A city on the edge

Pamela Warrick

November 30, 1992|By Pamela Warrick

Detroit -- DIRT and gravel have been scattered over the blood stains, but there is no question that this is the spot. This is where the mortally wounded Malice Green sat -- oddly upright and still -- dying in the street.

"Right here. Right here," says a visitor to the site in this run-down residential neighborhood. "I never thought I'd see what you all seen in Los Angeles right here!"

Nor did Mayor Coleman Young. In the wake of the Rodney G. King beating, he and Police Chief Stanley Knox boasted that such a case was unlikely here. Not here where the mayor, police chief and more than half the force are black.

But on Nov. 5, a group of white police officers fatally beat Mr. Green, an unarmed black motorist, an eerie echo of the incident that helped to ignite the worst riots in modern U.S. history. Four officers were indicted in connection with Mr. Green's death, including a black sergeant who did not participate in the attack but, prosecutors say, failed to stop it.

"Hey, we're used to it here," said Albert Roberts, 30, who has lived in this west side neighborhood all his life. "This is a bad, bad place to live sometimes, and bad things happen here."

At the corner of 23rd Street and West Warren, Richard Arnold, 42, flashes the peace sign to passing cars. A few feet away, the Rev. Edward Collins, 60, paces with a portable microphone, shouting, "We are sick and tired of bein' sick and tired, sick and tired of bein' sick and tired . . . "

Mr. Collins has brought his modest PA system to the scene to "wake up folks to what's goin' on here, to make 'em see this is Rodney King all over again -- except worse. Rodney King, he didn't die."

Cars line up at the curb for a drive-by view of the shrine that has been built in Mr. Green's memory. The centerpiece is a blackboard with a hand-lettered message: "On this site, I lost a brother I never knew but deep down I know the pain . . . "

The plaque is framed by a pair of white loafers with gold buckles, said to be Mr. Green's favorite shoes. Someone has used a felt-tip pen to decorate the shoes with dozens of tiny black crosses.

The curious shake their heads when they see the shoes and speculate about what it will take to keep the peace here.

Three days after Mr. Green was killed, about 150 people turned out for a rally to peacefully protest "police brutality." Several days later, more than 2,000 came out for Mr. Green's funeral and a gathering afterward to chant, "No justice, no peace" -- a familiar Los Angeles refrain.

Some attribute the relative calm to the absence of a videotape of this beating, as there was in the King case. Others say sub-freezing temperatures are responsible for the cooler response.

But some, including Rodney King himself, believe the muted public reaction here may have more to do with quick official response than with videotapes or inclement weather.

In an interview from his lawyer's office in Santa Ana, Calif., Mr. King praised Detroit's police chief and mayor for their fast action. Unlike some Los Angeles officials, said Mr. King, "they didn't hesitate or say [police] had to have a motive for this [beating]."

Just last week at a University of Michigan debate, former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates not only defended his actions in the King case but attacked Detroit officials for their handling of the Green beating, especially the chief's suspension of officers "before the investigation was completed . . ."

Tearful and outraged by early reports of how Mr. Green died, Chief Knox and Mayor Young scrambled from the start to reassure the black community that, as Mr. Knox put it, "this type of thing will not be tolerated."

Chief Knox swiftly suspended without pay seven officers who had been at the scene of Mr. Green's death and publicly condemned the beating as "a senseless act." The mayor went even further, announcing that Green was "literally murdered by police."

When Coleman Young was elected Detroit's first black mayor in 1974, it was on a platform calling for the transformation of the 82 percent white police force.

Today, the chief and most of the officers are black. But as Mayor Young conceded after the Green beating, that may not be enough.

The problem, as some community leaders see it, is not black vs. white, but "[police] blue vs. everybody else," as one city councilman put it.

In April 1991, after the King beating, Mr. Knox issued a special order against police brutality. "Excessive and inappropriate use of force will subject members to extremely serious consequences . . . ," the order said. Officers have "a responsibility to prevent and curtail excessive use of force . . . "

Today, Mayor Young professes shock at what has happened.

"We're an entirely different department from Los Angeles," the stunned mayor told a Detroit columnist. "If this could happen here, it could happen anywhere."

Pamela Warrick wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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