Production Team: X
Interview Date: June 6, 1989
Camera Rolls: 2140-2141
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Colonel Howard Becker, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on June 6, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Could you set the scene for me as you were driving towards Detroit, you had told me about the convoy, and what you saw. Can you tell me who you were driving with and what you see?
Ah, well first of all, I was leaving Camp Grayling ah, this was part of our middle weekend during an annual training period and ah, I was leading my convoy to ah, Detroit and ah, we had stopped for refueling just outside of Detroit and ah, approximately 20 miles away - and we could see ah, the whole city of Detroit ah, literally ah, in smoke. And ah, my driver and, and ah, my first sergeant were in the vehicle with me and ah, we was talking to one another about this situation and our radio of course was going and we were being briefed up on ah, the situation as it was developing in downtown Detroit. And of course at that time, we didn't have a specific mission. Our, our ah, assignment was to report to this ah, artillery armory on Eight Mile Road. And so we stopped for refueling and at that point we ah, we issued ah, ammunition, we gave a basic briefing to our ah, troops, and ah, prepared them ah, ah, for, for basically ah, the normal combat missions. And then from that point we ah, proceeded on to the artillery armory.
Tell me, as you were approaching Detroit, what happened?
Uh yes, as we approached Detroit uh--
If you can just start again with, just answer the question
As we approached Detroit ah, we pulled off to the side ah, to refuel our vehicles, and it was at that point that we could see the ah, smoke rising up from downtown Detroit and ah, we then issued ah, ah, ammunition to our ah, soldiers and we also ah, ah, did a ah, complete ah, briefing to each soldier to prepare them for whatever we might anticipate could occur in the future, and to give them the self protection that they needed. And ah, then we proceeded on to Detroit.
At that point what kind of things were you anticipating?
We basically ah, anticipated that we may come up on ah, crowds of people ah, perhaps even ah, ah, road blocks that we may have to ah, physically move or remove. Ah, we anticipated the possibilities of establishing ah, ah, wedges with our troops ah, to go forward to move ah, crowds out of the area. But basically, we were prepared to defend ourselves, but at the same time, use as little ah, ah, ah, action against the crowds as, as we would have to.
So if you could tell me about what's happening on Grand and Michigan.
OK, downtown ah, Detroit, on ah, Grand and Michigan Avenue, we were on a mission with ah, the fire department primarily, who was trying to put out a bank fire. And ah, it was at that point ah, when we were protecting the firemen putting out the fire, that the surrounding ah, ah, area, was ah, ah, surrounded with some vacant buildings and the likes, and from the top of one building ah, nearby, we got a sniper firing at the, the ah, firemen. Well, the firemen were ordered then to ah, evacuate and ah, in doing so, they didn't even have time to disconnect their hoses. They ah, took off and that left hoses ah, laying in the streets ah, and when they'd come to the end of the hoses ah, they of course snapped and ah, you had water hoses ah, all over the streets ah, like snakes ah, the water flying around uh--our troops stayed in ah, surrounding areas and ah, under cover, and ah, they finally did get the water hoses shut off and the, or the hydrants shut off and, and the police officers ah, in the area, did assist in getting ah, everything secured, and finally the ah, fire department could return.
You had a different reaction to the people in the community, can you tell me about that?
There were a number of people in the community who ah, were very supportive ah, of us, mainly because they had ah, spent a lifetime building their, their roots right here in the downtown Detroit area and consequently, they didn't want their homes or their businesses burned down. So they were quick to react to us and tell us where the ah, the ah, ah, perpetrators were and the people who were causing the problems, and they were very ah, helpful - and I think ah, that contributed a lot to ah, ah, relieving us of, of our feelings toward ah, the local community.
So if you could tell me again what it was like trying to protect fire fighters in the midst of this.
The ah, fire fighters in downtown Detroit trying to put out fires, consistently we was receiving sniper fire from various buildings or from down the street - not always knowing where the, the firing was coming from un--unless you happened to see the flash. So ah, we would employ our troops to take cover behind vehicles, around--behind trees, alongside of ah, of buildings ah, to, to protect them, first of all, and then for them to be w--on the watch for snipers. Ah, but the urgency ah, is always there when ah, when someone fires at you, you naturally--the first thing is to take cover, and then to look and see where the, the firing came from. And of course ah, when the fire department was ordered to evacuate the area, the police officers and ah, the Guardsmen, stayed ah, fixed in place and ah, still had a mission to ah, relieve the situation by one, ah, containing ah, the sniper in his place and ah, two try to get rid of that sniper one way or the other to ah, allow the fire department the safety and security to come back and fight the fire.
