EPISODE TWO: THE BATTLE FOR DETROIT
REPORTER: An angry wave of resentment in Detroit’s black community prompted the city council to air the many complaints of police misconduct. It was a bitter session punctuated by shouts, epithets and continuing charges of racism and police terrorism.
SORAYA: It’s January 1973. The city council calls a public forum on a topic that attracts so many angry Detroiters... they had to move it to the Ford Auditorium.
The issue? STRESS - the Detroit Police Department’s undercover decoy unit...
KEN COCKREL: We’ve asked this council for hearings on numerous occasions and they’ve ducked it and they’ve side stepped it because it was a hot political issue. Everybody on the Detroit Common Council needs to be put to the necessity of taking a position on STRESS.
SORAYA: Black people want STRESS abolished. By now, its undercover officers have killed 16 men, 15 of them black... But the Police Commissioner points out that crime is down… and not everybody wants to get rid of the controversial police unit.
REPORTER: Police commissioner John Nichols attempted to respond to the crowded hall but he was shouted down.
NICHOLS: It is not my intent to stand before you today to attempt to justify the lawful rights of a police officer in affecting an arrest. They need no such justification. [shouting]
COUNCILLOR: Please, until you’re recognized, you’re wasting part of that two hours.
SORAYA: This meeting marks a turning point. In just a few months, Detroiters will have the chance to decide the fate of STRESS — and of the entire city.
ARCHIVAL ACTIVIST: You will act on this or you will not have a future in city government. This is election year ‘73. We don’t intend to let this one pass, without an attempt to change the life of this city.
SORAYA: Last episode, a crime lab technician took down a notorious STRESS officer...with the help of a few cat hairs.
Today on the show: Black people in Detroit have had enough. It’s 1973, an election year, and they’re backing a brash new candidate for mayor.
COLEMAN YOUNG: This city needs a mayor, a leader, not a commanding officer. This city needs a uniter, not a cutting edge. I am capable of leading that struggle.
SORAYA: I’m Soraya Shockley. Welcome ... to Crimetown.
SORAYA: To understand how STRESS became the central issue of the 1973 mayoral election, you need to meet a fifteen-year-old boy named Ricardo Buck.
ALMIRA: He was... kind of...on the quiet side. // He was really handsome, had real big pretty eyes.
SORAYA: This is Almira Mathis. Ricardo Buck was her nephew. His friends called him Buck.
MATHIS: It was like five of em, his best friends. They used to always come up to my house and they would sing The Temptations.
MATHIS: They sounded pretty good though, they did. Mhm. Um, yeah what's that I can't think of the song they used to sing. I could fly like a bird in the sky and, what's that song?
MATHIS: The guys would wear those like gabardine shirts, button down // You know how they was wearing naturals back there. So his was still, it wasn't a large natural, it was kinda short.
SHOCKLEY: He had a little baby fro?
MATHIS: Yeah baby — yup, that's what it is, a baby fro.
MATHIS: I actually, got a picture of them...
MATHIS: I framed it.
MATHIS: ...that’s his last picture.
MATHIS: Mhm. So, it was terrible.
ALMIRA: But you don't know about teenagers what they might do. Did they need some money, or why. You know what. You know I don't know.
FORTUNE: All the neighbors knew us by name. We hustled together. And people knew from the outside, you can't mess with him without messing with the rest of them.
SORAYA: Gino Fortune… was friends with Ricardo Buck. One night, they had just finished playing basketball at the North End Family Center with another friend, Craig Mitchell.
FORTUNE: We were all on gym steps. It was summertime, it was hot. All the kids were hanging out. You know.
FORTUNE: That's when, um... the white guy comes staggering down John R.
FORTUNE: The guy had a gas can in his hand, which you would first think that his car had stopped somewhere. We knew he had no business in the neighborhood. Period. So, we look at it as he was trying to get direction. He was wearing regular clothes. But hey, he had a big shiny watch on. He had a gold chain on his neck. I'm thinking, you know, that he was asking for it.
