by Barry Michael Cooper
The Village Voice Investigative Feature That Became a 1991 Warner Bros. Film: First Published on December 1st, 1987
MOTOR CITY BREAKDOWN
I. BLOOD LIKE WATER
“Yo-yo, where the money at?”
Lenny Higgins, 17 at the time, didn’t usually go to the store with his foster brother James, also 17, but on the night of March 1, 1987, James asked and Lenny obliged. It was 10:30. At Williamson’s Party Store, on Perry Park Boulevard on Detroit’s West Side, they bought sodas and played some games. They left about 10:45. As Lenny tells the story, he and James were approaching their corner of Heckler Street when a hooded figure ran across the street and stopped them in their tracks. Clad in a black jacket and black hooded sweatshirt, Mark Hunter, 24, pulled a .357 Magnum from his pants waist and stuck it in James’s temple.
“Yo-yo, where the money at?”
Three seconds later another figure joined Hunter and put another .357 to Lenny’s head. Lenny had seen this boy around the neighborhood, knew him slightly, but they weren’t friendly: Dashaw Green, 15. Wearing a black, Run-D.M.C.-style “popcorn” leather jacket, hooded black sweatshirt, black jeans, and white laceless Adidas, he echoed his partner:
“Where the money at? Which one a y’all got the money?”
Lenny was confused, scared, angry - but not willing to be a toy hero, a dead toy hero - “Here!” he said, “You can have my money, just don’t shoot me!”
Lenny gave up his $26, and James handed over $30 or $40. After they took the money, Mark and Dashaw looked at each other, an evil, hungry look, Lenny says. They lowered their guns and pushed Lenny and James backward. Mark raised his gun and fired. Flames spit out the muzzle like and orange and white blur, hitting James in the abdomen. The bullet exited through the spine. James doubled over. Lenny was frozen. Mark and Dashaw ran five or six steps in the opposite direction, but then Dashaw turned around. Mark turned around. Dashaw hesitated for a split second. Maybe he thought, I’m with my boy, and if I don’t shoot, he might think I’m frontin’. He might even shoot me. I can’t let this nigga go scot free. I gotta shoot him, too.
Mark and Dashaw ran up on Lenny, and they fired five shots—all of which hit Lenny because he stood as a shield on James’s left side—and fled into the night. Lenny and James slumped against a neighbor’s fence, not far from their house. Lenny called to one of friends inside the house.
“Tanisha, come help me! Me and Jimmy just got shot! Come help!”
A puddle of blood formed underneath them, branching off in several directions, before a direct line dripped into the street. Lenny could smell smoke rising from his body where the bullets had dug into his left arm, left side, back, and legs. Thoughts circled in Lenny’s head as if it was a turntable fashioned by a madman—too slow at 45, too fast at 16. Lenny wondered why they didn’t take his gold chain, his sheepskin, or his Filas, or James’s Bally shoes. Just before he heard the chorus of ambulance and police sirens, he whispered to James, his best friend, “Jimmy man, not matter what happens, I love you. We gonna make it. Just take it easy, sit there and rest. We gonna make it.”
Three hours later at Henry Ford Hospital, after the first of many operations, Lenny learned that James had died.
II. THE EPIDEMIC
According to official estimates, there are at least two guns for every person in the Detroit metropolitan area. Nearly 65 teenagers 17 or under have been killed this year. Almost 300 have been wounded. The number exceeds last years body count of 48, and the wounded are steadily lurching toward the 365 of 1986. Detroit is a city whose horror reaches cinematic proportions, like The Living Dead Wear Kangols and Filas. However you like your chiller theater, Detroit is the worst because it’s real. Unlike New York, where the DMZ begins south of 96th Street, or Baltimore, where guerilla dope wars are confined to eastern and western black districts, Detroit’s violence knows no boundaries.
It’s among the high-rise office buildings downtown, the upper-middle-class homes and condos on the West Side, the poverty-worn projects on the East Side. Detroit is like that nightmare where your legs become paralyzed when the monsters are chasing you; you can’t escape. Statistics, like germs ink-stained and clamped down under a microscope, are neat and tidy from a safe distance. But once you zoom in and focus, you see fascinating, intense, and sometimes ugly details of lives previously ignored. The kids in Detroit are more than data on police bar graphs and newspaper charts, distributed as lunchtime chitchat or after-dinner arguments during the Eyewitness News. The kids in Detroit are suffering from a disease so new, powerful, contagious, and fatal that there’s not even a name for it yet.
Business is booming for funeral homes and florists in Detroit. Funeral home director James Cole said, “It’s pathetic. Just about every day, we get young people who are being killed needlessly. It’s business we shouldn’t have.”
