DETROIT – On June 5, nearly 1,000 people gathered for the Belle Isle Freedom March organized by Detroit resident and former mayoral candidate Ken Snapp in response to the death of George Floyd. The one-mile march echoed the 1965 Selma march with organizers calling for peace and unity.
Gruesome video footage of a white Minneapolis police officer, identified as Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds has been widely circulated. Chauvin has since been charged with murder. But the image of Floyd’s death spotlighted a long-standing crisis in America: racism in policing.
In Detroit, Floyd’s death stirred memories of the June 1943 race riot.
For 36 hours in June 1943, white and black residents clashed across the city. Thirty-four people died, 25 of them black residents. The Detroit News reports that more than 1,800 people were arrested by police, many of them charged with looting and the vast majority of them black. To this day, 13 murders remained unsolved.
“Today as we march in solidarity, as we march with oneness of purpose, as we march for justice, we march peacefully back to Belle Isle, but this time it’s different. This time we are demanding action,” said Charity Dean, City of Detroit’s Director of Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity.
As part of the march, the crowd crossed the MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle. During the 1943 race riot, police searched the cars of black residents crossing the bridge to Belle Isle. They did not search cars driven by white residents, in an act of unequal policing that has continued to this day in Detroit.
“My godfather worked for State Troopers for over 30 years and he felt that the only way to protect me was by cutting his Michigan State Trooper emblem off of his shirts and telling me to put it on the dash so I can be safe,” said former Detroit Lion Joique Bell, who participated in the march. “When I was younger, I never understood why. I thought it was to just get me out of a ticket. Within these past couple of years, I understand the depth of why he did what he did.”
Pearle May Chambers, an 87-year-old Detroit resident and NAACP member was 9-years-old when the 1943 race riot took place.
She said she was walking with her older brother to the candy store that evening when Mr. Clarkston, the candy store owner, yelled at them to go back home.
“Later that night my daddy came home all bloody because he was beaten by a white policeman on his walk home from work,” she said. “To see the world today breaks my heart, it brings me back to seeing my daddy’s busted face and his only crime was being a black man.”
In 1943, black people seeking industrial jobs in the post-World War II economy moved to Detroit where the automobile business was booming, only to find themselves excluded from most neighborhoods and forced into project housing such as the Brewster Homes. In Detroit, black residents also faced a segregated military, unequal workplaces, public discrimination, and unfair treatment by police. At the same time as black residents were settling into the city, southern whites were migrating north to Detroit.
It’s reported that the fighting on the island began around 10 p.m. Police declared it “under control” by midnight. But shortly after, rumors began to travel. According to the Detroit News, in the black community, a story spread that a white person had thrown a black woman and her baby off of the Belle Isle Bridge. In response, people took to the streets, looting businesses and going after white motorists. Nearby, just west of Woodward in an area dominated by white residents, another rumor began to spread that a group of black men had raped a white woman near the Belle Isle Bridge.
Detroit’s ticking time bomb of built-up anger and resentment from racial injustice exploded, overwhelming the 2,000 Detroit police officers and 150 state police troopers. White residents overturned and burned cars belonging to black residents, looted stores, and beat black residents. It is reported that the white Detroit police officers who patrolled Paradise Valley, a predominantly black community, considered all black people on Hastings Street looters, telling bystanders to “run and not look back” as they shot black residents as they ran.
“We’re just tired,” said Detroit protester Paige White who participated in the Freedom March. “Tired of the disparities in the healthcare system and the social justice system. It’s time for a change and if they’re not going to give it to us, we’re going to demand it and we’re going to take it.”
In a powerful image of solidarity, participants crossed the bridge to Belle Isle arm-in-arm singing “We Shall Overcome” and “Amazing Grace.”
“I know that now a change is gonna’ come. We must hit a breaking point to ignite change,” said Chambers. “We’ve done it plenty times before; we can do it again.”