life and times
hiram who
birth of the auto
border cities
sports heritage

A Riot Unfolds

by Leah Behrens

Summer of ‘67 and all was not well. William Parrott of Dearborn switched off the TV. He had seen enough. The scenes of arson, anarchy, and shootings had convinced him it was time to load up his family and head to their cottage in northern Michigan. They would be safer there.

On Sunday, July 23,1967, Detroit police raided a ‘blind pig’– an illegal after-hours bar – on 12th Street near Clairmount on the city's near west side. A large crowd of African Americans had gathered as arrests were made and they began taunting the police. Someone threw a beer bottle through the back window of a cruiser. The crowd began to get increasingly agitated. More patrol cars arrived but the police did nothing to quell the disturbance so people seized the opportunity to start looting. It wasn’t long before a wave of more than 200 people began surging through city streets. The riot of ‘67 had begun.

There were less than 200 officers spread over the entire city that morning. The mob was unstoppable as it carved out its path of destruction. Rioters smashed, burned and looted everything in their path. They set fire to businesses and homes. Police and firefighters were met by sniper bullets as they tried to contain the riot. Detroit became a war zone.

“They should have seen it coming,” thought William as he turned the car onto the highway. “It wasn't like it hadn’t happened before.”

The last major Detroit race riot had occurred in 1943. On the night of June 20th, fights broke out between sailors and Afro-Americans near Belle Isle. Before long, the mob had grown to over 5,000 and the Detroit riot squad was called in. By the time the riots of ‘43 were over, 34 people lay dead, hundreds injured, 1,800 arrested and property damage was in the millions.

While the rest of her family headed north, 20-year-old Linda Parrott was home with her husband in east Dearborn. The glow from the television lit up the living room. To Linda, as she watched what was unfolding in Detroit, the events seemed like they were happening in another world.

Dearborn was a 'closed' town; Mayor Orville Hubbard made sure no blacks lived there. The rioting in Detroit didn't even affect Linda’s job at Ford Motor Company. It was business as usual, even for her worried father who would be coming home to work as soon as he was back from dropping off her mother, brother, and two sisters at the cottage.

Meanwhile, Kathy Parrott sat in the back seat of the packed car heading north, and stared out the window. “He never explains anything,” thought the 15-year-old as she looked at her father. “What exactly was going on?”

That same question echoed across the nation as the Motor City riot spread to other Michigan cities. Pockets of violence broke out in Pontiac, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Flint, and Saginaw.

Elna Browder of Detroit had just put her 15-month-old daughter to bed. Glued to the TV news, Elna thought of her husband Richard, a police officer with Detroit's 15th precinct for about four years. Since the riots began, he had been ordered to patrol the worst-hit areas in the city. He was working 12-hour shifts, from noon to midnight. Their second child was due any day.

The phone rang again. It was another anxious relative. “I heard a policeman got killed! You think that was your husband?” Elna had no idea. She could only pray that he was safe.

“People are just stealing to be stealing,” officer Richard Browder mused, as he watched looters running out of an emptied gas station with nothing more than a credit card stamping machine. Wherever he travelled in riot-torn areas of Detroit, there were the looters. Generally, he would arrive on the scene and they would flee – cat and mouse. The Detroit Police force was outmanned and overworked.

The riots seemed to be about racial rebellion. Anyone could see that most of the police and guardsmen were white, while nearly all the rioters were black. However, a bizarre fellowship formed between looters that defied racial boundaries. United in a spirit of anarchy, looters of all races helped each other ‘clean out’ merchandise from stores.

Peace officers like Richard Bowler, who was African American, realized that, black or white, they were in this together. It had become a field day for thrill seekers, uniting people so hopelessly trapped in poverty that they had nothing to lose.

To help police restore order, the state governor brought up the National Guard.

“They're just young guys from upper Michigan,” observed Richard. He and four national guardsmen saw looters robbing a convenience store. As he went in to investigate, he looked over his shoulder.
“All they do is just stand their with their rifles in front of them,” he thought; “they don't move or anything!”

Richard arrested a few perpetrators, then called for backup – busy. Suddenly, he was attacked from behind. As he shook the hoodlum off his back, Richard looked up to see a mob gathered across the street, advancing towards him, throwing bottles and rocks. He had to get out of there.

He released the looters, and he and the guardsmen scrambled into the cruiser. He groped for the keys; someone must have taken them!

In desperation, Richard searched the cruiser as the crowd moved in. “The glove compartment! There are extra keys in the glove compartment!” He grabbed them, started the car, and raced away.

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