Emergency-room physicians often wonder if they’ll be able to treat all of the gunshot victims on busy nights. Dr. Cynthia Shelby-Lane of Detroit Receiving estimates her city sees 40 percent of the city’s young, black, male gunshot wound victims. One incident that stuck out Dr. Shelby-Lane’s mind concerned at 13-year-old boy who was rushed to emergency with a gunshot wound in the chest.
“He was a surgical code one,” the doctor said, “which is a resuscitation victim in a life-or-death situation. Everybody looked at each other and said, ’Thirteen? How young are the going to get?’ When they reeled him in, he was sitting up, so he wasn’t unconscious. As we started immediate resuscitation—he was breathing on his own and had good blood pressure—we could feel the bullet in the front of his chest. He was in pain but he was a young kid, and after 30 minutes, he asked me, ’Well, can I play basketball again?’ And we just looked at each other. Obviously, he didn’t have any understanding of what almost happened to him, and, perhaps, how to prevent it from happening to him again. And that’s the biggest problem for me.”
The problem is exacerbated juvenile judicial system. Heavy hitters such as Y. Gladys Barsamian, 55, presiding judge of the juvenile division in Wayne County are beleaguered, belabored, and chastised by Michigan’s legislators, who crave a scapegoat. Judge Barsamian addressed the flaws in Michigan’s juvenile justice process in an interview last year with Free Press reporters David Ashenfelter and Michael G. Wagner: “We have created a generation of children without conscience, without values. So they have no concern about people’s lives. Life is very cheap to them.” Barsamian added, “You’ve got to be able to hold people responsible for their actions, and we’re not able to do that.”
Ron Shigur, deputy chief prosecutor of the juvenile division, also says the system is lacking. “The juvenile laws in Michigan are a joke to these kids,” Shigur said. “We’ve had examples of some kids who just laugh at the cops after committing a crime, and say, ’Hey my mom will come and get me in the morning.’ They know if they are locked up, that the law says we can only keep them until their 19th birthday. The truth is, whether he spits on the ground or murders his mom, he’s going to do an average of a year.”
III. BURNT OFFERING
There is another factor more important than the impotent laws, though, a factor that anchors uncomfortably in many a Detroiter’s mind. It is the DNA for this mutant strain of teen hood: the 1967 riot. Its ravaging aftermath was presaged—unwittingly, of course—by two different idealists. One’s oratory shook the nation; the other’s rhyme rocked the house. But to simplify things, let’s set it up, as if trying to break the full court press. In the early ‘60s, Martin Luther King threw the bounce pass for the fast break: “If you sow the seeds of violence in your struggle, unborn generations will reap the whirlwind of social disintegration.” In 1981, while dodging bullets at a rapper’s convention in the former Harlem World Disco, MC Busy Bee caught the zeitgeist and slam-dunked it: “I got sperm, that jingo-jangle-jingles…”
For me, there’s a photograph that locks the horror of the 1967 riot into a never-ending moment. It depicts a 30-year-old black man, John LeRoy, shot by a national guardsman at a roadblock on Lycaste Street. Lying next to a bloody corpse, LeRoy is barefoot and chest down, bleeding profusely: he looks like he’s treading the concrete, gushing blood outlining the form like an obscene surfboard, trying to escape the thick waves of night that eventually drown him. LeRoy would die three days later. His left index finger is pointing to something, maybe the future, but the look on his face asked the question on everyone’s lips—why?
After the smoke had cleared, after the Da Nang-ing M1s had silenced, after the tanks had rolled away from West Grand boulevard, after the army infantry and paratroopers had left their alleyway bunkers, after 1700 stores had been looted, 412 buildings destroyed, 657 people injured, and 43 killed, the question remains unanswered, and continues to stupefy 20 years later.
Not that racial maelstrom was new to Detroit. In Ford: The Men and the Machine, Robert Lacey provides several proof texts confirming that race relations in Detroit have a long history of trouble. There was Dr. Ossian Sweet, a successful gynecologist who, with his brother and nine more blacks, was arrested on the night of September 9, 1925, after firing into a crowd of several hundred whites who were pelting the Sweet home with rocks and debris. Sweet had just moved into the two-story, $18,000 brick dwelling, located in a white, middle-class enclave on the East Side. He met with resistance from the local neighborhood “improvement” association—a front for newly recruited Klan members.
The Klan recognized Sweet as a paradigm of the Southern black who migrated northward—by 1920, the 5000 blacks in Detroit at the turn of the century had grown to 40,000, arriving at a rate of 1000 a month, looking for a better life. They found it with Henry Ford, who hired more blacks (even promoting them to foreman) than any other auto magnate. The burgeoning black middle class of Detroit was one of the first in America. But the Klan wasn’t going to stand for this. Sweet and supporters fought back, wounding one of the crowd and killing a next-door neighbor. After two trials fought by Clarence Darrow, Dr. Sweet and his comrades were acquitted. This turmoil was just the beginning. In 1943, the country’s bloodiest race war until that time took place in Detroit. Thirty-four people lost their lives, 25 of them black, and over 1000 were wounded. But the July 1967 “Summer of Love” is the one to beat. It haunts Detroit to this day.
If you failed to inspect the political underbelly of the community during that period, a riot in 1967 Detroit would have seemed outlandish. Riots exploded in places like Newark and Watts, but not Detroit. Impossible. The auto industry was stronger than ever—there were no Yugos or Hyundais to compete with. Detroit was one-third black, and blacks were a substantial portion of the work force in the plants. The black middle class and working class lived side by side, and their combined financial strength wasn’t to be denied. The black bloc elected James Cavanagh as mayor, and his new, very liberal administration elevated several blacks to key government positions. Detroit also had two black congressmen. Whites began their flight to the suburbs.
Berry Gordy’s Motown was the bullhorn for this new black age, and its “Sound of Young America” was heard around the world.
Motown was the example of how far my people had come, and how far we could go with hard work, three-part harmony, silk and sequins, and tricky terpsichore. Motown went to the heights because white America loves black people who know their place after assimilation. From 1960 to ‘67, it seemed that Detroit was living the best of times.
“Life in Detroit before the riot,” said Dr. Carl Taylor, “was an absolute paradise.”
Dr. Taylor, 38, is a professor of criminology at Michigan State University. He is also the president and founder of Centrax Services, Inc., one of the top private security outfits in the world. For 38 years, Taylor has lived and breathed Detroit. He can remember riding downtown to a tailor with his “Uncle Milton”—Milton C. Jenkins, the renowned Detroit street hustler and manager of the Temptations when they were still the Primes—Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson to pick up sharkskin suits for a Motown Revue. He can remember the strong, self-contained high society among blacks in Detroit before the riots. Nellie Watts, a black patron of the arts, would have to turn people away from her crowded ballet and classical recitals. Taylor also remembers the caste-conscious “E-Lites” in attendance: sepia-toned, middle-class darlings in madras shirts, Levis, and Weejuns.
They were nothing like the mocha-colored “Hootie-Hoos”, with their Damon knit shirts, gabardine slacks, and alligator slip-ons. If the E-Lites didn’t leave their coveted West Side dwellings to mix in the Hooties’ East Side wild life, it was okay. Black people in Detroit maintained a perfect balance. That balance was seen on 12th Street, too; whatever the mostly Jewish merchants sold, the blacks bought in record numbers. Twelfth Street was the main vain.
“Twelfth Street was a mecca,” said Taylor. “It was a major business center in the black community. On 12th and Hazelwood, you had Bosky’s Restaurant (owned by the father of Ivan Boesky), which had the best food, especially the ‘bomb’ corned beef sandwiches. You also had drugstores, appliance and furniture stores, pawnshops, you had it all on 12th Street.”
But 12th Street was dismantled during the wee-hours of July 23rd, 1967. Rumbling started in a “blind pig”—a private, after-hours joint that sells unlicensed liquor—that called itself the United Civic League for Community Action. When police busted the place that night, there were nearly 90 people packed inside the tiny bar and grill. All had to be escorted to the police wagons downstairs, which couldn’t hold everybody. A crowd gathered at the entrance as the police led their captives out. The merriment turned ugly. Bricks and rocks were hurled, smashing the back window of one patrol car; Molotovs rocketed through the street. Stores were devoured, as if by locusts.
“I can remember as a teenager sitting on the porch,” Taylor recalled, “watching people pushing shopping carts of TVs and clothes. My neighborhood was a working class atoll on the West Side. And you could see the same sights in middle-class neighborhoods. It was unreal, almost ethereal—like everyone was a contestant on the Wheel of Fortune, and had solved the puzzle.”
IV. POPPY: THE GREAT WHITE FATHER
RESURGET CINERBUS. It shall rise from the ashes.
