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What the Movie 'Detroit' Says About America Today

Troops in Detroit 1967
Troops in Detroit 1967
Jeffery Robinson,
Executive Director, The Who We Are Project
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August 10, 2017

Watching the movie “Detroit” was like looking into a mirror reflecting the present. For me, the story didn’t show how things have improved since 1967, it demonstrated how much remains the same 50 years later.

The movie is about the killing of three unarmed teenagers at the Algiers Motel and the shooting and beating of other civilians by the police during the Detroit uprising in July 1967. It starts with an animated history lesson explaining how black Americans migrated from the South to the North and ended up restricted to a few overcrowded neighborhoods. This is the legacy of redlining and the exclusion of Blacks from home-buying assistance provided by the G.I. Bill — a legacy that still explains much of the gap in net worth that exists between white and Black families in America today. Detroit, and most of America, is as segregated today as it was in 1967.

The police in “Detroit” showed how casually they would resort to violence against Black people, the same behavior we witness time and time again in recent videos of police misconduct. The culture of policing portrayed in the movie can be seen in places like Ferguson, Chicago, Baltimore, and Madison County, Mississippi, where the ACLU of Mississippi has filed a lawsuit against the county sheriff for illegal use of force against Black “suspects.”

In “Detroit,” an officer shoots a Black man in the back while he is running away and places an open knife near his hand. I immediately thought of Walter Scott in South Carolina being shot in the back while running away, and the officer who killed him dropping a Taser near his body. An officer in the movie falsely claims that a man he killed tried to grab his gun, while another officer lies to back him up. And I was reminded of the three officers who were indicted in Chicago in June for lying about the killing of Laquan McDonald and trying to cover it up.

Just two weeks ago, President Trump suggested in a speech that he would support officers who engaged in unnecessary and unconstitutional violence again suspects. The White House later claimed he was joking, but he was talking about the kind of treatment that caused Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore — part of a pattern of police killings of unarmed Black people that goes back long before 1967.

Near the end of the movie, a Black character says “police criminality needs to be treated the same way as any other form of criminality.” Half a century later, that truth still doesn’t apply to much of America. The not-guilty verdicts for the Detroit officers echo across five decades into courtrooms in Oklahoma, Minnesota, and South Carolina where police killed Black men on videotape, and not one officer was convicted by a jury.

It turns out that members of The Dramatics were held prisoner by the police in the Algiers Motel on that horrific night. The group had a comeback hit with Snoop Dogg in 1994, and this year Snoop wrote about the police abusing people in the Black community: “Resident evil – it’s all on camera and they still don’t believe you.” Even with cameras, the results are much the same as in 1967.

I was 11 years old in 1967. People then and now relied on Martin Luther King Jr. to condemn violence. I wonder if people relying on King know that the speech he was scheduled to give on April 7, 1968, three days after he was assassinated, was “Why America May Go to Hell.” I wonder if they remember something he said in 1967, the same year the rebellion in Detroit happened:

Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community…But most of all, alienated from society and knowing society cherishes property above people, [the rioters are] shocking it by abusing property rights.

For me, the Algiers Motel, the treatment of Black Americans, and the music reminds me of another ’60s band. The Who warned: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” The police in “Detroit” looked frighteningly like the police of today. If changing policing in America is on your agenda, our work is far from done.

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