Even as the local media have crawled all over the sad tale of the young African-American woman shot to death by a white homeowner, the city’s papers and TV news outlets have been mysteriously quiet about another story heavily steeped in its own racial overturns: Steve Neavling’s searing report about the Grosse Pointe cops’ videotaped degradation of black men during random stops.
Neavling broke the story four days ago on Motor City Muckraker and has done two follow-ups, but so far it seems none of the local media outlets have wanted to touch it. This despite the fact that the story has been picked up by international media outlets and that "Good Morning America" has asked Neavling to appear on its show, according to a Facebook post Sunday from the journalist.
Perhaps the other local outlets are reluctant to chase the story without having the actual video clips, a few of which Neavling has posted on his site. (He says he has several more.) But with the Grosse Pointe Park PD promising in a news release to investigate the photos and videos its officers made of the men, there’s little question that the story has more than enough substance for the rest of the city media to latch onto.
Which is why it’s so alarming to see it ignored.
Unlike with McBride story, there is little gray area in Neavling’s report, little room for doubt about what happened, little space for the sorts of mental gymnastics so many in metro Detroit like to pull to look past even the most heinous acts of hatred and abuse. Our eyes and ears aren’t lying, and neither are the videos.
Many of us believe we have a pretty good idea of what happened between Theodore Wafer and Renisha McBride. But what is happening to the black men depicted in the images that Neavling has obtained is plain, clear and right there for all to see. Shot from a police squad car, the videos feature cops ordering black men to sing and “dance like a chimp."
Separately, a photo allegedly taken by a Grosse Pointe Park officer shows a black man in back of a trailer and carries the caption “Got to love the coloreds.” Neavling’s site says that “multiple officers were involved in the behavior shown.”
Such torment represents racism in its rawest, most stark form, of course — armed white men, backed by the full authority and force of the state, using their power (and the inherent threat of violence that comes with it) to shame and dehumanize blacks on a whim, turning them into organ grinder monkeys for sheer pleasure and doing so in the name of “protecting and serving” some of the wealthiest and most racially segregated enclaves in all of the United States.
(Speaking of wealth, that such a crude expression of racism would come from a workaday Joe rather than some affluent scion of the Pointes is hardly surprising. That’s how power works: When all you’ve got is a badge, a gun and a decidedly limited paycheck, the tools you use to express “superiority” will be markedly duller than those used by the man who lays off hundreds with the stroke of a pen.)
Only A Sampling
Of course, whatever Neavling received represents only the smallest fraction of the kinds of abuses that blacks are subjected to by cops in the Pointes. I grew up right off Mack Avenue, near the Grosse Pointe Park-Detroit border. I’ve spent a lifetime seeing — and experiencing first-hand — the hatred and disdain these videos capture.
Even before my friends and I had licenses, one of the first driving lessons we ever got was: “Don’t take your ass ‘cross Alter Road,” the dividing line between our east-side neighborhood and the Pointes. You didn’t venture through there, for any reason, unless you were willing to risk getting pulled over and harassed.
Sometimes, the cops didn’t even wait until we crossed Alter Road, and would actually cross the borderline to harass us preemptively at streets like Chalmers and Marlborough.
It was easy to target us, too. Most of us were young and poor, with raggedy late-model cars whose registrations and plates we often couldn’t afford to keep updated. Amid the caravans of luxury rides and German sportscars that lined the streets of Grosse Pointe, our smoke-belching Caprice Classics and Monte Carlos were easy to pick out and pick on. And once they had us stopped, it didn’t take much to find cause to lock us up.
Justify the Handcuffs
Even if you were a young man with paperwork in order, they had catchall charges — "disorderly conduct” has always been my favorite — that they could define any way they needed to in order to justify putting you in handcuffs.
In that way, it was as exploitative as it was bigoted: Even as these cops dogged us, even as they criminalized us simply for coming into their city from the wrong direction, Grosse Pointe Park filled its coffers with our misfortunes.
Hell, even when we weren’t in cars, it seemed that official Grosse Pointe Park detested us for no good reason.
In the early 1980s, during my teens, some of us actually would defy our parents’ advice and venture over the border to go to a movie theater named the Esquire. Located on Jefferson, just past Alter Road, the theater would often show cheesy second-run flicks for $1.
We never did anything wrong, mind you (and not because we were such angels, but because we already knew that you just didn’t cause trouble in stuck-up white folks’ neighborhoods). We’d just mass on the Detroit side of Jefferson and walk — even the kids old enough to drive left their cars behind — the few blocks necessary to take in high-brow classics like the Fat Boys’ “Disorderlies.”
There were no shootings. No robberies. No fights even, as we were all friends who’d grown up together. But mere the sight of 10 to 15 black teenagers, laughing and horseplaying and rolling through the Pointes like they owned the place, clearly didn’t sit well.
By 1988, the Esquire was shut down. In 1990, it was demolished. Grosse Pointe Park officials claimed the theater had become a hub for crime — but every black kid who’d ever double-dated at that theater knew the real deal.
There wasn’t much we could say, of course. We knew the city didn’t want us there. Just as we knew the cops didn’t stop us simply because we were doing “35 in a 30.” Just as we knew the stares we got weren’t because we were talking loud. And just as we knew that, for all the talk we heard about fairness and equality and freedom, that there were people in this place who, no matter what we did, would always view us as something less than human.
We just didn’t have videotaped proof.
The Pointes Are Changing
To be fair, Grosse Pointe Park is diversifying some, and that’s a good thing — but even for the decent folks trying to change the place, racism remains rampant. Neavling’s story makes that painfully clear.
But if we’re being honest, we’ve always known that. We know it now just like we knew it back when I was a kid. Perhaps it was easier for some to turn a blind eye then, easier to live in the gray area, easier to attack those who impugn the motives of bigots than to attack the bigots themselves.
This time around, though, there can be no such excuses. The videos and pictures are there for all to see — and even if the local papers want to question Neavling’s sources (I’m hearing that that’s one reason there hasn’t been much local coverage), that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to pretend these images don’t exist.
Law enforcement officers paid with our tax dollars are using the authority they’ve been given to dehumanize blacks for fun. This isn’t just professional misconduct. This is the very essence of institutional racism. It’s time feet met fire. It’s time this news story became as talked-about as the slaying of young Renisha McBride and the election of Mike Duggan and any other local narrative with race near its heart.
Steve Neavling’s got something to show us. It’s time we stopped trying to look the other way.