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The War on Crime, not crime itself, fueled Detroit’s post-1967 decline

Heather Ann Thompson has been in the news recently because of the success of her new book, “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy,” a nonfiction finalist this year for the National Book Award.

But Thompson is also a nationally respected expert on mass incarceration and through her research has reached some provocative conclusions about the role Michigan’s criminal laws have played in Detroit’s slow-motion economic collapse in the decades following the 1967 uprisings.

For the most part, academics attribute the city’s abandonment, poverty and decay to the disappearance of high-paying industrial jobs, white flight, discrimination in housing and employment, and government decisions that favored suburban development.

Thompson, though, argues that historians and others have missed an additional cause of Detroit’s unraveling: the rise since the mid-1960s of aggressive policing in black neighborhoods, along with laws that vastly increased prison sentences and the subsequent explosion of Michigan’s inmate population. That resulted in large numbers of people -- mostly black males -- yanked out of Detroit, orphaned children and collapsing neighborhoods.

Thompson, a University of Michigan professor of history who lived in Detroit as a teenager and graduated from Cass Tech, laid out her argument in a 2013 article for the Journal of Law in Society, “Unmaking the Motor City in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” She wrote that the nation’s War on Crime “undid the crucial strides that Detroit had made when it finally desegregated its schools, its police department, and its places of work. Indeed, countless victories of the tumultuous civil rights era were ultimately undone by the rise of a massive carceral state and the realities of mass incarceration.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In the mid-1960s, crime appeared to be rising in Detroit, homicides were ticking up, then 1967 happened. Crime became a big issue, and in 1974, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young took office and homicides hit an all-time high, 714. A lot of people see crime as one of the major reason people left Detroit. You have a different explanation.

I think across the nation, the idea is that cities are emptied out, particularly of their white residents and their more affluent residents because crime goes out of control. And certainly Detroit is seen as Ground Zero where that happened. But as a historian, I had the chance to really go back and unpack this, not just decade by decade, but actually year by year and really ask the question, for example ‘Was crime really on the rise prior to the rebellion of ’67? And was that the reason for why we see an outflux of residents?

And in fact, it was not. We see very clearly that, certainly under Mayor Cavanagh, it looks for a moment, especially after 1965, that crime is ticking up, but there is whole back story here, which is, number one, the Johnson Administration had incentivized counting crime in such a way with its new war on crime measures, to incentivize showing that you had an uptick in crime.

The mayor himself, the head of the police department himself, both went public and said, ‘No, it’s actually not that we have a rise in crime ... we’re now reporting it differently.’ And so the irony of ironies is that we begin this intensive policing that will really lead to the rebellion and we begin these really corrosive practices in cities like in Detroit – in advance of a crime problem. But then, of course, we really do get a crime problem because we get a war of drugs, which, like Prohibition much earlier in the century, illegal economies are dangerous economies, they are economies of desperation, they are accompanied by violence, they are accompanied by crime.

But, notably, when urban Detroiters are most suffering the crime problem, white residents are already long gone. They had already long left the city. So it is a bit of a chicken and egg question, and it’s an important one as to what happens when.

You use the term that authorities “criminalized urban space.” What does that mean?

Essentially in this country, really in response to civil rights rebellions that preceded Detroit, the federal government began articulating the northern civil rights problem as a crime problem, as a problem of disorder and crime. This is where we get the first clamorings for a war on crime. So it actually begins under Johnson, not Nixon; it is a moment when we start to see urban space in particular, but particularly black neighborhoods, or Latino neighborhoods, as inherently criminalistic. This is where the police are deployed – by the way, not because that’s where the most drugs are, not even close to where the most drugs are – but this is the perception that is where the crime/disorder problem is.

And that process I call the ‘criminalization of urban space’ is because what it literally meant was that things that had not been illegal before become illegal, things that had been illegal before but had very slight penalties start to have much higher and higher penalties, and have much longer time in jail. And pretty soon, cities like Detroit -- and Detroit is a mostly black city -- but black neighborhoods in other cities, become these sites of intense criminalization, intensive policing that turn creates it own social crisis.

