Eyes on the Prize One Interviews
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Interview with John Nichols

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Interviewer: Judy Richardson
Production Team: C
Interview Date: October 31, 1988

Camera Rolls: 2063-2066
Sound Rolls: 229-230

Editorial Notes:

Interview with , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 31, 1988, for . 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


INTERVIEWER: Now when did you first hear about the riot starting on 12th Street?
JOHN NICHOLS: My first recollection of the riot was a phone call about 5:45 from the duty officer, who told me that there had been a raid on a place in the then 10th Precinct and that the crowd had failed to disperse and it was growing and they had stoned a police vehicle, injured a police lieutenant and they were starting to break some windows. I responded to, ah, police headquarters. I called the precinct commander, at that time, Inspector Charlie Gentry, I asked him what the situation was, advised him to sweep the 12th street area and he said, "With what, six men?" because that's all he had on duty at the time. And from that point on I then issued a full mobilization of the department begin notification of the other senior officers.


INTERVIEWER: When we talked on the phone you told me this was the last thing you expected was a riot on a Sunday morning twenty times before the same week--
JOHN NICHOLS: It did because the Detroit riot of '67 didn't follow the classical pattern. Normally riots broke out on Saturday nights, on the afternoon shift, and usually it was some violent police action, usually as a result of a shooting, or a fight, or an arrest with, with complications. The raid on the Blind Pig was not an unusual thing in that particular area of the town as I, as I told you on the phone. It had happened twenty times the month before and twenty times the day afterwards.
INTERVIEWER: I just wanted you--it was, it was a wonderful answer. I need to s--to deal with that --was the raid on the Blind Pig unusual?
JOHN NICHOLS: The raid on the Blind Pig was not unusual at all. They were generally conducted without any, ah, any particular problems. Many of the times citizens who, knowing the area would go out and move among the crowds and help disperse them, but there had never been an instance where a major occurrence resulted, as a result of a ra--raid on the Blind Pig. This particular time there was more there than the clew--crew expected, it required shuttling several times from the station to the scene taking prisoners back and forth and the crowd become restive and what was kind of a mood hilarity grew into some derisive talk to the police and ultimately was stoning the cars[1] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 202-34 and, and the police commander then did what had worked in many, many instances before. He backed the police out of the area, which in some instances had, had served to enable the crowd to leave without any particular loss of face and they would mill around for a while and then go back home. This particular instance, the crowd just increased and increased and increased and the depredations began more heavily than before.


JOHN NICHOLS: Well to begin with, "blind pigs" I guess, are a vernacular of the mid-west. A blind pig is an after hour liquor spot. And the reason it was raided at 3 o'clock in the morning is that they don't start running until after the bars close at 2 o'clock. Ah, generally it's a question of somebody going in, making an illegal buy or a buy of illegally sold whiskey, notifying the crew, ah, arresting the people, taking them into the station, booking them, in most instances they're, they're immediately bonded out. So, it's a fairly routine thing. And in that particular area of the city, was not unusual at all. Ah, anybody who, ah, wanted to, could buy a few bottles of whiskey and open up an apartment and they ranged from fairly exclusive after hour spots to what we used to call lightning joints where people would just drop in for a quick, quick, ah, double dip of, ah, rotgut whiskey. This was a fairly large one, bigger than they expected, and the number of people that they caught in the raid exceeded what they planned on taking. They figured about 20; it was close to 85 or 90, I think, so that there was a shuttle that had to run and that gave the crowd time to maneuver and time to, to excite themselves.


INTERVIEWER: You told me that at the time of the raid that, um, people in the city including were feeling pretty good about what was happening in terms of the relations between police and the community.
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, it's true a guess a couple of things influenced, er, our belief that that was, that was the case to begin with. The--


INTERVIEWER: Can I just ask you to tell me, how did you think that, what was the situation? Were things going well?
JOHN NICHOLS: Yes, things were going well. We had had a visit, just a couple of weeks before the riot, from Dr. Martin Luther King who met with city officials and who indicated that he thought Detroit was a, was a most progressive city. In the, ah, areas where they had mixed racial populations, we were heavily into a program of block clubs which put the police and the citizens into direct relationship with each other. We had had an experience the year before on the Kercheval incident which was a, the classical kind of a thing that, Ah, a scout car made an arrest, ah, there was a fight and people come charging out of the houses. But at that particular time it was an afternoon shift, the department was at maximum strength, we had just relieved 50 fully equipped police officers from a disturbance, a demonstration in the 1st Precinct, so automatically we saturated the area with police, the neighborhood watch groups responded, they moved out, dispersed the crowds, and there was a minimal amount of damage and we figured that, ah, that the system that we had and the modifications that we had made would serve us well. What we didn't figure was that, ah, what a young policeman told me on 12th Street the morning of the riot was true, that the rioters mobilized faster than the police did.


INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me what the early, the early orders to the police were on 12th Street that morning?
JOHN NICHOLS: There were no orders that went out other than the normal orders that a police officer would go out. We've gotten a lot of questions about were they ordered to shoot or were they ordered not to shoot? I think that it goes without saying that that's a discretionary act with the part of police officer. And to say tonight we go out and we shoot all burglars would be just as, as inane as to say that tonight we go out and we don't shoot anybody. It's a question of the circumstances and the judgment of the individual commanders on the, on the street. The only thing that I do say that had the officers used fatal force in that situation it probably would have been a, it would have been a blood bath because there were a minimal number of police, the area in which the initial involvement was consisted of multiple high rise apartment houses and the police would have been caught in a, literally, in a valley from which they would have taken, I think, withering fire. At that time our experience was that many of the houses, many of the people there were armed. We had raided houses and apartments, usually got two or three firearms out of it. There is no doubt in my mind that if they did not ex--did not intend, or did not exercise their, their right to, ah, not their right but their ability to use fatal force then certainly it was not a bad decision to have made.


INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me again, just briefly about, just briefly about the Kercheval incident and what worked in that case but didn't seem to be working?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, briefly the Kercheval area, geographically, was different than the 12th Street area. The Kercheval area was an area primarily of single residence homes. It was spread over a large, a larger area, a larger geographical area. The time was right, the department was at full strength. We had ample manpower. We had both of our tactical units available. And almost immediately before I left home I committed upwards of 200 policemen in the area with one, with one order. I think the difference being that control of any kind of an unusual disorder depends upon getting a maximum amount of people into the area with, with a show of force. Ah, in the '67 disorder we did not have that. We played catch up. It's difficult to mobilize on Sunday morning for police, many police were out with their families. Many of them got up at 4 o'clock in the morning and went fishing and a lot of people were unaware that there was any difficulty because they were out in the parks and they come home to find calls on their, on their answering machines or their neighbors saying, "My god, there's a big riot going on." And I think the difference being that, in the one area of control, was much larger, ah, the mobilization of the people who could be problems was much slower, the police mobilization was much, much faster in that incident, and the, ah, the citizens who, assisted us were present and were out and were ringing doorbells and moving in the crowds and doing what they could do to diffuse the instant. And I think those are the things that made the difference.


INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me about the numbers in terms of the numbers of people that were arrested and what, where did you put them?
JOHN NICHOLS: If my memory serves me right, and it's been 20 years, there were some 8000 people arrested in period of about 7 to 8 days. Ah, we housed them in almost every available cell. We rented space from, ah, county jails. The State Police moved them all over the state. About the 3rd day, an individual came into my office and said he could convert the old bathing beach at Belle Isle into a stockade that he had been a military engineer and if I could get him the go ahead he would do it. And I reluctantly gave him the go ahead, not because I didn't want the place, because I didn't think he could do it. But he did, and he built a, he built a stockade and one of the problems we had with that was it was occupied the old bath house, it was right on the river, it was nice and airy, and it was cool, and when it came time to move those prisoners to the County Jail, they were not at all happy. They liked it better out at what they called Bellecatraz, ah, ah, it didn't go over too big with the yacht club, I might add.
INTERVIEWER: OK, cut please.