What role did tanks play ?
What would a tank do in terms--how could you use a tank against a sniper?
Well, the tanks ah, provided a lot of security for the, the Guardsmen, because it's ah, heavy armor, and of course ah, nothing that was being fired at them could penetrate the, the tank. And so they could button up the tank and drive down the road and not worry about a sniper shooting at them. Ah, however, it did show a lot of force and ah, that consequently would ah, could pull into an area and if somebody did fire on that tank ah, that also gave us an indication of where the snipers were located. And once locating a sniper, it was pretty easy to ah, to hustle them out of the buildings - the police and ah, and the Guardsmen alike, would go in and, and remove the sniper.
Can you tell us what happened?
OK. We were ah, operating a road block in downtown Detroit ah, it covered a wide ah, a wide four lane ah, road, but ah, no divider in the center. And so it took a good ah, sized road block to cover ah, all four lanes. Ah, just behind that was a primary fire station that ah, housed a lot of ah, fire fighting equipment. So the purpose intended here was to protect the fire fighters and their equipment while they were getting it ready to go out and fight more ah, large ah, building fires. And ah, as the road block was established ah, I was near the fire station when I heard them holler that there was ah, the road block was being run and witnessed ah, a ah, large ah, Buick, four door, go through the road block ah, ah, take one side of ah, of the intersection and ah, ah, they fired on our ah, ah, road guards and ah, consequently ah, the order was given to return fire and r--they did return fire, the vehicle ah, ah, rolled over at the next ah, at, at a ah, ah, road intersection, and ah, the troops went down to ah, to get the people who were inside the vehicle. By the time they got there they had already ah, evacuated the vehicle and ran away, so they saw them running away but there was no intent to shoot them per se, at the time.
How did it feel to be at times the enemy in your own country?
Ah, scary, because uh--
Can you please give me full sentences?
OK, the, the - here we are in, in our own city, in our own state, and ah, there was a war going on in Vietnam at the time and we're being fired upon by our own citizens right here in our own country, so it was, it was quite scary. And not knowing exactly who the enemy was at that time ah, ah, gave rise to a lot of considerations and concerns for me as commander ah, and, and my troops at the time.
--on the third day?
Yeah, about the third day of the ah, of the emergency in Detroit, we ah, discovered that ah, some of our police officers ah, ah, and this is an isolated incident ah, ah, had loaded their own weapons, had their own special side arms and their own special ah, ah, shotguns and ah, we heard discussion ah, ah, informally, and it was reported to me and on to our intelligence people ah, that they were strictly on a nigger hunt. And ah, that gave rise to a lot of consideration on our part because we had a responsibility here to see to it that ah, all of the citizenry was ah, protected. So in--first being notified of that and then further ah, seeing first hand the situation, we ah, reported it, we followed through on it, and made sure that those police officers were ah, handed over to their ah, command and control and they were removed from the operations.
Cut. I need you to ask you to do it again just for--
Ah, the Detroit police ah, command group ah, would assign various ah, ah, officers, police officers, to our ah, Guard ah, patrol. And ah, or vice versa, it would be a Guard patrol with ah, two or, or three police ah, squad cars ah, a squad car may have ah, two police officers in it, sometimes it had four police officers in it. And ah, on ah, one separate occasion ah, two sergeants came in with their own separate loaded ah, ah, weapons ah, their own in--individual ah, weapons that were separate from ah, Detroit ah, police ah, issue weapons and ah, consequently ah, we had the feeling that they were ah, not out to do what ah, the ah, normal mission or what we were there to, to perform, and that was to protect ah, the citizenry. And ah, they indicated that they were out to, to get all they could get ah, ah, ah, at the scene. So consequently ah, finding out that they were police officers that were going to do less than what police officers are expected to do ah, we took action to turn them over to their command and ah, remove them from the operations.
Because it was such a public finding and you had, you know, that's a commission in Washington - do you remember how you felt when the final report came out?
