Brooks Patterson on Detroit In 1989: 'It's Like The Indians On The Reservation...'
January 21st, 2014, 8:19 AM
Long before Paige Williams journeyed to Oakland County for the New Yorker, another writer from the east came to Michigan and talked to L. Brooks Patterson, then the outgoing Oakland County prosecutor. It was 1989.
The interview with Patterson was among many that Zev Chafets conducted for his book, "Devil's Night And Other True Tales of Detroit," a work that surveyed the relationship between the city and suburbs. It concluded, explosively, that Detroit had become America's "first Third World city."
"Patterson himself appeared relaxed and jocular," Chafets wrote about meeting Patterson in his Pontiac office.
"He was only a few months away from voluntary retirement and there was an end-of-the-semester informality about him. Nearing 50, he was wearing a sport shirt, a boating jacket, and moccasins without socks. A boyish-looking man with a round face and a dry "heh, heh, heh" kind of laugh, he had the air of shrewd efficiency normally associated with the security chief of a medium-sized corporation."
Patterson sounded like a nice guy. Then he started talking. Chafets noted that despite his sense of humor, "Brooks Patterson is a highly unpopular man in the city of Detroit, where he is regarded as the symbol of suburban racism."
Patterson protested. "I'm color blind," he told Chafets.
"But out here we don't plea-bargain on breaking and entering cases, assault and other violent crimes, and black defendants don't like it. Oakland County is less than 10 percent black, but eighty five percent of the jail population is black."
Chafets wrote down that startling statistic, but Patterson suddenly seemed unsure. He called an assistant and asked for the precise numbers. "Actually the number is about fifty percent," he corrected himself in a same-difference tone of voice," Chafets wrote.
Chafets noted: "It is rare for a suburban politician to talk so specifically about blacks, In the established code, they are "Detroiters," and whites are "suburbanites. Chafets recalled the name-calling that followed the riot in Detroit after the 1984 World Series, when Mayor Coleman Young and other Detroit leaders blamed much of the mayhem on young people from outside of Detroit.
"When Coleman Young talked about marauding gangs coming in from the suburbs, I checked the figures," Patterson said. "It turned out that same day, thirty of the last thirty arrests in Southfield were of Detroiters. Now, is that racial? Bullshit. The fact is, Detroiters present a serious law enforcement problem to Oakland County." (Chafets didn't write whether he checked Patterson's recall of the arrest figures.)
Patterson continued: "In this county, robbery is a crime. In Detroit, it's an occupation. It's warfare in the city, it absolutely is. A baby born in Detroit has a bigger statistical chance of being killed than a soldier in World War Two. I'd call in the National Guard."
Patterson asked: "Is there hatred between us and them? Okay, I don't deny it." Then he launched into his well-practiced rap about how suburban whites were the target of black racism from Detroit, led by the racist-in-charge, Mayor Young.
"We see ourselves as a target. In this situation, you see the evidence of one man's hatred for the honkies. He's the racist. Things will quiet down when Coleman Young leaves." (Young left office in 1993 and died in 1997, but Patterson is still making noise in 2014.)
Patterson was just getting wound up. Chafets wrote:
"Coleman calls the suburbs 'cornfields,' Patterson said angrily. But in fact, in no sense are we dependent on Detroit. They are dependent on us. The truth is, Detroit has had its day. I don't give a damn about Detroit. It has no direct bearing on the quality of my life. If I never crossed Eight Mile again I wouldn't be bereft of anything."
When the New Yorker's Paige Williams interviewed Patterson in late 2013 for the story that was published Monday, he brought up a strange analogy to an Indian reservation when she asked him how Detroit might fix its financial problems.
Patterson said: "I made a prediction a long time ago, and it's come to pass. I said, 'What we're going to do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, an then throw in the blankets and corn.'"
In 1989, when Chafets asked about the quality of life for Detroiters, "Patterson looked at me as I were simpleminded," Chafets wrote.
"It's like the Indians on the reservation," he said. "Those who can will leave Detroit. Those who can't will get blankets and food from the government men in the city."
Previously on Deadline Detroit: