Racial Divide Grows Wide in Troubled Detroit

MONICA DAVEY
© 2014 New York Times News Service /

DETROIT - Steve Utash had driven the same streets through this city for years on the way to his tree trimming jobs or his home in the suburbs. But one afternoon this month, along this familiar route, he found a side of Detroit he had never encountered, the Detroit where racial tension, churning just below the surface, can break into lawlessness in broad daylight. He found a side where people sometimes talk about meting out justice on their own, mostly because they say they cannot be sure when or if the police will show up.
As Utash drove his pickup truck on the city’s East Side, a 10-year-old boy suddenly stepped into the street, the authorities said, and Utash’s truck hit him. Utash pulled over to check on the boy, whose leg was broken and whose mouth was bleeding. Soon after, a crowd descended on Utash, who is 54, beating and kicking him until he lost consciousness and was left in critical condition.
That Utash is white and the crowd black is only part of a broader, more complicated problem of crime and violence in a largely segregated metropolitan area. As church and civic leaders condemned the attack and some in the neighborhood stepped forward to identify those involved, Detroit began searching its soul to repair the damage.
“It’s just like everybody’s mad here in Detroit,” said Corey Gilchrist, a community activist who lives near where the incident occurred and called the incident “a triple loss” for: the young injured boy; five young men, including a juvenile, now charged in the beating; and Utash, who remains in a hospital, still not fully coherent, his family said.
If one afternoon could help explain the size of the challenges facing this bankrupt city - a task that turns out to require more than just shedding a mountain of debt - it may well be the story of Steve Utash.
As the families of Utash and the accused waited tensely in a cramped courtroom here Monday, a judge found probable cause to send to trial four of the men accused of assault with intent to murder and assault with intent to do great bodily harm. A fifth person, who is 16, was also charged with ethnic intimidation - the only overt nod to a racial element to the case, in a city that is more than 80 percent black surrounded by suburbs that, in some cases, are mostly white.
Along the streets here, people disagreed about the role of race in what had happened. Some said race was obviously a factor, but others said anger merely bubbled up over the cries of a young child, and people lashed out. In a way, it raised the same question some had here late last year when a black woman, Renisha McBride, was fatally shot through a screen door as she stood on the porch of a white suburban homeowner. Are fear and racial animosity so intense that the instant response is violence?
Kym Worthy, the Wayne County prosecutor, declined to discuss particulars of the case but said that race certainly remains a matter of tension in this city.
“We have a lot of work to do when it comes to race relations,” she said. “We always talk about it, but there’s no follow through.”
These are not small questions for a city that is in the midst of an overhaul of its police department and where Mayor Mike Duggan, the first white mayor in 40 years, has pledged to end a longstanding population slide and lure new residents here. Under a new police chief, the Detroit Police Department has reported a decrease in property crimes in the first quarter of 2014 of 28 percent over a year ago, and a 15 percent drop in violent crimes. But crime remains a pervasive worry, and many Detroiters said they felt obliged to keep weapons.
“We’re not alone as a city in having crime, but there just seems to be a relentlessness about it here,” said Kim Trent, who works at a think tank and is a member of the Board of Governors for Wayne State University.
Within a matter of two days, Trent had the tires of her car stolen, then found that the rental car she had borrowed so her car could be fixed was gone, too. Her husband has been held up, as has her father.
“Part of me feels like we’ve hit rock bottom,” she said.
Near Morang Drive and Balfour Road, where the beating happened, the neighborhood has faded in recent decades, houses have emptied and some lots are strewn with trash.
“It’s sad, but stuff like what happened here is part of being in Detroit,” Sam Daniels said from his post at the register behind bullet proof glass at Happy’s Pizza.
“You can’t fix Detroit,” said Mike Shirdel, who saw what happened from his regular spot across the street, in a chair outside the antiques store he has run for 30 years - and that has had a sign, “For sale by owner” for at least the last 10.
Utash’s truck hit the boy April 2, just after 4 p.m. The authorities said Utash was not at fault, and a surveillance video from a nearby shop suggests that the boy, who was standing with friends, stepped out into the busy street. Utash, who is a grandfather, pulled over, witnesses said, and emerged from his truck, asking about the boy who was lying in the street, crying.
Deborah Hughes, a retired nurse, tended to the boy, as a crowd of more than a dozen men gathered, stopping traffic in both directions. Some older teens and young adults began yelling at Utash - cursing him and asking, “What if that was my little brother?” Ashley Daniels, a witness, recalled.
A first punch was thrown, and Utash stumbled to the ground. When he got up, dazed, someone dared him to pick up his hat and from there the beating, kicking and stomping began, Daniels testified Monday. At one point, she said, Wonzey Saffold, one of the five accused, pulled a gun from his waistband, waved it in the air and then at Utash.
In court Monday lawyers for several of the men, who ranged from 17 to 30 years old, argued that the charges against their clients were too extreme and that some accused of a punch or a kick or two ought not be accused of intending to kill anyone. The Detroit police said they are still investigating and that additional arrests are possible.
The boy who was hit was treated for his injuries and released from the hospital.
The family of Utash has been holding vigil at the hospital, where, they said, he is conscious but still struggling and uncertain of what happened. Utash had no health insurance, but funds from around the world have poured in, they said, after family members issued an online plea for help. As of Monday, they had raised $180,912. But his condition, they said, remained bleak.
“He is still unable to distinguish reality from his delusions,” an online family posting announced over the weekend. “It is hard to explain in words what he is talking about. And very sad for us to see him this way.”
The crowd dispersed, witnesses said, when Hughes, the retired nurse, yelled at them.
“I saw a foot go 'bam!' and a foot go 'bam!' and a foot go 'bam!' and I said, 'Just leave him alone! Get off him!'” Hughes, who lives in a small apartment near where the incident occurred, recalled the other day. “I couldn’t understand that. Whether you’re green, white, pink, yellow, whatever, it’s a human being being beat.”
From Hughes’s perspective, the incident grew out of anger about the accident and an injured child. But, she said, as time went on and more people showed up, it turned racial.
“It got out of control,” she said.
Hughes, who said two of her five grown children had been killed in Detroit since 1997, was carrying the gun she keeps with her for protection that day, although she never took it out.