Thursday, August 23, 2007

Detroit Forty Years After: Reflections on the Rebellions of 1967

Detroit Forty Years After: Refelctions on the Rebellions of 1967

By Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor
Pan-African News Wire

Detroit, July 23-30, 1967, represented the high point of urban rebellions which swept the United States between 1963 and the year in question. Forty years later, the African people of America still face enormous obstacles to their total liberation from institutional racism, national oppression and economic exploitation.

Urban rebellion in the modern period is still a social oppositional phenomena but they have greatly decreased in their frequency and magnitude in comparison to the historical developments unfolding during the years of 1963-1968.

Since Detroit had experienced the largest outbreak of civil unrest up until that time period, it was not surprising that the containment policies enacted by the federal government in conjunction with the corporate community would have the degree of impact that they have in efforts designed to suppress the political aspirations of the oppressed peoples of the United States.

This essay is constructed to assess the historical impact of the rebellions of 1967 and the efficacy of civil unrest as a tactical consideration in the ongoing struggle to bring about the realization of complete socio-economic and political freedom for the African-American people.

It is the view of this writer that the plight of Africans and other oppressed peoples in the United States cannot be adequately addressed under the prevailing political and economic conditions in the country. Institutional resistance to the social advancement of Africans is manifested within various forms of the political culture of present day America.

The escalation of church bombings during the 1990s, the constant reports of police violence directed against Africans as well as the legal reversals of gains made in the areas of education, housing and employment, reflects the pervasive governmental position that the elimination of people's civil and human rights is essential for the maintenance of the status-quo.

What is, and what possibly could be, the most effective response to the present situation? Is there a potential for the re-emergence of a concentrated series of urban rebellions led by Africans and Latinos whose thrust would be directed towards the propertied interests in the nation's major metropolitan centers? Could such a program of action, whether planned or spontaneous, be effective absent of a broader and well organized mass movement that is prepared to resist the system's retaliation against a genuine peoples' rebellion in the United States?

Lessons of the Detroit Rebellion of 1967

When police raided an after hours party and drinking establishment in the early morning hours of July 23, 1967, they were totally unaware of the degree of outrage that would be sparked by this law-enforcement action. As the last group of African-American patrons of the United Community and Civic League were carried out of the locality and loaded in to paddy wagons, bottles and rocks began to shower police vehicles in the 12th and Clairmount Street area where the raid had taken place. By 7:50 a.m. that Sunday morning, over three thousand people, mainly youth and young adults, were out in the streets in the vicinity of 12th Street and Clairmount.

As the initial fire alarms sounded in response to arson attacks against local businesses that were largely owned by whites living outside the ghetto areas, the stage was set for a rapid expansion of widespread looting and firebombing, which continued for the next five days. Thousands more would participate in the rebellion before it subsided and the military occupation of Detroit was lifted. After the National Guard, the US Airborne Divisions and the State Police, in conjunction with local law-enforcement officers, restored order by the week's end, 43 people were left dead, 33 of whom were Africans, and a total of 7,200 had been arrested, 4,000 of which were incarcerated in make-shift jail cells.

Many of the arrested spent as long as 30 hours detained on city buses. Countless others were held in an underground garage absent of any toilet facilities. A large number of those arrested were innocent of any crimes other than being in an unrest area. Included among the detainees were members of the press, who despite efforts to show their credentials to the police and national guard troops, were still held by the authorities because they were African-Americans.

Property damage estimates from the rebellion were initially cited as high as $1 billion dollars. A later figure of $500 million was soon scaled down to an official total of $22 million. However, the State Insurance Bureau at the time estimated that 65% to 75% of paid losses would total approximately $32 million. Political consideration played an important role in the lowering of the estimated property damages incurred during the 1967 rebellion.

Yet the effects of the Detroit rebellion and other outbreaks of unrest throughout the United States, proved costly to the Johnson Administration, which was perceived as incapable of containing the so-called riots in the cities of America. Political activists from the militant organizations within the African-American community were subjected to a heightened degree of law-enforcement repression.

Scores of militant cadres such as H. Rap Brown of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Max Stanford of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) were indicted on spurious charges that were clearly based on the political considerations of the then governmental administration.

President Johnson in the midst of the widespread rebellions of the summer of 1967, appointed an investigative commission to research and report on the causes of the disturbances. On July 27, 1967, Johnson addressed the country on nationwide television in response to the rebellions initiated in the cities of America. During this address he stated that:

"First--let there be no mistake about it--the looting, arson, plunder and pillage which have occured are not part of a civil rights protest. There is no American right to loot stores, or to burn buildings, or to fire rifles from the rooftops. That is crime--and crime must be dealt with forcefully, and swiftly, and certainly--under the law....

