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

Jul 20, 2017

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 cop 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. 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. I wish I had sat down with him for more conversations.