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The Tragedy of the American Military
The front door has a permanent squeak, to let the brothers know when someone comes in. They work behind a thick shield of bullet-resistant glass, and behind the counter keep a small arsenal - a. Friday nights are especially busy, and the brothers waited on a steady stream of customers. During the week, when things are quieter, they go downstairs into the basement and take target practice in a makeshift pistol range.
The basement serves a less sporting purpose, too; it is where the brothers take shoplifters. On the other side of the room, on a chain-link leash, was the family Doberman, Taza - ''tender'' in Chaldean Arabic. When extended, the leash lets Taza come within inches of the genitals of the thief. After a few charges, thieves usually get the point. One of John's hobbies is monitoring the police radio. That night we heard a weekend crackle of announcements - shootings, break-ins and other assorted crimes.
John didn't seem to be listening, but suddenly he held up his hand for silence. Together we heard the report of a holdup at a nearby grocery store. John dashed from behind the counter, jumped into a van parked outside and headed for the scene of the crime. As we raced through the ruined streets of the east side it crossed my mind that if anything happened, my friends in Tel Aviv would never believe that I was killed trying to protect an Arab grocer.
To my profound relief, it proved to be a false alarm. John turned the van around and drove back toward his store.
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We hadn't gone more than a few blocks before spotting an agitated crowd of kids on the front lawn of a ramshackle house. John pulled over. As we got out, we saw a boy, maybe 14, lying on the grass, oozing blood from a knife wound in his chest. A friend held his head in his arms and moaned softly, ''Don't die, Matthew, don't die now, baby,'' but the stabbed boy didn't respond.
Neighbors on either side of the house stood on their porches and watched the scene with dismay. In the distance, we heard the sound of an ambulance siren. Within a minute or so it arrived, and stretcher bearers took the boy away. Shortly after that statistic appeared in the newspaper, I asked a black journalist why Detroit's kids are so violent. The reporter regarded me with disdain. I had asked a naive question, and she was letting me know it. I also detected a note of resentment in her voice. Throughout my stay in Detroit, the only real hostility I encountered was from members of the black intelligentsia.
Some were better at concealing it than others, but very often there was an unspoken question in the air - What the hell do you care? White apathy regarding the fate of blacks in general, and black children in particular, is so pervasive that interest is automatically a cause for suspicion.
A Regionalist Tragedy
This is reflected in the antipathy that many blacks, including black journalists, feel toward the Detroit newspapers and television affiliates. The major media are all white-owned and operated, and most of their reporters and editors live outside the city. Several years ago, black reporters at The Detroit News staged a weeklong byline strike to protest discrimination in assignments, and most of them, at The News and elsewhere, continue to believe that press coverage of black affairs swings between the sensational and the apathetic.
Certainly this is true in the case of teen-age violence. Particularly gruesome killings, especially when the victim is white, get front-page treatment.
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But average murders are reported on inside pages under laconic headings like ''In This Weekend's Shootings. But it is also true that black teen-agers killing one another is of scant interest to the upscale suburbanites who are the media's target market. In the city, however, where hardly a family has been untouched by adolescent violence or drug addiction, the question of kids - how to raise them, protect them, defend yourself against them - is a constant topic.
In a strange way it reminded me of Israel, where parents are universally concerned about their children's compulsory military service. Yet the chances of a teen-ager being shot on the streets of Detroit are far greater than those of an Israeli soldier being wounded in combat.
Clementine Barfield learned that in July , when her year old son, Derick, and his year-old brother, Roger, became 2 of the children shot in Detroit that year. Roger survived; Derick did not. So I went out and started one. Half a dozen women, mothers of slain children, were in the Sosad office that day, performing the menial tasks that go with running an organization.
They worked quietly while Clementine Barfield, a frequently interviewed woman, patiently retold the story of the day that changed her life. The next day Derick and Roger went looking for the boy. He saw the Barfields first, sitting in their car in a gas station. Afraid they had a gun, the boy fired four shots into the car and fled. The gunman was 18 years old; he was sent to jail.
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Barfield handed me a copy of the program for Sosad's first Mother's Day benefit. It was a glossy booklet, featuring page after page of ads - memorial messages from bereaved parents, with pictures of their murdered children. Our sons are at risk - to suicide, murder, jail and hopelessness. Really it's genocide; the enemy is the society that has forced the situation on them. Right now, the largest employer of young men in Detroit is drugs. Genocide seemed a strong word; after all, the vast majority of black victims are killed by other black teen-agers. The real enemy is hopelessness.
One of the women who had been stuffing envelopes when I arrived was listening to our conversation. Suddenly she began to sing, in a soft, mournful contralto: ''Reach out and touch somebody's hand, make this a better world if you can,'' she sang, and the other ladies in the office put down their papers and joined in. A phone rang but no one answered it. Instead they sang on, mothers lamenting a generation of hopeless, furious, defenseless children.
Many blacks look beyond the Eight Mile Road border and see an undifferentiated, uncaring world of suburban affluence where they are neither liked nor wanted. As Arthur L. Johnson, head of the local N. During the years of the great white exodus, this antipathy was impersonal. It got a face in , with the election of Mayor Coleman Young.
