Updated: Dec 22, 2019
Pete and I had been partners only a year on the Detroit Police Department, in the sixth largest city in the nation. Between the two of us, we had less than three years of street experience. Pete was 24 and I was 23 years of age. We were boys doing men’s work.
Three successive hot and humid days in August had taken their effect. We sat in our scout car, 1-3. The interior temperature was close to 100 degrees and air-conditioning was not standard issue. Our uniform shirts stuck to our bulletproof vests, soaked with the sweat pouring from our bodies.
Together we watched as the sun began to set. All day long a hot, mean sun had baked its way into the addicts and the alcoholics, the cruel and the innocent alike. They hardened like eggs, fried on a hot sidewalk. Now that it was night, the heat wafted back out, the passions bubbled to the surface. Things really started cooking and this meal was being served on the streets of Detroit.
The police dispatcher had been broadcasting non-stop to his three districts since the start of our tour of duty that ran from four p.m. until midnight. Although our precinct was the smallest, it was no less mean than our counterparts. We had been taking radio runs for two hours with no breaks of any kind. The more senior officers said only rookies worked that hard, since no matter how hard we worked, there was more crime than the entire shift could handle. The same was true all over the city, patrolled by a force of over 5,000 officers. All the scout cars were being assigned to more serious crimes, generally life-threatening. Citizens calling to report other crimes were being told to go into their stations to file their complaints, or wait in line for a car to respond. If you had already been robbed, stabbed or burglarized, you were asked to come in later to report the crime. The shooting, hacking, beating and stabbing calls in progress were being given to us and we loved it.
The dispatcher had so many calls that every available car in the district, including our first precinct was busy. Now he was calling for “volunteer cars” to take on additional assignments. That meant there would be no breaks, for bad meals or bowel movements, until the crunch was over – at least for us rookies.
In a calm voice, the dispatcher dispassionately droned out the radio runs, “Volunteer car in Number Thirteen to make the corner of Third and Selden – a fight, one man has a knife.” … “Volunteer in Number Two to make 2627 17thStreet – a burglary in progress, the woman is home alone.” … “Volunteer in Number One to make Brush and Montcalm – a disturbance in the street; shots have been fired.”
Pete and I were earnestly trying to make our way to the Big Ben Restaurant at the north end of the Precinct to grab a 30-minute lunch, known in radio parlance as a “Code 30.” As inexperienced as we were thought to be, we already knew it would only get busier for us as the night wore on. Ben’s, while not the nicest place in town, was one of the quieter, cleaner spots. There, we could park the scout car in the alley behind the restaurant and not worry that the Black Panthers would break in and steal the shotguns, the teargas or the police radio.
“What do you think Pete? Should we take the disturbance run?”
“Naw; Screw ‘em. This’ll be going on all night. Let’s eat before it gets any busier.”
Pete was a graduate of a mid-Michigan college and played football there, lettering for three years. Although too small for the pros, his appetite was worthy of any team table. “We could hit it on the way to Ben’s.” I said. “If there’s nothing to it, we can use the run to add a few minutes to our lunch. If it’s real, there’s bound to be a lock up, getting us back to the station. We can request our 30 in Greek Town.”
I was still new enough to want to get into the action and so was Pete, but the clincher was the Greek Food. A Gyro with onions and tomatoes was too much for him to resist.
“OK”, he said. “Volunteer us for the disturbance.”
The familiar exchange began, “One-three calling radio.”
“Go ahead, one-three.”
“We’ll take the disturbance run at Brush and Montcalm.”
“OK, one-three; we’ll mark you busy there. We now have several calls that a large crowd has gathered. Is there a back-up for one-three?”
I stopped writing the details of the radio run for a moment, while I listened to see who our back-up would be. It didn’t take long to realize that the silence meant we would be alone on this one.
“One-three, as soon as a back-up unit is available, we’ll send it over. Keep us informed.”
I gave the expected response, “One-three is on the way.”
“Nice going, Mike. Just you and me and a large crowd in the street. Damn it! Let’s go see what the hell this is all about.” Pete was sweating and his wet, dark collar offset the hot angry redness of his muscular neck. He sped up and the police Plymouth gave a throaty grumble as it was pushed into action. I flicked on the overhead flashing red light, but not the siren. Sometimes it was better to enter the fray quietly than to let them know you were coming. Especially when there had already been shots fired.
