VH1′s latest Rock Doc, Planet Rock: The Story of Hip Hop and the Crack Generation, is set to premiere this Sunday, September 18, at 10 p.m. You’ve already seen the trailer, but as a means to whet your appetite, we’d like to share this excerpt from Barry Michael Cooper‘s essay “New Jack City Eats Its Young,” which originally appeared in the Village Voice in 1987 and served as the inspiration for the 1991 film, New Jack City. Cooper will be moderating a Planet Rock panel discussion at the Paley Center for Media in New York City tonight, which will feature appearances by Planet Rock narrator Ice-T, former cocaine kingpins Azie Faison and Freeway Rick Ross, journalist Nelson George, and Planet Rock producers Martin Torgoff and Richard Lowe. Cooper’s book, Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young, is now available at Amazon.com.
NEW JACK CITY EATS ITS YOUNG
By Barry Michael Cooper
MOTOR CITY BREAKDOWN
I. BLOOD LIKE WATER
“Yo-yo, where the money at?”
Lenny Higgins, 17 at the time, didn’t usually go to the store with his foster brother James, also 17, but on the night of March 1, 1987, James asked and Lenny obliged. It was 10:30. At Williamson’s Party Store, on Perry Park Boulevard on Detroit’s West Side, they bought sodas and played some games. They left about 10:45. As Lenny tells the story, he and James were approaching their corner of Heckler Street when a hooded figure ran across the street and stopped them in their tracks. Clad in a black jacket and black hooded sweatshirt, Mark Hunter, 24, pulled a .357 Magnum from his pants waist and stuck it in James’s temple.
“Yo-yo, where the money at?”
Three seconds later another figure joined Hunter and put another .357 to Lenny’s head. Lenny had seen this boy around the neighborhood, knew him slightly, but they weren’t friendly: Dashaw Green, 15. Wearing a black, Run-D.M.C.-style “popcorn” leather jacket, hooded black sweatshirt, black jeans, and white laceless Adidas, he echoed his partner:
“Where the money at? Which one a y’all got the money?”
Lenny was confused, scared, angry – but not willing to be a toy hero, a dead toy hero – “Here!” he said, “You can have my money, just don’t shoot me!”
Lenny gave up his $26, and James handed over $30 or $40. After they took the money, Mark and Dashaw looked at each other, an evil, hungry look, Lenny says. They lowered their guns and pushed Lenny and James backward. Mark raised his gun and fired. Flames spit out the muzzle like and orange and white blur, hitting James in the abdomen. The bullet exited through the spine. James doubled over. Lenny was frozen. Mark and Dashaw ran five or six steps in the opposite direction, but then Dashaw turned around. Mark turned around. Dashaw hesitated for a split second. Maybe he thought, I’m with my boy, and if I don’t shoot, he might think I’m frontin’. He might even shoot me. I can’t let this n**** go scot free. I gotta shoot him, too.
Mark and Dashaw ran up on Lenny, and they fired five shots–all of which hit Lenny because he stood as a shield on James’s left side–and fled into the night. Lenny and James slumped against a neighbor’s fence, not far from their house. Lenny called to one of friends inside the house.
“Tanisha, come help me! Me and Jimmy just got shot! Come help!”
A puddle of blood formed underneath them, branching off in several directions, before a direct line dripped into the street. Lenny could smell smoke rising from his body where the bullets had dug into his left arm, left side, back, and legs. Thoughts circled in Lenny’s head as if it was a turntable fashioned by a madman–too slow at 45, too fast at 16. Lenny wondered why they didn’t take his gold chain, his sheepskin, or his Filas, or James’s Bally shoes. Just before he heard the chorus of ambulance and police sirens, he whispered to James, his best friend, “Jimmy man, not matter what happens, I love you. We gonna make it. Just take it easy, sit there and rest. We gonna make it.”
Three hours later at Henry Ford Hospital, after the first of many operations, Lenny learned that James had died.
