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‘Detroit’ and the police brutality that left three black teens dead at the Algiers Motel

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Forty-three people died during the devastating riots that gripped Detroit in 1967. But it was the brutal deaths of three black teenagers — killed by police at the Algiers Motel — that garnered the most attention.

The slayings of Aubrey Pollard, 19; Fred Temple, 18; and Carl Cooper, 17, are now the subject of a critically acclaimed Hollywood movie. In “Detroit,” director Kathryn Bigelow “drills down into one of American history’s most egregious cases of abuse of police power, bringing it to life with visceral detail,” Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday said in her review. 

On July 26, 1967, the third day of one of the worst riots of the 20th century, Detroit police, the National Guard and Michigan State Police responded to a report of a sniper at the Algiers Motel and Manor House annex.

Once inside, the police interrogated 10 motel guests and ordered five black teenagers and two white women into a hallway, where they forced them to stand spread-eagle facing a wall.

The police beat the teenagers, hitting one youth so severely, a rifle broke. They stripped the women and then took the men one by one into a motel room, where they interrogated them. A series of shots were fired.

In Detroit, ‘the rage of oppression.’ For five days in 1967, riots consumed a city.

When the incident ended, Pollard, Temple and Cooper had been killed. The medical examiner would later rule the teenagers lay in “non-aggressive postures” when they were killed. Though the police maintained they were killed in self-defense, no gun was found at the motel. A court diagram of the crime scene showed Pollard’s and Temple’s bodies lying on the floor in one room; Cooper’s body was found in another.

The deaths were chronicled in a 1968 book, “The Algiers Motel Incident,”  by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Hersey.

Hersey, famous for writing the book, “Hiroshima,” rushed to Detroit in August 1967, only weeks after the riots ended on July 28, 1967. He spent months interviewing people in Detroit and eventually zeroed in on the three slayings at the Algiers Motel. From court documents, police reports, interviews with motel staff and families of the victims, Hersey tried to unravel the murky accounts of what happened when the nearly all-white Detroit Police Department, Michigan State troopers, National Guardsmen and private security guards responded to what they thought were shots fired at the motel.

Hersey’s motivation, according to the book, was “to demonstrate that there had in fact been no sniper and that the three black men were murdered ‘for being thought to be pimps, for being considered punks, for making out with white girls … for being, all in all, black young men and part of the black rage of the time.’”

In an interview with Hornaday, Bigelow said she wanted to use what unfolded at the Algiers to tell the larger story of Detroit’s racial oppression and rage 50 years ago, capturing the looting, the chaos and the humanity of those who were there.

Unsolved and overlooked murders: Investigating cold cases of the civil rights era

Three police officers and a private security guard were arrested in the slayings at the Algiers Motel and charged with conspiring to deny the civil rights of 10 people by threatening and beating them. Detroit police officer Ronald August was charged with premeditated murder. During the August trial, several black teenagers testified they had been ordered to line up against a hallway wall, while they were questioned and beaten by Officers Robert Paille and David Senak.

They testified that the two young white women — who had police records of prostitution — had been pulled down stairs and badly beaten, with their clothes were ripped off.

August took the witness stand and confessed to killing Pollard, but an all-white jury acquitted him of murder.

In a 1969 Chicago Tribune photo, Rebecca Pollard, the mother of Aubrey Pollard, appears stunned as she is helped from the courtroom after the jury announced its verdict.

The private security guard, Melvin Dismukes, who is black, had earlier been acquitted on charges of felonious assault in the beating. Paille and Senak were tried in federal court on charges of conspiring to deny the civil rights of eight black teenagers and two white women by threatening and beating them.

The federal trial was moved to Flint, Mich., after defense attorneys argued that Hersey’s book could have tainted the jury pool in Detroit. The officers were later acquitted.

No charges were ever filed relating to the shooting deaths of Cooper and Temple.

The site of the Algiers Motel, which stood at the intersection of Woodward Avenue and Virginia Park — only a few blocks from the 12th Street epicenter of the unrest — is now a grassy lot.

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