SORAYA: Asking for what?
FORTUNE: For us to come and take his stuff.
FORTUNE: And uh, we were just talking to him at first. We were just talking to him trying to get some you know, see where he coming from, to see was he drunk or what. You know.
SORAYA: What were you saying to him?
FORTUNE: Uh, where you come from? Or where are you going? Or where your car is? You know. We were all in his face. Had him surrounded more or less.
FORTUNE: But we didn't get a chance to take nothing from that guy. Cause he lunged at Buck.
FORTUNE: That's when all of us, pshoo, beat him down. I mean hey, who does this guy think he is? He just jumped on Buck and we was just talking, you know?
FORTUNE: And we kicked his ass.
FORTUNE: And then he said, Police officer. He kept hollering, Police officer!
FORTUNE: We didn't see no police cars all we see was these white guys jumping out of bushes and everywhere. You would think you in a war or something. Because it was like Vietnam out there.
FORTUNE: Buck tried to run. And I seen him drop.
FORTUNE: I ran back up towards the gym to the steps Boom boom. And the sparks was ricocheting off the street. And I'm hearing gunshots going by me zing by my ear. So they were trying to get me too.
FORTUNE: And I see fire hopping off Craig's back and he fell down beside the car in front of the gym.
FORTUNE: Everything happened so fast.
FORTUNE: I was more scared...I mean hey. Here I’m that close to getting got too, you know?
BENJAMIN HALLOWAY: I was the boss. You know. Which means that usually my job would be the same job that a father would have.
SORAYA: Benjamin Halloway was the director of the North End Family Center, where the shooting happened. Over the years, he kept a close eye on Craig and Buck.
HALLOWAY: Craig and Buck they were just mischief kids To me they wasn’t really bad kids. They was one of my specials you know, uh...
SORAYA: Why were they special?
HALLOWAY: Because they always did something wrong.
SORAYA: The night of the shooting, Halloway was at home when his phone rang…
HALLOWAY: When I got the call, I couldn’t believe it. A white man shot Craig and Buck. Craig and Buck?? I couldn't picture that. What do you mean? You know so we dropped whatever we was doing.
SORAYA: Halloway drove to the center to find it surrounded by police tape.
HALLOWAY: When we get back, it was 50 police lined up, locked in arms, and I tried to go to Craig and they wouldn't let me go over there. You know I mean they got mean. You know. And I’m trying to hold my emotion. Craig was laying… I tried to go see him... You know, I'm like, What the hell—what's wrong with you? You know, I kind of like, I kind of like lost it. Because I'm looking at him and he's laying there.
HALLOWAY: We didn't really find out till the next day that the police shot Craig and Buck.
HALLOWAY: So we're kind of like, what?! The police!?
SORAYA: Almira Mathis, Ricardo Buck’s aunt, says that no one from the police.. ever came.. to notify her family.
MATHIS: Who does that? That's what you do? You take a 15 year old life and you don't even go to the family with no kind of explanation?
MATHIS: Because if they had cared they would have came to the house and said something to my sister. Nobody never came.
MATHIS: It felt like racist // You know. White man kill another black with no concern. They didn't care. They didn't care.
SORAYA: The undercover STRESS officer who shot Craig and Buck.. his name was Richard Worobec.
RICHARD WOROBEC: The kind of people out on those streets, they’re brutal, they’re violent and if you’ve been a victim of a crime, you’ll understand how little regard they have for you or your life, and they’ll take it from you in a minute if they can.
SORAYA: This audio is from an interview Worobec gave for a documentary called “Detroit Under STRESS.”
WOROBEC: I knew that the only way to, uh, prevent crime was you have to attack it. You have to be proactive, and you have to go after the bad guys.
WOROBEC: How can a white guy stand out in a predominately black community but still fit in? What if you're a motorist that ran out of gas, and you're carrying a gas can. That was my MO. I'd walk with a gas can and hope you know somebody would come and rob me.
