I grew up in Sarnia, Ontario, in the Sixties.
I got to watch Detroit burn down. Twice.
On Sunday, July 23, 1967, I was a couple of months’ shy of my fourteenth birthday. It was Canada’s Centennial year. I’d been to Expo 67 in Montreal. I’d just returned home from spending two weeks immersed in Quebecois culture on a student exchange visit to Donnacona, a small town on the St-Lawrence River about 20 minutes west of Quebec City. Electric with possibility, life stretched out ahead for a whole generation of young Canadians and for the young nation in which we lived.
Of course, the particular part of the nation in which I lived at the time was positioned at the extreme – and extremely ignored – western end of Southern Ontario. To use a Star Wars metaphor, if Ontario were a galaxy and Toronto was its “bright centre”, then everything west of London was Tattooine – in Luke Skywalker’s words, the planet that it’s farthest from.
(Or, if you would prefer, I could riff off of Homer Simpson, who once called Florida “America’s wang.” Go ahead…get a map, and see how southwestern Ontario, um, protrudes into America’s lower 48. Imagine what Homer would say about that!)
So, living in Sarnia, what was going on in Detroit was a lot “closer to home”, literally and figuratively, than anything happening in Toronto.
In the early hours of July 23, Detroit Police raided an after-hours booze can in Detroit’s inner city. Tensions between the powers-that-be and the city’s black community (and between white and black Detroiters) had been simmering all spring and summer. That was obvious at the time. In hindsight, tensions had been building since the great postwar migration of southern blacks to fill jobs in the booming Motor City auto industry. The raid on the after-hours joint was just the spark that started the fire.
And what a conflagration! In three days of all-out rioting followed by two more days in which reservists from the Michigan National Guard (mostly white) and paratroopers from the US Army 82nd Airborne (mostly black) fought – literally – to regain control, 43 people were killed, hundreds more were injured, over 7,200 people were arrested, hundreds of buildings were destroyed by fire, and over 2,500 guns were stolen from Detroit stores. It is said that 10 thousand people participated in the riot.
Detroit is just about exactly 100 kilometers from Sarnia (although we measured the distance in miles back then and the Americans still do). For about three of the five days of the Detroit Riot, a traffic jam extended from Canadian Customs in Sarnia back across the Bluewater Bridge and halfway down Interstate 94 to Detroit. Most of those cars were filled with scared white Americans who were convinced they would not be safe until they entered Canada.
That was the first – and worst – time.
The second time was less than a year later, April 1968. In the days immediately following the assassination of Martin Luther King, a smaller riot broke out in Detroit and a smaller traffic jam formed at the US approach to the bridge.
That weekend – and if I remember correctly, it was Easter Weekend – I found myself standing on the shore of an island at the mouth of the St. Clair River, looking across Lake St. Clair to the Michigan side, watching two columns of black smoke rising into the air as Detroit burned again.
Standing beside me was a middle-aged white woman from Michigan, decked out in a polyester pant suit and festooned with costume jewelry, hair bleached blonde, makeup applied with a trowel although it was not yet noon. She was expounding on the cause of the riots.
Poverty? Racism? Oppression? Hell, no! It was – she told me with absolute certainty – the Communists! The Communists had put the black people up to this, and she opined that it was only a matter of time before those same faceless Commie agitators had “these people” pouring across the border to do us in, and Canadians ought to stop being so naïve!
At that moment, I got it. What makes the United States different from Canada – much more than the difference in the relative sizes of our populations, our economies, or our armies – is the paranoia that infects so many American men and women.
This is a massive generalization, for by no means are all Americans paranoid and all Canadians, not. But we feel safe. And they do not. And at least in Michigan, their fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fearful, they bought guns. Feeling threatened, they used their guns. The death toll soared. And their fear increased. It still is, by the sounds of things.
I have never met Officer Walt Wawra of the Kalamazoo, Michigan Police Department. But actually, in a way, I have.