Abstract

During the early 1970s, a broad-based campaign comprising liberal and radical organizations emerged to confront the Detroit Police Department’s clandestine “Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets” (STRESS) unit. The campaign to defeat STRESS drew from a diverse set of tactics; activists organized marches, demonstrations, and political education events and engaged in movement-based lawyering, public testimony, and electoral politics. As casualties of STRESS accumulated, Detroiters framed the unit as a killer squad with the primary purpose of terrorizing Black Detroiters. The STRESS killings during the early 1970s and the movement against them made Detroit a flashpoint for debate about race, crime policy, and effective policing, with far-reaching implications for both the police and the city.

The campaign to defeat STRESS demonstrated the efficacy of Detroit’s Left during the early 1970s. The left wing of the movement, comprised of radical Black Power activists and white New Leftists, accomplished two overlapping goals. It not only helped build a vast coalition of organizations around the issue of police brutality but also, importantly, developed and articulated its own original analysis of radical criminology. Leftists critiqued the criminal state as the nexus between the state and private sector; these institutions swallowed resources and damaged lives. Challenging liberal theories of crime emphasizing individual agency, radicals advanced a structural analysis emphasizing racism’s and capitalism’s destructive impulses—deindustrialization, exploitation of workers, violent policing, and privatization, in the service of consumption and capital investment.

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