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The Real Events Behind the Movie Detroit, as Described in 1968

6 minute read

When Detroit, filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow’s take on that city’s violent summer of 1967, arrives in movie theaters on Friday, 50 years will have passed since the events it depicts took place. Since then, the world’s understanding of the social factors that lead to a race riot — or rebellion, as many see it — has evolved. The stories that began that summer have continued to gain chapters. Yet, as the film notes, some of the details from the eruption in Detroit remain unclear.

It was less than a year after the summer of ’67 when the first major attempt was made to distill the events that make up the film’s centerpiece. The moments in question earned only three sentences in TIME’s original report on the riots, but the writer John Hersey began work almost immediately on what would become the 1968 book The Algiers Motel Incident. (You may want to stop reading here if you consider the history a spoiler for the movie.) By the time the book was released around the first anniversary of the riots, the incident in question was well known — it was “something of a local cause célèbre” when Hersey arrived in Detroit about two months after it happened, TIME noted in reviewing the book, and was extensively covered in the local press. But Hersey’s work, and his ability to win the trust of the witnesses he interviewed, won praise for processing a complex and tragic series of events in poignant fashion.

Here’s how TIME’s 1968 review of the book described those events:

The Algiers Motel shooting occurred at the height of the rioting of July on Detroit’s central thoroughfare. Police had been subjected to sniper firing, and one cop had already been killed. Consequently, nerves were strained when an overwrought National Guardsman sent word of shots being fired from the area of the motel with its largely Negro clientele. The police dispatcher relayed the message: “Army under heavy fire.” Actually, only a few shots had been heard, and Negro witnesses later claimed that these had come from a blank-cartridge pistol; no gun of any kind was ever found at the motel.

Nevertheless, some 16 state and local police and National Guardsmen converged on the motel. A Negro youth, Carl Cooper, was shot to death just inside the door. Police then dragged seven or more occupants from their rooms and lined them up against a wall. After that, accounts diverge. The Negroes, whose stories shifted rather erratically, reported they were all beaten. A policeman, said one Negro, “pointed to the body and asked me what did I see, and I told him I seen a dead man. And he hit me with a pistol and told me I didn’t see anything.” Later during the incident two more Negroes were killed, [Aubrey] Pollard and Fred Temple.

The book poignantly captures the disjointed lives of the volatile black youths —their periodic fits of rage, their more normal sullenness, their fierce loyalty to one another. Just as absorbing is the anguish and frustration of their parents, their fury at the police and the courts, tempered by the knowledge that they could not do much about it. Above all, one could scarcely find, in journalism or in fiction, a more revealing portrait of a certain type of policeman. David Senak, 24, known as “Snake,” served for a year and a half on the vice squad, and he apparently enjoyed his work. It seemed as if his career had consisted of one case after another in which a man or woman had confronted him with some obscene gesture or lascivious remark. Senak admitted to Hersey that a “bad aspect” of his work was that he had never fallen in love with a girl before he joined the force. His arrest of some 175 prostitutes had given him, he said, “a sort of bad attitude toward women in general. I know all women aren’t prostitutes, but I think subconsciously it affects me. I go out with a lot of real nice girls and I just can’t seem to, you know, get really attached to them.” When Hersey asked him if he thought women are “essentially evil,” Senak replied: “Who gave who the apple?”

What particularly seemed to enrage the police at the Algiers Motel, according to the Negroes Hersey interviewed, was the presence of two young white prostitutes. Senak, said a witness, ripped the clothes off one with the barrel of his shotgun and ordered the other to undress before the officers. He demanded to know why they preferred Negroes as clients. “What’s wrong with us, you [n—-r] lovers?” Another cop then chimed in: “We’re going to fill up the Detroit River with all you pimps and whores.”

At first the police denied knowing how any of the three had been shot. Subsequently two cops changed their story and admitted shooting two of the Negroes. Charges of murder were brought against two of the police, though not against Senak; one case was dismissed and one is pending trial. Last month Senak, two other cops and a Negro night watchman were all indicted by a Federal grand jury for conspiring to deprive the victims of their civil rights. Most of the witnesses to the shooting, as well as members of their families, told Hersey that they have been constantly harassed by the police. Some have been jailed, some beaten.

Hersey’s book was published before the 1969 trial at which one of the policemen involved was acquitted of first-degree murder. (In fact, the book was part of the reason why the trial was delayed and eventually took place in a community outside Detroit, on the theory that the publicity meant a fair jury could not be found closer to the scene.) In a 1970 civil-rights trial, the three police officers as well as a black security guard who was present were also found not guilty of a federal civil-rights conspiracy charge. But the court records and results weren’t the only things that Hersey’s quickly-published book didn’t include. For example, historians now say that the snipers mentioned in reports of riots in many cities that summer were more fear than reality.

But Hersey said at the time that he felt he could not afford to wait. He wrote the book, according to the Times, “in despair relieved only by a sense of great urgency” and acknowledged that, while some might see it as prudent to wait to publish until after the trials, “time does not stand still in the crisis of black and white in our country.”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com