SORAYA: And that’s exactly what Worobec did that night.. in front of the North End Family Center.
WOROBEC: I was passing John R and Belmont, and these two guys were sitting up on a step. And they both run up on me and start hitting me with the, with the pole and pushing me down.
SORAYA: Worobec says Craig and Buck attacked him with a steel pole from a broken badminton racket.
WOROBEC: They took my watch right off of my hand. And they started to run. And I drew my weapon and I fired. I fired three shots this way, and I fired three shots that way. And this guy went down. Went up to the guy, and he was dead. And my watch was underneath his body. And I just happened to walk across the street, and look down by a parked car, and there was the second guy, and he was dead.
WOROBEC: It’s always easy to just blame it on the police when the police are interjecting themselves into the middle of a violent situation.
It wasn't until a couple of days later I found out that they were actually juveniles. But uh...police officers, they have every right to protect themselves.
ARCHIVAL NEWS: The march was called to proclaim a state of emergency in Detroit. It was organized in protest against a special Detroit police unit called STRESS. Black leaders of the march say the killings amounted to execution without trial.
CLAUDE YOUNG: Black Detroit will no longer subject itself to the suppression, brutality, that we are now undergoing. We are moving for total freedom! Total freedom!
SORAYA: Several days after Officer Worobec killed Ricardo Buck and Craig Mitchell, community leaders called for a march. Almira Mathis and the rest of Buck’s family were front and center:
MATHIS: We walked all the way down Woodward Avenue. We was on the front line. There was so many people behind us. Oh it was, it was beautiful. Just to know that we had their support to abolish this STRESS.
SORAYA: But abolishing STRESS wasn’t going to be easy. It would be another year before Police Commissioner John Nichols was shouted down... by that angry crowd at the Ford Auditorium.
NICHOLS: We can expect police conduct to at least be professional. This complaint, that has been voiced…
SORAYA: Not long after that city council forum, Commissioner Nichols, the mastermind behind STRESS...set his eyes on a higher office: City Hall.
ARCHIVAL: The mayoral campaign has pitted a law and order candidate against a state senator seeking to become the auto city’s first black mayor…
SORAYA: Nichols's opponent was a man named Coleman Young.
COLEMAN: The police department needs to be reorganized and made more responsive to the citizens. I’ll eliminate STRESS as one of my first moves.
ARCHIVAL REPORTER: What about police commissioner Nichols?
COLEMAN: Well I certainly think the commissioner who is responsible for STRESS, who is responsible for the abrasive attitude of the police department toward many of many of our citizens, has got to go.
REPORTER: Commissioner, Senator Coleman Young today announced that he’s a candidate and he said that if he’s elected the first thing he’d do is fire you as commissioner and abolish STRESS.
NICHOLS: [laughing] I don’t think either one of them comes as a total surprise, do you?
SORAYA: After the break...John Nichols and Coleman Young.. battle over the future of Detroit.
ARCHIVAL: The Detroit mayoral race pits a black against a white. John Nichols, a 54 year old police commissioner who is known as a tough cop and who stresses crime control, is running against Coleman Young, a 55 year old state senator who has a reputation as a militant fighter for the black cause.
SORAYA: Mayoral candidate Coleman Young had cut his teeth as a union organizer in the auto plants. Here he is in 1952, testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare.
SENATOR: Uh, you’ve told us that you were the executive secretary of the National “Nigra” Congress.
COLEMAN: That word is negro. You said nigra.
SENATOR: I think you’re mistaken.
COLEMAN: Well I hope you’ll speak more clearly.
SENATOR 2: [GAVEL] I’ll appreciate it if you would not argue with counsel.
COLEMAN: It is not my privilege to argue. As a negro I resent the slurring of the name of my race.
SORAYA: In the sixties, black people in Detroit elected Coleman to three terms as state senator. And now, he was running for mayor …
REMER TYSON: He was Coleman. He said what he had to say and, uh, he'd learned it in the streets early on and he continued to do it.
