About midnight of July 25, 1967, during the period of racial tension in Detroit usually referred to as a summer riot, three young men—Carl Cooper, Auburey Pollard, and Fred Temple, were shot to death at close range in the Algiers Motel, on Woodward Avenue—a modern place with TV, swimming pool, and room phones too plastic to seem an appropriate scene for tragedy. All three victims were, of course, Negro. They were among a group of friends who were being interrogated—if the word may be used in so broad a sense—by an aggregate of Detroit police, Michigan State Troopers, National Guardsmen, and private guards who had been directed to the scene. The commander of the National Guard detachment who had been instructed to “protect the building” of the Great Lakes Mutual Life Insurance Company a block north of the Algiers “from any kind of disturbance” had heard shots, and immediately telephoned his “high commander” that “we were being fired upon.” According to two of the policemen present in the motel, their dispatcher had announced “Army under heavy fire” as he gave them their orders.

So far as any investigator has been able to discover, the shots heard were from a starting-pistol used to begin track events, which the young men were playing with, mocking the hyperactivity of the police during the early stages of the riot. Even this pistol has not been recovered; and the survivors have given conflicting testimony about its use; it would, in any case, have been incapable of firing a bullet. All it could be used for is to signal the start of an event, or series of events.

The exact circumstances of Mr. Cooper’s slaying—he was the first—are still unclear; his body was found in a unit across the hall from the motel room in which Mr. Pollard and Mr. Temple died. Patrolmen Ronald August was subsequently arrested and charged with the murder of Auburey Pollard. He had himself identified Pollard from a photograph as a man he had killed in a struggle over a shotgun the Patrolman had brought into the motel; and National Guard Warrant Officer Theodore Thomas, who had heard the putative sniper fire and turned in the alarm, had identified August as Pollard’s killer. On rather less clear-cut evidence Patrolman Robert Paille was identified as having shot Fred Temple and was charged with his murder. The two policemen were arraigned and taken to jail: “‘They held us,’ Paille, who in his time on the force had taken a good number of citizens to jail, told me, ‘for one night in the county prison. It was the most awkward night of my life. During that time there, I tell you, it was really something. We were confined to an area there, isolated, and—we were both together—and jeez, it was, you know, it was almost unbreathable in that place, it was closed and no windows or anything. It was hot in there, it was in the summertime, you see, and all night there you couldn’t sleep, because, you know, it was just a bumpy little old mattress and everything else there, you know…. Unbearable!

“‘They held us for one night in the jail, and then the next day we went back to court, and they had looked into their logs and so forth there and found that on previous occasions they had released prisoners for this charge, murder, that they had us on at the time, and then they released us from that day on, on a bond, five-thousand-dollar bond, two sureties.”‘

ON AUGUST 14, in Recorder’s Court, where criminal complaints are first heard in Detroit, Judge Robert E. DeMascio dismissed the complaint that had caused Patrolman Paille such an uncomfortable night. He threw out the statements made by Paille and August when first interrogated, on the grounds that the two police officers had not been informed of their constitutional rights—though, as police officers, it was of course their responsibility to inform suspects of just these rights every day. This left no evidence on which to proceed against Paille on the murder charge. The charge against Patrolman August was sustained, but has not yet been brought to trial. His jeopardy does not appear to be excessive. As Judge DeMascio noted, in his statement continuing the charge, “On the other hand, it is totally unlike defendant August.”

PATROLMAN PAILLE was not wholly out of jeopardy either. The Negro community in Detroit having responded very critically to Judge DeMascio’s handling of the complaint, Wayne County Prosecutor William L. Cahalan brought a new charge against him, along with Melvin Dismukes—a Negro private guard already under indictment for taking part in the beatings that preceded the slayings at the Algiers—and David Senak, the third Detroit policeman who had taken part in these events, and who had not previously been charged in connection with them. The new charge, “Conspiracy to commit a legal act in an illegal manner”—a mild enough way to refer to three slayings and many more beatings—led to the arrest of the three defendants on August 23. On September 16, Prosecutor Cahalan also appealed Judge DeMascio’s decision to dismiss the charges against Paille. The appeal went back to Recorder’s Court—this time to the bench of Judge Geraldine Bledsoe Ford—a Negro, as it happens.