II. THE EPIDEMIC
According to official estimates, there are at least two guns for every person in the Detroit metropolitan area. Nearly 65 teenagers 17 or under have been killed this year. Almost 300 have been wounded. The number exceeds last years body count of 48, and the wounded are steadily lurching toward the 365 of 1986. Detroit is a city whose horror reaches cinematic proportions, like The Living Dead Wear Kangols and Filas. However you like your chiller theater, Detroit is the worst because it’s real. Unlike New York, where the DMZ begins south of 96th Street, or Baltimore, where guerilla dope wars are confined to eastern and western black districts, Detroit’s violence knows no boundaries.
It’s among the high-rise office buildings downtown, the upper-middle-class homes and condos on the West Side, the poverty-worn projects on the East Side. Detroit is like that nightmare where your legs become paralyzed when the monsters are chasing you; you can’t escape. Statistics, like germs ink-stained and clamped down under a microscope, are neat and tidy from a safe distance. But once you zoom in and focus, you see fascinating, intense, and sometimes ugly details of lives previously ignored. The kids in Detroit are more than data on police bar graphs and newspaper charts, distributed as lunchtime chitchat or after-dinner arguments during the Eyewitness News. The kids in Detroit are suffering from a disease so new, powerful, contagious, and fatal that there’s not even a name for it yet.
Business is booming for funeral homes and florists in Detroit. Funeral home director James Cole said, “It’s pathetic. Just about every day, we get young people who are being killed needlessly. It’s business we shouldn’t have.”
Emergency-room physicians often wonder if they’ll be able to treat all of the gunshot victims on busy nights. Dr. Cynthia Shelby-Lane of Detroit Receiving estimates her city sees 40 percent of the city’s young, black, male gunshot wound victims. One incident that stuck out Dr. Shelby-Lane’s mind concerned at 13-year-old boy who was rushed to emergency with a gunshot wound in the chest.
“He was a surgical code one,” the doctor said, “which is a resuscitation victim in a life-or-death situation. Everybody looked at each other and said, ’Thirteen? How young are the going to get?’ When they reeled him in, he was sitting up, so he wasn’t unconscious. As we started immediate resuscitation–he was breathing on his own and had good blood pressure–we could feel the bullet in the front of his chest. He was in pain but he was a young kid, and after 30 minutes, he asked me, ’Well, can I play basketball again?’ And we just looked at each other. Obviously, he didn’t have any understanding of what almost happened to him, and, perhaps, how to prevent it from happening to him again. And that’s the biggest problem for me.”
The problem is exacerbated juvenile judicial system. Heavy hitters such as Y. Gladys Barsamian, 55, presiding judge of the juvenile division in Wayne County are beleaguered, belabored, and chastised by Michigan’s legislators, who crave a scapegoat. Judge Barsamian addressed the flaws in Michigan’s juvenile justice process in an interview last year with Free Press reporters David Ashenfelter and Michael G. Wagner: “We have created a generation of children without conscience, without values. So they have no concern about people’s lives. Life is very cheap to them.” Barsamian added, “You’ve got to be able to hold people responsible for their actions, and we’re not able to do that.”
Ron Shigur, deputy chief prosecutor of the juvenile division, also says the system is lacking. “The juvenile laws in Michigan are a joke to these kids,” Shigur said. “We’ve had examples of some kids who just laugh at the cops after committing a crime, and say, ’Hey my mom will come and get me in the morning.’ They know if they are locked up, that the law says we can only keep them until their 19th birthday. The truth is, whether he spits on the ground or murders his mom, he’s going to do an average of a year.”
