Was Detroit 1967 a riot? A rebellion? An uprising? | Michigan Radio

Was Detroit 1967 a riot? A rebellion? An uprising?

Jul 17, 2017

Describing events is tricky business. It’s something we do a lot in the news, and one word can completely change the tone of a story. 

Michigan Radio is marking the 50th anniversary of the unrest that happened in Detroit with a two-week series on "Morning Edition" and "Stateside." But what do we – and should we – call the events of 1967? And how do those choices affect our view of this important part of Michigan’s history?

Billy Winkel is the manager of the Detroit '67 Oral and Written History Project. He has studied the use of language to describe those five days in the summer of ‘67.

Winkel spoke with "Morning Edition" host Doug Tribou. 

Excerpts from Billy Winkel's "Detroit '67 Terminology Guide"

  • Riot – a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd. Primarily used by suburbanites and conservatives. Pros: the spontaneity, fires, looting, and general violence does reflect the attributes of “rioting.” Cons: denotes criminality (specifically black criminality) and thus dismisses significant grievances, and stereotypes those involved. 

  • Rebellion – an act of violent or open resistance to an established government or ruler. Primarily used by Detroiters and progressives. Places emphasis on the buildup and systemic racism in Detroit, highlights inequality, recognizes the shared community struggle. Places too much emphasis on the “righteous struggle,” discounts the spontaneity a bit too much, discounts the violence that was committed. 

  • Uprising – an act of resistance or rebellion; a revolt. An amalgam of riot and rebellion. Often used in tandem with rebellion. Pros: Recognizes the decades of systemic oppression while not dismissing the violence that took place. Cons: may be interpreted as a dismissal of the black community's ability to "rebel" and dismissive towards the community's collective grievances.

  • Civil Disturbance – acts of violence and disorder prejudicial to the public law and order. Predominately used by historians to maintain objectivity. Pro: The definition is close and enables the user to talk about the unrest without taking a firmer stance. Con: Everyone gets mad at you for not taking a stance.

  • Insurrection – a violent uprising against an authority or government. Used by various government officials and agencies. Used among the Michigan National Guard.

  • Revolution – a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system. Used early on in the belief that ’67 was the start of much larger movement.

  • War – a state of armed conflict between different nations or states or different groups within a nation or state. Used by members of the Detroit Police Department and various community members to describe the day-to-day realities of the ground during the unrest.

  • Race Riot – a public outbreak of violence between two racial groups in a community. Used by those unfamiliar with the events. The unrest in 1967 was not a race riot. This term, while commonly used, dismisses the evidence. Don’t use it.

Excerpted from the "Detroit '67 Terminology Guide," by Billy Winkel. Guide has been edited for length.