Detroit is a city full of personal billboards, slogans, and mottoes. This particular one was used to revive a dying city. It was partly fulfilled. A spanking new monorail ties some of the major hotels and office buildings downtown together like a concrete dipsy-do, all too symbolic — round and round, going nowhere. The mirrored Renaissance Center — Henry Ford II’s helping hand to Detroit after the devastation — juts out of the ground like a weird urban stalagmite. In the 20 years since the riot the city has lost a third of its people and a larger portion of its jobs. The white merchants on 12th Street and other parts of the city were frightened beyond belief, and decided they could never come back. Not only was this bad for the blacks who patronized these stores, it was bad for the blacks who worked in them — including those who were rioters themselves. With the loss of so many people and jobs and so much finance — and the upswing of crime — the city’s tax base rapidly dwindled. By 1985 it had shrunk to 12.6 percent of Detroit’s three-county metro area, down from 45.6 in 1980. With the move of Hudson’s and others out to the suburban malls, badly needed moneys were siphoned out of the city on a regular basis. Middle-class whites and blacks who did remain found themselves plagued by armed robberies and burglaries. People decided to arm themselves. Handgun sales rose sharply, and the street was flooded with illegal weapons. The city’s homicide rate shot skyward.
What happened? Why didn’t Detroit recover? There’s no solid answer to that question, at least not by conventional logic. Conventional logic doesn’t force the city’s political power to admit that the bounty of the ’80s wasn’t equally distributed. Conventional logic doesn’t scream out that the riot wasn’t why Detroit unraveled: it merely burned away the façade that had hidden Detroit’s invisible society, the forgotten underclass.
In the Detroit Free Press, Barbara Stanton pointed out that 12th Street, along with its bustling stores, hot nightlife, and periphery of black middle-class homes, had in its midst an undeniable ghetto. From West Grand Boulevard to Claremont, there was an enormous number of substandard dwellings, the largest number of unemployed, and the highest crime rate in the city. “The riot was the underclass’s way of getting back,” Taylor said. “It was pure rebellion. It was the underclass’s way of saying, ‘We’re tired of being ignored. Now you’re forced to pay attention.’ This was the guy who didn’t work in the plant, for whatever reason. This was the guy who couldn’t commerce like the working and middle-class blacks who came into 12th Street. This was the guy who was trying to figure out all of the hype going around at the time about how blacks were prospering. Blacks were working — some prospered, like the doctors and lawyers that served the black community when whites refused to — but they weren’t prospering. It was like that line Florence said to George Jefferson on a Jeffersons episode. She said, ‘How come we overcame,’ referring to the civil rights theme song, ‘and nobody told me?’ I guess that’s what the underclass felt. And they took matters into their own hands.”
Those blacks who believed they overcame, or at least got over, were what made Detroit a Reconstruction dream. Fantasies of affluence in the industrial North came true in sprawling mansions along Boston, Chicago, and Edison boulevards. High auto-industry wages created by a black population — more than a million by the early ‘80s — that needed professional services. Black doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, and businessmen filled the vacuum left by white professionals, who had departed for the suburbs along with their clients. Between 1950 and 1959, over 350,000 whites migrated out of the city. Racism helped create a thriving and powerful and black elite in Detroit. But when the auto industry started its long slide, the black elite’s monopoly on black business began to look like an empty package. Black America’s city of dreams was beginning to feed on itself.
The 1967 riots scarred the urban psyche. As time brought the consequences into painful clarity, blacks realized the insurrection was a painful mistake. The city was becoming a wasteland before their eyes. Many wanted to forget what happened.
A few years after the riots heroin made an appearance in Detroit. Unlike Harlem and Newark, where the drug picked up steam around 1966, heroin was almost an oddity in Detroit until 1970. It was then that Henry Marzette — a black former Detroit cop allegedly jailed during the ’50s on corruption charges — became a top dog in the city’s drug trade. After prison, he was a feared “gorilla” pimp — one who recruits prostitutes from other pimps by force. But it wasn’t until Marzette noticed the exorbitant profits the Mafia was making from heroin in New York that he decided to get in on the action. Between 1969 and 1970, he took over the trade from a mob family in Detroit and became the city’s biggest heroin financier. Marzette influence extended well beyond the street corner and shooting gallery; during his reign little or no press coverage was given him in the Free Press or The Detroit News.
After Marzette’s death in the early ’70s, heroin continued to ravage Detroit. Crime surged as addicts fed their monsters. Detroit’s car theft rate became the nation’s highest. Home owners spent tens of thousands turning their houses into iron-barred fortresses. In 1975 gangs like the BKs (Black Killers) and the Errol Flynns appeared on the scene. The Errol Flynns — with their black Borsalinos and weird pumping hand-dance — became infamous during an Average White Band concert where they went on a raping and robbing spree. The situation was so volatile that year that Motown — the soul of black Detroit — moved to los Angeles. Nelson George, author of the Motown history Where Did Our Love Go?, told me, “I hate to say it, but during that time, Detroit wasn’t conducive for a booming black business.”
