Present at the Destruction: Michael Barone Tells the Eyewitness Story of the 1967 Riot: How Programs That Were Supposed to Create a Heaven Turned Detroit into a Hell

Article excerpt

Dean Acheson, who was President Truman's secretary of state, wrote a memoir in 1969 titled Present at the Creation--the creation of the Marshall Plan, the NATO alliance, and other initiatives at the beginning of the Cold War. In that same spirit, I can proclaim that I was present at the destruction--the destruction of much of the city of Detroit.

In Acheson's case, what was created was the postwar Western alliance that waged the Cold War for 40 years to victory. In my case, what was destroyed was a great city, once the fourth-largest in the United States, in a long and drawn-out process over the next 40 years. Acheson was writing about the years he served at the top of the State Department. I am writing about my internship in the mayor's office during the summer of 1967, the summer when Detroit suffered the most damaging urban riot in American history.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. Jerome Cavanagh was elected mayor in 1961 at age 33 with near-unanimous support from the city's black voters and was reelected by a wide margin in 1965. He started ambitious poverty programs, set up a civilian complaint bureau in the police department, and brought in $360 million in federal money. He was bright and charming and, until he lost a Senate primary in 1966, seemed to have an unlimited political future. In 1965, I had written an article in The Harvard Crimson praising him for his liberal policies and contrasting them with the conservative policies of Los Angeles Mayor Samuel Yorty, which I suggested were responsible for the Watts Riots. That got me an interview with Cavanagh and eventually the summer internship.

As I began work in June, I felt I was at the cutting edge of social change. City governments had long been providers of basic services such as water, garbage pickup, policing, and firefighting--humdrum stuff. Now city governments were overcoming poverty and providing opportunity for poor blacks to advance. Or so I thought. The mayor assigned me to spend one week at the city's poverty program headquarters and to interview the heads of each program. That changed my thinking a little. Some of the officials appeared enthusiastic about what they were doing. But others, it seemed clear to me, had been dumped by their former agencies and were just marking time. Still, I remained confident, even as a major riot broke out in Newark, New Jersey, on July 12, that no civil disturbance like it would happen in Detroit. Newark's mayor was a white hack politician, opposed by most local blacks. Detroit was different.

Not so. In the small hours of Sunday, July 23, Detroit police raided a "blind pig" (an after-hours bar) at 12th and Clairmount--about a mile from where my mother grew up. There were protests as police made arrests, but then people in the crowds started breaking windows, looting stores, and setting fires. The police, heavily outnumbered, made no efforts to stop them; Commissioner Ray Girardin felt that would only invite more violence.


"A spirit of carefree nihilism was taking hold," said the Kerner Commission Report, which was supposed to be the definitive statement on America's urban unrest. It was an odd description of what was going on. Firemen, unprotected by police, abandoned 100 city blocks. The looting and arson continued during the day even as Representative John Conyers, then serving his second term in the House and now chairman of the Judiciary Committee, called on rioters to stop and as Cavanagh met with black leaders at police headquarters at 1300 Beaubien (a building site familiar to readers of the crime novels of Elmore Leonard). I arrived at the City-County Building around noon and found my way into meetings. At one point Mayor Cavanagh asked me, fresh from my first year of law school, whether he had the power to declare a curfew. He ordered one at 7:45 p.m., and by 9:00 p.m. Governor George Romney had declared a state of public emergency. …