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In July 1967, five days of chaos erupted in Detroit. Citizens, police, and troops clashed in a violent conflict that left 43 people dead, thousands of buildings destroyed, and a lingering scar on the once-vibrant city. It was a pivotal moment for Detroit, and for the country.Today, many believe Detroit is having a renaissance. And there have been plenty of visible improvements in recent years.But for many Detroiters, little has changed for the better in the past half-century. Poverty is even more entrenched. There are few good jobs and even fewer good schools. Blight and foreclosure have erased entire neighborhoods.If we want to understand today’s Detroit, we have to consider the city’s turbulent past. That’s why Michigan Radio is revisiting the events of that hot summer in 1967.From July 17-28, Stateside and Morning Edition will hear from people who were there; explore the issues that led to the deadliest riot of the 1960s; and examine why it still resonates in the city today.

Reporter's Notebook: My grandfather, Detroit, and me

grandpa-police_station.jpg
Sarah Hulett
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Dan O'Mara (pictured here on the far right) was a police officer in Detroit’s 10th Precinct, and was on duty when the 1967 uprising began.";

Ten Julys ago, I sat down with my grandfather at his kitchen table for a conversation that went on for a couple of hours. It would be the first and last time I would do this, just me and him. We talked about how he met my grandmother, their early life together, and many other things.

We also talked about his time as a cop in Detroit – particularly that summer 50 years ago in the 10th Precinct where he worked, when the neighborhood erupted in civil unrest.

Ten years later, listening to that story is less painful than I thought it would be. I have a different appreciation for my grandfather’s openness and honesty and perspective. Now I understand myself as more flawed than I thought I was then. Less “enlightened” than I thought I was. I have more to work on, but at least I’m seeing the work more clearly.

A few weeks ago, I talked with two African-American police officers who worked with my grandfather in the 10th. They each had very different perspectives about him and the kind of person and officer he was.

But both of them immediately remembered him, in specific detail, half a century later. One said he was a cut-up and a ham, and that my grandfather taught him how to do police work. The other suggested that my grandfather didn’t have the back of an African-American colleague during a run that turned dangerous.

“There were things we did that I’m not proud of,” my granddad had said back in 2007. I didn’t really press him on what he meant. Probably didn’t really want to know. 

I've been thinking a lot about my grandfather this summer, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 rebellion. In some ways, these anniversaries seem pointless and arbitrary. But they're also opportunities for reckoning with our histories and our choices and our place in the world.

Dan O'Mara died three years ago, in 2014. I wish I had sat down with him for more conversations.

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