Forty Five Years After the Riot, Detroit's Blind Pigs Still Thrive
It was muggy early Sunday morning and about 160 men and women drank and listened to music inside a “blind pig” at a social hall on Detroit’s west side.
Then police raided the joint. It attracted little attention.
It was also sticky almost 45 years ago to the day when cops raided a blind pig about five miles away, at 12th and Clairmount. That raid ignited a week-long riot that changed the landscape of Detroit.
The raid on a recent Sunday turned out far better for police than the one on July 23, 1967. Yet one thing is clear: Decades later, blind pigs -- illegal after-hours drinking joints that often play host to prostitution, drugs and gambling -- are still thriving in Detroit, and police are still busting them.
Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, whose department led the weekend raid, conservatively estimates that there are 30 blind pigs operating in the city at any given time, mostly on weekends, and he’s determined to go after them.
“You get noise. You get commotion. Those activities spill over into the neighborhoods,” says Napoleon, the former chief of the Detroit Police Department. “You have people who leave the blind pigs and go into the neighborhoods and have sex in the cars, drink in the street, destroy the quality of life in the neighborhood. We’ve had instances where people go to the blind pigs and park in the residences’ driveways.”
On Sunday, the blind pig operated out of the Blue Stone Palace banquet hall in the 10000 block of Joy Road. The crowd was evenly divided; about 80 men and 80 women, including four minors and two people arrested for outstanding felony warrants -- one for vehicular homicide, the other for home invasion and assault with intent to murder.
Many of the men wore blue jeans or shorts. Some had Tigers hats; some wore expensive sneakers.
The women were decked out: Some in very short skirts, others in tight-fitting pants. There was a dance floor and disco ball suspended from the ceiling, a bar, round banquet tables draped with reddish-orange plastic table cloths and a dj station with stacks of homemade cd’s.
The police had sent some undercover officers into the club that night, as they had the two weeks earlier. They each paid a $10 cover and bought drinks. They were checked at the door -- like all customers -- to make sure they weren’t packing weapons.
Then, shortly before 4 a.m., dozens of cops burst in. They wore bullet-proof vests and army-style helmets, and some carried assault rifles -- and slapped plastic handcuffs on the patrons, employees and operators.
In the end, police ticketed 158 people for patronizing the illegal operation. Five received tickets for running an illegal establishment. Police seized 12 weapons, including an assault rifle, a half pound of marijuana, liquor and $1,342. They also impounded 60 automobiles from patrons and operators. It costs more than $1,000 to get each car back, a penalty designed to discourage people from patronizing the illegal spots.
A man who answered the phone this week at the Blue Stone Palace, who identified himself as the owner but declined to give his name, says he holds private fundraisers every weekend, and that no liquor was sold after hours, contrary to what undercover officers found.
He said his lawyer is going to deal with the bust.
“I guarantee the story is going to come out and people are going to see that me and my staff haven’t done anything wrong or illegal," he said.
With the big crowd and the time it took to process each person and check for outstanding warrants, things came off without any major glitches.
It could have gone down a lot differently, like it did 45 years ago, when police raided the blind pig at 12th and Clairmount that operated above a shop called Economy Printing. They arrested 82 people who were celebrating the return of two Vietnam vets. Undercover cops entered the club about 3:30 a.m., just like at the Joy Road club. And just like Sunday morning, there was security at the door.
According to “The Great Rebellion," by Kenneth Stahl, Patrolman Charles, one of the undercover cops, said: “I had trouble getting in. There was a pool table they’d use to shoot dice, a bar, a kitchen that served food. It looked like a third-rate bar. People were having a good time. There were different circumstances in those days. People were friendlier, they would drink and gamble, but there was very little dope. ”
As police escorted the patrons out into a paddy wagons on 12th Street, restless residents began throwing bottles and bricks. Someone smashed a storefront window. The match of revolt was lit. Six days later, 43 people were dead and tens of millions of dollars in property was damaged.
Things were different back then. The city had twice the population, and African Americans comprised about 40 percent of the residents, compared to more than 80 percent today. Blacks were virtually invisible in city government and were clearly under represented in the police department that had a troublesome reputation in the black community. And it was a far more volatile era, a time for rebellion in urban America.
All that that being said, authorities say, one of the more notable differences today in the blind pigs is that management is more heavily armed.
“Blind pigs by their very nature attract a dangerous element,” says Wayne County Sheriff Deputy Chief Dennis Richardson, who led the Sunday raid.
“They’re illegal after-hours establishments that operate with no license. They’re not inspected. They don’t pay taxes. They attract a wilder crowd. Part of the allure of the pig is they're illegal and they're dangerous.”
Richardson said there have been shootings in the past at some blind pigs, and some are safety hazards. He said the one on Joy Road had the back door bolted shut, which meant if there was a fire "everyone could have died."
One undercover police investigator who participated in the Sunday raid, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said some clubs like the one on Joy Road have entertainment that sometimes includes live woman-on-woman sex shows.
Some clubs have prostitution, topless dancing and gambling -- often dice games or poker -- and drugs are often sold on the premises, though not necessarily by the owners. He said some clubs rent out rooms for sex with prostitutes.
“They attract a lot of the drug kingpins, a lot of people who deal in the underworld,” the officer said.
He also said stickup men frequent some clubs. They keep a keen eye on the patrons, and follow outside the ones who have wads of cash.
He said most blind pigs operate out of storefronts and homes, but on occasion he has seen some in fixed-up abandoned homes. He said last year on Pinehurst near Schoolcraft, on the city’s west side, a blind pig was set up in an abandoned home and the operators were stealing electricity.
As the raid this past weekend illustrated, cracking down on illegal establishments can be labor intensive. The sheriff’s department, which has been the lead agency in the city against blind pigs because of manpower limitations at the Detroit Police Department, used dozens of sheriff’s deputies and Detroit and state police as well as officers from the Southeast Michigan Crimes Against Children Task Force and the Western Wayne County Community Response Team.
Often times, before a raid goes down, it takes several weeks of visits by undercover officers, who case out the joint to figure out who’s running them, what criminal activities are going on and where the guns and drugs are stashed. In the past year, authorities have cracked down on about three blind pigs.
“It’s a growing problem,” says Sheriff Napoleon.
He explained that a crackdown on touching dancers at licensed topless clubs around town has prompted some to turn to blind pigs, where there are no restrictions.
“A lot of folks go to these after-hours places where anything goes. It’s whatever you can negotiate with a woman.”
Not all people see bling pigs as a bad thing.
One female patron who was busted at the Joy Road blind pig said she’s a big fan of after-hours clubs. She said she works as a bartender and waitress at a Detroit topless club and doesn’t want to go home after closing some nights.
So she comes to the club, which stays open past the legal closing hour of 2 a.m.
“I love this place, it’s been here for years,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. She said security at the door checks patrons for weapons, so she feels safe.
She figures there are anywhere from 20 to 30 after-hours joints operating around town. She says she’s been to about 15 of them.
“This is one of the nicer places,” she said.