SORAYA: This is journalist Remer Tyson. He covered the 1973 election for the Detroit Free Press.
TYSON: You know, his favorite word was motherfucker. Everybody was a motherfucker. He used...uh, common swear words and so-forth to get his point across a lot.
COLEMAN ARCHIVAL: Well that’s bull****. And who the f*** do you think you are, to come in here and cross examine me?
ANNOUNCER: Voters know that Coleman Young’s blackness in a city half black is what this race is all about. The optimistic view is that Young as mayor would help raise the social and economic status of Detroit’s blacks and strengthen the peaceful coexistence the city needs to save itself. The pessimistic view is that as mayor, Young would give Detroit away to Blacks.
MCKNIGHT: it was well understood on the street that this election, the 1973 election, would be a watershed election.
SORAYA: Richard McKnight was John Nichols’s campaign coordinator. And as he remembers it, race was key to the 1973 election.
MCKNIGHT: The number of white voters was decreasing. It was very likely that this was the last election that the white people would control.
DREW: So in the campaign itself, what was your strategy? What was the Nichols campaign strategy?
MCKNIGHT: To produce as many white votes as possible.
SORAYA: So Coleman needed to produce as many black votes as possible. And he knew just where to start…
PATRINA: We were holding a political rally for him. And he walked in through the door. And you know it was just like mayhem.
SORAYA: This is Patrina Chatman. And the first time she saw Coleman Young speak was at her church.
PATRINA: He walked in just you know shaking people's hand. Doing what most politicians do. But it was just something a little different.
He knew people in the audience, you know. And his motions were very much like most black men in the community. You know. He didn't just go you know shake a hand he was like ‘Hey!’ and he would call them by name and he seemed like he was one of us.
And he walked down the middle aisle onto the pulpit.
COLEMAN YOUNG: As we enter the countdown in what is probably the most important election that the people of this city have faced in many years. I've been across this city. My qualifications are superior.
PATRINA: He was so handsome. Just a good looking brother, you know. And he carried himself like a black man who was cool, you know, who loved his people more than anything.
YOUNG: I have been presenting a program to all the people of the city of Detroit because I recognize that all of the city of Detroit is in deep trouble unless we reverse the polarization, the trend toward economic deterioration that presently plagues our city.
CHATMAN: There was euphoria, clapping, the music, African-American choir that was very good. Dead on it. So all of that mixed together, we were energized to make change.
In a short period of time we were you know, passing out our leaflets, talking to people, excited about Coleman Young. Talked to a lot of different people, black and white. There were still some white people in the area. But mostly we talked to black people who were supportive. It was very well organized. We felt we were going to win.
SORAYA: On the eve of election day, both candidates went on television to make one last appeal to voters...
NICHOLS: Well I think first thing you do is to continue the aggressive fight against crime that I began as police commissioner. I think that the pall of crime drives businesses out of the city, I think the fear of crime in the neighborhoods forces our citizens to move out to the suburbs.
COLEMAN: The basic problem as you know is of an economic nature. Crime and the other problems are spin offs. All I think can be traced to the basic polarization that has characterized urban america. If Detroit goes down the drain, black and white go down the drain together. You can’t tell the difference between black and white in the sewer.
ARCHIVAL: Polarized as it is, Detroit has lost much of its tax base and much of its appeal. Tomorrow, the voters must decide which candidate can help blacks better themselves, and at the same time convince whites to stay.
SORAYA: November 6, 1973. Election day.
REPORTER: As the polls opened this morning, the contest was expected to be a close one. Last minute opinion polls showed a large group of voters still undecided.
SORAYA: Reporters caught the candidates as they left their polling stations.
NICHOLS: I voted for the best man.
REPORTER: So how do you feel this morning?
NICHOLS: Not nervous.
REPORTER: How do you feel?
YOUNG: I’m looking forward to a massive expression on the part of people of this city, both black and white, that it’s time to turn our backs on polarization and division to get together and rebuild this city.
