Fmr. Police Chief Ike McKinnon looks back 50 years after Detroit Riots

Posted at 6:10 PM, May 30, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-30 20:31:09-04

If you're not from Detroit, you may question why did the 1967 Riots happen? What was the spark that caused all of the violence and destruction?

In our Detroit 2020 series Looking Back to Look Forward: 50 years later we explore it all!

In just 9 weeks, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riots.

People point to different reasons for the uprising or rebellion, but the one mentioned the most is the way Detroit Police treated minorities living in the city.

A man who had a front seat to it all is former Detroit Police Chief Ike McKinnon.

If you walk into his office at the University of Detroit Mercy, you will see how this decorated former Detroit Police Chief, professor, author and proud grandpa has lived his life.

But the echoes from growing up in this city once plagued by abuse from police continue to replay in his mind - especially now, 50 years after the Detroit riots.

McKinnon says, "It was a car called the big four. There were four very large white officers who would jump out of the car in the area of St Antoine and Superior.  They would jump out with their machine gun and their rifle and throw these young men up against the car they would beat them up for nothing, for nothing."

These horrifying memories have been written about and shared in the documentary film 12th and Clairmount, but these stories became real when I listened to Mckinnon recall his  experience.

He says "The big four grabbed me, threw me up against the car, and the name calling proceeded to beat me up.  I was in the wrong place at the wrong time or the right place at the right place for them."

In 1957, 10 years before the riots, McKinnon was only 14. He says these attacks were vicious and people could only stand back and watch.

McKinnon responds after I ask, "That did something to you, that stirred something in your soul right?" 

He said," That evening I made a decision that I was going to become a Detroit police officer."

At 22-years-old, Ike became a DPD officer, where discrimination was the norm. After only two years on the force Detroiter's anger would boil over and erupt into the 1967 rebellion.

McKinnon says, "I didn't think about the anger that was there by so many people, so when I started seeing people breaking into stores and carrying things out whether it was TVs or sofas, I said 'oh my God, this is beyond one's imagination'."

With rioting where he lived, Ike came to his parent's home in his old neighborhood for safe refuge.

McKinnon says he was more fearful than when he served in Vietnam. Ike served four years in the Air Force, but seeing tanks roaring up and down our streets brought about a different fear.

McKinnon says, "I started seeing National Guards people shoot at houses. When you see this and you say 'wait a minute wait a minute'."

But guns were not just aimed at homes.

Ike found a weapon drawn on him by a fellow officer during the rioting who referred to him as the N-word.

McKinnon says, "I said police and they said you're going to die tonight and they used the term again and it was like time froze, because I could see the one officer with a brush cut silver hair start to pull the trigger."

Ike said he had to stay because, "I was not going to be a victim of my anger."

But for many that anger still quietly simmers. To combat that and prevent a repeat of the past, Ike says black, white, rich, or poor, we must give people hope.

McKinnon says, "We have to continue to give people hope, whether they are the poorest of people or the richest of people, hope in particular poor people, we have to give them hope. Without hope, how do we make them become the mainstay of our society."

Most important we must learn from our mistakes, so the echoes of the past will be forever silenced.

McKinnon says, "We tend to forget or sometimes people want us to forget. We can't forget what happened."