Detroit 1967: ‘Law and order’ from the barrel of a gun

September 10, 2013

From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya

Editor’s note: Because of the crises besetting the city of Detroit, we present Dunayevskaya’s editorial from the August-September 1967 issue of News & Letters. The “law and order” imposed then echoes stridently today, not only locally but nationally. Over the past five decades, the primary determinant in Detroit’s hidden history is the revolutionary depth of its July 1967 rebellion along with the reaction against it.

“Abolish the slums!” was so clearly and loudly the demand of the Negro Revolt in every single part of the country–North, South, East, West–that even President Johnson couldn’t pretend not to have heard it. In words, the President even claimed that that was part of his “war on poverty.” Hadn’t he asked for rat control, and hadn’t Congress denied him even that piddling sum?

The trouble with that fairy tale is this: where, as President, he must plead with the people and thus is double-tongued, as Commander-in-Chief he need not plead. He orders, and his orders were clear and unequivocal:

  1. Shoot first; the questions can wait for later. It is true that by then some people will have become corpses, but “law and order” will have been restored.
  2. Shoot at anything that moves; if that turns out to be only a cigarette light, and the innocent victims are men, women, and children, still “law and order” has been restored.
  3. Shoot up a whole building if a sniper is suspected anywhere. It is true that by then not only will fear have been thrown into the beleaguered ghettoes, but it will also have encouraged self-styled “patriots” to take the law into their own lawless hands. But thus will terror rule, and “law and order” prevail.
Downtown Detroit on July 23, 1967

Downtown Detroit on July 23, 1967

The crackle of a federal tank, under orders; the barrel of a racist cop’s revolver, not under orders and lacking a search warrant; the barrel of a National Guardsman’s machine gun, under orders, but gone wild–all these combined to “restore law and order” in Detroit this July 28.

“Law and order” meant 43 lay dead; some 1,500 were wounded; 4,000 were jailed with such impossible sums of bail demanded (up to $100,000!) that constitutional rights were nullified.

Though no “foreign invaders” had landed anywhere in the United States; though no insurrection against the state–“constituted authority”–was in progress; though only one side was thrice armed, the city was, to all intents and purposes, under occupation. “Emergency measures” turned out to be a pseudonym for martial law.


What did happen was the burning down of the Black slums. What Detroit Negroes attacked was white property, not “whitey,” as such. On that score, both appropriations and sniping were bi-racial. As distinguished from other revolts–and that was the new stage of black revolt–what happened in the shops was solidarity of white and Black labor, with the have-nots, and against the have-it-alls.

To try to deny this, to make the revolt appear purely racist, the power structure–from Democratic Vice-President Humphrey to Republican Governor Romney, plus the liberal Establishment–have had to quote Stokely Carmichael. He, however, was in Havana; the action was in Detroit. He was talking, not acting. Those who were the actual participants in the revolt made their actions stark and clear: Down with the Black slums. Let’s not have two nations, one filthy rich and the other miserably poor. Let’s have one nation with totally different, truly human relationships.

To the extent to which, as against the Negro masses, the elitist Black nationalists did operate in the ghettoes, whether that was in Cambridge (Md.) or Detroit, in Wichita or Elgin (Ill.), in Newark or Milwaukee, they were just trying to get credit for that which the masses themselves did, did spontaneously. They revolted against the class system wearing a white face rather than against “whitey” where he was not part of the exploitative system.

The simple truth is that it is the Government–national, state, city and farm; the police, the prisons, and the courts–and not the “outside agitators”–which breed racism and evoke the wrath of the people. Outside of this reality, and the unvarying tale of police brutality, the greatest breeder of racism is Congress, rushing headlong into multiple investigations, not of the criminal system which produces racism, but of its victims.


Even before the outbursts from the Black urban ghettoes reached their climax in Detroit, the Senate tried to rush through the anti-riot bill, already approved by the House. It may still do so, and write finis to the most elementary democratic right of travel by making it illegal to cross state lines (state lines within these allegedly united 50 states) “to incite to riot.” The people who “rioted,” however, were not brought in across state lines. The rebellions were not only indigenous to the state, the city, but to the very limited slum area to which they had been restricted all their lives. This is precisely what they rebelled against, the ghettoization.

So far removed are the members of Congress not only from the ghettoes, but from the lives of the overwhelming majority, from life itself outside of the Congressional corridors, their own plush homes and those of their “business friends,” that the competition was on in Congress for discovering “conspiracies,” “un-American” ones; rackets, “crimes” and guns, American ones, and, of course, “outside agitators.”

Allegedly it was to stop this asinine and vindictive search and turn attention to the real “socio-economic reasons” of revolt in the cities, that the President established his own special “Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.” The lie was given to that one when the first “witness” was none other than J. Edgar Hoover, he who got his lawless spurs in the infamous Palmer raids back in the 1920s in the first post-world war hysteria; he who has long since become a law unto himself as FBI chief; he who, this very year, found “conspiracies” and “subversives” even in staid civil rights organizations and in the “New Left.”

In any case, it didn’t stop the hearings by the Judiciary Committee headed by the arch-reactionary racist, Senator Eastland of Mississippi, and the creation of a sub-committee to be headed by that “rackets buster” racist Senator McClellan of Arkansas. Or the red-baiting House Un-American Activities Committee Subcommittee headed by that other racist, Willis of Louisiana. Even that paragon of virtue who misappropriated all those political contributions for private use, Senator Dodd of Connecticut, who has a drive of sorts on for a gun control bill, got in on the act.

And all that is but the beginning. Wait till all the “reports” are in, new reactionary legislation passed, further “training in riot control” “practiced”–then watch how bourgeois democracy has gone the totalitarian way and prepared for World War III simultaneously with putting down “civil disorders.” “Law and order” from the barrel of a gun, and from the legislative hopper, will coalesce to give reality to the nightmarish mirage of fascist totalitarianism.

What can stop this horror from realizing itself?


Today the vitality of the Negro people, full of purpose, has attacked only the symptoms of oppression–the white landlord in the slums, the white merchant, the white middleman.

This is not because they do not know who Mr. Big is.

Rather, it is because they do not see white labor ready to join them in their determination to undermine the whole system. They know better than the elitist leaders that, without white labor, the system cannot be torn up by its roots.

The urgency of the times demands that white labor, not as a sometime thing, not as the exception, solidarize itself with Black labor. In that way, and in that way alone, can blind revolt become social revolution.

The Black masses have already laid the groundwork for this, and shown themselves in the vanguard in these crucial ways.

In 1956, with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, their self-organization showed itself in every phase of their activities–from the daily mass meetings to the organization of their own transportation.

By 1960, when the sit-downs at lunch counters initiated the Negro Revolution in a way recognized by white youth as well, a new force was born: a whole new generation of revolutionaries, white as well as Black.

The following year, with the Freedom Rides, we witnessed a third force for revolution, “Womanpower, Unlimited.”

These three forces–workers, youth, women–coalesced in the urban revolts which reached their climax in Detroit because here, for the first time in years, outside and inside the shop, there was the first appearance of white and Black solidarity. It is but the faintest of beginnings. But it did appear.

The dialectics of liberation will assure, with no matter what false relapses and deflection by racism, its forward movement toward ending Black slums and brilliantly white imperialism, Black poverty and white profiteering, exploitation of Black and white. Only then will the social revolution unfold itself and not just against the middleman, but against the system itself, and its moral decay.


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