Willie Horton with the Tigers in 1975. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
In the summer of 1967, a riot enveloped a Detroit neighborhood for 5 days. It was one of the worst race riots in U.S. history, surpassed only by the L.A. riots of 1992. I am not a historian, so any summary I write of it likely would not do it justice. But it grew out of tensions between the Black community and the mostly white police department, which, according to the Encyclopedia of Detroit, “[l]ike many forces across the country… was known for heavy-handed tactics and antagonistic arrest practices, particularly toward black citizens.”
Early in the morning on July 23, 1967, approximately 82 people were arrested at illegal “unlicensed weekend drinking club,” known as a “blind pig.” A crowd of onlookers gathered to witness the arrests, and at least one person threw a bottle at police. After the police left the scene, looters began going through neighborhood businesses. By the afternoon, fires had broken out in the neighborhood, and the rioting and looting expended to other parts of the city. People in public places, such as Tiger Stadium, were told to avoid the area. The players, as well, were urged to leave the ballpark quickly after the game and go straight home.
One of those players was Willie Horton, who’d grown up in Detroit, in the neighborhoods affected. So, while still in his uniform, Horton did what he felt he had to do. He drove straight to the scene of the riots, pulled over, and stood on top of his car imploring the rioters to not lose their message about racial inequality through violence and looting. He urged peaceful protest, much like today’s athletes and activists called for in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
Many years later, Horton told the Detroit News how he felt in those moments: “‘It was scaring me. There were people on all sides of me. It was like a war. But a war isn’t supposed to be in your community.’” Despite his pleas to the rioters, however, the rioting continued. It can be hard to understand why these events occur – and how peaceful protests can turn to violence and looting. Sociologists who study social movements have theories, but theories don’t necessarily solve problems.
Systemic societal problems cannot be resolved by one person or in five days or through violence. While sociologists may not have all the answers, they do have some tools that can help. Sociology teaches us to try to see things from other perspectives. Willie Horton could see more than one perspective. Can we?