James Del Rio, a black Michigan state legislator, mortgage broker, and judge, recounted his run-in with Detroit police during the riot of July 1967 in an interview with investigators for the Kerner Commission, the executive body appointed by President Lyndon Johnson after the summer riots of 1967. The interview took place on January 9, 1968, roughly five months after the incident.
I present a long excerpt on the 50th anniversary of the uprising, and I present this excerpt because I think it captures the hyper-masculine racial chauvinism of many members of Detroit’s overwhelmingly white and male police force who used the riot as an opportunity to “get even” with the black community after several years of liberal police reforms under a liberal mayor who had made a very public effort to solicit the support of black civil rights activists and black politicians like Del Rio who were vocal critics of the Detroit Police. In July of 1967, Del Rio was a Democratic state representative.
Source: Deposition of James Del Rio, January 9, 1968, 14-18, Series 32, Box 3, Records of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, TX.
It was either Monday or Tuesday morning. I believe it was Tuesday morning. I was called by Julian Witherspoon, he is President of the Inner-City Voters League to attend a meeting of community leaders and elected officials over at some school which was one block east of Twelfth Street on Woodrow Wilson, and buildings had been burned out and streets cordoned off, so the only way you could get there was to go down Dexter Avenue, up the Boulevard and down Twelfth Street.
Now, to get to this building, that was the method by which you had to go, so I did, and I came down Twelfth Street and about two blocks before the street on which I had to turn to get over to the school, I had noticed a colored man, very thin colored man walking along the street with a lunch pail, as I had to do many years ago, and he was walking along the street, wasn’t bothering anybody, and I continued and the traffic was very slow, and about a half a block, maybe a quarter of a block from the street where I really had to turn to get to the school area, I saw three, between three and four policemen standing around two people and near a supermarket, and there must have been, I don’t know, eight or ten or fifteen policemen there, and eight or ten cars, and a couple of paddywagons, and these two policemen were there with two colored people, and one I learned later, I found, was the husband of the lady, and they were standing about two feet apart, and one policeman had a shotgun that you hunt pheasants with, that type that you hunt pheasants with, and he was jabbing her in the belly with this shotgun, and the other one was slamming the man across the back with the gun, and they were directing them to do something.
Well, there were eight or ten people standing there, and I was literally parked because you couldn’t move until they moved the cars, and they knew, of course, I was a public official and that I was witnessing brutality, and so I got out and identified myself to the officers and I asked them their names and they told me they were not allowed to give me their names and I asked them their badge numbers because they had no badges on and they said they didn’t wear badges during riots, and I asked them, “Well, what do you want these people to do,” and they told me, “I want this women to,” and they used other language, of course, “to pick-up this bread,” and whatnot, “which she stole and dropped and I saw her drop it, I want her to pick it up and get in the wagon,” and they indicated they wanted the man to do the same thing. So, I told them, I said, “Well, if you just stop slamming her in the belly, you know, with that shotgun maybe she can,” and I turned to her and told her, “This man is going to kill you if you don’t pick-up this,” you know, “these groceries and get in that paddywagon and this is what I think you ought to do,” and she heard the complete conversation between myself and the officer and she picked it up and she got in the wagon. Her husband got in the wagon too, and they were between 50 and 60 years of age, both persons, so about that time this very small colored fellow that I had seen walking down the street came by and one of the policemen who was standing there with the shotgun wheeled and slammed him in the back, across the back with the gun and said, “All right, nigger, you get in,” and so the man burst into tears immediately and said, “I wasn’t doing nothing, I wasn’t doing nothing, I wasn’t doing nothing,” and I turned to the officer and told him that I had seen, I had seen him walking down the street, and I told the man to open his lunch pail, open his pail and show the officer what was in there, and he did and in there there was an orange and a couple of sandwiches, and the officer saw it and so he told him, “Nigger, go on,” like that, and the man almost took off like a jet, and then the Sergeant came over. I don’t know, he must have been five or ten or fifteen feet away from us, he came over and said, “All right, nigger, you take his place,” and so I turned to see, you know, was he talking to me. I was the only colored man around close enough to him to address, and so he said, “I mean you, nigger, take his place,” so at that point he put a 30-30 rifle between my eyes, my chest first and then in my eyes, between my eyes and said, “I told you, nigger, to get in,” so I turned and I got in the paddywagon. His officers, the officers around him began to explain to him how I just helped them get, you know, who I was and I just helped them get this woman and man in the paddywagon, and he said, “I heard him on the radio last night and he is with them,” I remember because I wrote the statement down, I just recall it.”
Q: What statement?
A: The statement that he made at that time.
Q: I see.
A (Continuing): You know, I was just reviewing my notes here.
Q: I see.
A (Continuing): And so then I asked him for his name and he refused to give me his name, and I asked him for his badge number and he refused to give me that. I asked him for a pencil and he refused me the pencil, and when we stopped, that is, when the paddywagon stopped about four blocks up on the corner of Twelfth, Twelfth Street and Clairmount, he literally ran around in the street talking to State Troopers saying, “I got Del Rio in there, I got Del Rio in there,” you know, just happy and gleefully bragging about the fact that he had Del Rio in the paddywagon.”