With Motown gone and the auto industry in a slump, the scenario in Detroit was beginning to resemble a Greek tragedy. And the city was about to be hit with the deus ex machina — Young Boys Incorporated, or YBI. Not only were they unexpected walk-ons in the second act, they rewrote the script.
In a twisted way YBI took the place of Motown. They were young superstars to street teens, more revered than Michael Jackson and Prince. For older junkies hooked on nostalgia, YBI wrapped the 45s in coin envelopes that contained a feast of memories; “heh-ron” was a stone soul picnic. The origins of YBI are bizarre. Not only were the organizations forefathers — Mark Marshall and Raymond Peoples — well known to police, but their individual crimes prior to YBI were headline news during the mid-’70s. Peoples, a tall and powerful enforcer, was charged with two other men for the 1975 murder of Marian Pyszko. Pyszko, 54, a Polish immigrant and pan washer in a bakery, was dragged from his car one night and beaten with a piece of broken concrete during a rash of racial disturbances. After three trials during which several witnesses developed convenient amnesia, Peoples was acquitted.
Marshall’s story is a more perverse tale. Marshall was a brilliant student in school. He was the product of a broken middle-class home; his mother, Mary, was a secretary, and his father, Wallace, owned a shoe shop. Marshall grew up in an attractive dwelling in a West Side neighborhood, Russell Woods. Wallace later married Constance Blount; her stepmother, Beatrice Blount, was the widow of the founder of the Great Lakes Life Insurance Co. On August 19, 1974, Marshall’s father, stepmother, her mother, and Beatrice Williams, Beatrice Blount’s nurse, were murdered. Marshall was charged with the knife-and-meat-clever slaying. The police report mentioned traces of semen on the bodies. After two mistrials, all charges were dropped in August 1978. Marshall said after the trial, “Justice has been done after four years. I’m going up north to fish and think.”
Marshall must have pondered long and hard, because it was around this time that he and Peoples began YBI — allegedly with more than $70,000 collected from Marshall’s father’s insurance. Starting from the northwest street corner of Prairie and Puritan, YBI’s tentacles eventually covered Detroit and several counties.
By 1981, YBI’s employees were 300 strong, all teens and preteens, who were immune to the harsh punishment for drug trafficking. Many law enforcement observers have noted that YBI was run like a military outfit, organized into soldiers (street dealers), lieutenants, and the “A-Team” (enforcement). But YBI was more like a $400 million corporation — that was YBI’s estimated gross in 1981 — not unlike its hometown predecessor General Motors. Salesmen were instructed never to use the product. Milton “Butch” Jones, third man in YBI, would drill his soldiers in “marketing” meetings to “get high on money.” As reinforcement, top salesmen were given expensive perks — gold and diamond jewelry, and goose down leather jackets with fur-trimmed hoods known as “Max Julians.”
“YBI was the first drug organization that I know of to use brand names on their heroin,” said U.S. Attorney Roy Hayes. “They had names like CBS, Rolls Royce, and Coochi Khan. It was a Madison Avenue approach — you can trust our product.”
When the competition copycatted, YBI undercut them by selling low-grade heroin under a competitor’s name. YBI’s drugs (they were selling $3 plastic packets of crack, back in 1982) were the most coveted in the state. YBI was aware of this, and brazenly began to hand out flyers in the neighborhood that stated brand name, price, day, date, and time of sale. Drugs were distributed using Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, taxi cabs, scooters, and 10-speed bikes. Sales areas were patrolled by members of the A-Team in Laredo and Wrangler jeeps, packing Uzis for warding off rival gangs. Jeeps eventually replaced luxury cars for drug distribution — their four wheel drive insured delivery in snow storms, and made it easy to elude cops by escaping into off-road brush.
YBI made bloody examples of those who crossed them. On May 30, 1984, Rickey Gracey, 26, and three accomplices tried to rob the home of Butch Jones. The attempt was thwarted by Jones’s wife, Portia, who wounded Gracey with a shotgun as the other three escaped. While he hobbled on the front lawn, Portia put in a call to Charles Obey and Spencer Tracy Holloway, members of the A-Team, and driver Andre Williams. When they arrived, according to Williams’ testimony, Portia was outside waiting for them. Gracey apologized and asked them for some water. Obey shot him five times with a .38 automatic. After Gracey had revealed the identity of his partners, Holloway shot him with an Uzi. Fifteen times. Gracey bounced up and down on the grass. Later, his body was found dumped in an alley on the north side.