The older guys said that after a while all radio runs get to be the same. Some even bragged that they could write nearly all of the incident report before they even arrived on the scene. All that remained to be filled in was the name and address of the next victim. They said each run had the same losers, the same useless souls and they were all dressed in the same dirty clothes. Mostly they just had different names.
Pete and I knew that to be bull shit. Every run was different. The players usually changed. The victims changed, sometimes they were old, sometimes young, sometimes white but mostly black, male and female victims.
And the criminals changed too. They too were young or old, white or black. But in our area, the residents and criminals were almost exclusively black. Their reasons for wreaking violence on their own kind changed with varying degrees of hate, lust, addiction and greed. And their acts were sinfully as diverse. Cutting, slashing and stabbing, with knives, razors, axes, and broken bottles. Beating with hands, with pipes, with bricks, with whatever was handy. Breaking into homes, gas stations, stores, churches, and cars. Stealing anything worth pawning or that could be bartered for drugs. In all my years on the job, I never saw anyone steal to feed his or her family or himself. It was almost always about drugs or alcohol or just to take what they wanted from someone who had earned it.
Each set of circumstances was definitely different to us. The times changed. Sometimes days and sometimes nights. The weather changed too. Wet, dry, cold, hot and sweltering. We encountered everything from old, hardened cop haters, to young, soft cop lovers. We may have been young in years, but we thought we had seen it all. We had walked along the dangerous edges of life. We had leaned over the precipice, spit into the abyss of death and laughed at its echo. We believed we were young indestructible cops, in a hot, heartless city.
Brush is a one-way street leading north out toward the City limits and into the suburbs, giving the perception of safety. One block away is John R. Street, which runs like a slippery slope back down into the City. We cruised down John R looking east towards Brush, looking over mirage-like lakes caused by the baking streets. Our thought was to see the commotion on Brush before we actually drove up into it. As we approached Montcalm we could see quite a few people standing in the street where it intersected Brush. Lots of people. We both hoped that they weren’t going to turn ugly. You would think people of the street wanted help in preventing one of their own kind from killing or maiming another of their own. But when the police rolled up, they would form a common bond against the only ones who could stop the mayhem or act in the common good.
I could see Pete tense up. He put on his “game face”. His focus was dead ahead – on nothing but his anxious expectations and our common need to steel up our courage. Already the acids were leaking into my stomach, irritating the beginnings of what would in time become a serious ulcer. I could feel my pulse quicken with that needed and welcome jolt of adrenaline, gifted to me by fear and excitement.
Suddenly we heard the report of a single pistol shot and the crowd roared wildly like an audience thrilling to the heroism of a lion tamer cracking his whip. But inside this big top, the animals reign and the keepers are the intruders.
We exited the scout car and walked, hopefully concealed, with our bodies pressed flat against the side of a brick apartment building, cautiously approaching the corner. I wasn’t ready for what I saw. “Damn” I said as I pressed my sweaty back further against the wall, seeking safety in the crevices of the brick. Although their was no need to respond, Pete whispered, “What is it?” as he turned to look around the corner.
“Damn” he exclaimed in affirmation. There stood three to four hundred people, four and five deep, shoulder to sweaty shoulder; standing in and lining both sides of the street for five blocks. They jostled, called out to each other and laughed wantonly, oblivious to the congestion and the sweltering sauna their closeness created. Traffic in the narrow, one-way street was blocked off by the mob. Motorists, wild eyed with fear and trapped in their cars, had their windows rolled up against the swell of sweaty flesh pressed around them. I could see the fear on their faces in the false calm of their air-conditioned safety. Surrounded by the crowd, snarled in traffic, and with shots being fired around them, there was no escape to the suburbs.
“Pigs!” someone yelled. Slowly the cacophony of street sounds quieted as word worked its way through the crowds. We’d been seen and soon all heads turned in our direction.