The problem started with Young's inaugural address, in which he warned hoodlums - whether they're wearing ''Superfly suits'' or ''blue uniforms with silver badges'' - to ''hit Eight Mile Road'' and keep on going. The idea of Detroit policemen crossing the boundary didn't seem to bother suburbanites, but they were mightily exercised by the prospect of a legion of Superfly bad guys invading their turf. A more politic mayor would have tried to mend fences, but Young is not a fence-mender.
He dubbed his neighbors ''the hostile suburbs'' and mounted a campaign of verbal and political harassment that has continued with little abatement. In the fall of , for instance, Young gave an interview to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The occasion was Detroit's No Crime Day, and the interview, which has become legendary, went, in part, like this:. CBC: What would happen if you went door to door and started collecting all the guns?
Young: Well, then people wouldn't have guns to shoot at each other. I have no problem with collecting all the guns if it is done like you do it in Canada. But I'll be damned if I'm going to let them collect guns in the city of Detroit while we're surrounded by hostile suburbs and the whole rest of the state who have guns, where you have vigilantes, practicing Ku Klux Klan in the wilderness with automatic weapons. I am in favor of everyone disarming; I'm opposed to a unilateral disarming of the people of Detroit. Actually, the four million people of the metropolitan Detroit area - including Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties - are subdivided by ethnicity.
Macomb, to the northeast, is blue-collar territory; a large percentage of its people are second- and third-generation Poles and Italians who are refugees from Detroit. Oakland, to the northwest, is the second wealthiest American county among those with a population over 1 million, and it is dominated by WASP's, and to a lesser extent, Jews. Detroit itself is in Wayne County, where, outside the city, there is a substantial populations that is working-class Southern white, Hispanic and Arab.
In most ways, the towns of this tri-county area have little in common; what they share is an estrangement from Detroit. Unlike the suburbs of other major cities, they are not bedroom communities. The average suburbanite almost never visits the city - much less has any reason to want to live there. View all New York Times newsletters.
As for traffic the other way around, moving to the suburbs, even for those who want to, isn't so simple. Detroit's suburbs did not get to be the most segregated in the country by accident. A generation ago, when I was growing up in nearby Pontiac, Grosse Pointe had a ''point system'' to keep out undesirables. Prospective buyers were rated by skin color, accent, religion and other criteria, including a ''typically American way of life. In Dearborn, the seat of the Ford empire, segregation was less scientific, but equally virulent.
Mayor Orville L. Hubbard, a vocal segregationist, was kept in office for 36 years by an admiring populace who subscribed to his antiblack attitude. This sort of blatant race-baiting has all but disappeared from the public discourse of metropolitan Detroit. The fact is, civil-rights legislation and black political activism have chipped away at institutionalized racism.
In the summer of , for example, Dearborn was forced to accept its first black police recruit. A smattering of blacks now live there and in Detroit's other working-class suburbs. Even Grosse Pointe has a handful of wealthy black residents. Today, the main obstacles to integration are economic and social.
Realtors say there is no place in the Detroit area where a black can't buy a home, but the cost is often prohibitive.
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The most modest white neighborhoods in the suburbs are more than twice as expensive as comparable areas in the city - precisely because they are white. And those blacks who can afford to move often feel unwelcome. Nowhere is this truer than in Warren, a small city just east of Detroit, inhabited largely by Poles and Italians.
Twenty years ago, a mixed couple tried to move in, and police had to be called to protect them from outraged mobs. A few years later, the city turned down badly needed H. Today, the only important black institution in Warren is the Detroit Memorial Park Association, the metro area's largest black burial ground; and most Warrenites want to keep it that way.
Sabaugh, a county commissioner and public relations executive who, as a Warren City Councilman, helped lead the H. But the image of Detroit is of a decaying, crime-ridden city headed by a mayor who makes racist remarks. We view the values of people in Detroit as completely foreign.
We just want to live in peace. And we feel that anybody coming from Detroit is going to cause problems. Sabaugh, who ran unopposed in his last contest, faithfully mirrors the views of his constituents. Considering the conditions in the city, I wondered if anyone felt compassion for its residents.
Sabaugh seemed amazed at the notion. Not at all. I've never heard that. If you ever asked to raise taxes to help Detroit, it would go down 15 to 1. Guilt to help people who won't help themselves? That's a thought that's not even tolerated. If they saw a young kid in a destitute situation, there might be some compassion. But otherwise, no. There is no feeling of pity for Detroit in the suburbs.
Young's relations with the local media have been stormy, but the documentary was complimentary, and the Mayor seemed to be enjoying himself. The high point of the show came when he discussed his warm personal relations with former President Jimmy Carter. It is one of the few accusations he has escaped during a public career that has spanned almost 50 years. Young has been denounced as a heartless big-city boss and a ruthless dictator.
In the suburbs, he is considered a black racist; in the city, following his refusal to support the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Presidential bid, some people labeled him an Uncle Tom. There is only one thing that everyone agrees on: Coleman Young, 72 years old, the Mayor of Detroit since , who was elected to a fifth term last November, is a formidable and fascinating man.
Many Detroiters can never remember another mayor.
Today, there is a Coleman A. Young community center on the east side and a Coleman A. Young civic center downtown. Accomplished schoolchildren receive financial aid from the Coleman A. Young Scholarship Fund. The Mayor's picture hangs in virtually every city office; his name is inscribed on the stationery of city officials, and on their personal calling cards.