On December 1, the Senior Judge of Recorder’s Court, Frank G. Schemanske, dismissed even the conspiracy charge for lack of evidence; Cahalan again appealed. This appeal was denied by a fourth Recorder’s Court judge Gerald W. Groat, on February 20, 1968. On March 28, Judge Ford, having sat in judgment on the issue for more than six months:

ordered Judge DeMascio to reopen the case and examine Lieutenant Hallmark, the man to whom August and Paille confessed. Such an examination would probably have the effect of causing Paille to be indicted for murder after all. [Defense] attorney Lippitt at once appealed on Paille’s behalf, questioning the legality of one Recorder’s Court judge’s reviewing a decision of another Recorder’s Court judge—a procedure to which Mr. Lippitt had naturally not objected when Groat had reviewed Schemanske and agreed with him.

There, so far as the local authorities were concerned, the matter would have rested, with only August—apparently the quietest and least aggressive of the three police officers—and Dismukes, the only Negro defendant, facing charges, at least until the constitutional issue about the Recorder’s Court hearing its own appeals had been resolved. Except for pressure from Congressman John Conyers, Jr.—himself Negro—it is possible that no action at all would have been taken. There is no record that the patrolmen at the Algiers even reported to their headquarters that anyone—snipers or not—had been killed at the Algiers Motel. The bodies were found by Mr. Charles Hendrix, the Negro owner of the private guard firm retained by the Algiers Motel, who notified the morgue, which in turn notified the Homicide Bureau. The only individual implicated in the entire series of events who has yet been tried was also the only Negro. Melvin Dismukes was brought to trial on a charge of Felonious Assault on May 7, before Recorder’s Court Judge Robert J. Colombo, and an all-white jury, which, perhaps appreciating his somewhat inappropriate role in the drama, deliberated thirteen minutes and acquitted him.

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, however, finally entered the case, just as another summer was about to begin. On May 3, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan announced that an indictment for conspiracy to deny civil rights to Auburey Pollard, Fred Temple, Lee Forsythe, Cleveland Reed, Roderick Davis, James Sortor, Robert Lee Greene, Julia Ann Hysell, Karen Malloy, and Michael Clark, had been returned against August, Dismukes, Paille, and Senak. The omission of Carl Cooper’s name suggests that even the grand jury had not been able to reconstruct a plausible hypothesis to account for his slaying. Messrs. Forsythe, Reed, Davis, Sortor, and Clark, friends of the slain youths, were with them at the Algiers, but escaped being shot, though they were beaten. Miss Hysell and Miss Malloy were guests in the Motel who, having met the young men there earlier, had come to their rooms to share a meal of hot dogs with them because they were hungry and the curfew prevented their going out to a café for food. Whether they shared anything more—and no evidence has been presented that they did—the invading aggregate of enforcement officials apparently assumed that they had. Witnesses agree that the girls were abused, their clothes torn; and then forced to strip to their panties in order to shame them for fraternizing with black men. The experience of Robert Lee Greene, a slightly older man and a Vietnam war veteran who was staying in the motel when it was attacked by the forces of law and order, as related to Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Jesse B.Eggleston, rather vividly conveys the tone of the proceedings:

“Greene was then called in and saw that Julie was bleeding about the forehead, a mattress on the floor was bloody, and Karen’s clothing had been torn. Greene was questioned as to his relationship to the girls.”

