Detroit bankruptcy presentation examines 1967 riots

The Detroit Riot of 1967 had a lasting impact on the city and the people living there, but adjunct professor Robin West Smith has a physical scar to remember it by.

During her youth, West Smith said she cut her hand on a broken glass bottle while playing with friends.

The injury required stitches that would be taken out the following week.

However, the day of her appointment she was unable to have the stitches removed as the Detroit Riot had begun, closing the medical offices for the day and forcing the stitches to be removed later than necessary.

This delayed removal left a permanent scar across her hand that serves as a reminder of how the riot personally impacted her.

This anecdote was one of several included in West Smith’s presentation, “The Evolution of the Detroit Bankruptcy,” held Feb. 13 in the A building.

West Smith’s presentation was subtitled “An examination of how the Detroit 1967 Riot led to the bankruptcy of one of America’s largest municipalities.”

West Smith started off the presentation by explaining the important influence traditional print media can have on societal perceptions of people, places and events.

She cited the influence different books had in building her presentation.

Such books included “Revitalizing Urban Neighborhoods” and George Galster’s “Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City.”

“How we talk about media framing is really critical in how we describe any and all activities that occur within our society,” she said.

She then explained the origin of the riot, citing lack of economic diversity and investment from Detroit’s major leaders, both before and during the time of the riot.

This led West Smith to discuss the concept of “maladministration,” a phrase that she explained she was unfamiliar with until the recent impeachment trial of President Trump.

Examining the maladministration in Detroit’s infrastructure, West Smith listed off several past mayors such as Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick.

She expressed different views on the two mayors.

“Coleman Young knew how to play the political game. He knew how to intimidate. He knew how to influence people,” she said.

Kilpatrick, however, was “a young African American man with too much power for his head to handle,” West Smith said.

West Smith then brought up Kevyn Orr, the former emergency manager for Detroit.

Orr oversaw the sale of anything that could be sold in order to try and prevent the city from going under, West Smith said.

“He wanted to sell every damn thing that was valuable. And if he could have sold the people, he would have did that, I think,” she said.

Key aspects that led to the bankruptcy included the administration’s inability to make tough decisions, habitual borrowing of money and the halting of “generous” bonuses gifted to retirees, West Smith said.

She then went on to explain that the “generous” bonuses were alluding to what are known as 13th checks, pension checks given to retirees to lessen poverty rates.

This halting of funds was one of the reasons why Detroit’s financial situation began to deteriorate, as the city was subsequently sued after the distribution of these funds stopped.

West Smith then recounts the time her personal life was affected by the halting of pension checks, as her husband was no longer receiving his.

After the program was restored, she said she had the opportunity to personally thank former Mich. Governor Rick Snyder.

The presentation ended on an ironic quote from former Detroit mayor, Frank Murphy.

“This is a great, rich city. It has never defaulted upon a debt — and it never will.”