The Killing Did Not End There:
50 Years after the Detroit Riot

Bolton's Bar 1975

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riot, or, depending on your point of view, the Detroit rebellion of 1967. At that time, I was living in Romeo, then a farming community north of the city, and working for the summer at Sears Roebuck in Roseville, a suburb. When news of the riot reached us, we boarded up the store windows and went home—the black employees to Detroit, the white employees to the burbs, and waited for the television to tell us what was happening.

By 1975 I had moved to Detroit, and I found myself living in a city that was still in turmoil and seemed to be slipping into an irreversible racial divide. Nothing much had improved in the eight years since the riot: a quarter of the city’s employable workers were unemployed, and racial segregation and discrimination were the norm. I was working at the Detroit Public Library, and we were trying to do our part to reverse the decline of the city by turning the staff into community organizers instead of the knowledge gatekeepers they had always been. The great majority of the professional staff was white, while the clerical and janitorial staff was predominantly black, creating yet another racial divide in the city. The reaction of my colleagues to change? “We’re not social workers!” they proclaimed. Oh, but we should have been—or at least agents for social change.

For a while, I lived within walking distance of the library and Wayne State University where I was a graduate student. I thought nothing of walking home at night, right up Woodward Avenue. I felt no fear walking around any neighborhood in Detroit. In 1975 drug addiction had not reached epidemic proportions. My friends thought smoking marijuana was daring and adventuresome, and I was oblivious to the fact that homicides in the city had peaked in 1974 with 750 recorded murders.

One evening, I was riding up Livernois Avenue with my friend Marvin Nash, who is black. He was driving, and I was bouncing along in the passenger seat, white as snow, when we saw police lights flashing ahead and people running in all directions, shouting frantically. There were no other white people to be seen. We turned right onto Fenkell Avenue, and saw many more people shouting, uniformed police officers waving billy clubs and chasing young men. In the middle of the street was a stopped car, and lying on the pavement was a man. The police motioned all cars to move ahead and get out of the area. We wondered what was going on, since this was quite close to both our homes. In our naiveté, we thought the Detroit riots of 1967 were long gone and this must be a traffic accident.

I later learned that the Livernois-Fenkell riot that we had witnessed was racially motivated and left two people dead. Three black youths were observed tampering with a car in the parking lot of Bolton’s Bar, a place that was known to serve whites only. The owner, 39-year-old Andrew Chinarian, fired a gun at the young men, fatally wounding Obie Wynn (18). According to some accounts Wynn was fleeing; others said he was approaching Chinarian with a weapon, which turned out to be a screwdriver. Crowds gathered outside the bar and began vandalizing and looting stores.

The man we saw lying on the street was Marian Pyszko, a 54-year-old dishwasher for Sanders and a Nazi concentration camp survivor who had emigrated from Poland in 1958. Pyszko was randomly pulled from his car as he was driving home from work and beaten with a piece of concrete; he later died of his injuries. It was reported that at no time during the entire incident did the police fire a single shot.

Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and numerous clergy eventually appeared in person at Livernois and Fenkell and helped defuse the situation. The damage to property amounted to tens of thousands of dollars, 10 people were injured, and 53 people were arrested. Among those accused of the murder of Marian Pyszko was Raymond Peoples. He was acquitted of the crime and the next year became a co-founder of the notorious drug-trafficking gang Young Boys Incorporated. Chinarian was convicted of the “reckless use of a firearm,” a “high misdemeanor.”

It never occurred to Marvin and me that we should go to the police and describe what we had seen that night. Perhaps it was because we had not actually seen the innocent man murdered, or it could be that we just wanted to get away from the scene of such anger and hate and enclose ourselves in our bubble of peace and love.

Fifty years after the Detroit riots, we are a very different nation but still a nation divided and unable to understand the consequencies and legacy of slavery and the Civil War.
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