On a hot summer night in July 1967, Julie Hysell’s life changed forever.
The 18-year-old Ohio native was visiting Detroit with her friend, Karen Malloy, and was holed up in the Algiers Motel as the race riots raged nearby. Outside, the city was on fire, but inside, the scene was more relaxed. The girls were listening to music and cooking hot dogs with fellow motel guests when one, Carl Cooper, pulled out a shooter pistol and shot blanks into the air.
Police and the National Guard soon swarmed the building, looking for a sniper and a rifle that they believed made the noise. Cooper was shot in the melee. Hysell, Malloy and seven other guests — who, unlike Hysell and Malloy, were black — were lined up against a wall and interrogated. As the night wore on, the police officers hurled racial epithets and threatened to kill everyone if they didn’t come clean about the shots. “We were brutalized,” she says. “We were beaten for hours. I wouldn’t want anybody to go through that.”
Eventually a National Guardsman tried to defuse the situation and brought Hysell and Malloy back to their room. Hysell’s head was badly bleeding; she had been struck by an officer’s gun and needed stitches. But she was one of the lucky ones.
In the chaos of the night, three black men who were staying in the motel — Cooper, Auburey Pollard and Fred Temple — were shot to death. Hysell went back to Ohio and later testified in the trials of the police officers. They were found not guilty.
The events of that night are the subject of the new Kathryn Bigelow film “Detroit.” Hysell was on set nearly every day of shooting, advising Bigelow on the movie’s accuracy. In between scenes, the cast would pepper her with questions about that night. Participating in the production helped Hysell heal. “I don’t think I processed a lot of what happened until making this movie,” she says.
For weeks, Hysell watched as actors portrayed the charged events. They were shoved up against a wall, harassed and clubbed by performers dressed as police officers. It was tough. However, one moment hit Hysell harder than the rest. “The biggest day for me emotionally was when the not-guilty verdict was read,” she says. “Just those words. I had to leave the set.”
Hysell lost touch with the men and women who survived the night.
“Karen came home, changed her name,” says Hysell. “I saw her about a year later at a mall, and she looked at me, and you’d have thought she saw the Ghost of Christmas Past. She ran out of that mall.” Hysell rarely opened up to friends and family about the Algiers Motel incident. By her own admission she just wanted to blend in. But the guilt and fear remains. To this day she freezes up when seeing the lights of a police car. Hysell has found other ways to cope.
“I wonder: Is this why I drank and have been in AA for 22 years?” says Hysell. “Is this why I’ve been married three times? Did I have PTSD?” She also struggled with coming to terms with what role her race played in enraging the police officers. Did they turn violent at the sight of white women hanging out with black men? “I felt guilty because I was a white person and the black people were the ones who got killed,” she says. “If we’d been two black girls, maybe none of this would have happened.”
Hysell, now a 68-year-old mother of four and grandmother of five, has seen the film and praises Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal for capturing the turmoil of the night with so much care and detail. She hopes that audiences turn out to see the picture and that it helps foster a wider debate about race and the criminal-justice system. Each time there’s a shooting of an unarmed black man, be it Trayvon Martin or Freddie Gray, it stirs up her frustrations that the racial tensions that exploded in a Detroit motel five decades ago are still being sparked across America’s cities and towns.
“I’m shocked that 50 years later this is still happening,” Hysell says. “I’ve tried to raise my kids and my grandkids with the idea that everybody should be treated equal, no matter your color or your sexual preference or whatever. Everybody’s a person. You don’t go around shooting people.”