“He started asking questions…and asked whether I had intercourse with any of the girls. I told him, ‘No’. Then he asked me what I was doing there. I told him, ‘I just got discharged, I came here looking for a job. I arrived here Friday.’ And told him what was what, the reason I was there. Then he said, ‘Okay,’ and told me to move out. Prior to me going out, I noticed one of the girls’ clothes was ripped…. This warrant officer, he spoke up then. I told him that I’d like to go back in the service. He told me, ‘We don’t need niggers in the Army, like you’…So I didn’t say any more, and I received another blow. And I was struck behind the head…This was a rifle butt.”

Then, according to an account given to Hersey by Charles Moore, a policeman approached Greene “and began to rant at the black man who had been discovered with two white girls in his bedroom… The officer said to Greene, ‘You sure you’re not one of these blackass nigger pimps?’ ”


Greene, an ex-paratrooper, a veteran of Vietnam, reached in a pocket and pulled out papers warranting his honorable discharge, and held them up for the officer to see. “I just got out of the Service,” he said.

The officer hit him and said, “We’re going to kill all you blackass nigger pimps and throw you in the river. We’re going to fill up the Detroit River with all you pimps and whores.”

THE REMAINING INDIVIDUAL named in the Federal indictment, accused Patrolman David Senak, who had kept calm under questioning and had not been charged with murder along with August and Paille, is by far the most interesting of the police present at the Algiers. At twenty-four, the youngest of the three—Patrolmen Paille and August were about thirty—he alone could be characterized as a really zealous policeman. “I’m a police officer,” Hersey quotes him as saying, “and they could fire me, and ten years from now you could ask me and I’d still be a police officer, whether I’m fired or not. But August I don’t think is. I think he’s just a nice family-type fellow…. Just a general nice guy.”

Senak, surely, cannot be dismissed so blandly. He has won two special citations in his three years on the force. As Hersey describes him, he sounds attractive—perhaps fascinating would be a better word:

…a boyish pink complexion that flushes and pales markedly in response to the ebb and flow of emotion; with an attractive smile which pushes deep dimples into his cheeks; called by some Dave but also the bearer of two other nicknames, of which he tells with a humorous sparkle in his eyes, the first an anagram of his name, Snake, and the other given him by an aunt, Inda, which means snake poison in Slovak—sat at his desk in his den at home, under the snarling fangs of the stuffed head of a wolf shot by an uncle of his, beside a carefully kept file of his exploits on the force (“I like to look back and see what I’ve done”).

What Senak has done, at this point, is not exactly clear and under the terms of the May 3 indictment is for the courts to decide. On July 24, 1967, the second day of the riots, he and two other patrolmen had, in the course of duty, slain an apparent looter, Joseph Chandler, as he fled over a fence. On Friday, July 28, in an incident held by Prosecutor Cahalan to be not riot-connected, he shot and killed another Negro suspect, Palmer Gray, Jr. According to the police report:

Patrolman Senak ordered the deceased to raise his hands. Instead, the deceased ran back down the stairs towards the officer and reached into his pocket as if to draw a gun, The officer, being previously apprized by witnesses at 570 E. Kirby that the man had threatened them with a small dark-colored hand gun, feared the deceased was about to draw his gun, and fired one shot from his revolver, fatally wounding the deceased as described. No hand gun or other weapon was found on the deceased’s person or in the immediate area at this time.

There can be no doubt of David Senak’s commitment to the police force and sense of high vocation. It is in his blood, and that of at least two other persons as well. But having, with his two colleagues, been suspended since the Algiers Motel incident, he has become aware that his career is in jeopardy and is responding with what, by Hersey’s account, is not only commendable maturity but an unusual degree of insight into social alternatives that may promise him much continued satisfaction:

At the beginning I wasn’t too logical about the thing, I figured there was no way of them firing me for what I did, but now you see all this bad publicity and stuff, and the Police Department can fire you for just about anything. So I’m looking toward the future. I was planning to get my education in police administration, even before the riots, but now it would be sort of ridiculous for me to go into police administration, at this moment, because if I’m fired from the Police Department, obviously I can’t go into that field.