INTERVIEWER: OK, let's go back now to a question that I didn't ask you which is sort of about the early '60s, which is what effect did Mayor Cavanagh actually have ?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think Mayor Cavanagh, when he was elected, was elected by a very popular vote; he was a young man, I think he offered to the city a young, a fresh approach, it was his first venture into politics, he took hold, his first team that he put together in terms of city government was people composed of experts and outstanding examples of the disciplines needed to put the city together, so I think that, that what Jerry Cavanagh did was to sound a note that the city was on the move.


INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me, the police force had been recently integrated?
JOHN NICHOLS: The police force had been integrated a couple years before, so that was not an issue. There was one sociologist, a little bit out of touch with things, who said that the riot was created because the police returned to the ghetto, and I quote him, "after the blue flu." Matter of fact, we had more police on the street during the blue flu than we ever had before because we, we converted from a three-shift operation to a two-shift, so we had literally half-again as many people on the street during the blue flu as we had before so there was no return. I think a lot of people at the time were looking for pat excuses and simplistic explanations of very complex problems.


INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me ?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, it's, as I recall, it was a kaleidascope of activity. It's very difficult to put things in the proper perspective as to what happened which day or which hour. It was a constant turmoil at headquarters. Commissioner Girardin directed that I stay in headquarters and directed that suborner[SIC] deputy, then chief inspector, Anthony Bitoni[SIC] stay in headquarters because of the need to organize the, the support units there. We got on the street only rarely--


JOHN NICHOLS: If it had not been for the good graces of a great many citizens who responded by making sandwiches and sending box-car loads of sandwiches into k--headquarters, both the police departments and the prisoners would have starved. Food came in from Canada, the support of other departments, outlying departments was magnificent, Canadian forces sent fingerprint experts in to help us classify fingerprint--citizens fed, fed our people, fed the National Guard meal--literally brought meals into the precinct stations. I think that was one of, of the most surprising things to me that, that came out of the riot because I didn't feel we'd get that kind of citizen support, but it was magnificent, and without it we would have had big problems, very big problems.


INTERVIEWER: What about sniping, what kind of reports were coming in ?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, sniping reports were coming in constantly, that was a, a new twist to the, to the disorder. We reacted by sending task forces usually composed of both military and police forces out to the area. There was a lot of, of indiscriminate firing, a lot of gunfire. SOme of it was attributed to the police, some of it was attributed to non-police areas.


JOHN NICHOLS: Well, the sixth, the fifth precinct reported they were under siege one night and the tenth precinct reported they were sniping at them, that there were sniping incidents into their own, um, station.


INTERVIEWER: Can you give me a full answer as to what that's like ?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think the question of the verbage under siege might be a little, a little over-dramatic. I think what, what had happened was that there was a consistent pattern at number five of shots being fired through the front windows of the, of the police station, apparently from apartment buildings across the street. They saddled up a couple of task forces and went in and, and investigated, and apparently whoever had been in there, had they fired, they found no evidence, but if it had come from there, and undoubtedly it had, then that stopped the, that stopped the problems, but for an hour or so the officers were working below window level at the station. Below the desk level.


JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think you have to remember that if you've got an apartment house with a hundred and fifty families in it, and you've got a police department or a police patrol of twenty people, it's very difficult. By the time you get into position to begin your sweep, people come and go with relative ease. Unconventional warfare depends on those kinds of tactics. A few shots and you go, and by the time a conventional force mobilizes and gets deployed, you're long gone. I'm not suggesting that there was an enemy agent there, but what I am saying is that the tactics are, are identical, so you could fire a couple of shots out of a window, put the gun in your pocket, and walk out before anybody ever came to, to respond to it, and I think that's what happened in many instances.


INTERVIEWER: Did you think, at the time, that the rioting was organized?
JOHN NICHOLS: I don't think that the initial riot was organized. I think that later on organization came into it. I think that once the situation had deteriorated to where fires were starting, then I think people skilled and trained in that may have, may have added to, to, fuel to the fire, but I don't think that the original people really planned a riot.


INTERVIEWER: Did you have any evidence of that?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, there was a great talk with one individual who was dubbed Mr. Greensleeves, I believe he was wearing a green, green sport--sport-coat or sport-suit who was active in stirring up the crowd at the initial confrontation on, on, I'm talking about where they raided the blind pig. They never identified him. There were people who were active in, in splinter groups, ah, locally, that would begin to show up on the scene and make their, make their effects known. But I don't think it was part of a national plan at the time, I think that somebody may have seized on, on the moment to exploit it.


JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think you have to remember that that particular point in time, there was a great aversion to impinging up anybody's, upon anybody's privacy, so that the ability to keep somebody in an uptight surveillance, the ability to infiltrate many of these people, many of these areas was, was really fairly slight. We did the best we could with the forces we had at hand. You can't really put a person in everybody's living room, and I think you have to recognize, too, that the temper and the tenor of those times was one of rev--revolution, of rebellion, of discontent, the social scene was a, was a literal hotbed of anti-draft feelings, of social progress feelings, anti-napalm bomb feeling, anit-Americanism, anti-patriotism, anti-big business and the military complex, so almost every day there was a massive demonstration of some kind. It was a, a period of great unrest, I guess as Dickens said, "It was the best of times and the worst of times." But there was a constant accumulation of, of people with a, with a, with a bone to pick with society, and it was quite natural that those, those groups arose and they were, the fervor was, was, was, was heated.


INTERVIEWER: Why do you think ?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well if I look at the riot from a sociological standpoint, I'd be ill-equipped to do it. I'm not a sociologist. I look at it in terms of a purely police response, and I think part of the problem was we could not get enough people into the area rapidly enough to establish the show of force that was necessary. By the time we got people mobilized, the area was too great to attempt to contain, and we attempted to contain it. We made some tactical changes in our dispositions the following year in the Martin Luther King assassination, we went into a more mobile type of, of operation, and it worked much better. But at the time we followed the, what was then the schooled solution, and that was to isolate the area, to send troops in, to, to attempt to, to break the riot by segregating the small por--small pockets and, and dispersing them.


INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me about testifying for--


INTERVIEWER: So if you could tell me a little bit about the visiting, the, the outside forces that came in and how that--
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think one of the problems, aside from the political problems, was the problem of integrating the National Guard and the regular army. The National Guard had been mobilized, they'd been mobilized piece-meal because they were in, in encampment, and they were hauled out of their tents without their personal items, their razors, their soaps, their, their Bald Egg[SIC] shoe shine kits and all the rest of the stuff that good soldiers carry, and they'd been put on a truck and driving to Detroit and told to get out and fight. The regular army sent in one of the, the most battle-seasoned units that they had. It was the 82nd Airborne and it had just come back from Vietnam, it was well-disciplined, well-trained, well-schooled, and functioned pretty much like a, like a well-disciplined unit should function. There had been some problems in Washington about, between National Guard and the Reserve, and there's little doubt in my mind that the Reserves had weathered the storm and the Guard may have been selected as the next target for reduction by then-Secretary McNamara, and I think those kind of political overtones had eff--had an effect on it. The Guard was heavily involved in the, in the tenth precinct and the western sector of the city. The regular army moved in in the eastern sector, which is what they should have done. Military you don't attempt to relieve an outfit that's, that's engaged in, in the--
INTERVIEWER: If you could just pick up on the last part of that, comparing how prepared the federal troops were versus how non-prepared--
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, as I said, the federal troops were, were the cream of the crop. The National Guard had not been committed to any kind of action since the Korean War. Many of the officers and men had not been involved in anything that even looked like a combat situation. They were picked up on their bivouac area and deposited. They were poorly fed, they were poorly taken care of from the standpoint of their personal needs, and they, as I said, they looked shabby, we all looked shabby. Most of us had been in the same clothes for three or four days, and that does not lead to a smart military appearance, and I think that many of the regular Army people felt that they were, were substandard. I told some regular Army people there that if their people had had the same situation they wouldn't have looked any better. I think a lot of that was generated by, by protagonists of both the regular Army and the National Guard. The National Guard people rose up in righteous indignation when they were criticized for improper appearance, for lack of control, and for many other things, and they in turn had their people storming on the Nat--on the regular Army, that they took over the softest section, if they were up there where the action was they wouldn't look any better. A lot of it, I think, hinged upon really political considerations. There was a great lot of question as to why the regular Army immediately federalized the National Guard. The political reason for that is quite simple. You don't need the National Guard under state control and the federal troops under presidential control with po--with the possibility of having two separate missions. And it also enabled the federal government to pick up the pay tab for the National Guard, which would have been part of the city's res--the state's responsibility had they not done so, but many of the things that crossed--