"I have directed the Secretary of Defense to issue new training standards for riot control procedures immediately to National Guard units across the country. Through the Continental Army Command, this expanded training will begin immediately. The National Guard must have the ability to respond effectively, quickly, and appropriately, in conditions of disorder and violence."

Although there were brief references to the need for expanded economic opportunities for African-Americans, the principal emphasis of the President's speech was to outline a program of containment designed to prevent the recurrence of these rebellions.

International Implications of the 1967 Rebellion

With the US at the height of its involvement in the Vietnam War, which was officially being conducted to halt the spread of communism in Asia, the disturbances among the African-American people in the urban areas were proving to be an embarrassment to the United States internationally.

In addition, leaders from the radical wing of the African movement in the US began to draw analogies between the liberation struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America and the struggle among oppressed peoples of color in the United States, intimating that the next phase of activity would be centered around guerrilla warfare tactics. This rhetoric on the part of elements within the community, coupled with the rash of rebellions in approximately 160 cities during 1967, prompted a highly strained relationship between the federal government and the African-American people.

Repression and Domestic Neo-Colonialism

In the same above-mentioned presidential address on July 27, 1967, Johnson declared that:
"To those who are tempted by violence, I would say this: Think again. Who is really the loser when violence comes? Whose neighborhood is made a shambles? Whose life is threatened most? If you choose to tear down what others have built,
-you will not succeed;
-you will suffer most from your own crimes;
-you will learn that there are no victors in the aftermath of violence....
Let us resolve that this violence is going to stop and there will be no bonus to flow from it. We can stop it. We must stop it. We will stop it."

Despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights legislation of 1965 guaranteeing universal suffrage, the fundamental social conditions of Africans in the United States had not been altered by 1967. Attempts by revolutionary organizations during the latter years of the 1960s and the early 1970s to build a movement to liberate African-Americans met fierce and determined resistance by the federal government and the corporate community.

Detroit's image is still largely shaped by the rebellions of 1967 and subsequent social conditions that developed during its aftermath. The acceleration of de-industrialization in Detroit, the flight of finance capital from the central cities, as well as the influx of narcotics, has consistently undermined this urban area's sense of stability and purpose.

Can the tactic of mass urban rebellion prove effective in the present period of intensified institutional exclusion of Africans in America? Should youth take to the streets and violently attacks symbols of white racism and economic exploitation in the African-American community? What, if any, were the positive outcomes of the rebellions initiated during the 1960s?

First it is important to point out that the de-commercialization of Detroit has left the city largely abandoned by both heavy and light industries. Symbols of white economic and political hegemony are not as clearly definable in 2007 as they were in 1967. Recent development projects being undertaken in the city are largely centered outside the densely populated residential sections of the Detroit area. The very character of these so-called development projects are largely prestigious and they are not designed to create a small to medium sized commercial revitalization of neighborhoods where working and poor people reside.

Consequently, the outbreak of civil unrest in Detroit in the 21st Century would be a totally different than what occured forty years ago. Present conditions, which are ripe for widespread discontent and anger, would appear to be more conducive to the organization of a mass movement encompassing broad political objectives for restructuring the American social landscape.

Today, Africans suffer from a domestic neo-colonial system, where indigenous elements have gained leadership roles through the acquisition of elected positions as well as endorsements of support from the corporate community. Unemployment among African people remains disproportionately high, and the contemporary rhetoric which views small business creation as the solution to the conditions of national oppression, has gained scant concrete results. All so-called development projects currently underway in the city are not geared towards the empowerment of the African working class and poor masses.

This dilemma can only be resolved with the formation of a national political movement that is both independent from, and in contradiction with, the present two-party system. Any successful revolutionary process must also be international in scope and direction. It is necessary for African-Americans to learn from the advances made in the last 25 years in Southern Africa, South-east Asia, Latin America and other geo-political regions where US imperialism has been effectively challenged.

The creation and continuation of revolutionary governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba and Ecuador in addition to the development of a radical land redistribution program in Zimbabwe, illustrates the necessity of embarking upon and maintaining a protracted struggle for genuine national liberation and social transformation. It is only through a constant program of action and agitation against the system of national oppression in the United States that Africans and other neo-colonial peoples will gain the strength to overcome their present situation.

Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire, an electronic press agency dedicated to providing information, research and analyses of the historical and contemporary conditions throughout the world. Azikiwe has worked also as a broadcast journalist with radio programs on five different stations over the last eight years. His articles and reports have been published in dozens of journals, newspapers, web sites and listserves throught the international community.

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