So what I’m doing is going into education. Liberal-arts education major. And plan on, if they fire me from the Department, going into teaching.

I HAVE STRESSED the frustrating legal processes to which the Algiers Motel Incident has given rise because they bear on what seems to me the most immediate issue in the case: whether it is realistic, or just a cop-out, to demand that the most aggrieved members of the commonwealth continue to appeal to due process rather than direct confrontation for a redress of their grievances. In doing so, I have done scant justice to the richness and detail of John Hersey’s account; much less to his courage and sense of social responsibility in undertaking to write it, and the consummate skill with which he has accomplished what I find an almost unimaginably difficult task.

In writing The Algiers Motel Incident he was obliged to unravel a mass of conflicting testimony about a brutal and obscene series of events whose participants had strong reasons—and in many cases official authority—to obscure and falsify their own roles. He had to win the confidence of persons who had become lethal adversaries of one another, and without the conventional cloak of neutrality; since his feelings of outrage are not only clear in the document but supported by the mass of evidence he presents. Most of this I have not dealt with here at all; the mutilation of the corpses of the three young Negro victims, the official harassment of the survivors who had become involved in the complaint against the authorities—Prosecutor Cahalan even filed suit to have the Algiers Motel itself padlocked—and, perhaps the most hopeful consequence, the organization of the Negro community to strengthen its demands for decent treatment and redress. “In the third week in August,” Hersey reports, “a coalition of militant black leadership in Detroit was formed; it called itself the Citywide Citizens Action Committee…. The group chose as its chairman the pastor of the Central United Church of Christ, the Rev. Albert Cleage, Jr.… The CCAC voted to hold a people’s tribunal on August 30, 1967, at which the events at the motel and the response of the Negro community to them could be more fully aired. When the theater at which the tribunal had been scheduled canceled the event it was held at the Reverend Cleage’s church.”

“I was there,” [Eddie Temple told Hersey], “as a witness, actually as the person who identified my brother at the morgue. It had a tremendous value, in that it exposed to a large number of people what had happened there, what these people had to go through, the beatings, the fear…. It was a Negro audience, primarily middle class. It was a large number of people, it was packed, and they had it outside, and they had another annex type of place where they had speakers. This place was really packed. People were interested in it.”

Mr. Hersey’s book, in effect, extends this impact to a much larger and possibly more influential group of persons; it tells more about what happened, in greater depth and more permanent form; and by telling it more coolly is harder for the educated middle classes, committed to pure tolerance, to dismiss. Yet its greatest value lies, I think, in its implications for the American social system itself; particularly the questions it raises about American democracy. Despite its innumerable proved instances of infidelity and gross cruelty, we remain faithful to our social system; though lately we have begun to ask more frequently whether our society isn’t terribly sick. But The Algiers Motel Incident makes it very clear that, though what happened may be sick, it wasn’t really abnormal. Similar events, some on a smaller scale, and one or two on a larger one, have happened and continue to happen; it isn’t much better in Buffalo; and in Oakland, it’s worse. What made the difference in Detroit was not the particular viciousness of its political system, as American urban politics go, but the courage and tenacity of its Negro leadership, which had already acquired a political operating base.

Even with courage, determination, and a certain amount of political power, can those groups which American society at present victimizes hope to wrest from it a reasonable degree of justice and personal security? The question is broader that that of racism, which in any case rather misstates the issue. “I think the police force is prejudiced—against people altogether.” Mrs. Auburey Pollard Sr. Commented to Hersey; and she is right, not only about the police force in Detroit but wherever, internally or externally, we seek to police the world.