INTERVIEWER: Can you talk about trying to control the riot in terms of Detroit, that this is a city that isn't a single ghetto area? The rioting is all over, and the Guardsmen have never, never seen active fire. They've also never seen a city.
JOHN NICHOLS: Many, many of the Guardsmen were not, were not people from, from major metropolitan areas, many of them were from outlying areas. The city at that particular time had to be a terrifying sight. There were fires going on, there was a great deal of excitement, streetlights were, were being shot out by the police, there was a great deal of noise, a great deal of confusion, nobody knew where there, where there parent organizations were, military units function best as a unit, and unfortunately they could not function as a unit because they were brought into the, the armory and they were married up with Detroit police officers so that they would have a communication link, and so they'd have a guide to know where to go and, and what to do, and they were controlled from central dispatch areas. The entire situation was one of semi-controlled chaos. And I think that that had an, that had an effect on, on almost everybody concerned. Everybody was uptight, very uptight[2] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 202-43.


INTERVIEWER: What was, um, what were the police ?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, there would be, the calls would come in as the crowd's gathering, stoning, ah, buildings, setting buildings on fire, and a task force which was composed of, very often, all three elements, the Michigan State Police, Detroit Police, the Michigan National Guard would be dispatched, sometimes they had military vehicles, sometimes they had only police vehicles. They would go and fan out and attempt to resolve the difficulty. The fire department put their fire--firefighters into command posts by consolidating many of the, of the smaller fire stations so that they could respond. Firefighters were shot at, firefighters had to fight their way into, into the area to fight, to fight the fires.


INTERVIEWER: Did you see any problems ?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I see a problem, but I can't see a solution for it. The same thing occurred during every war we've had. You take a unit that's, that's--
INTERVIEWER: Why don't we just go on then--
JOHN NICHOLS: --that's well-trained and the first it gets shot at, it's, it's a novel experience.


INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me about testifying before the commission?
JOHN NICHOLS: I had enough experience in testifying. I testified before several committees, one of the, one of the things that I found out was that the term blind pig is unique apparently to the Midwest because I testified in front of one committee and I talked about a blind pig and finally one of the senators said, "What do mean by, by raiding, why did you raid that blind pig at 3:00 in the morning?" And it became apparent to me that he didn't really understand what it was because blind pigs or speakeasies or after-hours spots don't start operating until after the normal licensed places close. So if they close at 2:00 or 2:30, 3:00 or 3:30 is about the time that you begin to raid the quote-unquote "blind pigs".


INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me what ?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I didn't agree with all of it. I think that any commission that attempts to deal with a, with a, with a problem that broad is bound to get some bias on both sides of the fence. I think that many people tend to recognize that the investigations that take place immediately after a traumatic action like that are going to elicit comments from both sides of the fence that may be more emotional than they are factual. What I'm saying is that a year after the riot, when people stopped and sorted things out, they may have had a different feeling about some of the root causes or a different feeling about what actually occurred than did, than they did under the heat and, and temper--and tenor of the moment.


INTERVIEWER: What about the sense that there was a lot of people--


INTERVIEWER: When we had talked on the phone about the Kerner Commission ?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, as I said before, I didn't agree with, with, with much of what they found I think that they, they attempted to do in good faith what was done, but I think that there was a lot of simplistic solutions that were, were offered as cures for very, very complex problems. For example, the, they made the point, as I recall, that unemployment and under-employment was a factor. Most of the people that we arrested were, were people who had jobs. Most of them had factory jobs that were fairly well-paying. Many other things seemed to differ from their findings as to what we knew being on the street scene. They cited a lack of, of contact with the people. I don't think that was true. I think that Detroit's block club system probably was one of the most sophisticated and most active ones in, in the United States at that time. It didn't work on that day, but that is not to say that we were oblivious of the need. The department was moving toward integration, it was moving, the city was moving toward integration, so I think that all to often, those committees find a format and they put the format down and sweep all the little parts into it until it matches up with what they believe the situation should be, not necessarily always the way. This is not to say that they did it deliberately, I think that they did what they considered an excellent job.


