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The True Brutal History Behind the Movie Detroit

On a hot summer night in 1967, racial tensions that had long been simmering in the Midwest urban center of Detroit came to an explosive head, resulting in days of riots and leaving dozens dead. Detroit, the new historical thriller by Kathryn Bigelow, examines these days of violence and police brutality through the lens of the Algiers Motel incident. No movie can capture the full scope of the 12th Street riot and the long history of racism, harassment and police violence that led up to it, and we can pretty much guarantee your whitewashed history books never talked about it — so we’re going to fill you in on the details of that night and the nights before and after it.

Warning: This history may be disturbing to read and there will also be mild spoilers about the film as a result.

1. Tensions were already high between the black population & police

Despite being held up as the “model for police-community relations” by the Department of Justice, that kumbaya feeling did not extend to the black community. According to historian Sidney Fine in his book Violence in the Model City, the Detroit PD was 93 percent white compared to a general population that was 30 percent black; 45 percent of the white cops working in black neighborhoods were “extremely anti-Negro” and an additional 34 percent were “prejudiced.” Groups of black men were frequently stopped, frisked and arrested if they didn’t have ID. Black women complained of being accused of prostitution for simply walking down the street. A few weeks before the riots, a black prostitute was found shot to death, and while police blamed her pimp, rumors spread police had killed her.

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2. What should’ve been a celebration became the 12th Street riot

In the early morning hours of Sunday, July 23, 1967, police raided an unlicensed after-hours bar in the Near West Side of Detroit. Expecting to find a few patrons, they were instead confronted by 82 black men celebrating the return of two GIs from Vietnam. As police began to detain all of them, a large crowd of onlookers gathered and tensioned finally boiled over.

As Suzanne E. Smith explained in her book Dancing in the Street, blacks felt that raids by white police on after-hours social clubs were racially motivated since there was still so much discrimination at Detroit bars and restaurants.

3. Police killed a 4-year-old little girl

Five days of violent civil unrest left 43 dead, almost 1,200 injured, over 2,000 buildings destroyed and led to over 7,200 arrests. Twenty-four of the black victims were verified to have been shot by store owners or security guards. Four-year-old Tanya Blanding’s body was found riddled with bullets after the National Guard fired a machine gun into her apartment building, mistaking her uncle’s cigarette lighter for a sniper. Three black teenagers — Carl Cooper, 17, Fred Temple, 18, and Aubrey Pollard, 19 — were killed in the Algiers Motel incident upon which Detroit is based.

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4. The victims of the Algiers Motel incident never saw justice

The death of Carl Cooper was never fully explained by police, and no arrests were made. The National Guard, state troopers and Detroit police on the scene all denied being the first in the building, and Detroit PD Officers David Senak, Ronald August, and Robert Paille (whose names were changed in the movie) initially tried to pin the killing on the hotel’s other occupants.

Black security guard Melvin Dismukes was charged and tried in the assaults before any of the white police and was acquitted.

August admitted to killing Aubrey Pollard, claiming self-defense, and Paille said he killed Fred Temple in self-defense after the others were allowed to leave the hotel. A pathologist hired by the Detroit Free Press disputed this, concluding that all three men had been shot twice at close range from behind while lying down or sitting. Pollard had wounds on the backs of his forearms, indicating they were held up in surrender. Nine other people were allegedly beaten and tortured by police, seven black men and two white women.

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None of the deaths were reported to the Detroit Police Homicide Bureau as required. While one officer was brought up on murder charges and all faced conspiracy charges, all were acquitted by their all-white juries. The Pollard and Temple families later filed lawsuits against the officers and received paltry settlements of $62,500 each.

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