Well, when the initial report ah, was published on ah, on the Detroit ah, situation ah, many of us were quiet embittered - mainly because of the coverage that we got during the ah, the Detroit ah, emergency. We didn't consider it to be, um, overriding riot per se. We ah, we saw isolated incidents, we saw ah, a lot of fire bombing um, there were some isolated ah, ah, incidents of ah, snipers, but as far as ah, massive ah, with the exception of groups and groups of people getting together ah, we didn't see any rioting per se. And as far as the pilfering or the, the looting that went on ah, we felt like that was just basically a natural reaction for people ah, the building was burning down anyway so they might just as well ah, confiscate and, and take what they could.
But having put your life in, in some ways on the line, in Detroit, how did you feel about the criticism?
Well, we ah, we'd been criticized so badly by that point ah, ah, by ah, the various papers, that ah, it just was ah, we just shunned[SIC] it off.
So it's night time and you're on 12th Street, what's happening?
Well, the night time on 12th Street ah, was probably the most ah, unnerving, at least the first ah, two or three nights, and that is that you had to swerve in and out of burning cars and ah, and ah, debris that was laying into, in the roadway. Ah, there were no other vehicles on the road other than the, the police or the ah, military. Ah, however, those first couple of nights, you never knew when somebody might throw a, a fire bomb at you or somebody shoot at you, so there was a lot of ah, precautionary measures taken ah, to prevent the possibilities of, of being shot at. The other thing is, we tried to ah, work our way ah, past the ah, burning buildings ah, allowing ourselves plenty of space and then to provide ah, for the fire department, the maximum amount of security and, and ah, safely ah, ah, protect them so that they could continue to put the fires out. Many of the residents in that area basically came running to us to tell us about situations or where gatherings of people were, or where ah, potentially a ah, sniper had been sighted ah, previous to our arrival and ah, and then we would go in and, and follow up on those actions.
OK, stop. Did you ever--
The ah, Army Intelligence ah, briefed ah, through the division headquarters ah, the 46th Division headquarters of the Michigan National Guard ah, as to the dangers that we may come up against ah, paramedical ah, or--ah, medi--
OK, let's start again.
Yes. Start right from the--
The Army Intelligence ah, Agency from uh--
OK, so in terms of the potential of paramilitary organizations, what were you briefed?
The Army Intelligence Agency ah, briefed the ah, ah, various elements of the 46th Infantry Division ah, here in Michigan, regarding the, the possibilities of paramilitary ah, organizations that could be operating in the Detroit area. And so through the Army Intelligence, that was passed on to us - we were prepared for a fighting force that ah, perhaps could ah, come at us at, at various times. So we tried to maximize our protection for our troops ah, alert them to the fact that ah, if they spotted ah, ah, paramedi--ah, paramilitary organizations ah, they was to report it instantly, to take cover and ah, be prepared to defend themselves.
What kind of groups did they expect and what kind of paramilitary?
Ah, the paramilitary that we expect ah, or possibly could expect was ah, the possibility of ah, six and eight man squads ah, operating in and about the areas to keep the fire departments from fighting fires. And ah, also in and about the ah, crowded areas where ah, gatherings of ah, of ah, people in a riot and then being ah, encouraged to participate in the looting and ah, and then ah, further to participate in, in the fire bombing of, of other buildings.
As the week went on did you think that was happening?
Ah, no, as the week went on, I realized that there were less ah, ah, activity or less ah, chances of there being a organization of such in the area.
And now let me just quickly ask you one, the, the question again about the police, in terms of the mood, what was coming at you, the possibility that some of its policemen might not be on the up and up, that you had heard stories - can you tell me that again?
Well, we had ah, seen for a fact, that here's ah, two squad cars ah, come in with ah, four police officers in each squad car from ah, the downtown Detroit area--every one of them had ah, loaded shotguns ah, they had ah, ah, extra pistols and ah, it seems as though they were over-armed for a policing action. And ah, as time went on of course, that got reduced out and ah, as, as we demonstrated that ah, while we were armed, we were using the least amount of resistance as was necessary, because we were dealing with, with ah, our own ah, citizens of, of Michigan, and most of them were ah, good solid citizens too.
Great, OK. Cut. Thank you very much.