Of all the problems Detroit faced – the deindustrialization, white flight, etc. -- is there a way to quantify where mass incarceration fits in as far as a cause of Detroit’s decline? How big a problem was that?

We can never underestimate the negative impact of either deindustrialization or white flight. For example, it is deindustrialization that will lead so many impoverished communities to rely on the drug economy, for example. But as important as both of those things are, we have also given short shrift to the punitive turn -- the embrace of mass incarceration -- had in destroying cities like Detroit. And the evidence is quite clear. If you look at any map of the city and you look at where some of the most intensive policing took hold, they are the most decimated communities.

Because it isn’t just about not having jobs, or it’s not just about the space being all African American, it’s about spaces where all the adults have been emptied out, spaces where even when folks return they are permanently unemployable because of their record, and spaces were without jobs the drug economy again becomes the primary economy, which has its own trauma.



So these are sites of orphaned children whose parents are in the system. It’s the sites of newly impoverished children. And frankly what we see is that (in) so many of these families who are losing parents through incarceration, we have created this never-never world where essentially you can never get out of it. Some folks will say, "Well, if they cared about their kids they wouldn’t have done whatever it is to land them in the system."

But I want to remind everyone that we only know that they are doing the things because that’s where the police are. Other communities who are doing these things never have this presence of law enforcement. But also because we render them permanently unemployable, because of their record, it becomes this vicious cycle (where) devastation is the ultimate result for the city, but also for real individuals and families in the city.

From virtually the mid-‘70s on, Detroit had a black mayor, a black chief of police, a majority black department and black citizens calling for more police as the DPD shrunk. How does that phenomenon square with what you’re saying?

On the surface it sees to be contradictory that you could have racialized policing and a war on crime that begins for deeply racialized reasons and then say, at the same time, that it ends up destroying a city led by black officials. Because, of course, why would they participate in that kind of process?

This is where we need to understand a couple of things. By the time we get to Mayor Young, by the time we get to his long reign as mayor, any resources that cities can have are in the criminal justice system. You’re not going to find resources in the social service sector, you’re not going to find them through health, education and welfare; you’re going to find them through the Justice Department. And urban locales, whether they’re run by black mayors or white, quickly understand that the way to get support for fiscal management is via essentially crime-fighting dollars.

Number two: police departments are incentivized to become more militaristic, to become more aggressive in their policing because their arrest figures, in turn, command more dollars from the federal government. And, to be honest, the community then ends up in a position of saying, ‘Yes: High crime rates! Violence!’ There’s no one left to call, frankly, but the police. You have a drug-addicted son, and 20 years previously you might have had a social service apparatus where you could get help for that son. But by the time we get to the eighties, and we are dealing with an addiction crisis with crack cocaine, the only one who’s going to show up when you call is the police.

So the community is very tortured and very torn about how do we deal with this social crisis when the only tools at our disposal given to us by our mayor, given to us by our president, are really crime-fighting tools, not public health tools, not social service tools.

Did (Detroit Mayor) Jerry Cavanagh and the police chiefs then manipulate crime data when they changed the way they categorized crimes? What’s the right way to look at that?

I think that’s certainly open to interpretation. What happens after 1965 is that there are newly available resources for police departments. First for states and for cities but quite directly for police departments that had a need, that could show that they needed federal dollars to help fight crime. And for fiscally savvy departments, and ultimately for fiscally strapped departments, arguing that you needed a SWAT team, arguing you needed flak jackets, arguing you needed helicopters is what is going to be heard. So in Detroit, there’s a wrinkle that I’m not sure many citizens really thought about: STRESS [the police department’s controversial violent-crime unit] becomes one of the most important problems for the black community in the wake of the rebellion.

