by Allie Gross
As she explains it, the very outcomes of unrest in 1967 cripple Detroit today; nationally the civil rights movement birthed the war on crime and mass incarceration.
In the summer of of 1967 Detroit erupted in rebellions as a response to years of unmitigated police brutality that hit its apex following a zero-tolerance raid on a popular African American after-hours bar. Five years later, the city elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young, who ran for the position on a platform promising to alleviate strains between the police and the city’s black citizens. Within months of taking office, Young disbanded the department’s contentious plain clothes tactical squad S.T.R.E.S.S (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets). Then-police commissioner John F. Nichols credited S.T.R.E.S.S. with reducing robberies by 15 percent, while the NAACP and Rep. John Conyers pointed to the squad's killing of 22 residents over an 18-month period and arrest of hundreds without cause.
Young’s elimination of S.T.R.E.S.S was celebrated by many Detroiters — as was his introduction of a hiring system that aimed to diversify the majority-white force — it, however, was not the end of a tense relationship between police and citizens. Just as black Detroiters were relishing in the outcomes of the 1967 uprising — a black mayor, a sign of power in local government — the federal and state government planted roots for the War on Drugs and Crime that would build a penal system that sociologist Alice Goffman describes in her book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City as having “no historic precedent or international comparison.”
In 1968, for example, one year after the rebellion, President Lyndon B. Johnson created the Law Enforcement Administration to "improve and strengthen law enforcement." In order to get federal funds, departments had to show they had a crime problem. It was during this time, according to Thompson, that the inner city became more criminalized and Detroit, specifically, became viewed as a hot spot for this War on Drugs and Crime.
Fast-forward a couple decades — and numerous new punitive legislative measures — and Michigan’s prison population has ballooned by 538 percent — from 7,834 people behind bars in the 1970s to 42,940 in 2011.
"The war on crime and war on drugs eclipsed the gains of the civil rights movement,” Thompson tells MT. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a black police officer, or Latino police officer or male or female, you have a job to do and that job is to wage the war on drugs — to have a certain amount of policing presence in the community and a certain number of arrests."
For Michiganders the outcome of this punitive system has been traumatizing, and as the Annie E. Casey report points out, little focus has been paid to the most vulnerable members of society being affected by these policies: kids.
"For children and families, incarceration is not a one-time event but a daily reality that lasts well beyond a jail sentence or prison term," write the authors of the report.