The first signs of an uprising hit me nearly a year before the deadly 1967 Detroit riots.
We were playing alley basketball in the fall of 1966 when one of the older boys got up on top of a giant garbage can and said: “This MF is going to burn. The brothers are tired of the police. We get treated like (bleep). Dudes ain’t even doing nothing and they get popped. We sick of this.”
Heads bounced up and down in agreement.
Detroit burned the following summer and the city still has not full recovered from the five days of burning, looting and gun fire. A total of 43 people were killed, 1,189 injured and 2,000 buildings were lost.
I was eight years old and lived the riot on Detroit’s west side when police raided a blind pig about five miles away. The riot spread quickly and became a part of my daily life. We took daily car rides down Grand River, Livernois and 12th street where a family friend owned a family business to see what buildings were burning and which ones were lost. Through it all I was never scared. It was exciting for me. Maybe I was too young to know better.
Everybody in my neighborhood referred to it as a “race riot” because blacks were so pissed off at the establishment.
I saw the riots from a different light. These were friends, uncles and neighbors doing the damage. These were people I liked even though my grandmother said we should not destroy our own community no matter how angry we were. She was mad at these people because our neighborhood was hit hard.
My family taught me life lessons even during the riots. One day a group of men carried couches, lamps and television sets from a furniture store they looted earlier that day.
On one of the couches lay an unopened box of 24 Almond Joy bars, my favorite chocolate bar as a kid. I immediately saw the chocolate bars as I sat on the front porch with my grandmother watching the parade of stolen goods being marched down the street.
“Hey little brother,” one of the men carrying the couch shouted. “I did not forget you. We got your favorite candy.”
I bounced off the porch toward the candy. But I was stopped in my tracks half way there.
“You better bring your narrow ass back here,” granny screamed at me. “That candy don’t belong to you.”
My grandmother used the term narrow ass when she was really mad at me. I tried to plead my case that the candy had already been taken and that the riots made it OK because everybody was stealing. My grandmother stood up and repeated her demands and she looked like she wanted to snatch my narrow ass off the side-walk.
No candy for this kid. The man shrugged as if to say “I tried.”
The candy bars disappeared down the street into another kid’s stomach.
They burned down Mr. Solomon’s party store, nearby apartment buildings and a local furniture store in my neighborhood. After the riots we went to Redford and Livonia to grocery shop. I took up tennis later and had to go to Southfield when I ran out of tennis balls for games at Northwestern High School.
There was no retail in the hood.
The nightly gun fire became back ground noise at night. We got used to it and I remember missing the nightly gun fights when things settled down. My job at night was to hose down our roof with water. Fire balls of debris floated through the air at night and my aunt feared that something would settle on our roof and catch the house on fire. I made sure it didn’t by making sure the house was wet from top to bottom.
I got in trouble with my friends because I openly felt sorry for Mr. Solomon who lost his store. Mr. Soloman was white and we were in war with white people. But he was a kindly man who gave us store credit and doled out candy when we were short on cash.
I remembered his kindness but my friends were not in a forgiving mood, even for Mr. Solomon simply because he was white, which made him the enemy.