Racial Divide Grows Wide in Troubled Detroit

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 21, 2014 at 8:12 pm •  Published: April 21, 2014
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c.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.

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