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Sean Yoes

The Center Stage Production of, “Detroit 67,” which is playing at the theater’s temporary home (while the Calvert Street location is being renovated) at Towson University until May 8, chronicles a Detroit family’s struggle for survival during the 1960’s, perhaps the most turbulent era in American history. Detroit in the 1960’s was one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States, grappling with economic uncertainty, White flight to the suburbs and an insurgent police force that routinely menaced the Black community through intimidation, brutality and murder.

Sound familiar?

Many U.S. cities in the 1960’s with large Black populations were on the brink of implosion, plagued with many of the same if not all the ills faced by Detroit and the two main characters of “Detroit 67,” siblings Lank and Chelle. The two threw parties in their basement, pulsing with the ubiquitous sounds of Motown, to make money, while they dreamed of better days beyond the big city oppression that was their reality.

But, as I watched the play last weekend, I couldn’t help but think it could be called, “Baltimore 68,” (the year Baltimore went up in flames after the death of Dr. King). I remember my dad telling me about how he and his older brother, my Uncle Ronnie, use to throw house parties in the basement of my grandmother’s house where I grew up, off of Gwynns Falls Parkway in West Baltimore. They would charge people a nominal fee to sweat out, so the family could make ends meet back in the day. And my dad swears, cars would be double parked the entire length of our block, for that blue light in the basement experience in that West Baltimore rowhouse.

Yet, beyond the nostalgia of that so-called bygone era, what is more fascinating and disturbing than the 1960’s parallels of life in Detroit versus life in Baltimore, is the fact that much of the misery navigated by Black people and poor people 50 years ago never really went away.

The Detroit riots of 1967 were sparked by routine police brutality wielded against the Black community. Again, sound familiar?

This past Sunday, I moderated a panel discussion after the matinee presentation of Detroit 67, with veteran journalist and historian Fraser Smith and Dayvon Love, director of research and public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. We explored the parallels between the Detroit Riots of 1967 and the Baltimore Uprising of 2015. For historic context, I read some of the AFRO’s news coverage of the 1967 riots in Detroit, provided by AFRO publisher Jake Oliver from our archives. As I read, I heard audible gasps in the audience gathered. Detroit had gone to war with its citizens almost 50 years ago.

“Heavily integrated units of the crack 82nd Airborne Division Tuesday took control of the nation’s fifth largest city, ravaged by its worst civil disturbance in a generation. Snipers firing from the smoking ruins of riot areas were answered with salvos from tanks and machine guns.” This was the lead from a story dated, July 29, 1967.

I think it’s clear to most of us; Freddie Gray’s arrest and subsequent death in police custody didn’t cause the Baltimore uprising last April, but it was the spark that ignited long standing grievances generations in the making between the Black community, government and law enforcement. Months after the uprising, as the trial of William Porter, the first Baltimore police officer charged in the death of Gray concluded, the city held its collective breath, as National Guard troops and armored vehicles amassed in Druid Hill Park.

Thank God we escaped Detroit’s 1967 plight last September. But, many of the same issues from decades past still smolder at or just beneath the streets of our city. We continue to ignore them at our own peril.

Sean Yoes is a senior contributor for the AFRO and host and executive producer of First Edition, which airs Monday through Friday, 5-7 p.m. on WEAA 88.9.