INTERVIEWER: But was this, was this a social uprising or was it criminal activity?
JOHN NICHOLS: It all depends on the point of view. To me it's criminal activity. To me--


JOHN NICHOLS: --Sure. I don't think that social uprisings include damaging people's property. I don't think that burning buildings, and certainly it doesn't include stealing. We've had major revolutions in the United States, or a major revolution in the United States, and I don't think it ever took that, that kind of a thing. It was an upheaval, a revolution against a sociopolitical status. It certainly didn't include burning everything that they ran into. It certainly didn't include stealing. It certainly didn't include the unnecessary taking of life. This is where I differ from, from many people. I think that when social problems get to the point where it results in criminality, then it's a criminal matter and not a social matter. It may be a social, there may be a social solution to it, but the act in and of itself is certainly criminal. A thief is a thief, whether it's in a riot or, or on a day-to-day basis.


INTERVIEWER: And you would talk about this not as a race riot but as a ?
JOHN NICHOLS: I think that's a fairly safe observation to make.
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me that?
JOHN NICHOLS: Sure, I can tell you that, because 90% of the efforts that were being made was--
INTERVIEWER: No, I mean, I mean if I say, "Was this a race riot--"
JOHN NICHOLS: No, it wasn't a race riot as I see it. It was more of a riot designed to gain people's attention as a secondary thing, and, I think, as a first thing, to gain property. We wound up with, with gymnasiums and garages full of stolen property, everything from 16th century broadswords to modern day washing machines. Some of the items that were stolen were, would stagger the imagination. Can you believe a guy stealing a two-story circular steel stairway? They caught a guy dragging that down the street. Or an individual with four or five television sets in the back of his car that he didn't know how got, how they got there. Or an individual with a roll of carpeting that must have weighed two-ton that crushed the roof of his car, didn't know how it got there. Certainly these are not the, the acts of people who are interested in social reform, they're interested in getting something.


INTERVIEWER: I have a couple more questions. One is that
JOHN NICHOLS: The only response I can make is that they were all examined by competent people other than Detroit police, there--
INTERVIEWER: I'm sorry, I just need you to you to repeat my question. Did the police use excessive force?
JOHN NICHOLS: There was one instance where several Detroit police officers were tried, they were not convicted of, of murder. There were other instances where excess force was charged and not proven. I think that in any of those kind of situations you'd find that those charges are always rampant, and generally when you get down into the investigatory aspects of it, there's some reason that the force was used. I think that the same is true on both sides. Police in many instances felt that they were, were being treated unfairly when they get shot at, and probably they responded in kind.


INTERVIEWER: Can you talk about the sense that whatever you did, somebody was going to claim you were doing wrong?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think that's a foregone conclusion, when you pin on your first badge as a policeman, if you don't learn that in the first 15 minutes, you're wasting a career.
INTERVIEWER: Can you, I need the whole, the whole-- Tell me again about the--
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, you, you asked about whether or not a police officer knows that no matter what he does, he's going to be criticized. And to that I would respond that a policeman should know that the minute he puts on his first badge, that there is always a series of alternate solutions to any given problem, and once you've tried one, and it has not apparently worked, then everybody says you should have used something else. I think if you applied that same line of reasoning, any one of us here could have won the war for the German general staff knowing what the mistakes that were made and going over and, and, ah, correcting those certainly would have had an effect on it. That's not what you get when you're on the street. You deal with, with quick decisions, instantaneous decisions in a minimum amount of, of time. And those are the things you have to be charitable enough to recognize. An officer makes a decision and it's done, he doesn't have the, ah, the latitude of sitting down in a cool room and evaluating this and getting opinions and trying a test run on this and seeing if this, this will fly or doesn't fly. It's a question of one, two, three and it's over.


