Politics & Prejudices: How killer cops elected a black mayor 

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Don’t ever let it be said that The Detroit News is afraid to state the obvious. Two days after five police officers were gunned down in Dallas, they ran an editorial that began: “The last thing we need in this country is a race war, particularly aimed at police officers.”

Naturally, it would have been better, in the interests of humanity, to have ended that sentence at “race war.” After all, isn’t a race war aimed at any human beings equally bad?

Conservatives are big on law and order, however, and they are right that killing cops is not a good idea. The News did have a slight verb tense problem here, however, as most black folks know.

Instead of worrying about a race war starting, we need to recognize that there has been one of sorts going on in the streets of this country for many years, usually conducted by white law enforcement officers against black men.

There’s nothing new about this; what is new is the fact that there are now video cameras everywhere; on police cars; on officers’ uniforms; in the hands and smartphones of bystanders and sometimes victims. So we are now actually seeing some of what goes on. The week before a deranged veteran killed five cops in Dallas, we saw two men — Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota — killed in what looked like cold-blooded murder.

By the way, if you want to know what’s really been happening and why, run and buy Ta-Nehisi Coates’ short, but powerful Between the World and Me, a book that, as a matter of fact, every so-called white person in America should read, like today.

But in any event — in the aftermath of Dallas, lots of people who were politically aware suddenly held their breaths. How would this affect the country and the presidential campaign?

Would it help Donald Trump launch a racist and demagogic “law and order” campaign that might lead him to victory? After all, it worked pretty well for that old devil Richard Nixon back in 1968.

Remarkably, Trump behaved like a grown-up in the first days after Dallas, issuing a muted call for law and order, but also appearing to condemn the slayings of Sterling and Castile.

But sometimes these things don’t turn out the way the conventional wisdom thinks they will. Old-timers in Detroit should know this very well. Nearly half a century ago, unjustified police killings of black men had a political consequence, all right.

They may just have been the biggest factor in the election of Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman A. Young.

Here’s what happened. Shortly after the Detroit riot or rebellion of July 1967, then-police Commissioner John Nichols started a new program called STRESS, short for “Stop the Robberies; Enjoy Safe Streets.” It was designed to provoke street thugs to attack police officers in disguise. Heavily armed cops would then blow them away.

“It single-handedly put Detroit at the top of the country in civilians killed per capita by police,” Young noted in his 1994 autobiography, Hard Stuff. “The black community referred to (it) as the execution squad.” That’s not an exaggeration: STRESS killed 22 people in less than three years, 21 of whom were black.

Abolishing STRESS then became a major issue in that year’s mayoral campaign. To the surprise of many, Young and Nichols emerged as winners of the primary, beating out two moderate candidates — one white, one black — favored by the media.

There were still probably a few more white voters than black ones in Detroit then. But Coleman Young managed to win that election. Indications were that, in the end, a small number of white liberals who couldn’t stomach Nichols or STRESS voted for Young.

STRESS had already been suspended before the election, and the new mayor immediately abolished it.

Coleman Young then made what he told me in 1995 may have been one of the most misunderstood speeches in Michigan history, telling criminals of all kinds to “hit Eight Mile Road.” Whites felt he was telling them to leave, and many did — including the clownish John Nichols, who ended his days as Oakland County sheriff.  

Young stayed as mayor for five terms, almost certainly too long. He did truly integrate the police force, and tried to hire equal numbers of white and black city workers across the board, but was unable to prevent the city’s long-term economic decline.

Whether he was the right man to have been Detroit’s first black mayor has been endlessly debated. But his victory that year may have been due to a huge black turnout and decent white voters angered by the sort of police brutality against black citizens we now see on video.

Stay tuned for what happens next.                                                            

Youth must be served

Everyone was sad when state Rep. Julie Plawecki, (D-Dearborn Heights) died unexpectedly while hiking on vacation last month. That meant a panel of three local Democratic precinct delegates had the task of picking someone to succeed her on the ballot. Since the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, whoever they selected was virtually certain to win in November.

Plawecki, who was 54, was a well-regarded legislator with a long career as a math and science teacher before going into politics.

But scarcely was her body cold before her 22-year-old daughter, Lauren, a recent college graduate, announced she wanted her mommy’s old job. (Why not keep it in the family, doncha know?)

Well, I was convinced the Democrats were going to run little Lauren, despite the fact that there might well be someone in the district, who, like, might have a career or be a grown-up.

But not to worry; Lauren P. didn’t get the nod. Somehow, the deck was stacked with delegates from Inkster, and they picked … Jewell Jones, a 21-year-old student at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and also the youngest member of the Inkster City Council.

Just think of it: Assuming he serves his maximum three terms, Jones will be unable to ever run again by the time he reaches 27.

Nor is he likely to accomplish anything worth writing about in the legislature, unless the Democrats somehow take control of the lower House this November, which isn’t very likely.

When Jones was running for the Inkster council last year, he told an interviewer it “was just a daily challenge of seeing if I focus on the campaign right now, or should I focus on school.”

Well, JJ, in this case I say — focus on school. The district is so gerrymandered you can’t possibly lose. As long as Republicans control the legislature, you won’t accomplish anything anyway, and you will need a real job once term limits force you to retire at age 27.

But you will make a cool $71,685 a year, which ought to help some to pay off those student loans.

And P.S.: They are also holding an expensive primary and general special election to fill the last couple months of Julie Plawecki’s term — and they’re letting Lauren have that.  

Is this a great country or what? 


More by Jack Lessenberry

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