Family Survivor Recalls Tragic Algiers Motel Story Retold in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit”
She’s known for the last two years that the moment she’d have to face a tragic past was coming. Being consulted in the process didn’t make it any easier. But Thelma Pollard-Gardner felt strongly that it was time for her brother’s story to be heard.
On August 4, when filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” makes its debut at the box office, everyone will finally be able to see what happened in the Motor City on Tuesday, July 25, 1967 during four days of civil unrest when three black teens were murdered by Detroit police officers in the Algiers Motel. Her brother—Aubrey Pollard—was one of them.
Last month, during the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riots, Pollard-Gardner joined some of the living survivors of the Algiers Motel incident and other surviving family members along with a star-studded cast that included Anthony Mackie, John Boyega, Jacob Lattimore, Algee Smith and John Krazsinki for the film’s world premiere held at Detroit’s Fox Theatre.
The retired science teacher had been told by the filmmakers that it was violent, so she prepared for the worst.
“I thought oh, my Lord, I don’t know if I can look at this again.” Pollard-Gardner recounts. “However, when I saw the movie, it wasn’t as bad as having seen those [real life] survivors from that hotel— my brother’s friends and associates…their faces and battered bodies. It was gruesome”.
Still, viewing the last hours of her brother’s life played out on the silver screen in the nearly two and a half hour long film was difficult and unsettling. The hardest part was reliving the painful memories of not only how her brother died, but the devastating impact it had on her family.
She remembers it all as if it were yesterday.
“I was 16. The riots had gone on for several days and the police were out of control. From the front porch, I could see the National Guard and the army ride up and down the street in tanks and the smoke from the fires. There was a curfew, so I didn’t go out. Racial tensions had always been high in Detroit. My oldest brother used to say the police used to pull him over and tell him, “Run nigger”.
“The riots had started on a Saturday night at 12th and Clairmount when the police raided a Blind Pig. It was a gambling place and from my understanding— people were in there celebrating some soldiers who were home from Vietnam.”
The nation had been in the midst of what was dubbed “America’s long hot summer” with uprisings around the county. With that raid on a hot summer night, the spark was lit for one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in U.S. history. Ironically, for all of the destruction of the riots—43 dead, including a four year old girl; over 1100 injured; 7,000 arrests; 2,509 stores looted or burned; 388 families displaced; 412 buildings burned and property damage of $40-45 million—it was the incident at the Algiers Motel —an establishment associated with gambling and prostitution, that would come to represent the worst of what happened.
“I never knew anything about the Algiers Motel before that,” Pollard-Gardner recalls. “It was a place for my brother and his friends to go…a hangout. Proximity wise, they could walk there. There was gambling and drinking. My brother did not drink and did not have weed. That part of the movie was embellished, but he did gamble and for me, he was a protector, but if you said something he didn’t like, he might hit you.”
Looking back, she says her brother shouldn’t even have been there. He’d been there the night before and reported to family members that police had come to the hotel and pushed them around.
“My Mom said, ‘Don’t go back there tonight, Aubrey, because if they came there and roughed you up the night before, they’ll come back and kill you. But at 19, you’re not going to follow your Mom. His attitude was I’ll be okay, don’t worry about it.”
Sadly, that would be the last time she ever saw her brother alive.
About a dozen mostly youth—Carl Cooper and Auburey Pollard; friends Michael Clark, Lee Forsythe, and James Sortor; two white women, Juli Hysell and Karen Malloy; Vietnam vet Robert Greene, Charles Moore, and members of "The Dramatics" singing group—Fred Temple, Roderick Davis and Cleveland Larry Reed— had taken refuge from the rioting in the motel’s annex. Police rushed the hotel following blanks fired from a starter pistol in what was believed to be a prank. In the hours that followed, they were beaten, tortured and three lay dead.
“About six o clock that Wednesday morning. His friend—James Sortor— called and asked to speak with my mother,” Pollard-Gardner continued. “They’d been at the Algiers together. I’m thinking it’s six o’clock in the morning, but he said it’s an emergency. All I remember is my Mom started screaming.
Because the officers had never made a police report, her mother was left to call around to police stations and ask where was her son, and at first, no one had any information on Pollard or the other two teens shot at the motel.
In an effort to cover up the incident, the police left the scene and the bodies to be discovered by others. With the eyes of the nation on Detroit, the FBI was called in to investigate the Detroit Police Department. Two to three days later, officers Ronald August, Robert Paille and David Senak, were taken into custody and eventually charged in three different cases, including murder, conspiracy and federal civil rights violations.
“My Dad went to the morgue with his mother to identify the body and couldn’t believe what he saw. It was much worse than in the movie and he was in total shock that they’d beat his son up like that. He was shot in the arm with a rifle you’d shoot a moose with and was beat so bad that a lot of make up was used just to make the body suitable for burial”.
In that moment, everything changed for the Pollard family.
“The one who really was impacted was my older brother. He was in Vietnam and he and my brother were real close. He always said, if I would have never gone to the service, my brother wouldn’t be dead.
Her Dad never spoke about it, though she found out later that he’d gone to the motel crime scene and collected pellet fragments. A brother suffered three nervous breakdowns. Her Mom just wanted justice.
“To lose your child in such a brutal way, my mom attended the trial every day. They didn’t drive back then so all three ladies—my mom, Fred Temple’s mother and Carl Cooper’s mother had someone to drive them 70 miles away to be in court everyday.”
Sadly, justice was something they would never get, even with a confession from two of the three police officers involved, including the one who shot her brother. The trial had been moved 70 miles away to Flint, Michigan with the defense arguing that the officers wouldn’t get a fair trial in Detroit.
Witnesses were reluctant to testify for fear of reprisals from the police.
Pollard-Gardner recalls that, “the witnesses they did have, they tried to discredit. [Survivor] Michael Clark was ultimately sent to prison for something else and never spoke again about it. Another survivor, Lee Forsythe, also went to prison. They caught him on something else, but their whole lives had changed.”
An all-white jury was subsequently seated in that trial and the two that would follow. In each of the trials and appeals lasting over the next five years, the officers—who were released from the Detroit Police Department— would eventually be acquitted.
Despite her own anger, Pollard-Gardner— who went through her “rebellious stage” of wanting to be a political activist—had inner strength and faith enough to excel.
“It had such a horrible impact on my family,” she reflects. “We’d been real close and I always felt so loved by my parents and brothers. I was the baby of these four boys, but somehow I was able to avoid the obstacles my brothers had being black men. They didn’t necessarily make it like I did. I eventually went on to college and got my degree.”
Each of the families received $62,500 to settle after filing lawsuits against the city of Detroit and the site on which the Algiers Motel once stood is now Virginia Park. Pollard Gardner has kept up with news surrounding the Algiers Motel incident reporting, “The officer that shot my brother is dead. I believe the other one is dead as well, but the snake of all the police officers— David Senak— is now a deacon at a church.”
While justice eluded her brother, she hopes the film can make a difference and that it leads to a greater sensitivity on the part of police and citizens.
“The way the tension is right now in the United States, I hope that it doesn’t spark any additional uprising, just because the climate right now in America is real volatile. But there are a lot of people who are in denial of racism. I don’t know that it will impact those who believe racism doesn’t exist and that the police are justified in what they do, but this stuff has been going on forever and this movie is validation of that. I want people to be aware of what’s going on, the history behind it and why black people feel the way they do.”