III. BURNT OFFERING
There is another factor more important than the impotent laws, though, a factor that anchors uncomfortably in many a Detroiter’s mind. It is the DNA for this mutant strain of teen hood: the 1967 riot. Its ravaging aftermath was presaged–unwittingly, of course–by two different idealists. One’s oratory shook the nation; the other’s rhyme rocked the house. But to simplify things, let’s set it up, as if trying to break the full court press. In the early ‘60s, Martin Luther King threw the bounce pass for the fast break: “If you sow the seeds of violence in your struggle, unborn generations will reap the whirlwind of social disintegration.” In 1981, while dodging bullets at a rapper’s convention in the former Harlem World Disco, MC Busy Bee caught the zeitgeist and slam-dunked it: “I got sperm, that jingo-jangle-jingles…”
For me, there’s a photograph that locks the horror of the 1967 riot into a never-ending moment. It depicts a 30-year-old black man, John LeRoy, shot by a national guardsman at a roadblock on Lycaste Street. Lying next to a bloody corpse, LeRoy is barefoot and chest down, bleeding profusely: he looks like he’s treading the concrete, gushing blood outlining the form like an obscene surfboard, trying to escape the thick waves of night that eventually drown him. LeRoy would die three days later. His left index finger is pointing to something, maybe the future, but the look on his face asked the question on everyone’s lips–why?
After the smoke had cleared, after the Da Nang-ing M1s had silenced, after the tanks had rolled away from West Grand boulevard, after the army infantry and paratroopers had left their alleyway bunkers, after 1700 stores had been looted, 412 buildings destroyed, 657 people injured, and 43 killed, the question remains unanswered, and continues to stupefy 20 years later.
Not that racial maelstrom was new to Detroit. In Ford: The Men and the Machine, Robert Lacey provides several proof texts confirming that race relations in Detroit have a long history of trouble. There was Dr. Ossian Sweet, a successful gynecologist who, with his brother and nine more blacks, was arrested on the night of September 9, 1925, after firing into a crowd of several hundred whites who were pelting the Sweet home with rocks and debris. Sweet had just moved into the two-story, $18,000 brick dwelling, located in a white, middle-class enclave on the East Side. He met with resistance from the local neighborhood “improvement” association–a front for newly recruited Klan members.
The Klan recognized Sweet as a paradigm of the Southern black who migrated northward–by 1920, the 5000 blacks in Detroit at the turn of the century had grown to 40,000, arriving at a rate of 1000 a month, looking for a better life. They found it with Henry Ford, who hired more blacks (even promoting them to foreman) than any other auto magnate. The burgeoning black middle class of Detroit was one of the first in America. But the Klan wasn’t going to stand for this. Sweet and supporters fought back, wounding one of the crowd and killing a next-door neighbor. After two trials fought by Clarence Darrow, Dr. Sweet and his comrades were acquitted. This turmoil was just the beginning. In 1943, the country’s bloodiest race war until that time took place in Detroit. Thirty-four people lost their lives, 25 of them black, and over 1000 were wounded. But the July 1967 “Summer of Love” is the one to beat. It haunts Detroit to this day.
If you failed to inspect the political underbelly of the community during that period, a riot in 1967 Detroit would have seemed outlandish. Riots exploded in places like Newark and Watts, but not Detroit. Impossible. The auto industry was stronger than ever–there were no Yugos or Hyundais to compete with. Detroit was one-third black, and blacks were a substantial portion of the work force in the plants. The black middle class and working class lived side by side, and their combined financial strength wasn’t to be denied. The black bloc elected James Cavanagh as mayor, and his new, very liberal administration elevated several blacks to key government positions. Detroit also had two black congressmen. Whites began their flight to the suburbs.
Berry Gordy’s Motown was the bullhorn for this new black age, and its “Sound of Young America” was heard around the world. Motown was the example of how far my people had come, and how far we could go with hard work, three-part harmony, silk and sequins, and tricky terpsichore. Motown went to the heights because white America loves black people who know their place after assimilation. From 1960 to ‘67, it seemed that Detroit was living the best of times.
“Life in Detroit before the riot,” said Dr. Carl Taylor, “was an absolute paradise.”
Dr. Taylor, 38, is a professor of criminology at Michigan State University. He is also the president and founder of Centrax Services, Inc., one of the top private security outfits in the world. For 38 years, Taylor has lived and breathed Detroit. He can remember riding downtown to a tailor with his “Uncle Milton”–Milton C. Jenkins, the renowned Detroit street hustler and manager of the Temptations when they were still the Primes–Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson to pick up sharkskin suits for a Motown Revue. He can remember the strong, self-contained high society among blacks in Detroit before the riots. Nellie Watts, a black patron of the arts, would have to turn people away from her crowded ballet and classical recitals. Taylor also remembers the caste-conscious “E-Lites” in attendance: sepia-toned, middle-class darlings in madras shirts, Levis, and Weejuns.