That’s this undercover decoy unit in the police department that black citizens certainly think of as a vigilante force, going out and having far too many fatalities to its credit. STRESS in many respects comes to exist because of this new war on crime. And mind you it’s predating a crime problem. This is what allows for funding. This is what allows for those kind of undercover operations, the police operations, helicopter operations.

So did they manipulate the data? I don’t know. They certainly became more savvy to understand that if you called it a burglary rather than a larceny, or a home invasion as opposed to a burglary (your department received more money)... Is it a murder? Is it a manslaughter? Is it intentional? These nuances are quantifiable and … you need to have the arrest figures but you also need to have the crime problem to justify the resources.

Does your research show if Detroit had a true crime problem in the early 1970s, when STRESS was formed?

Not anywhere near what the press would have had you believe. And nowhere near what will become the crisis facing Detroit by the ‘80s. But yes, crime is ticking upwards as jobs are leaving and resources are leaving. But this too is connected to the policies of the criminal justice system. One of the things that happens between between ’67 and ’72 is this intensification of policing of black spaces in the wake of the rebellion.

Remember during the rebellion people are rounded up; there are gymnasiums full of people who are arrested, and that pattern, that trend, of arresting potential troublemakers doesn’t go away. In fact, one of the reasons we get a new mayor, Roman Gribbs in 1969, is because he is running on a very tough law-and-order program, even though the stats are not showing Detroit is in trouble with crime. But it is certainly coming apart at the seams in terms of race relations.”

This subject is more than academic. You grew up in Detroit. But you have written you were late in understanding how mass incarceration played out.

Right. My first book was about Detroit in the ‘60s and ‘70s and chronicles the story that will lead to the election of Mayor Young. And it’s chock full of stories about policing, arrests, about criminalizing urban space, but I didn’t quite see it that way until years later. And one of the reasons that is the case is that I lived in Detroit, and when you’re in it, when you’re experiencing historical moments and you’re in the center of them, you don’t have depth perception, you don’t quite know what’s happening.

I graduated from Cass Tech High School in 1981, and I can remember the drug war was all round us. Friends of mine were getting arrested; they were going away. These were not people who actually did drugs. These were friends of mine who were just trying to survive on a very, very low level, maybe marijuana transactions, and they were all going away. They were all getting arrested. And it’s so ironic, because back in that time we would say, ‘So-and-so, what an idiot! Why didn’t he get his act together and instead go to college?’ We didn’t understand we were in the middle of one of the biggest buildups of criminal justice resources in human history.

We didn’t understand that we were in the middle of mass incarceration. We didn’t understand that we were locking up more Americans than at any other time in our history. So it took me a while as a historian, frankly, to step back from it enough and be able to look at my own city and say, you know, absolutely deindustrialization was a crisis, and so was white flight, but we have missed the elephant in the room. We waged an aggressive war on crime on the most vulnerable population we could have waged it on and destroyed families, destroyed communities and, frankly, emptied out the city of its census population as those people are now all counted at prisons in Jackson or Ionia. And then we said, "Oh my God. Look what happened to Detroit. What did black leaders do to Detroit?"

It took me awhile to have enough depth perception to see that this was a much more complicated problem than even I thought it was.

Do you have any critics about your view of how mass incarceration affected Detroit?

No. Not really. I describe it not as the end-all, be-all solution but as the elephant in the room. I think it’s this thing that’s happened all around us, it’s happened to us. We have only just now begun to understand what the ramifications of it are. I don’t think anyone disputes that it is devastating. I leave it to the economists and social scientists and the number crunchers to actually map out exactly what the correlation is in terms of the impact, but nobody disagrees. You just simply need to look at a map of the east side of Detroit, a community like Brewer Park, and you need to get in our car and drive through that area. And you quickly understand that it isn’t just that there are no factories or it isn’t just that there are no white faces there. That this is about a profound emptying-out of a community in the name of public safety and it has in fact made us less safe, at least in those communities that are suffering and most directly affected.


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