I’d heard only the barest reports: A motorist had accidentally struck a child on Detroit’s east side and had been viciously beaten when he climbed out of his vehicle to check on the kid.
The story resonated because of horrific attack. But nothing seemed particularly different from so many other beatings, shootings, stabbings and rapes that have long scarred communities like the one around Morang and Balfour. I pegged it as yet another “black-on-black” crime in a city with far too many. I didn’t figure the story would go much further.
Hours later, chatting with radio talk show host Craig Fahle, I learned how wrong I was. The story had exploded into something much bigger because the victim was white.
The racial element had roiled social media and the local papers’ comment sections like high winds on an ocean. Radio call-in lines, online replies and Facebook posts were exploding with racist invective and Detroit-bashing. Many screamed it was a hate crime. Apoplectic bigots with little sense of history and even less sense of irony slurred blacks in one sentence and then demanded that “Al and Jesse do something” the next.
Meanwhile, information about the actual crime had changed little from the early reports, and neither had my impressions. I still saw the attack as horrible, senseless and the worst kind of expression of rage.
And in some ways, I still saw yet another sad “black-on-black” crime.
Place, Not Race
Understand, I regard the term “black-on-black crime” label as a terrible misnomer and, as others have suggested, a dangerous idea in general. Most violent crimes are intraracial, statistics show.
Proximity tends to play far more of a role than skin color when it comes to violence — and proximity is really what I’m referencing here.
Utash just as easily could have caught the same wanton beat-down and fallen prey to the same petty thugs had he been a black man. Black people are attacked and robbed in this city’s streets almost every day.
The real motivation may not have been that Utash is white, just that he was there.
Utash, by all accounts a kind and decent man, clearly bears no fault for the crime against him. There’s no evidence he was speeding or driving erratically, the cops say. The boy, 10-year-old David Harris, stepped in front of Utash’s truck and was hit. The Roseville tree trimmer did the right thing and got out to check on the child.
Exploitation Efforts Offend
What happened next was ugly, brutal and just plain wrong. Utash lies comatose in critical condition at St. John Hospital. Police still are searching for his assailants.
And the fumes from the racist nastiness his misfortune has inspired grow ever thicker.
As if the attack weren’t sickening enough, some are trying to turn Utash into a poster boy for white grievance. They want to spin some sort of fictional narrative in which angry blacks have denied power and justice to white folks for far too long.
In that same vein, others are making demands for what seems to be equal time from civil-rights activists, as if “Al and Jesse” have to prove something to racists who’ve harbored little but contempt for them or their causes.
What’s most offensive about this line of BS isn’t even the racism embedded in the feckless insults. Worse than that is the callousness with which these bigots show for Utash’s life — making it a symbol not of any righteous demand for change but rather a vehicle for impotent racial mockery and pointless hate.
Cheap Rhetorical Ploys
Consider, by contrast, the relative paucity of outrage expressed over the equally senseless beating in Westland of a white military vet — whose attackers appear to be nonblack.
Bigots angry about Utash aren’t issuing grassroots calls for community action, a la Renisha McBride. They aren’t making rank-and-file demands for legislative change, as came with the killing of Trayvon Martin.
No, clowns who won’t so much as visit that block to lay a wreath for Steve Utash would rather cynically call on civil-rights leaders to take a stand — not because they’d welcome “Al and Jesse,” but because they see a chance to mine the senseless beating of an innocent man for cheap rhetorical points against outspoken African-Americans.
For them, the assault on Utash isn’t so much about seeking justice as it is about finding a way to negate and delegitimize African-Americans’ history as targets of white racial violence. “See -- blacks are just as bad, if not worse!”
Rage, Fear, Frustration
Consequently, most don’t give a damn about any dynamics in this case except those that will permit their myth-making.
They don’t care that the neighborhood where Utash was attacked — once an all-white, working-class enclave where blacks feared to tread — has grown poorer and more desperate as the demographics have shifted and institutions have collapsed. They don’t care about rampant unemployment or bad schools or shuttered storefronts over that way. They don’t care about the rage and fear and frustration of those who’ve been left behind.
And they don’t even notice how this same desperate, flailing anger contributes to the violence that endangers the lives of black men, women and children in Detroit in much the same way it now threatens the life of a harmless white laborer from a suburb.
No one knows what motivated Utash’s attackers, and it really doesn’t matter much. At this point, decent people just hope the man can heal fully.
Healing also is needed in crumbling Detroit neighborhoods that also have been beaten to a pulp.
Related coverage at Deadline Detroit:
- Arrests Begin In Widely Condemned Detroit Attack on Driver Steve Utash
- Riley on Driver Attack: 'There Is No Room For That Kind of Hate'
Family fund-raiser online
Mandi Marie Utash of Warren is collecting donations at this GoFundMe page to cover her uninsured dad's medical costs.
"Please help the family raise money to pay his medical expenses," she posts. "Your monetary help is greatly appreciated and your prayers more so."
Nearly 1,800 people have given more than $76,700 during the first two days. "This tragedy is NOT about color," donor Bernice Malinowski comments today at the site. "It’s about evil people against good people."