As successful as YBI was, it suffered some major setbacks that appeared to dismantle the enterprise. In 1982, Mark Marshall went deep underground at the height of YBI’s prominence. In 1983 Butch Jones was sentenced to 12 years in prison, as was Sylvester “Seal” Murray, 30, multimillionaire supplier of YBI and other drug syndicates. Murray was wealthy enough that police investigators found $80,000 cached in a safe — it had been there for two years. Murray had forgotten the combination. In August 1985, Raymond Peoples was found in a car with several slugs in his back.
By 1986, the Detroit Police Department, DEA, FBI, and the Internal Revenue Service was congratulating themselves, saying they finally destroyed YBI. What they forgot was that, although 42 people had been indicted, YBI still had 258 people on the loose. It’s true that prosecutors like Hayes, the late Leonard Gilman, and Gary Felder did a great job of attacking YBI — treating it as a multinational cartel rather than some counterfeit gangsters on a street corner — but Young Boys had grown too big to take down in one sweep. This was proven in August, when a grand jury federal indictment of 26 defendants took place in Detroit. The name of the case is Young Boys II. “Nine of the defendants were previously indicted in connection with the Young Boys case,” said attorney Hayes. “Some of the defendants are a Wayne County deputy sheriff, two attorneys hired by YBI, and Milton ‘Butch’ Jones.” Hayes alleged Jones had continued running YBI from his prison cell in a Texas federal penitentiary.
V. NEW JACK CITY: ROLLIN’, JEEPIN’ AND JOCKIN’
STOP THE MADNESS
This is a huge advertisement that looms over Woodward, across the street from Palmer Park. One high-schooler told me that the new jacks “look at it and say ‘Fuck the madness. You can’t stop it, so just roll with it.’” The sign has been reduced to a banal slogan, a doofy punch line among the new jacks and front artists. In Motown a new jack is a calculated novice who enjoys killing you, aside from making a name for himself. His imitator, a front artist, pulls out a snapshot of a “nine” (9mm automatic), expecting you to run for your life. It goes without saying that front artists don’t live long.
HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW?
This is a personal billboard in red letters on the black spare tire cover mounted on the rear of a triple-black — black exterior, interior, tinted windows — Mitsubishi Montero jeep. Wide Jefferson Avenue is full of jeeps — a new jack posse circling Detroit like crazy sputniks. In sync, the volumes of each Blaupunkt and Alpine stereo are increased at a red light. On green, Rakim and Eric B. sound the charge, the anthem of a new generation, the opus of a new ruling class, the preview of a new rap on the Friday night master mix.
“I ain’t no joke…”
I rode with a high-schooler downtown to the Afro-American Festival in Hart Plaza. He knew some of the crews, has rolled with some of them in the past. Now he wants out of the neighborhood because he is book smart and street aware. But the street is like a Doberman; it can turn on you.
Finding a parking space near the Joe Louis Arena, we got out and walked. The July night was hot and humid. Renaissance Center stood tall and indifferent, the pallid moon overhead, and the rivers of people beneath; it cooled in the mirrored panes of its hi-tech narcissism.
The people moved like waves of warm water along the sidewalk cafes of Greektown, Woodward’s shopping district, and deposited into the concrete cavern of Hart Plaza. Packs of new jacks — all between 13 and 19 years old — covered the area in designer sangfroid and $2000 portable cellular phones, just in case another crew wanted to “step off” into Uzi conflict. They resembled Nam platoons on maneuvers in Elephant Valley. Their classy gear consisted of Gucci and Bill Blass jogging suits, Bally and Diadora gym shoes, shiny gold Rolex watches. Some were so bold they wore diamond encrusted Krugerrands necklaces, hung from telephone-cable-thick gold chains. That’s equivalent to Nat Turner fashioning a leather-studded belt out of the same cat-o’-nine-tails used to plow his back. But maybe I’m confusing bravado with ignorance.
The festival was too crowded, the jazz band too weak, and the fish and chips booth downstairs was out of its legendary whiting sandwiches. The high-schooler said there were too many crews walking around.
“Something might jump off,” he told me. I asked him if the crews had names. “Some do,” he told me, “but they’re pretty lightweight. If you’re high-powered, you don’t use a name. After YBI there are no more names. Names attract too much attention. Some use hand signals.” I asked him about one group that holds up both hands and flashes peace signs. The high-schooler said he didn’t know about them. I didn’t press the issue; a school security official said later that it’s the code used by the 20–20s.
So I know a code; I still don’t have the key to New Jack City. I know its inhabitants come from two groups: deracinated middle-class black teens and their less well-off peers. The deracinated black teen knows that being heir to “a better life” resulted mainly in the castration of desire, their confusion of self (Buppie or B-Boy? As Nelson George has said), and their enlightenment that, in 1987, there is no “better life”. Never knowing what it is to want — and, therefore, never growing up, or growing up with nothing to grow into — is a cruel death. New Jack City offers a suicidal lifestyle on the teens’ own terms.