SORAYA: Late that night, Coleman Young stepped onto a stage at the Detroit Hilton...
COLEMAN: With 99% of the vote in we are 15,000 votes ahead. Right on! [crowd cheers] I didn’t win. We won. [crowd cheers]
COLEMAN ARCHIVAL: I’m not mad at anybody. I’m not going to punish anybody. But I’m gonna insist on equality for everybody!
COLEMAN SUPPORTER: Yay!
SORAYA: Almira Mathis, Ricardo Buck’s aunt, had been waiting for this day.
MATHIS: We was definitely excited. We was so glad he got in office because he knew that he was gonna get rid of STRESS.
So had the community center director, Benjamin Halloway..
HALLOWAY: I was relieved that he was in because we believed that he was going to do what he said.
SWEARING IN: And that you will faithfully discharge the duties of the Office of Mayor of the City of Detroit to the best of your ability, so help you God.
COLEMAN: I do.
REPORTER: There’s a new excitement in Detroit, generated by the promise and hope of a new mayor. Coleman Young is the city’s first black chief executive, elected by a narrow margin.
SORAYA: As Coleman settled into city hall, he sent a clear message to his constituents: There’s a new mayor in town.
COLEMAN: I said when I opened my campaign, that STRESS would be eliminated. I say that now. STRESS will go. Any acronym relating to STRESS will go. Any STRESS-oriented decoy operation will go. This is for real.
SORAYA: Coleman Young had taken on the cops and won. But now the city was facing another problem… the criminals.
COURTNEY BROWN: He throws a bag on the table, just like that. I say, “What’s that? Sugar? Flour?” He say, “No, that’s dope.”
SORAYA: That’s next week….on Crimetown.
SORAYA: The interview with Richard Worobec in this episode appears courtesy of David Van Wie's documentary “Detroit Under STRESS.” To learn more about David's film and find out how to watch it, visit detroitunderstress.com.
Crimetown is Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier.
It’s produced by Rob Szypko, John White, Samantha Lee and me, Soraya Shockley.
The senior producer is Drew Nelles.
Editing by Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier.
Editing help from Alex Blumberg, and Caitlin Kenney.
Fact-checking by Jennifer Blackman.
This episode was mixed, sound designed, and scored by Kenny Kusiak.
Original music this season composed by Homer Steinweiss.
We recorded some original music at Rustbelt Studios in Detroit in partnership with Detroit Sound Conservancy. Special thanks to Carleton Gholz and Maurice “Pirahnahead” Herd.
Additional music by John Kusiak and Kenny Kusiak, and additional mixing by Bobby Lord.
Our theme song is “Politicians In My Eyes” by Death.
Our credit music this week is “Still in My Heart,” written and performed by Detroit Soul Ambassador, Melvin Davis.
Archival research by Brennan Rees.
Archival footage courtesy of the Shrine of Black Madonna of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church, the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University, and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History.
Show art and design by James Cabrera and Elise Harven.
Check out our website crimetownshow.com for bonus content, a transcript for this episode, and a full list of credits.
To learn more about STRESS, check out Mark Binelli’s piece “The Fire Last Time” in the New Republic.
Thanks to the Detroit Free Press, Peter Bhatia, Jim Schaeffer, Mary Schroeder, Mary Wallace, Melissa Samson, the Detroit Historical Society, Sheila Cockrel, Barbara Rose-Collins, Gail McKnight, Jacqueline Beaird, Jaramogi Menelik Kimathi, Kehinde Briggs, everyone at the Shrine, including the choir, Larry Mongo, Kirk Cheyfitz, Erin Henneghan, Elliott Hall, Mayer Morganroth, and everyone who shared their stories with us. Detroit is an amazing place, and we’re honored to tell a small part of its story.
Alex Blumberg is the podfather …. every time I walk into his office, he says, “Well that’s bull****. And who the f*** do you think you are, to come in here and cross examine me?”