BUT POLICEMANSHIP is American public policy; and, against it, the Detroit Negro community does not seem to be winning any very signal victories. The hearts of civil libertarians everywhere are, no doubt, uplifted, and their minds set at ease, when the Federal government returns an indictment for conspiring to “deny civil rights.” But does not the very obliqueness of this action attest to the fact that the incidents at the Algiers Motel, if they do not reflect public policy, do not greatly offend public interest either? What is unfolding seems, despite its gruesome content, a rather conventional piece of American political brokerage, in which the unexpectedly strong and persistent demands of a newly entrenched ethnic group are being met by legal ingenuity which avoids explicit indictment of either the actions taken by their attackers or the social forces those actions express. It is those forces that, being regular and recurrent themselves, produce the effect of conspiracy; while, in fact, they make it unnecessary and the charge basically meaningless.

Hersey’s extremely careful and cogent account of The Algiers Motel Incident does not suggest that August, Dismukes, Paille, and Senak conspired to do anything; and it makes it extremely implausible that the three patrolmen could have conspired with Dismukes under any circumstances. It suggests strongly the contrary: that they were doing what came naturally to them, and doing it with great gusto. It also suggests that what they did was, except for the manner of execution, consistent with their social role though not, to be sure, a regular part of it. There were, after all, other revealing riot-connected killings. Hersey summarizes a full account of them published after five weeks of research by the Detroit Free Press on September 3, 1967. Sixteen persons—excluding those who died at the Algiers Motel—were killed by Detroit police; fourteen as looters, including the aforementioned Joseph Chandler; one a suspected arsonist, and one—and only one—a genuine but drunken and apparently crazed sniper, though earlier the Free Press had headlined the question: “Are Sniper Attacks Part of a Nationwide Plot?” One policeman, Jerome Olshove, had been killed, and one fireman—the latter perhaps by a stray National Guardsman’s bullet. “At least six of the forty-three 1 victims were killed by the National Guard,” Hersey observes, “five of them, according to the [Free Press reporting] team, ‘innocent, the victims of what now seem to be tragic accidents.’ Five other deaths were caused by bullets that might have been fired by either police or National Guardsmen; four of these victims were clearly innocent. Two looters were shot by storeowners; three others were killed by private citizens, two of whom were promptly charged with murder.”

In view of this, the phrase used in the earlier indictment “to commit a legal act in an illegal manner,” seems poetically precise; for Detroit clearly tends to regard killing by policemen as legal. Nor does David Senak seem quite so insensitive in observing that “I figured there was no way of them firing me for what I did.” It is not, after all, customary to fire a dedicated officer for zeal beyond the call of duty; and, certainly, not for volunteering to participate, at some danger to himself, in a civic pageant designed to act out the fantasies of the populace. The problem is those fantasies; and it lies with the populace itself.

LAW ENFORCEMENT in the United States does not serve primarily the function of maintaining order. In times of crisis, particularly, it is more often, as in Detroit, the major source of disorder. It serves another function more fundamental to keeping American society going. It expresses, under conditions of impunity, the rage and aggression of a disappointed lumpenbourgeoisie against any style of life that seems either more privileged or more authentic. In his book, Hersey stresses his conclusion that the underlying basis of white racism is probably sexual, reasoning from the mutilation of the Algiers Motel corpses, the language of the police and National Guardsmen, and the fact that the most violent of the police seem also to be those who have served most enthusiastically on the vice-squad and been most ingenious in entrapping whores, pimps, and queers. He is right, I think, as far as his reasoning goes; but it does not go far enough. For sexuality, though surely the greatest triumph of the senses and hence the key to the most profound authenticity—or betrayal—is only one channel of spontaneous self-expression, and the lumpenbourgeoisie is against all of them. And the language and attitude of the police and of much of the working class generally toward hippies, pot-blowers, and other creatures who strike them as obscenely subjective is much the same. “COP KILL A CREEP! pow pow pow,” The Mothers of Invention justly observe.2

Law enforcement, I stated earlier, is public policy. Enforcement officers are hired to do what they do; and what they do when they blow their cool isn’t all that different from what they do normally, and what is expected of them. The fraternal spirit of law-enforcement officials as a cadre is manifest throughout The Algiers Motel Incident, and is responsible for the one event that most distressed Hersey: the decision of the State Police, who were included in the party that descended on the motel, to withdraw rather than interfere with or witness the actions of their municipal colleagues:

Of all the chapters in this narrative, this may have been the most inglorious. Law-enforcement officers of the State of Michigan, having seen actions by policemen of the City of Detroit that were “out of control,” were evacuated by a commander “as he didn’t like what he had seen there.” Faced with the evident need for strong measures to prevent the crimes of that scene from being carried further, the state troopers simply washed their hands of the whole nasty business and walked out.

As might have been predicted from the most elementary role-theory. Professional actors do not take it upon them selves to disrupt a performance simply because they come upon atrocious examples of miscasting among their colleagues. And the drama that Hersey has recounted here plays a very important part in mass democracy. It asserts the superiority of the mass to elitist legal constraints and fancy constitutional safeguards. These atavisms are tolerated in American society on the tacit condition that their invocation will not too seriously impinge on the activities of daily life.

For liberal intellectuals and perhaps the upper middle classes generally law enforcement serves a rather different function than for the lumpenbourgeoisie. In the not-quite-Fascist state, law enforcement seeks to provide much the same kind of protection against the on-set of ultimate violence that innoculation used to provide against smallpox. Innoculation is not vaccination; and the practice was abandoned as soon as Jenner’s inventiveness made vaccination possible. In prophylactic innoculation the virulent discharge from true smallpox is administered; and true smallpox is transmitted. The advantage to the victim is that the conditions of his illness are to some degree controlled; he picks his time instead of falling ill precisely when he is weakened. Of course, many of those innoculated, being not quite so strong as they thought they were, died.

Middle-class enthusiasts for police action apparently believe the violence they support—though they deplore each successive incident as it occurs—can be expected ordinarily to take a benign and self-limiting form, uncomfortable to be sure, but too attenuated to threaten the body politic it is designed to protect from more malignant outbreak. They deceive themselves. Police action is driven by precisely the social forces and expresses the same attitude it is supposed to contain and it does so with the added power of legitimacy. In Detroit last summer law enforcement got rather out of hand. Whether any substantial immunity was conferred on the surviving community, this summer may yet tell.

TRUMAN NELSON’S curious little book, The Torture of Mothers is a partial account of a case in which it is less obvious—but probably no less true—that law enforcement got out of hand: the case of the boys known as the Harlem Six, all Negro and none over nineteen, who were convicted of the murder, on April 29, 1964, of Mrs. Margit Sugar who ran a clothing store in Harlem. It is written in a good cause, and is a moving work which supplements Hersey’s and should certainly be read by anyone concerned with the quality of the continuing confrontation between black Americans and black American law. What is most valuable in it is the very extensive set of quotations from tapes made by the author and an official of Harlem Youth Unlimited (HARYOU) of interviews with the mothers of the accused during their long ordeal. The Beacon Press, which accepted the book after Mr. Nelson had tried for years to get it published, has chosen to set these excerpts into the text as poetry; which they are.

Nelson’s work convinces me that the Harlem Six have been the victims of a miscarriage of justice as well as of gross brutality, physical and mental; and I honor him for having written it. For that very reason I cannot, as a reviewer, patronize him. It is not a good book; merely the work of a good man whom a sense of injustice has deprived of rest. He brings to bear none of Mr. Hersey’s caution in amassing evidence and its subsequent analysis; and his agonized plea to me carries less conviction than Hersey’s equally agonized cool. When the issues are as serious as these, and damnation itself is at stake, an advocate who keeps his icy control and remains explicitly self-conscious and self-disciplined is more useful and more terrible. I am moved by Mr. Nelson; though I have looked upon his like before. But Mr. Hersey will, I think, surprise America as well as astonish it. Detroit cannot have expected his coming; it should have been as safe as Dunsinane.

This Issue

August 1, 1968