“I just remember it was chaos,” she said.
Things were no better outside, where the police herded them into vans, she said. Hundreds of residents gathered across the street and yelled:
“Why do y’all keep coming into our neighborhood doing this? We don’t come into your neighborhood!”
“Leave them alone!”
“Let them go!”
After she got out of jail, went home to sleep and woke up, her father told her the significance of what had happened: “That place you were in,” Ms. Holmes recalled her father telling her, “started a riot.”
By most accounts, the events of that early morning of July 23, 1967 — on the corner of 12th Street (now Rosa Parks Boulevard) and Clairmount Avenue — were the tipping point in a long history of government oppression and police brutality of black Detroiters. It led to one of the most notable instances of civil unrest in America’s history.
For residents like Ms. Holmes, now 67, that day remains raw: The National Guardsmen rolling up and down the street with their tanks and guns; having to hide in the hallway between a bathroom and bedroom to avoid gunfire; seeing police officers rough up black men who were spread face down on the concrete.
In recent weeks, people across the Detroit area have been reflecting on an uprising that changed the course of this former auto manufacturing behemoth and whose aftermath continues to linger. Along with the commemoration of the 50th anniversary comes a film by Kathryn Bigelow, “Detroit,” which focuses on the 1967 unrest. It has its nationwide opening on Friday.
There have been discussions around what to call the events — a riot or a rebellion? Museums have created special exhibits about it. Oral histories have been told; newspaper articles written and documentaries aired.
“It’s good to reflect on it, where you come from,” said Kerwin Wimberley, 51, as he ate lunch in a downtown park that sits amid shiny, restored high-rises. “A lot of people do not know why we live the way we do. We reflect on it, you go back through history and understand the struggles or understand the things that happened that can help you not go back and do it again.”
But what exactly does that history of the Detroit unrest mean to residents?
In conversations with them — in what is not a big sample size — I found a bit of a divide in how they viewed what the unrest meant today. Generally, the white people I talked to said that reflecting on the riot only highlighted how much better things had become. But Black Detroiters generally said that they were a reminder of how far the city — and society as a whole — had to go.
“This anniversary serves as a reminder that things have changed, but not as much as sometimes we think they have,” said Lakisha Barclift-Jones, 42. “You look back at the last couple years and all the stuff that has been in the media, with the shootings and the deaths, all that kind of stuff, it kind of reminds you that we’re not really that far off that stuff.”
Yet the way that Elizabeth George sees it, reflecting on 1967 evokes a reason for optimism.
“It not only brings people together in the community, but it gets recognition outside the community,” said Ms. George, who is white and lives in the suburbs. “And especially because now that Detroit is going through this revitalization, this moment will be expressed in like a, ‘Oh, that happened and guess what’s happening now.’ It could bring a lot of attention to the good that’s coming after decades of what did happen.”
A new arena, streetcar, and restaurants and boutiques have made downtown and surrounding communities look resurgent. But some outer neighborhoods, where most of the longtime residents of the city live, have been slower to see revitalization. In some ways, that has divided perceptions of the city, which is 80 percent black.
“Our city is worse, much worse,” said Gwendolyn Woods, a 68-year-old retired teacher who is black. “In the housing situation and things, and the boarded up and the burned down.”
“It’s getting better for downtown,” her friend, Marshall Johnson, 67, and retired from insurance sales, chimed in. “I mean, we got two Detroits. People downtown, white people moving in, they’re doing good.”
Ms. Woods and Mr. Johnson stood a block from the corner of Rosa Parks and Clairmount, where the “blind pig” stood. A new park stands in its place, while a sign memorializes the civil unrest.
Even with signs of change, the past trauma lurks in the back of some people’s minds.
Mr. Johnson lamented the days when notorious police teams known as the Big Four cruised these streets and stopped black people with impunity. Or when his all-black school would go to all-white suburban schools to play them in sports and the referees would make all the calls in favor of the white players.
So for him, it was difficult to be surprised or upset when all the fires, looting and confrontations with the police started back when he was a teenager.
“I thought it was necessary,” he said.
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