliances, hauling them out on small wagons and shopping carts.
Next door to our antiwar headquarters, John Sinclair’s Artists’ Workshop hung a huge banner, “Burn Baby Burn!” Police later shot it up along with the building. The Guard teargassed the Fifth Estate newspaper next door.
(In 1969 the MC5 released a cut on their “Kick Out the Jams” album, “The Motor City’s Burning.”)
Over the next five+ days, the police (95% white) would be fully mobilized, and the National Guard called up (100% white).
Later, elements of the 101st Airborne Division (my old outfit) were flown in from Ft. Campbell, KY, many of them black and Vietnam veterans.
As a writer for several left publications, I had police and fire press credentials. This allowed me access to many areas otherwise denied.
By the end of the rebellion, there were 43 confirmed deaths, over 7,000 arrests, and over 2,000 buildings destroyed, mostly by fire. It was the largest single insurrection in US history since the NYC draft riots during the Civil War (1863).
Most of the “race riot” was the result of police and Guard “payback” reactions. By the third day the police and Guard were indiscriminantly shooting and arresting people on the street. At night the city was a mass of gunfire, explosions and the glow of fires.
When police and Guard heard shooting near them (they always massed together into heavily armed squads of .50 cal. jeeps and even tanks) they raced into that area guns blazing. Their “return fire” was often only in response to some other police/Guard squad that had opened up on the houses and tenements.
Their suppression soon became the chief goal of the 101st Airborne call-up. Most citizens actually supported the military, they brought the police and Guard under control. George Romney and Jerry Cavanaugh (the governor and mayor) had gone on TV describing the uprising as a carnival of looting, not at all a “race riot.”
In the midst of the rebellion, police found a group of black youths partying in the Algier’s Motel with two teen white girls. Three of the youths were executed on the spot. The “incident” became the subject of a best selling book by John Hersey.
In one personal incident, as I was securing Deb’s Hall, I saw a couple of black kids—maybe 8-to-10-yrs-old—coming thru the back alley with an armload of Arrow shirts from the store on the corner. Several white workers with guns came out from the small factory out back. One took aim on the fleeing kids with an Army Colt .45.
I was on the second-story back porch of the Hall, maybe 30 yds away. I screamed some choice language to get his attention. He turned and leveled the gun at me. I continued to shout that shooting those kids would be murder.
One of the comrades with me had dived inside the Hall and was screaming and crying hysterically that I was gonna get them all killed. In retrospect, she had a logical concern. The previous year three comrades were gunned down in the Hall by a rabid anti-communist.
After some moments, the guy lowered his weapon and they all went back inside their own building.
I learned a lot. Two years later I would be in Beirut covering conflicts in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel/Palestine (1969-71). Detroit was a good rehearsal…