New Jack City for the economically deprived is a crystalline legacy formed by the cooked-down anarchy of their parents in the 1967 riot. Because of the seared riot consciousness, because of heroin’s flip-flop — killer and money-maker — and crack’s entrepreneurial spirit, outlaw is the law. Teen gangsterism has transformed the teen middle and underclass, the children of the E-Lites and Hootie Hoos, into the Get-Over class.
Rap music is also key in understanding the Get-Over class — I think. My trepidation comes from me blaming the ills of the world on L.L. Cool J and rap music. L.L. and rap music are just reflections of New Jack City. As a matter of fact, L.L., Rakim, Run-D.M.C. and other emcees are prisoners of the hard rock image they have triumphantly sold to their Get-Over peers. Once a new jack, actual or dramatized, emcee or murderer — or victim, like Scott La Rock — always a new jack. Even if L.L. tries to deny the street, as he does when showing his frustration in “The Breakthrough,” spitting out to a fanatical crack admirer, “I should take my gun and shoot you/ in your motherfuckin’ face!” — or Rakim tries shallow defection, saying in the December 1987 Spin, that he used to be “robbin’ and stealin’ and all that shit. Normal everyday shit,” when his rapper voice sounds like he’s still ready, like L.L., to “put that head out” — the new jacks won’t allow it, because rap music is their strong-arm negotiator in the world-at-large. It’s no wonder that the switchboard of Detroit’s ABC affiliate lit up like crazy after the July premiere of the Run-D.M.C. Adidas commercial. This telephone vote of gangster stylists proved that not only do clothes make the new jack, they reinforce his being.
The Get-Over class in New Jack City understands that gangster style is both form and function. To have gangster style, you have to be “gettin’ paid” — making so much gusto (money) until it’s goofy. Then you can have an acquired taste by means of extortion, the ability to buy panache and aristocracy. But that’s what also unnerves me about the émigré’ of New Jack City, the way he flashes his green card. Whether it’s the kid who goes to Gucci to spend $3000 on a wardrobe displayed no further than the L.L. Cool J show, the crackhouse, or the “projects,” or the kid who comes home to a $200,000 cul de sac and a good night’s sleep after killing a rival crack dealer and two of his crew, and all the while mom and dad are in the den doing their taxes on the PC — it alarms me when the need to “show and prove” is that extreme. That’s how I know the teen bodies in the graves of Detroit and other major cities are not surrogates for racist whites or super-provoking parents. Citizenship in New Jack City comes with a very expensive price tag.
“Yo man,” the high-schooler said to me, “I know this one kid who makes $2000 a day. He’s a beastmaster — an enforcer. He’s a big kid, about six-three 230. He carries an Uzi, but he’s def with his hands, too. He just bought a Wagoneer jeep for $22,000, but he parks it two blocks away from his house so that his parents don’t find out. His family has some status and some money, you know, and they expect him to go to college. But he’s making too much gusto. All the skeezers (sexually active girls) are jockin’ him, too. He asked me one time, ‘Know how to catch a skeeze?’ I said no. He said, ‘You say, “Jeep-jeep-jeep-jeep-jeep…’”
We left the plaza. The throngs of crews grew thicker, like shadows coagulating into a nightmare. The street was drowned in cars and people; a police officer directed traffic. Just then, an old and dimpled Pontiac tapped the rear of a sleek Mercedes 300E. Three white guys — mid-thirties — got out of the Pontiac, and they were drunk. Four new jacks jumped out of the Benz, in multicolored sweatsuits and gold everywhere. Two beastmasters, About six foot six and six foot seven, grabbed all three white guys in choke holds. The cop didn’t move. One slim teen, about five foot eight, walked up to one of the white guys and reached for his stuff. The swelling crowd egged the new jacks on. I just knew the white guys were going to catch a bad decision. The cop didn’t move. I covered my eyes, but then I peaked through my fingers. A traffic jam formed and honking horns snapped the new jack out of his homicidal autism. He and his beastmasters jumped back into the Benz and zoomed off. The white guys coughed, choked, and slugged their way back to the Pontiac. The crowd moved on. The cop twirled his hands and blew his whistle. The high-schooler shrugged like a vet. “That ain’t nothin’,” he said. “I know another kid who was working for this crew on the east side, who said he ‘lost’ $75. Quiet as it’s kept, he tricked on crack, making 51s (a crack and reefer joint). When his lieutenant found out, he and his crew took the kid to the basement, took his shoes off, got some carpenter’s nails, a brick, and hammered his hands and feet into the floor. He was still alive when the cops found him a few hours later.”