They were nothing like the mocha-colored “Hootie-Hoos”, with their Damon knit shirts, gabardine slacks, and alligator slip-ons. If the E-Lites didn’t leave their coveted West Side dwellings to mix in the Hooties’ East Side wild life, it was okay. Black people in Detroit maintained a perfect balance. That balance was seen on 12th Street, too; whatever the mostly Jewish merchants sold, the blacks bought in record numbers. Twelfth Street was the main vain.
“Twelfth Street was a mecca,” said Taylor. “It was a major business center in the black community. On 12th and Hazelwood, you had Bosky’s Restaurant (owned by the father of Ivan Boesky), which had the best food, especially the ‘bomb’ corned beef sandwiches. You also had drugstores, appliance and furniture stores, pawnshops, you had it all on 12th Street.”
But 12th Street was dismantled during the wee-hours of July 23rd, 1967. Rumbling started in a “blind pig”–a private, after-hours joint that sells unlicensed liquor–that called itself the United Civic League for Community Action. When police busted the place that night, there were nearly 90 people packed inside the tiny bar and grill. All had to be escorted to the police wagons downstairs, which couldn’t hold everybody. A crowd gathered at the entrance as the police led their captives out. The merriment turned ugly. Bricks and rocks were hurled, smashing the back window of one patrol car; Molotovs rocketed through the street. Stores were devoured, as if by locusts.
“I can remember as a teenager sitting on the porch,” Taylor recalled, “watching people pushing shopping carts of TVs and clothes. My neighborhood was a working class atoll on the West Side. And you could see the same sights in middle-class neighborhoods. It was unreal, almost ethereal–like everyone was a contestant on the Wheel of Fortune, and had solved the puzzle.”
IV. POPPY: THE GREAT WHITE FATHER
RESURGET CINERBUS. It shall rise from the ashes.
Detroit is a city full of personal billboards, slogans, and mottoes. This particular one was used to revive a dying city. It was partly fulfilled. A spanking new monorail ties some of the major hotels and office buildings downtown together like a concrete dipsy-do, all too symbolic–round and round, going nowhere. The mirrored Renaissance Center–Henry Ford II’s helping hand to Detroit after the devastation–juts out of the ground like a weird urban stalagmite. In the 20 years since the riot the city has lost a third of its people and a larger portion of its jobs. The white merchants on 12th Street and other parts of the city were frightened beyond belief, and decided they could never come back. Not only was this bad for the blacks who patronized these stores, it was bad for the blacks who worked in them–including those who were rioters themselves. With the loss of so many people and jobs and so much finance–and the upswing of crime–the city’s tax base rapidly dwindled. By 1985 it had shrunk to 12.6 percent of Detroit’s three-county metro area, down from 45.6 in 1980. With the move of Hudson’s and others out to the suburban malls, badly needed moneys were siphoned out of the city on a regular basis. Middle-class whites and blacks who did remain found themselves plagued by armed robberies and burglaries. People decided to arm themselves. Handgun sales rose sharply, and the street was flooded with illegal weapons. The city’s homicide rate shot skyward.
What happened? Why didn’t Detroit recover? There’s no solid answer to that question, at least not by conventional logic. Conventional logic doesn’t force the city’s political power to admit that the bounty of the ‘80s wasn’t equally distributed. Conventional logic doesn’t scream out that the riot wasn’t why Detroit unraveled: it merely burned away the façade that had hidden Detroit’s invisible society, the forgotten underclass.
