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This is what it was like to be a young, black police officer in Detroit during the 1967 rebellion

Jul 18, 2017

It was 1957 when 14-year-old Isaiah "Ike" McKinnon made the decision to become a Detroit police officer. It was a surprising decision given the beating he'd just suffered at the hands of the cops. But instead of turning against the police, McKinnon, who is African-American, decided to join them. 

It was impossible for him to know that a decade later, his job would be to quell the violence and chaos of a racially-charged rebellion in the city that he called home. 

McKinnon joined Stateside to talk about what it was like to be a young, African-American police officer during the rebellion, and how he had to survive not only violence in the streets, but from his fellow officers too.
On that day in 1957, McKinnon had just learned he had been accepted to Cass Tech, which at the time was one of the premier prep schools in the country. After proudly sharing the news with his favorite teacher, he began walking home. That's when he crossed paths with a notorious group of racist white police officers, known as the "Big Four." According to McKinnon, he was thrown up against the police car and beaten for no reason. Spectators in the neighborhood were powerless to help him, knowing that if they interfered, they could be next.

"I made a decision that day that I was going to become a Detroit police officer," McKinnon said. "The reason being that I wasn't going to be like them. That I was going to try to help people and make sure those things didn't happen."

"I made a decision that day that I was going to become a Detroit police officer. The reason being that I wasn't going to be like them. That I was going to try to help people and make sure those things didn't happen."

A decade later, just two years into his career as a police officer, the city of Detroit erupted in what he came to see, decades later, as a "rebellion."

After returning home from Vietnam, McKinnon joined the Detroit Police Department in 1965. His first day on the job, he got a first-hand look at the type of racism and segregation that helped fuel the rebellion a few years later.

According to McKinnon, his first partner was clearly frustrated to see the force integrated and refused to speak to him or acknowledge him. He says racial epithets directed toward both civilians and fellow officers were a daily occurrence. It was a horrible work environment, and some of McKinnon's fellow minority officers chose to leave the department. But McKinnon refused to give in. 

On July 23, 1967, the rebellion started with a raid of an illegal after-hours bar on the west side of the city. McKinnon was called in to work. As he drove to the precinct, he says it was hard to believe what he was seeing. 

"You see it on television, you hear about it, but to see it. To see thousands of people out looting. Running in and out of buildings and taking stuff and smiling as they're doing so. I said, 'This cannot be happening to my city.'"

"You see it on television, you hear about it, but to see it. To see thousands of people out looting. Running in and out of buildings and taking stuff and smiling as they're doing so. I said, 'This cannot be happening to my city,'" McKinnon said.

Over the next five days, buildings were burned, stores were looted, and dozens of police officers and firefighters were injured. The police saw one officer killed and 214 hurt, while the fire department saw two firemen killed and 134 injured.

For McKinnon, the most dangerous encounter he had was with his fellow officers.

He says he was driving home after the first night of the rebellion when he was pulled over. Despite identifying himself as a police officer, McKinnon says one of the two white police officers pulled his gun, pointed it at him, and said, "You're going to die tonight, n----r."

When McKinnon noticed that the officers had his finger on the trigger, he dove head first into his 1965 Mustang Convertible; the engine still running. He reached out with his right hand and pushed the accelerator and used his left hand to operate the steering wheel. As he drove away, he heard the gunshots ringing out behind him. 

"If [the police are] doing this to me as a fellow officer, what are they doing to the people in the street?" - Ike McKinnon on what it was like to have two of his fellow officers, both white, try to kill him during the 1967 rebellion.

It was a sobering experience for a young, black cop.

"That was my realization that they dehumanized, or some dehumanized, anyone. And it was me, a law enforcement officer," McKinnon said. "And so I had to be mindful, not only of the people in the street, but also my fellow officers. That was one of the most frightening moments I've ever had in my life. To have two of your fellow officers fire at you and the name-calling. And nothing was ever done about it." 

He reported the incident to his superior officer, but according to McKinnon, the sergeant's only response was to tell him, "Well Ike, you know we've got some a--holes on the department".

But McKinnon stayed with DPD and eventually worked his way up the ladder to become Detroit's Chief of Police and later, the city's deputy mayor. He now teaches at the University of Detroit Mercy. 

Listen to the full interview above to hear more about McKinnon's experiences during the 1967 rebellion, a dramatic story about white soldiers coming to his family's rescue during an attack in Alabama, and what the Detroit Police Department is like today.

From July 17-28, Michigan Radio is looking back to 1967 and Detroit's "Summer of Rebellion." We'll explore the issues that led to one of the deadliest civil disturbances in American history and examine why it still resonates in the city today. 

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