A Distant Echo on Race and Police

“Detroit” is a new movie that reminds Americans that the issues of racism and police brutality are nothing new, blights on the nation that have never been properly addressed, as James DiEugenio describes.

By James DiEugenio

The new film Detroit by director Katherine Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal is about an event that took place in 1967. But with what has happened in America over the past couple of years, it could not be more timely, particularly the fatal police shootings of male African-Americans, such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile in St. Paul. In all three cases, the officer involved was either acquitted, or no charges were filed.

The Bigelow/Boal film reenacts another infamous event in which three African-American youths were killed in one night at the hands of Detroit police officers, a particularly ugly episode amid the larger Detroit riots of July 1967. To quell those disturbances, Michigan Gov. George Romney and President Lyndon Johnson dispatched armed troops to the city, ultimately leaving 43 people dead and 1,189 injured. Combined with the Newark riot several days earlier, nearly 70 people had been killed due to racial violence in less than a month.

The chaos led President Johnson to appoint the Kerner Commission to investigate the underlying causes of the violence. The commission famously concluded, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

The Algiers Motel incident – the focus of the new movie – represented something of a microcosm of those divisions and how they sometimes had deadly consequences. The incident gained notoriety at the time mostly due to the work of author John Hersey, who is best known for his reporting on eyewitness accounts of the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.

Regarding the Detroit riot, Hersey investigated the Algiers Motel case, how and why three black youths were killed. Hersey published The Algiers Motel Incident in late 1968, deliberately releasing the book before all of the legal proceedings surrounding the incident were concluded. He felt the sooner the public was aware of…

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