As it happens, I had a front-row seat back then, as an intern in the office of Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh during the six-day riot in July 1967. At one point I was alone in the so-called command center with Cavanagh and Michigan Gov. George Romney.
Forty-three people died in that riot. Many were bystanders who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. One was a deaf man who did not heed a policeman’s command, which he couldn’t hear.
Sadly, nearly 50 years later we’re still facing rioting by blacks purportedly protesting police behavior. But there are some differences of varying significance between the riots of the 1960s and Ferguson today.
First, Ferguson is much tinier than the cities hit by 1960s riots. Ferguson had 21,203 people in 2010; Detroit had about 1.6 million in 1967.
In the 25 years between 1940 and 1965, nearly one-third of American blacks moved from the mostly rural and segregated South to the big cities of the North. Detroit’s black population increased from 150,000 in 1940 to 600,000 in 1967.
Detroit’s riot started when in the wee hours of Sunday morning police raided a “blind pig” — an after-hours drinking place. No one was shot at the scene, but after a passive police response to looting, arson and violence continued for five successive nights.
The almost all-white Detroit Police and Michigan National Guard were unable to cope. Only after well-trained 82nd Airborne troops were sent in did the rioting end.
Detroit then, like Ferguson today, had an almost entirely white police force. Blacks in Detroit complained, with some basis, that police were hostile and often failed to distinguish between harmless and harmful behavior.
But there was no demand for specific punishment for an officer, as Ferguson residents and out-of-town rioters have demanded punishment for Officer Darren Wilson, who shot Michael Brown.
Those demands have seemed increasingly unjustified, as evidence — videotape of Brown’s theft at the convenience store, eyewitness accounts of the confrontation — has appeared.
Agitators Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have treated this unhappy incident as emblematic of a larger problem, as if white policemen were shooting innocent blacks frequently.
But as the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley and Fox News contributor Juan Williams have pointed out, 90 percent of black homicide victims are killed by other (civilian) blacks.
Ferguson is an example of suburban communities that have seen racial change in recent years. But they are not large in numbers, and incidents of this sort are happily rare. Census data make it clear that, unlike the 1960s, black Americans are able to move to suburbs when they wish, and there’s not much evidence that suburban police departments treat them unfairly.
In contrast, Detroit in 1967 was the nation’s fifth-largest city, and most other major cities had experienced similarly huge influxes of blacks over the previous generation. The frictions unfortunately generated by this enormous demographic change were of national significance.
There is another difference between then and now. The late 1960s saw a vast increase in violent crime in cities across the nation, to high levels that continued until the 1990s, when New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his police commissioners adopted neighborhood policing tactics that cut crime rates enormously.
Similar policies were adopted elsewhere, with great success. As a result, we live in an America with vastly lower crime rates today.
The Ferguson rioting went on longer than in Detroit in 1967 or Los Angeles in 1992. In both those cases, violence ended shortly after more than 10,000 National Guard and federal troops were sent in.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon did not, at this writing, ask for federal troops. President Obama dispatched Attorney Gen. Eric Holder.
Nixon has called for the “vigorous prosecution” of Wilson. That sounds, as liberal blogger Josh Marshall has noted, like prejudgment of a case about which the facts still seem unclear.
Many Americans seem to have an urge to re-experience the 1960s. But the numbers don’t fit. Ferguson is tiny compared to Detroit. The peak U.S. troop strength in Vietnam (536,000) was nearly three times the peak in the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan (188,000).
Our problems today may seem daunting. But things were much worse in the 1960s.
Michael Barone, senior political analyst at the Washington Examiner, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.