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HEALTH MATTERS: The Detroit riots and post-traumatic stress disorder

Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty” and “Hurt Locker”) is known for tackling difficult topics. Her feature film “Detroit” may prove to be the most controversial project yet.

The true story about the 1967 riots in Detroit was not widely known outside of Michigan. The acting is superb and most likely will leave you numb from the brutality and terror suffered by a group of young black men and two white girls caught in the web of hatred and bigotry of a handful of white law enforcement officers at the Algiers Motel.

July 23 marked the 50th anniversary of the untold story of racism that never made the history books nor was talked about on late night television. The five-day civil unrest left 43 dead, 33 blacks and 10 whites. The majority of the 7,200 people arrested were black.

“Detroit” takes the audience on an intense ride that never lets up. Emotions for many movie goers ran high.

“The movie shows racism and violence by white police officers who terrorized young black men,” said Judge Craig Strong, a Detroit native. “The film will make you mad at the police and the judicial system.”

Judge Strong was a college student in Detroit at the time of the riots.

“We had a curfew but held vigilance from our porches to protect the storefronts we patronized,” he said. “Along with my classmates and my Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity line brothers, we looked out for trucks with Ohio plates that drove in the city to ransack our community businesses.”

Looting and arson was occurring throughout the city. Nearly 8,000 Michigan Army National Guardsmen, 4,700 paratroopers from both the 82nd and 101st U.S. Army Airborne Divisions and 360 Michigan State Police officers were dispatched to bring law and order to the city.

“I remember soldiers pointing guns at us and instilling fear,” said Strong who has served on the bench for 38 years in Detroit. “I went to law school in Washington, D.C., and returned to Detroit to carry out justice.”

The incident inspired many Detroit residents to become police officers, lawyers and judges to bring positive change to the city.

“At that time, we believed that if it can happen to those young men, it could happen to us,” Strong said.

The records shows that the Detroit police officers and National Guardsmen shot 24 blacks; store owners or security guards shot 6 people; one was electrocuted by a downed power line; and two died by asphyxiation from a building fire.

It was a dark time for Detroit and has opened up painful memories, especially for those who are natives of Detroit.

“Detroit’s chief of police is encouraging the police force to watch ‘Detroit’ for teachable moments,” Strong said.

“I just turned 5 years old on July 22, 1967,” said Limuel Flowers, a native of Detroit. “My memories of the riot that started in the early morning hours of July 23, 1967 are vivid because Johnnie’s Records, a small record shop owned and operated by my dad, Johnnie Flowers, at 3940 Fenkell, was broken into and looted.”

The Flowers family lost everything and the memory of that for Flowers was devastating.

“On the news we saw our shop in shambles and my mother exclaiming in shock and horror, ‘Jesus, have mercy,’” Flowers said. Lim’s dad drove with the family to the record shop on July 24 to survey the damage.

“Every store on the block was robbed and looted,” Flowers said.

Flowers’ brother R. Barri Flowers was 10 at the time.

“I remembered seeing the windows of my dad’s shop smashed and the interior empty,” he said. “It was a very sad day and really unnerved me. I can only imagine what might have happened had my Dad come face-to-face with those seeking to steal his hard-earned inventory and destroy his property.”

“I learned what it meant to be black in a racist America,” Lim Flowers said.

Racism and terrorism led to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for many of the people caught in the crossfire.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PTSD is categorized as an intense physical and emotional response to thoughts and reminders of the event that last for many weeks, months or years after the traumatic event. PTSD symptoms include: panic attacks, depression, suicidal thought and feelings, drug abuse, feelings of being estranged and isolated, and not being able to complete daily tasks.

Medical professionals say that PTSD falls into three broad types: re-living, avoidance and increased arousal.

Re-living includes flashbacks, nightmares and extreme emotional and physical reactions to reminders of the event. Emotional reactions can include feeling guilty, extreme fear of harm, and numbing of emotions. Physical reactions can include uncontrollable shaking, chills or heart palpitations and tension headaches.

Avoidance includes staying away from activities, places, thoughts or feelings related to the trauma or feeling detached or estranged from others.

Increased arousal includes being overly alert or easily startled, difficulty sleeping, irritability or outbursts of anger, and lack of concentration.

Miyume McKinley, a licensed psychotherapist, says, “There is a misunderstanding about PTSD. It can be based on individual experiences from 9/11 news, Hurriance Katrina, police brutality and the actual events of the civil unrest, riots and the aftermath of traumatic episodes, not just a military incident.

McKinley said she has treated several clients who were hyper-vigilant about their sons when they saw someone in a police uniform, heard a siren or are followed by a police car. “PTSD can negatively impact their abilty to do simple tasks and normal activities or follow their dreams,” she said.

“PTSD impacts the spirit, soul, mind, emotions, memories and the body,” Dr. Douglas Cowan said.

“I grew up in Detroit and was fortunate that my father, Cary Cayce, told me firsthand events and stories about the 1967 riots,” said Marc Cayce, a Detroit native who now lives in Hollywood. “My mother’s wedding ring was in one of the Detroit pawn shops that was looted and burned down on 12th street. My father went to the pawn shop and was told by the owners that all items were either looted or burned and there would be no replacements.”

Filmmaker Marc Cayce and Wayne County Circuit Court Criminal Division Judge Craig Strong attend the ‘Detroit’ movie premiere. (Courtesy photo)

“There were numerous clashes from the predominantly white Detroit Police Department,” Cayce said. “White officers were recruited from some of the harshest Jim Crow southern states like Mississippi and Alabama to control the blacks in Detroit who had this new freedom of good-paying jobs from Ford, Chrysler and General Motors.”

“My father said it was well known and documented that white cops used to drive around the city looking for groups of young black men to beat down for just being black. Unfortunately, my father was one of them that was beaten,” Cayce said. “The motion picture ‘Detroit’ does not reveal how or why the tensions built up in the black community and exploded in 1967. The heartbeat of Detroit was the music scene, which was on fire straight out of Motown from the Supremes to Martha Reeves, Mary Wells and Smokey Robinson to name a few who were on top of the charts.”

Ironically, one of the number one songs of 1967 was Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” The movie does give a backstory about the Dramatics. The lead singer, Larry Reed (played by Algee Smith), left the group after he endured hours of brutality and terrorism by the Detroit police officers. It appeared he suffered from a number of PTSD symptoms and avoided the very music he loved the most. Prior to his run-in with the Detroit police officers, Reed and his singing group were the follow-up act to Martha and the Vandellas on the stage of the famous Fox Theater.

“We hear PTSD mentioned most often in regards to the military, but anyone who has suffered a major trauma can be impacted — rape, brutality, sudden death, a major loss, seeing something horrific and many other incidents,” said Anne-Marie Lockmyer, a grief and loss specialist. “The results can be the same. You have been traumatized and that trauma needs to be addressed. Your brain has been impacted.

“Brutality of any kind can be traumatic,” Lockmyer added. “Fabricated accusations would be especially traumatic as what is happening would make no sense to the person. Their sense of security is destroyed. It does not make rational sense. Even if the accusations are proven false, the effects of the trauma can remain and need to be addressed or dealt with.”

“Detroit” opened in theaters nationwide on Aug. 4.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention –

Anne-Marie Lockmyer –

Detroit –

Douglas Cowan, Psy.D. –


National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder –

Marie Y. Lemelle, MBA, a public relations consultant, is the owner of Platinum Star PR and can be reached on Twitter @PlatinumStar or Instagram @PlatinumStarPR. Send “Health Matters” related questions to and look for her column in The Wave.