Mr. Schlesinger became interested in the legal implications of the Algiers Motel shooting when the story was first reported during the Detroit riots last summer. He made his own study of the affair in the course of several trips to Detroit to talk to participants and witnesses and read the record. His review augments that of Edward Weeks in the August issue. — The Editor
Every so often an event occurs which assaults the conventional imagination because in its gruesome detail and horrid reality it lays bare the ugliest sores of a society. During the worst hours of the Detroit riot last summer, three Negro boys were shot by police in a red-light motel. First official reports described the black youths as “snipers”; later suspicions were aroused when none of the police involved filed a report on the deaths and witnesses began walking into the office of Detroit Congressman Conyers, a Negro, with stories of being clubbed and forced to play “death games.” The newspapers investigated and turned up evidence of murder. Two of the three white officers implicated changed their stories and admitted the shootings as self-defense. Suddenly a minor incident overshadowed the riot because in its particulars it somehow encapsulated what is worst in this country today, the scabrous conditions of Negroes, police prejudice against black youths, white fears of Negro sexuality, the uncontrolled violence of riots, and the pervading racism which seeps into the pores of American justice and laws.
John Hersey spent months tracking down the witnesses of the incident at the Algiers Motel. He recorded thousands of facts, apparently taped numerous conversations with participants, police as well as Negro, studied hundreds of pages of testimony taken during the preliminary hearings, and sifted through a gigantic mound of conflicting evidence and interpretations before constructing his book. The outcome is a profusion of details, surmise, hearsay, and murky recollection which, in its final state, is nothing more than the court transcript itself.
The Algiers Motel Incident
by John Hersey (Knopf, $5.95; Bantam, $1.25)
One must give credit to Hersey’s sense of outrage. He was keenly aware, as he probed deeper and deeper into the story, of the raw, savage currents tearing at black society and the awful injustices visited upon vulnerable black children. Unmentioned in the book, though not surprising in its context, is the horrifying figure compiled by the President’s Crime Commission last year that 90 percent of Negro urban youths will be arrested for an offense more serious than a traffic violation at some point in their lifetime. This is not so incredible when one realizes that most police forces in this country are prejudiced against Negroes. In a survey conducted by the Crime Commission in selected precincts of Washington, Boston, and Chicago with predominantly black populations, over three fourths of the white policemen expressed prejudiced or highly prejudiced sentiments toward the black man. A distinguished former commissioner of a large city police force in the early sixties told me that 90 percent of his force was biased against Negroes. His own lieutenants referred to them as “burrheads” in his presence until he forbade it.
Many police officials, however, have argued that prejudice does not necessarily interfere with the day-today dealings the patrolman has with the black community. The Crime Commission confirms this to a certain extent. But unquestionably the tacit approval of bigotry within the force itself and by white society generally, especially among lowerclass communities which produce most white policemen, does influence the man on the beat. He finds it easier to abuse the Negro than the white. Thus the only civilian review board extant in the United States, the Philadelphia Police Advisory Board, in its first eight years of life received two thirds of its complaints from nonwhites and only a third from whites. As a member of the Los Angeles Police Department remarked during the McCone hearings, the white officers simply can’t conceive of Negroes as individuals.
The most damning evidence of this official contumacy is the paucity of black police officers. In Detroit, with a Negro population of 36 percent, only 4 percent of the force is black. In Boston, a city of supposed liberal heritage, the black community is 11 percent of the populace, and less than 3 percent of the police is Negro.
Overshadowing the Algiers incident, then, were the raw materials out of which prejudice has been shaped and institutionalized. Hersey perceived these themes as he dug into the macabre tale at the Algiers. He starts with an insistent portrait of the police invading the motel badgering the Negro youths, taking their money, pushing and shoving them around, treating them, in short, as dumb objects. Auburey Pollard, one of the youths later killed, was beaten so hard with a shotgun that it broke, and the officer yelled, “This nigger made me break my shotgun. . . .” One policeman threw a knife to a boy and said, “Defend yourself.” Several other youths were led to rooms and told to lie down. Police then fired into the floor in an attempt to scare the men into talking. Emerging as the ringleader of these “games” was a short young officer, David Senak, nicknamed “the Snake,” who worked on the vice squad and uttered classic statements to Hersey about his job: “I know all women aren’t prostitutes,” but, “who gave who the apple?” Senak ted the beating and stripping of two white girls discovered with the Negroes. The sexual tension aroused by the presence of the women apparently enraged the police. When the officers left, three Negroes were dead; no weapon was found in the Algiers.
To give his book the smells and colors of its setting, Hersey has larded his pages with descriptions of the lives of the Negro youths. From long, sometimes diffuse, conversations, one receives a collective sense of how white society gradually ruined the hopes and ideals of the black adolescents, through the broken families, indifferent schools, lack of openings into white jobs, harassment from the police, and the difficulty of staying stable in a twilight world. For a reader intensely curious about these jumbled lives, the extended dialogues are fascinating. But streams of narrative soon enlarge into a river of accounts. Hersey begins to thrust chapter after chapter of quoted testimony and conversation at the reader, stringing it together loosely with his own observations. That thread of continuity, so important to the strength of a documentary book, gets hidden in the onslaught.
It is then that Hersey’s real problem with his material becomes apparent. His dilemma is that he is writing before the trial and he is subject to the legal process, the dangers of pretrial publicity, and the problems of hearsay, and if he doesn’t quote witnesses exactly, he may be subject to libel. On the other hand, he is outraged by incident; he is fearful that the police may get away scot-free if the trial takes place at some vague date in future. And he has a publisher’s deadline to meet.
Prudence tells us that Hersey could have avoided this quagmire if he had waited to publish after the trial. This is what Truman Capote did in In Cold Blood. But in fairness Hersey faced a different situation. Capote had a straight murder case, in which legal niceties were observed, the killers confessed, and no police were involved. On the other hand, Hersey had a murder case where two of the suspects confessed, but because they were police officers and their victims were young rootless blacks, the judicial system, the police department, and the city all tried to protect the officers from prosecution.
In brief, Hersey in putting together his book confronted a hopelessly rotten system. It was a system which automatically disbelieved the stories of black people. The police department refused to investigate the Algiers incident on the strength of Negro witnesses until the papers and Congressman Conyers goaded them into it. The county prosecutor then issued a warrant only against Negro policeman who was present. When the white police confessed, the prosecutor finally had to act against them. In court, however, the judge preferred to believe unreliable white testimony against unreliable black testimony and dismissed the case against one officer, suppressed a confession of another officer on the grounds he had no lawyer present, and indicted only the third. The city then undertook to harass the black witnesses by constantly arresting them on various pretexts, instilling fear in their families, and dragging its feet on the trials. The worst truth of all, as one of the youths points out, was that if the police had been Negro and the young men white, the scenario would have been reversed.
Hersey came to the conclusion that the Negroes might never get justice, like many poor people black and white, in this “system.” Thus his own sense of idealism drove him to write this book and take the risks of boring his readers with stretches of detail and prejudicing the forthcoming trial. Yet the subject remains intrinsically compelling.