Pete and I moved from the false safety of the wall and shouldered our way into the middle of the street. The people weren’t moving away from us any too willingly. They resisted our movement with their bodies, arms at their sides. They made us push against them with every step we took. They dared us to push just the slightest bit too hard. They were passive but aggressive, like a smoldering fuse, just waiting for the spark. The traffic light cycled impassively from green to yellow.
I once had a veteran officer tell me that a single officer could manage a large crowd by acting as if he was in control and by appearing to have no fear. I was hoping my fear wasn’t showing.
Suddenly Pete called out fearlessly, to no one in particular, “What the hell is going on here”? No one in particular answered him.
About a block down the street I saw a man pointing to the sky. At the end of his extended arm was a gun. Our eyes met as he melted into the crowd. It was then that it came to me – I knew why the crowd was clogging the street like sludge in a sewer. I knew where the shots had come from and why. I knew what was causing the unbridled yelling, screaming and roaring.
I motioned with my head to Pete and we began walking to where the gunman had been. The crowd was even more unyielding, a bit more assertive because of our interruption, a bit more aggressive. We pushed with our bodies, instinctively not using our hands. That seemed to be the unspoken rule of engagement. The crowd resisted us the same way – hands low to their sides. Their faces glistened as if sprayed from a misting bottle, rivulets of sweat cutting through the even matte of moisture. By the time we walked the one block to our objective, we too were soaked with their sweat and our own.
The hoard opened temporarily around us and then engulfed us again, along with two bare chested men standing in the middle of the street. The oppressive heat had baked its way into their bodies and was now leaking from every pore, dripping into the dirty waistbands of their jeans. I turned to tell the crowd to back off from behind us. As I did so, I noticed that the masses had cleared a path in the street ahead for blocks – they literally parted their own sea of bodies without a single word. The curbsides were now packed with people who a moment before had been a jostling pushing crowd. Now they were spectators. And my hunch proved right. I was sure what this was about.
It was a street race – grown up style. How the runners had been chosen didn’t matter. They didn’t need a cinder track. There was no electric timer. There was no ticket taker. Vendors didn’t hawk refreshments. They were carried in brown paper sacks, in purses, and in back pockets. It was the “starter” who had held his gun aloft until he spotted me. The fans had bet their champions. Money now backed their boasts. The runners had been in their starting stance and the race was about to begin – until “the pigs” arrived.
I wasn’t sure how to begin handling this. The amorphous crowd was too big for all the officers in the precinct to handle effectively and even more so for just Pete and me.
Pete spoke into my ear. “C’mon” he said. “If we can get these two out of the street the rest of them will disperse.” I hoped he was right, but I wasn’t so sure. I remembered how the riots of 1967, just 2 short years previous, had begun when the vice squad knocked over a blind pig. It was just ghetto folks having a little illegal fun. The police ruined it and the riots had begun. Both of us remembered what the politicians deceptively called the “disturbance” of 1967 when 43 people were reported killed and 1,189 were injured.
So far nothing had happened to provoke the crowd or us to violence. The spectators glared at us as we turned shoulder to shoulder to face the runners. Once it appeared that we were about to take action, the silence of the throngs became ominous. Our intentions must have been obvious to them. I could feel and hear my heart pounding.
A few of the crowd-bound motorists saw us. Courageous now, they broke the silence with the honking of their horns. People in the crowd began gesturing angrily at them. Raised, clenched fists were being shaken at the pale faces behind the cars’ rolled up windows. As we drew near to the runners, I heard a chant building from about a block away, RACE, RACE, RACE.
“OK you two. What the hell do you think you’re doing here? Get outta my goddamned street!” Pete was talking to them as loudly as he could without yelling. I was standing right next to him and could barely hear a word he said. The chant was quickly becoming a demanding roar. It occurred to me then, that other than the imprisoned motorists, Pete and I were the only white people around. Now the crowd’s chant took on a more ominous meaning as they meanly continued, “RACE, RACE, RACE!” The traffic light seemed stuck on red.
“Pete, we can’t do it this way!” I yelled. “We’ll have another riot on our hands.” I stepped between the runners who both looked at me warily. I spoke to the taller, heavier one.
