May 04, 2023

By Steve Dunwoody


As Los Angeles remembers 31 years since the LA riots that took place on April 29-May 4th 1992, following the not guilty verdict of the police officers that beat Rodney King, I reflect on my own experience and connection, as well as to the modern-day with the murder of George Floyd, leading to the racial reckoning in the summer of 2020. I was born and raised in inner-city Detroit, but as a child, I would visit my great-grandmother here, who lived in Watts and Monrovia. I was 11 at the time of the riots, but visiting my great-grandmother the summer after, I could still see the damage of burned-out buildings, abandoned vehicles, and graffiti covering the walls. It reminded me of the stories about the Detroit riots from the 1960s, which stemmed from the same racial injustice.

Many of the city’s Black residents had grown fed-up with the city’s program to “reduce crime” following the Detroit riots of 1967, following a police raid on a Black speakeasy establishment, which escalated into the National Guard being called out. At the heart of the riots were years of racism, segregation, unemployment, lack of economic opportunity, and, with urban renewal programs and highway construction, the destruction of stable Black communities.


A commission formed by Lyndon Johnson to look into the underlying reasons for discontent, the Kerner Commis­sion, said the country was moving towards becoming “More separate and more unequal.” In the summer, Detroit instituted a policing program in the 1970s called STRESS (“Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets), leading to my mother’s cousin getting killed by police. Black people in the city were excited about the race and had a reason to be mobilized.

According to a recent news article, the STRESS program “Would prove to be one of the most excessive and lawless policing experiments in modern history.” The group was formed as a “zero visibility patrol” and acted in secrecy, wearing plain clothes and driving in unmarked police cars. The police engaged in unlawful searches and stops of Black residents for little or no reason, turning into a virtual occupying force.

My family would come face-to-face with this program when in that same Spring of 1973, my grandmother Gertrude’s first cousin, also named Robert Hoyt, after their grandfather, was murdered by two plain clothes police officers. As a young man, Robert moved north from the South later than most of the family did in the late 1960s in search of work. He lived with my mother’s family and was close enough that he would give her and her sister rides to school. He eventually found work with General Motors on their assembly line. One day, coming home late from the night shift, as one account goes, he accidentally fell asleep at the wheel and rear-ended a vehicle. The person driving the other vehicle was Scott Peterson, a Detroit police officer in the STRESS unit. As one account says, he and another officer with him thought it was intentional-so they say. They pulled his vehicle over and, when they asked him to get out, shot him down, unarmed, to the ground. Officer Peterson, who had a notorious reputation and was known as “Mr. STRESS,” had participated in several murders/killings of particularly Black men.

In the case of my cousin, they claimed that he had a knife, but forensic evidence would later reveal that Petersen had planted the knife on my cousin at the scene. He was charged and convicted of 2nd-degree murder. He would serve only a few years and be released, where he was given a position working for the LAPD in Los Angeles.

The STRESS program was true to its name and put Black residents in the city of being under martial law in the city. This served as a galvanizing force in the backdrop of the Mayor’s race, which helped turn out Black voters at the polls. Indeed one of Mayoral candidate Coleman Young’s key promises was that he would end the STRESS program if elected.

Anger over the program resulted in the election of the first Black Mayor of Detroit, whose campaign my mother volunteered on. The campaign workers, including my mother, knocked on doors, made calls, and worked to get the word out about the election. When Coleman Young was elected the first African-American mayor of Detroit in 1972, there was a feeling of jubilation from the city's Black residents, akin to when Barack Obama was elected president. His election, however, would also precipitate “White flight” from the city of its White residents and state capital. He, however, kept his promise to end the STRESS program. In addition, he successfully integrated the police department and instituted community policing, which was instrumental in bringing incidents of police brutality down.

Cities across America could learn a lot from the experience of Detroit to ensure public safety and accountability are not mutually exclusive. We can have both.

A millennial, based in Los Angeles, Steve Dunwoody is a veteran, college educator, and community advocate.

Category: Opinion