One of my high school friends and a scholar of political science posed a great question to me about the Detroit civil unrest. He asked me was the 1967 unrest a riot or a rebellion. Surely, he had an intellectual thought and a well-informed response but wanted to hear my thoughts.
My response to him was, from a sociological perspective, we know that a riot is an act of destruction, usually, meant to be discontinuous and with little focus other than a moment of violence by a group of people with no purpose in sight. In my opinion, rebellion is typically an act caused by a group that has been rooted in injustice, inhumane treatment resulting in emotional and physical eruption, subsequently followed by the destruction of property, personal injury and death.
That doesn’t mean a riot can’t turn into a rebellion as the the anger turns into pain – pain that is uprooted by the acts of violence. With the smashing of each piece of glass, one could envision the crashing down of hopes, dreams and aspirations that feel quashed by those in control of their lives. With each ignition of fire, they could see their lives burning to the ground and recant the encounters with law enforcement, others in control who have diminished their roles from those deserving of respect to merely obstacles and easily removed or destroyed by the swing of a club or pull of a trigger.
However, Detroit in 1967 was in the throes of a rebellion from police brutality to the ruins of a community plowed by local government and reduced to the value of expressways. Redlining, underrepresentation and lack of employment were at the foundation of this rebellion, this civil unrest, this demand to no longer be objects made invisible by a system that avowed to not see their worth. In other words, when the problems have been brewing over a long period of time, the infamous words of Fannie Lou Hamer ring true, we just become “sick and tired of being sick and tired” and the gloves come off.
Yes, there are riots that have been transpired over the years. But on July 23, 1967, this was not a riot. Enough was enough. The revolution would be televised. This was a rebellion and one long overdue.