Detroit: On fire then, on fire now


This happened exactly 46 years ago today.

In the pre-dawn hours on a Sunday morning -- July 23, 1967 -- Detroit police raided what the locals called a "blind pig" -- an unauthorized after-hours club on the city's west side where a large crowd of African-Americans were celebrating the safe return of two soldiers from the Vietnam War. The police decided to arrest everyone, but as the unwieldy operation dragged on for a couple of hours, a large crowd gathered on the street, as often happened on hot summer nights in the era before any poor folks had air conditioning.

The gathering grew unruly -- some folks pelted the officers and their squad cars with rocks and bottles -- and when the police retreated the throng only grew larger. First people looted stores, then started setting fires. Eventually, some snipers went up on rooftops -- for several days it was urban warfare of the type you might see today on the news from somewhere like Syria. Soldiers who'd just fought in "Nam now drove tanks down the streets of an American city.  In the end, 43 people died, and thousands more were injured, or arrested It was the most lethal episode of social unrest in all of the 1960s -- and the third deadliest riot in American history, after the New York draft riots of the Civil War and the 1992 L.A. riots, after the Rodney King verdict.

History matters. Today, as in the long hot summer of 1967, Detroit is on fire -- at the top of the national news for declaring bankruptcy. I'm on pretty solid ground in saying these two things are not unrelated. The civil unrest that began outside that "blind pig" greatly accelerated the flight of the mostly white middle class to Detroit's suburbs, creating a separate and unequal metropolis. Decay would have happened without the riots, but the near-death of American automaking was the second knockout blow. Detroit became like a Ponzi scheme in reverse -- especially now that it owes pension money for the retired workforce that serviced a huge city of 1.8 million, but only 700,000 mostly poor folks are left to pick up the tab. If you don't know what's happening in Detroit today, I strongly recommend a recent documentary called "Detropia" (it's on Netflix) that captures the absurdity of what was the world's fastest growing city less than a century ago, so soon reverting to prairie and ruins.

How did that happen? The 1967 riot was just one element. If you're a liberal, you blame deindustrialization, cutting the safety net, public policy and tax structures that favor suburbia, banks that exacerbated the foreclosure crisis and finally a cruel takeover-minded GOP governor, while if you're a conservative you blame a string of corrupt Democratic mayors (although the current one, Dave Bing, seems both honest and earnest), lack of personal responsibility, the unions and the workers owned pensions. The reality? It's most of those things (although I'm sorry -- blaming working-class people who served the public for a lifetime and are contractually owned a pension...I can't go for that.)

Here's one thing other thing we can agree on: Riots -- like all violence -- are stupid and counterproductive. When people asked (gratefully) after the George Zimmerman verdict why there were no angry riots, it was probably a lot of things (the rise of air conditioning and the Internet/social media deserve some credit) but the biggest factor is people knew better because they know what happened in Detroit, Newark, Watts and elsewhere. Not only is violence morally wrong, but inner-city blacks saw how it destroyed their neighborhoods, not just for a little while, but for decades.

Still, in spite of the numbskullery that takes place during a riot, there was a time in America when smart, respected citizens also thought it was important to understand the root causes.of urban unrest. Speaking in Michigan a month before he was assassinated, in March 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King condemned rioting but added, famously: ""But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard."  That same month, the Kerner Commission berated federal and state officials for not doing more for schools, housing and jobs in the cities -- and so its report was promptly put in the shelf.The riot was in part triggered by some bery real problems -- including a lack of jobs and a mostly white police force that acted like an occupying army.

In the years since, we've fronted billions of dollars to bail out the automakers even as they moved jobs out of Detroit and the big banks that foreclosed on so many of its homes, but now we don't have a dime to help thousands of honest retirees. Seriously, America? We can't bring back the Industrial Revolution, but for 46 years we've used that -- and the riot -- as a convenient excuse to do nothing. The unheard are still talking in Detroit. It's not too late for the rest of us to learn a new language.