Why has murder become a religious observance on the streets of Detroit? How did crack become demonic sacrament? Why is gettin’ paid equal to deification to the new jacks? Dr. Jorge Fleming, chief psychologist at Southwest Detroit Hospital, says that “a lack of spiritual and moral values, values which the black family has historically instilled in their children, has in the last 30 years or so shifted to a heavy emphasis on materialism. When the plants were going full steam, and both mother and father worked in the plant and brought home a combined salary of $70,000, then the kids got anything they wanted. But when those parents were laid off during the auto slump, and when the money wasn’t coming in, there was no spiritual or loving foundation to fall back on, which caused a breach in the family. And the kids, who were used to getting everything, decided they were going to continue having the good things in life — even if their parents couldn’t provide it for them.”
And what does Mayor Coleman Young say? In office for more than 12 years and a wily politician, he has his pat answers. He said in the Free Press three years ago that the exodus of Hudson’s and other stores has caused the high unemployment.
No one can argue with that. But the consensus is that Mayor Young is more concerned with the gloss of downtown than the young bodies found on side streets and in dumpsters. Mayor Young has transformed himself from a man of the people — the unanimous choice after the riot — to a corporate power broker. If prestige has its privileges, though, it also has its problems.
Mayor Young is not the cause of all the problems in Detroit. He has said on many occasions that the city’s raggedy condition was handed to him. But was YBI handed to him, or crack, or the new jacks? A lot of Detroiters think the mayor has turned his back on the city. And there’s at least one problem the mayor can’t slip…his niece, Kathy Volson. Volson, 23, is married to Johnny Curry, 28, the alleged leader of the Curry Organization, the East Side’s biggest drug consortium. The link was reported by Brian Flanigan in an April 12, 1987, Free Press story. Named as an unindicted co-conspirator in U.S. v. The Curry Organization on April 2, 1987, Volson is heard on some of the hundreds of phone calls that were taped by the FBI during their investigation. Curry pled guilty on September 8, 1987, to running a continuing criminal enterprise and tax evasion.
Between family ties and corporate loyalties, Coleman Young’s political base is draining away even quicker than the city’s tax income. One teacher told me that the mayor should be on the street in a flak jacket with a squadron of heavily armed police because that’s when the kids will know he’s serious. But he won’t do it, this teacher said.
So the new jacks continue to laugh at the advertisement over Woodward, and “wopp” like crazy. It’s the latest dance, a serpentine hump and jerk, a rhythmic self-dismemberment. They wopp-danced fast and fierce back in March, a few days after Lenny Higgins was shot. The occasion was the Motor City Mixer. Given by Dr. Carl Taylor and a few associates and held at the state fairgrounds, it was Taylor’s opportunity to see Aliens 2 up close.
“We thought that these kids were not given a fair shake in the media,” Taylor said, “and there were no outlets for them to have good clean fun. We also thought that a few bad apples don’t spoil the whole bunch.”
The new jacks came in force: mondo-moda sportswear, cellular phones, nines and .357s, pockets bulging with twenties, fifties, and hundreds. Six bucks at the door, and the cashier had a change problem all night.
From the time the new jacks hit the parking lot to the time they got inside, no one was armed. The security force was 100 men strong.
But Taylor saw the dark side. “Yeah, we stopped the weapons, but we couldn’t stop the mind-set,” he said. After the crowd of 2400 got off of the floor — the deejay mixed in a machine gun sound effect — the party was jumping. “Throw That Dick,” a mixture of Chicago house and rap, began to play. The place went berserk. Fights broke out. A group of 15 boys circled around three girls and molested them. Another crew of 30 new jacks brutally kicked and beat one boy in a corner. While assorted members of Dr. Taylor’s team broke up the fights, the sexual assaults, and other melees, Taylor ran over and snatched the kid, bloody and bruised, to safety.
“I told him,” Taylor said, “I think you should leave. You are going to wind up getting killed if you don’t get out of here. And he told me, ‘Trick it man, trick it. I ain’t no ho. They just gonna have to kill me, ’cause I ain’t no ho and I ain’t runnin’.’ He was just so determined. I didn’t understand it. That’s when we had to pull the plug.”
Taylor said he didn’t understand the kid, but the next day — when all the kids were saying what a success the party was — his words rang loud and clear. It wasn’t so much what he said, Taylor told me, but what he wore. Remember what I said about clothes and the new jack? Well, here’s the motto paid in full. Aside from the new jack’s black color theme — sweats, trench coat, and Ellesse gym shoes — the kid had a black cap with a white stencil that said, Shoot me. I’m already dead.