43 dead. 1,189 injured. 2,000 buildings destroyed and damage upwards of $45 million. The 12th Street Riot was one of the bloodiest, most chaotic and most violent civil disturbances in history, spread across five days between Sunday 23 July and Thursday 27 July 1967, in Detroit, Michigan. In the middle of mayhem, the Algiers Motel Incident — the focus of Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit — stood out as "one of the haunting tragedies of Michigan’s long history."
That tragedy was part of a chain reaction that started in the early hours of the 23 July 1967, when Detroit Police raided an unlicensed bar with over 80 African Americans celebrating the return of two local G.I.s from the Vietnam War. The subsequent mass arrest of everyone inside was watched by a gathered crowd, sparking riots and looting that spread rapidly throughout the city, overwhelming the local police force.
Reinforcements were called in on the following Monday to assist Detroit Police. Consequently, arrests increased in frequency, with rioters locked in temporary jails as authorities desperately tried to keep things under control. In order to speed up the process, the police began to photograph the apprehended along with the arresting officer and stolen goods; 80 per cent of the arrested were black, and due to the carnage it was difficult to identify those who had committed crimes, and those who hadn't.
By Tuesday 25 July, 8,000 Michigan Army National Guardsmen were drafted in, along with 4,700 paratroopers, armed with machine guns and tanks — but the violence continued. Across the city, curfews were enforced, including banning the sale of alcohol and firearms. With growing reports of snipers shooting at authorities, weapon searches took on a brutal twist as police aggressively searched for culprits. Many of the accused were beaten badly.
The Algiers Motel Incident
At the Algiers Motel, three were killed, nine others were beaten and humiliated. Carl Cooper, 17, Fred Temple, 18 and Auburey Pollard, 19 were fatally shot after police arrived to the motel — located one mile South East of the riots — on the night of the 25 July after reports of snipers firing from the building. The motel, which was used as a flophouse, was already known to police due to criminal activity including drug deals and prostitution.
A riot task force consisting of the Detroit Police Department, the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Army National Guard raided the annex of the motel, rounding up those inside and interrogating them for hours. During the trial of three white officers who were suspended after the incident — Ronald August, 28, Robert Paille, 31, and David Senak, 24 — prosecutors claimed officers played a "game," lining up the youngsters against a wall, then taking them one-by-one into another room, firing, and returning alone.
The same three officers were charged with brutally beating the black men with rifle butts and stripping and beating two white females, Juli Hysell and Karen Malloy. After an admission to a senior officer, Paille was initially charged the first-degree murder of Temple, a charge later dropped as his confession was deemed inadmissible. August was charged with Pollard's death, but was acquitted after claiming it was self-defence as Pollard tried grabbing his gun. No one was charged for Cooper's death.
Another man was also charged. Black security guard Melvin Dismukes (played by John Boyega in the film) was charged with assault for allegedly clubbing a person at the annex of the motel, as well as state conspiracy charges and violation of civil rights. Although all of the charges were dropped, Dismukes faced backlash over his involvement, even receiving death threats from the Black Panthers.
However, his side of events paint a different picture. According to Variety, Dismukes arrived at the scene to try and play peace-maker, helping to persuade the guests to cooperate, but his efforts failed to stop the police from beating suspects. His version of events have long gone unspoken, something that has changed with the release of Detroit. He said:
It is 99.5% accurate as to what went down at the Algiers and in the city at the time. I had never felt open to telling my side of the story until I met Kathryn, but she really listened to me and promised to get the truth out, and I think she did an amazing job.
Detroit is released on August 4.