Set 50 years in the past, Kathryn Bigelow’s film, Detroit, is an act of public memory, an excavation of a brutal history specific to the time and city in which it took place, yet recognizably American, immediate and unfinished. But public memory is inherently positional and political, and almost always as much about what we forget as what we remember.
In 1967, I was eleven and living in a white suburb on the edge of Detroit. In the waves of wild rumor that reached us in suburbia, it was said that among the 43 people killed in the city that July, three young black men had died in an exchange of sniper fire at the Algiers Motel. Although it was little more than 10 miles away, I had never heard of the Algiers. But it was a name made to lodge itself in the mind of a child, and so you might say that a first memory of the event, false as it was, took hold. The following year, we moved farther out from Detroit, and the memory receded.
Years later and an ocean away from home, I read John Hersey’s book, The Algiers Motel Incident, and the dismantling of childhood certainties gained pace. First and foremost, the three young men who died in the Motel that night had names: Carl Cooper, Auburey Pollard, and Fred Temple. And Hersey’s book told me what Bigelow’s film is now telling the world in the age of Black Lives Matter. This was no sniper incident, but rather, another episode in our long and tragically unfinished history of police violence against African Americans that repeatedly goes unanswered in the courts.
But here is Bigelow’s forgetful omission, her failed act of memory. She does not show what may be the most important outcome of the Algiers Motel incident: the People’s Tribunal, an unofficial court organized by local activists, and recalled recently in an important video interview with Rev. Dan Aldridge.
A powerful counter-narrative to the failure of the American justice system, the People’s Tribunal was planned as a mock trial to be held in Detroit’s Central United Church. Leaflets published beforehand invited Detroit residents to “watch accurate justice administered by citizens of the community. Witness the unbiased, legal action of skilled black attorneys. Review and watch the evidence for yourself.”
Attended by more than 2000 Detroiters, a gathering of family, friends, local residents, and the press, the Tribunal heard detailed survivor statements, most of which had been excluded from the official pretrial examination on the grounds that they were “irrelevant” to the case. The jury included Rosa Parks and author John Killens. Tribunal organizers argued that “the Black community needs to see that the type of justice we receive in Recorder’s Court is the same kind that is meted out in Mississippi… We invited the international press because we wanted people all over the world to see what it means to be a Black so-called American.”
Hersey interviewed a number of participants, including family members. Eddie Temple told him, “I was there as a witness, actually as the person who identified my brother at the morgue. It had a tremendous value, in that it exposed to a large number of people what had happened there… This place was really packed. People were interested in it.” Those who attended recalled the silence that descended on the church hall as witness after witness testified.
Afterwards, the symbolic murder verdicts secured, Dan Aldridge captured the importance of the Tribunal when he wrote that it marked “the beginning of a new level of thinking in Black America. Black people are telling white judges, white juries, and white newspapers that we are ‘hip’ to your tricks. That Carl Cooper, Auburey Pollard, and Fred Temple have not died in vain. Their deaths have been the signal that flashes injustice in America.” The Sunday after the Tribunal, Central Church Rev. Albert Cleage gave a sermon entitled “Fear is Gone.”
As a white historian of Detroit and its suburbs, where race, perhaps more than any other issue, determined the shape and locations of my life, I believe it is right to speak of these events, most especially to other white people. If that is the case, I have to support Bigelow’s objective, as a highly skilled filmmaker, to treat them on film. But if our accounts stop short, if having shown brutal violence inflicted on black bodies, we never leave that terrible motel to show the response of local activists, then what has been achieved? Perhaps we may shock a few white people who, despite a nonstop train of recent deaths, have failed to open their eyes to the problem of police violence against African Americans. We most certainly will not shock many black people, a fact pointed out by at least some critics who rightly question the motives and/or usefulness of the film. See, for example, Angelica Jade Bastien’s review which describes Detroit as “a hollow spectacle, displaying rank racism and countless deaths that has nothing to say about race, the justice system, police brutality, or the city that gives it its title.”
Remembering and forgetting. Yes, the act of memory is difficult. But if white historians and artists will not move beyond cinematic, stylized violence to acknowledge and support the resistance that followed, then we must ask ourselves whether we too, are the problem. Are we content to remember black suffering as shockingly as possible, but simultaneously content to forget empowered black responses, voices, anger, agency, and self-determination in the face of that suffering? Without the People’s Tribunal, the story of the Algiers Motel is incomplete. And that matters.