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SHORTLY after midnight on July 25, 1967, at the height of the Detroit riots, police and National Guard troops seized the annex of the Algiers Motel. They were searching for snipers. Two hours later, having found no snipers, the law enforcement officials left the Algiers Motel. Only the bodies of three black youths remained in the annex.
When John Hersey, determined to do a book on the Detroit riots, chose to concentrate on the events at the Algiers Motel, he had settled on an incident rich in tragedy and drama, one that is a good basis for a novel. He chose, however, to explore the situation in a work of reportage, foregoing his opportunity, as perhaps the best-informed observer of the affair, to propose answers to moot questions and to make judgements on the players and the action of the drama. One wishes he had written the novel, or at least darned the holes in his account with novelistic thread.
In his attempt to render the account as believable as possible, Hersey chose to construct the book from court testimony, police records, newspaper accounts, sometimes inaccurate, of the shootings, and a series of interviews Hersey held with survivors, policemen, and the families of the slain men. This technique succeeds, more or less, in achieving the believability for which Hersey strives, but Hersey's refusal to allow himself any room for speculation forces him to leave unanswered some of the most important questions about the events of that Wednesday night.
From the transcripts of Hersey's interviews with each of the participants, only one of the three Detroit policemen involved in the affair, Patrolman David Senak, would seem capable of the kind of thinking which could produce the savage beatings and indiscriminate killing that resulted from the discovery of eleven black men and two white women in the same part of a motel.
The 24-year-old Senak, nicknamed "Snake," had been working on the vice squad for two months in July, 1967. He was devoted to police work, but the nature of his job had had an affect on him.
"I think one bad aspect of my life as far as the Police Department goes is that I never really fell in love with any girls up to the point where I joined the Police Department. And then afterward, the type of work I did on the force reflected a sort of bad attitude toward w-o men in general.
"... I know all women aren't prostitutes,... but I think subconsciously it affects me."
"Do you think," I asked him, "that this has made you think of women as essentially evil, or more apt to be criminal than men?"
His answer was: "Who gave who the apple?"
Senak had shot and killed two men that Tuesday before being called to the Algiers Motel.
The two other policemen seemed to be typical normal products--young, competent, with fairly strong controls on the latent racism which is bred into most white Americans from birth. Ronald August had always seemed "quiet and respectable" to his fellow policemen.
Yet it was August who confessed to the murder of one of the blacks, Auburey Pollard Jr.--the only one of the murders which can be ascribed to a definite killer. His colleagues, attempting to frighten the civilians into revealing the identity of the non-existent sniper, had taken several of the blacks into separate roms, fired some shots into the ceiling, and returned to the motel residents left lined up in the hallway saying things like "that one didn't even kick." One of the other officers then asked August, "Do you want to kill one now?" August answered, "Yes," and, not being aware of the nature of the "game," took Aubury Pollard into one of the motel rooms and killed him with a shotgun blast at close range.
Why did Patrolman August say "Yes"? What destroyed the controls August had carefully built up? Was he just especially susceptible to the heady power granted by a gun and a badge, or would most whites react in the same fashion in a similar situation? Hersey has sacrificed his ability to suggest answers to these questions in order to write his documentary.
ONCE Hersey had chosen the documentary format, the only controls left to him were organizing and editing the documents and interviews which he had gathered. Sad to say, his performance of these two tasks was second-rate. The continuity of the book is jerky, again a result of Hersey's almost total reliance on direct quotes to tell the story. Irrelevant details abound throughout the book, dissipating most of the interest aroused by the terror of the actual episode. In their rush to publish the book, too, Hersey and his publishers have hurt the book. A myriad of proofing errors mar Hersey's pains-takingly-built facade of honesty.
The recognition of the importance of sex in interracial strife, vignettes of the lives of blacks in cities, descriptions of the biases in law enforcement agencies and in courts all redeem many of the shortcomings of this book. But the inherent structural difficulties cannot be overcome.
The Algiers Motel incident is one of unique significance on the current American racial battleground. It deserves a better treatment than this book gives it. Hopefully it will get it sometime soon.
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