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Burn Baby, Burn

I remember it as if it was yesterday. The acrid smell of smoke wafted through air. The hot and humid night made sleep all but unreachable. The skyline glowed with the orange light of burning buildings. Yet, I laid there with eyes closed hoping to slip through the gates of the dream state. But it was difficult with the distant sound of machine gun fire, the rumble of tanks and armored vehicles less than a quarter mile distant. The 82nd and 101st Airborne Division’s troops had arrived, but the violence was irrepressible. The official death toll was rising, but from a reliable insider, I learned it was much higher than the public was led to believe. I was living in a war zone and frankly, it wasn’t a lot of fun.

US-RACE RIOTS-DETROIT

Near my home (AFP/Getty Images)

This wasn’t Vietnam. It wasn’t the Middle East. The year was 1967. The city was Detroit. Riots engulfed the city. A police raid on a speak-easy sparked one of the deadliest and destructive riots in the history of the United States. I was a young, married man with an expectant wife. We were afraid that if “the time” came, we’d be unable to get to the hospital. It was an exciting time.

It was a time of turmoil and tumult as our nation was being transformed and awakened. Vietnam, civil rights, a music revolution, the space age, and people were turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. I was already pretty open-minded, even for a twenty year old. But it was hard to understand what’s happening on the inside when you’re looking in from the outside. I had friends in the inner-city. I spent time in the inner-city. But the fact is … I was a young white boy of some privilege cast into a bizarre reality and the best I could do was guess about what I was seeing and hearing.

I must confess that as I watched news reports, I was conflicted. I was far from alone in wondering why “they” were burning “their” own neighborhoods. Never mind that simply by defining matters with words like “they” and “their”, I was, in a subtle way, answering my own question. If it was “their” neighborhood, then by definition, I must be a part of “our” neighborhood. One might reasonably conclude they were different … and they were. In that difference rested much of the unrest that fueled the war that raged in my home town.

With the passage of fifty years almost to the day, I’ve learned and experienced much. But I’m still not fully capable of explaining why the rioters laid torch to homes and businesses in their own backyards. Much of Detroit still carries the scars of that week in 1967. Many neighborhoods never recovered. In retrospect, it seems like a more appropriate course of action would have been to burn our neighborhood. After all, with my pedigree, I was deemed to carry some of the responsibility for their state of hopelessness. Perhaps that was the intent of some of the rioters and that was the reason tanks were stationed at East Jefferson and Alter Road only five blocks from my home. Alter Road also happened to be the boundary line for the more affluent Gross Pointe Park. That’s another way of saying, “our neighborhood” rather than “their neighborhood”. Such boundary lines existed between cities. They also existed between ideas, opportunities, and lifestyles. They could burn theirs, but they couldn’t burn ours.

Now I look back fifty years and I still wonder. Why were there “ours” and “theirs”? Why were “they” so unhappy with “theirs”? How unhappy do you have to be with your world to destroy it? Is it the smart thing to do? I still guess, but with a little more accuracy than before. I’m sure the answer is complex, but from my non-expert perspective, I harken back to the song “Me and Bobby McGee” where Janis Joplin sings, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

From my standpoint, as Detroit burned, people were losing homes, jobs and whatever remained of hope. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me. There was precious little to gain unless you count the color television sets some carried from the flaming hulks of retail stores in the neighborhood. I wondered at the time – how many of those looters had homes in which to watch TV after the flames were finally extinguished?

It was all a nightmare, something that couldn’t happen in my country. After all, this was the United States of America. Those things only happened in third world countries, not here in the good ole USA. But I heard the gunfire with my own ears. I smelled the burning buildings. I saw it all and it was real, very, very horridly real.

Some people viewed it as a one-time thing. It could never happen again, could it? Yet, it’s happening as I speak. A large group of people are burning their neighborhoods. On every newscast, in every news magazine, in nearly every blog, I see the flaming embers of our homes rising skyward. A group of Americans large enough to elect a person who is clearly dishonest, clearly rooted in self-interest, a narcissist with an ego bigger than any seen since Nero, and with such a glaring level of incompetence in the art of governance and with an indescribable lack of knowledge of foreign relations, human relations and economics is putting torch to the American dream.

In 1967, we were in the midst of a revolution where people were fighting for recognition and inclusion. Fifty years later, a counter revolution has been launched – one that divides, one that creates hate for specific groups, one that robs from the poor to give to the rich. The flames are being fanned by those who don’t seem to understand that they are the victims of their own wrath. The chickens have elected the fox as the mayor of the hen house.

The parallels between Detroit in 1967 and America in 2017 are striking. In both cases, a large group of people has risen up demanding recognition. Both groups elected to destroy the neighborhood. In Detroit, some of those who burned and looted legitimately felt they had nothing to lose. What makes this uprising infinitely more inexplicable is that the neighborhood that is burning isn’t “theirs”, it’s “ours”. And this time, we do have something to lose. The losses will be material and spiritual.

Pittsburgh, not Paris! Are you kidding? America is aflame. Assuming you’ve been watching, you should notice by now that “the rule of law” is in serious jeopardy. The moral high road that once ran through the heart of America is closed to all traffic as truth has lost its currency. The President offers whatever pabulum necessary to appease the masses. “I’m going to be the jobs creation President,” he sings as he destroys relations with our primary trading partners. I doubt you have to hold a degree in economics to see that words and actions are fighting like two cats in a burlap sack. Fake news is the order of the day. He destabilizes the Middle-East while enriching himself and his cohorts. The only real jobs he’s creating with his policies are for your children and they’ll be on the frontlines of the next war.

detroit troops

Not in America?

Just as was the case in 1967, a neighborhood is being engulfed in flames. The major differences this time are – it’s our neighborhood and we have a lot to lose. I fear the day will come when we look back on this time and say, “That was when America was great.”

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