“You want to finish this thing?” I yelled into his ear? He hesitated. “Yeah, man” he answered, looking at me quizzically. “Try to calm them down” I ordered. He hesitated again, obviously mistrusting me. Then with a look of uncertain resignation, the big guy held up both arms, like a hometown quarterback signaling the crowd to quiet down. The effect was only a little better. By now the crowd had surrounded us again.
“My god” Pete said. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
I ignored him and told the runners, “Tell them to get out of the street – back up onto the sidewalks.” I knew if I gave those orders, they would not be obeyed. Both runners seemed to understand. “Back up, man. Back up”, they called. They waved their arms to signal the mob to push back, to get onto the sidewalks. Looks of disbelief spread across the dripping faces in the crowd. Sneers were replaced with smiles, followed by cheers … “RACE, RACE, RACE”, they wildly roared.
The path cleared again in the street for three blocks ahead to where the street race would end in front of a local lounge. Its red and yellow, flame-shaped, neon sign flashed its name on and off, on and off, “Heat Wave … Heat Wave.” A string of young bar maids with sweaty half t-shirts clinging to their free-falling breasts held hands, forming a ribbon of hot flesh in a finish line across the street.
Pete was shaking his head in disbelief. “Who do you want?” I asked. He didn’t understand at first. “Who do you want?” I repeated. Then he grinned and nodded towards the short, wiry runner.
If running this race was the way to avoid a serious conflict, then by god this race was going to run. And by god, those sweaty happy souls weren’t the only ones who were going to enjoy it. I nodded my acceptance of Pete’s wager and raised my arm high over my head. The runners instantly understood, each taking a free-standing, side-by-side stance in the middle of the street. “On your marks, get set …” I dropped my arm and my “Go” was drowned out by the roar of the crowd. Money was still changing hands as the runners raced barefoot by spectators who focused on their heroes. The contestants were focused only on their winning line, standing in front of the Heat Wave.
Ahead the crowd closed in behind the runners, blocking our view. There was no way for us to tell who had won. We stood there alone in the street. The motorists had inched up behind us still staring in disbelief.
“Now what?” Asked Pete. I shrugged my shoulders uncertainly. But the answer came almost immediately. The cheers had subsided and the crowds turned back towards us, opening a path for the returning runners. I didn’t think we would be able to sustain promoting this race much longer. The contestants headed straight for us. They were oblivious to the real winners cashing in on their efforts. In nearly less time than it took to run the race, the crowd had already forgotten their champions. They broke into small groups walking down the sidewalk; some crawled onto apartment stoops, and some slithered between the houses, while others scurried into alleys with their bottles. Many disappeared through the doorway of the Heat Wave. “Hey man, thanks.” Said the short wiry runner as he passed us breathing heavily. The other runner never looked up.
The crowd vanished like vapors of steam seeping from a septic sewer. It was hard to believe that just moments before we were head to head with a volatile situation. One misspoken word, one misinterpreted gesture, one false step, or one push too hard against a resisting body and several of us would likely have crossed our own finish line. Traffic was now proceeding cautiously up Brush Street. Safe suburban motorists, no longer threatened, glared angrily and some flipped us off as they drove past, never realizing how close they were to a repeat of an earlier time.
As Pete and I walked to the car, I noticed that we were perspiring freely. The lightheartedness of the conclusion to this episode belied the fear we both had shared. It was a fear we didn’t talk about. Rather, we allowed it to make us angry, to make us tougher. We both knew that to admit fear was to admit vulnerability. And we both knew that in this job, vulnerability brought you closer to death.
As we walked, Pete raised his portable police radio to his mouth. His fingers were still shaking as he keyed the microphone. “Calling radio, scout one-three.”
“Go ahead one-three” answered the always-calm voice of the invisible dispatcher.
“Brush and Montcalm, a street race. Everything under control radio.”
“One-three, did you say a street race?” asked the dispatcher. “That’s affirmative, radio … a street race” Pete confirmed. The dispatcher paused. I reached over to Pete and guided his arm. “Let’s get the hell to a restaurant” I suggested. “We could be at this all night.”
Before Pete could respond, the radio crackled, “One-three make Woodward and Sproat at the White Castle restaurant, a hold up in progress.”
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