David Floody relived some of the most shocking days of his life to produce his latest novel.
The Detroit Riot of 1967 caused 43 deaths, 1,189 injuries and 7,231 arrests between July 23-July 27.
Roughly 4 kilometres away, the Canadian community of Windsor watched the violence unfold from the other side of the Detroit River.
“During the day I could look up at the sky above me in Windsor and it was blue, but a mile away it was just shrouded in smoke,” Floody told the Westerly News. “It looked like the Vietnam War had come to Detroit and I was watching it like a spectator sitting in a grandstand.”
The riot began on a Sunday night after police broke up an unlicensed bar in a black neighbourhood and the ensuing altercation pushed Detroit’s already tense race relations into five days of brutal and continuous violence. Floody, who is white, was 21 years old and shocked to see the town he visited with his friends so frequently, to watch the musical groups that never seemed to book tour dates in Windsor, in such turmoil.
“Windsor was the northern terminus of the underground slave railway, so a very vibrant and active black community and population had grown up around that area,” he said.
“It was, I have to say, a revelation. I was probably, even at 21, fairly naive about black-white relations in the States because I was so used to my black friends, teammates, girlfriends and so on I’d grown up with and hung out with.”
He recalled hanging out with his friends and watching the scene unfold.
“The Detroit skyline was right there in front of us all the time,” Floody said.
“One of the experiences I remember most vividly is sitting with probably half a dozen of my friends on the Windsor waterfront and there was this pall of black smoke swirling over Detroit and the sounds of automatic weapons and if you can imagine, ‘Huey’ helicopter gun ships from like the Vietnam War were flying through that smoke and stirring it up as they were looking for snipers on the roofs.”
He added Windsor was captivated by the scene, which he would watch during his lunch breaks atop a drug company building where he worked the nightshift.
“Even at 1-2 a.m., I could look down from the roof with the other guys that were working there and there were literally thousands of Windsorites along the banks of the Detroit River watching the riot, because it was during the night that the fires and all those things were the most vivid, the most obvious,” he said.
Floody now lives in Tofino and recently published The Colour of Pride, a novel that follows 14 year-old white Canadian male Frank, and Ellie, a black female from Detroit. The story takes place a year after the riot and focuses on remaining racial tensions.
Floody said reliving his own experience through his characters helped him explore the effect those five days had on him.
“I wanted to really explore, from 50 years later, that experience,” he said. “Everything is there. It’s like I’ve had a mental transfer of a lot of that sort of upset, anger, resentment and so on and I take this book and I can put it on a shelf. It’s always there and I know it’s always there but it’s in a form that I can now deal with far more easily.”
He said he chose fiction to help capture audiences.
“Sometimes, when I’m writing, it’s very, very intense. It’s like the rest of the world just goes away and I’m there in the story…I did a lot of research. I lived it. I saw the aftermath about a year later when I began going back to Detroit and it had changed. It just wasn’t the same. The atmosphere wasn’t the same,” he said. “For me, it just had to be done in story form as a narrative and, once I got into it, I wanted to make sure it was absolutely accurate.”
A book launch event for The Colour of Pride will be held in Tofino on April 5 from 7-9 p.m and, Floody said, the event will include discussions about Floody’s experiences, readings from the book and a slideshow of photographs.
“I’ve found some great ones in colour of Detroit during the riot, the flames, the police, the looting, store-owners sitting in front of their stores with shotguns across their laps to guard from looters and so on,” he said.
He added it’s an important piece of history to reflect upon for, he believes, one obvious reason.
“In a word, Trump,” he said. “The anti-semitism, the racism, the bias, the anti-immigrant sentiment, the Islamophobia that I’m seeing every night on the news—which I can’t avoid watching, it just hooks me—is reminding me again and again of some of the sentiment, some of the feelings, some of the racial slurs and stuff like that that I heard during the riot.
“I think we’re going through a very bad period and it’s probably similar to the period that Detroit was going through during the 50’s and early 60’s, up to the point of the riot, where there was just so much abuse of white and police power.”
Floody also plans to host a similar event at Ucluelet’s Blackberry Cove Market Place, though a date has not yet been finalized.