INTERVIEWER: And if you had the chance to respond, we talked to a member of the Black community and he said--
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think that, that's a foregone that there are always those charges made in every major city that's had a riot, it's always been the fault of the police. I maintain that, I can't speak for other cities, I do know what the temper and the tenor of Detroit was, and it's not just my opinion, it's an opinion that was shared by people who are far more astute than I in the area of social progress and social gains, and human and race relations. I think that my own experience would lead me to believe that there was an honest effort and a very good fulfillment of an, of an attempt to make the department more responsive to the needs of its citizens, and I don't think that anybody can deny that. The fact that it happened here did not necessarily mean that, that we were amiss, it just means we might have been doing enough or that somebody else seized upon an opportunity or exploited a weakness that we had.


JOHN NICHOLS: Well, in, in, in almost, inevitably if a riot happens, generally somewhere down the line it will be the police's fault: the police overreacted, there were too many of them, there weren't enough of them, they took too, too, strict, strict a st--a status or they didn't take a strict enough stand. And I think that's a foregone conclusion that eventually, since the police are on the cutting edge of everything, that we're going to get the blame for about 75% of what goes on, but we rarely get any credit.


INTERVIEWER: Is there anything I haven't asked you about in Detroit?
JOHN NICHOLS: I can't think of anything, can't think of a thing.


INTERVIEWER: So were the police aware of the existence of any paramilitary type organizations or any pattern in the riot?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think at the time there were a great many paramilitary organizations were active in society. There also was a pattern in, in urban riots. There was a pattern in the manner in which the looting too--took place, a pattern in what got looted first: generally liquor stores, firearms places, furniture stores, records were destroyed quite regularly, in furniture stores the credit records were, were among the first things that were burned, so there was this pattern. I don't think it was a part of a national effort on the part of subversive elements to say this is the way we'll do it, but there has been, there had been some indication that the same pattern is followed in most of the cities.


INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me anything about Watts, when you investigated Watts?
JOHN NICHOLS: I didn't investigate Watts, I went to Watts as an, as an observer in the, during their, during their disorder, and what I said was that the same situation arose there in terms of criticism of the police--


JOHN NICHOLS: Pretty much the same, pretty much the same.


JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think what we found was that they would loot stores that had credit, and after they had taken out what they wanted in terms of value, then they were ready to burn, and the first things that got burned were the credit records, so that individuals who had bills there would find it difficult to figure out how much they had.


INTERVIEWER: And in terms of the, um, the type of materials ?
JOHN NICHOLS: That wasn't, that wasn't particularly after the riot, it was, it was a continuing type of thing that occurred before the riot and after the riot, and there was no doubt in any of our minds who had been active in the, in the police circles that many of the splinter groups were receiving information comparable to the type of information that would be given to regular military units on how to disassemble and assemble weapons, principles of booby-trapping, principles of small unit tactics and a great many other things that were combi--combinations of our own military forces and many foreign military forces. I think you have to remember that the United States at that time was involved in a, in a guerilla type warfare, and many of our soldiers may have come back with a great deal of knowledge that was applicable to, to the urban battle too.


JOHN NICHOLS: It does and I, that was a point that I attempted to make, that when an individual is on the street, he, as a police officer, or she, as a police officer, is subject to all those stimuli, so the decision he makes may be highly colored. It may not be as he thinks it was. In the cold gray light of the dawn it may be something else but can you criticize an individual when he's reacting to that kind of an environment?


JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think, I think what you're, what you're seeing is you've got an environment, you know that you're not well-liked, you know that there's been sniping, you know that there's fires going on all along, all, all around you, and suddenly you see something that you think is a fi--is, is, is a, a discharge blast of a firearm. You might very well open up. And you might very well hit a nine year old kid who flicked his dad's cigarette lighter, too. I mean, those are the kind of things that when they're taken out of context, looks hideous. "Police shoot nine year old." "Police shoot unarmed citizen." That's not the way it appeared at the time. Now what I'm saying, and what I said before is that you have to recognize that what an individual perceives at the time may not be actually what somebody else under the cool scrutiny of, of easy and relaxed inspection actually finds. He's reacting to an environment. He's reacting in a, in a sense fear just as well as, as the citizens are. It's not a situation to go into those sit--those things on the street. If you shoot too soon, you're crucified. If you shoot too late, you're buried. It's a no-win, no-win situation.