Washington — U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. is seizing on the new film “Detroit” and the 50th anniversary of the city’s uprising to renew his call for greater accountability and training for police in an push to end racial profiling.
Conyers, portrayed in the film by actor Laz Alonso, convened a discussion Thursday evening at the U.S. Capitol with “Detroit” director Kathryn Bigelow, Alonso and others to discuss these issues and screen the movie for members of Congress, their staffs and guests.
“As we have seen from police-involved shooting incidents and Department of Justice investigations around the country, 1967 Detroit is being repeated every year still,” Conyers said.
“For this reason, I continue to pursue improving police relationships and accountability and criminal justice reform here in Congress.”
Conyers has introduced a bill to prohibit racial profiling in every Congress since 2001. It would require retraining of law-enforcement officers on how to discontinue racial profiling and would mandate data collection.
The film focuses on the incident at the Algiers Motel, set against the backdrop of the 1967 Detroit uprising – also called the 12th Street Riot.
The Algiers incident involved three black men who died during an interrogation by police officers. The officers tried for the deaths were found not guilty. Observers have drawn parallels to the recent deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Philando Castile, who were also killed by police.
Bigelow said the movie came about in the wake of Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, when her screenwriter brought her the story of the 1967 Algiers incident.
“As I was listening to the story, I found myself thinking it didn’t feel like 50 years ago,” Bigelow said. “I thought we would benefit from seeing this story. It’s a very tragic one – an American tragedy – but in a perfect would it might stimulate a conversation.”
As the riots grew in 1967, Conyers went into the streets and tried to quell the community’s rage, directing it to more “proactive organization,” he said.
The film recreates the scene of Conyers grasping a bullhorn atop a car in the middle of the crowd, urging his neighbors and constituents to stop the destruction.
“What I felt more than anything, in the rebellion scene, was the need to be heard. Everyone needed to be heard. The citizens of Detroit were not being heard,” Alonso said.
“When Representative Conyers went up to talk to these people, he needed to be heard. … Unfortunately, at that moment in time, the bubble had burst, and there was no listening. It was all action. All the frustrations that had built up for so long.”
Democratic Rep. Brenda Lawrence was a young girl on the east side of Detroit during the riots. She recalls her grandmother’s anxiety and television images of military tanks rolling down city streets.
In an interview, she stressed the need for community leaders around the country to provide ongoing training for police.
“We are held responsible – us in government – for the training and the accountability of our police. This movie shows where some of the failures happened,” said Lawrence, the former mayor of Southfield.
“It’s an opportunity for us to step back and say, if we don’t train, or have better accountability in collecting data, we could be right where we were. Ferguson happened just recently. I’m hoping the outcome of this film will be that it will create a sense of urgency for our local governments to train and invest in our police officers.”