In the Detroit Free Press, Barbara Stanton pointed out that 12th Street, along with its bustling stores, hot nightlife, and periphery of black middle-class homes, had in its midst an undeniable ghetto. From West Grand Boulevard to Claremont, there was an enormous number of substandard dwellings, the largest number of unemployed, and the highest crime rate in the city. “The riot was the underclass’s way of getting back,” Taylor said. “It was pure rebellion. It was the underclass’s way of saying, ‘We’re tired of being ignored. Now you’re forced to pay attention.’ This was the guy who didn’t work in the plant, for whatever reason. This was the guy who couldn’t commerce like the working and middle-class blacks who came into 12th Street. This was the guy who was trying to figure out all of the hype going around at the time about how blacks were prospering. Blacks were working–some prospered, like the doctors and lawyers that served the black community when whites refused to–but they weren’t prospering. It was like that line Florence said to George Jefferson on a Jeffersons episode. She said, ‘How come we overcame,’ referring to the civil rights theme song, ‘and nobody told me?’ I guess that’s what the underclass felt. And they took matters into their own hands.”
Those blacks who believed they overcame, or at least got over, were what made Detroit a Reconstruction dream. Fantasies of affluence in the industrial North came true in sprawling mansions along Boston, Chicago, and Edison boulevards. High auto-industry wages created by a black population–more than a million by the early ‘80s–that needed professional services. Black doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, and businessmen filled the vacuum left by white professionals, who had departed for the suburbs along with their clients. Between 1950 and 1959, over 350,000 whites migrated out of the city. Racism helped create a thriving and powerful and black elite in Detroit. But when the auto industry started its long slide, the black elite’s monopoly on black business began to look like an empty package. Black America’s city of dreams was beginning to feed on itself.
The 1967 riots scarred the urban psyche. As time brought the consequences into painful clarity, blacks realized the insurrection was a painful mistake. The city was becoming a wasteland before their eyes. Many wanted to forget what happened.
A few years after the riots heroin made an appearance in Detroit. Unlike Harlem and Newark, where the drug picked up steam around 1966, heroin was almost an oddity in Detroit until 1970. It was then that Henry Marzette–a black former Detroit cop allegedly jailed during the ‘50s on corruption charges–became a top dog in the city’s drug trade. After prison, he was a feared “gorilla” pimp–one who recruits prostitutes from other pimps by force. But it wasn’t until Marzette noticed the exorbitant profits the Mafia was making from heroin in New York that he decided to get in on the action. Between 1969 and 1970, he took over the trade from a mob family in Detroit and became the city’s biggest heroin financier. Marzette influence extended well beyond the street corner and shooting gallery; during his reign little or no press coverage was given him in the Free Press or The Detroit News.
After Marzette’s death in the early ‘70s, heroin continued to ravage Detroit. Crime surged as addicts fed their monsters. Detroit’s car theft rate became the nation’s highest. Home owners spent tens of thousands turning their houses into iron-barred fortresses. In 1975 gangs like the Bks (Black Killers) and the Errol Flynns appeared on the scene. The Errol Flynns–with their black Borsalinos and weird pumping hand-dance–became infamous during an Average White Band concert where they went on a raping and robbing spree. The situation was so volatile that year that Motown–the soul of black Detroit–moved to los Angeles. Nelson George, author of the Motown history Where Did Our Love Go?, told me, “I hate to say it, but during that time, Detroit wasn’t conducive for a booming black business.”
With Motown gone and the auto industry in a slump, the scenario in Detroit was beginning to resemble a Greek tragedy. And the city was about to be hit with the deus ex machina–Young Boys Incorporated, or YBI. Not only were they unexpected walk-ons in the second act, they rewrote the script.
In a twisted way YBI took the place of Motown. They were young superstars to street teens, more revered than Michael Jackson and Prince. For older junkies hooked on nostalgia, YBI wrapped the 45s in coin envelopes that contained a feast of memories; “heh-ron” was a stone soul picnic. The origins of YBI are bizarre. Not only were the organizations forefathers–Mark Marshall and Raymond Peoples–well known to police, but their individual crimes prior to YBI were headline news during the mid-’70s. Peoples, a tall and powerful enforcer, was charged with two other men for the 1975 murder of Marian Pyszko. Pyszko, 54, a Polish immigrant and pan washer in a bakery, was dragged from his car one night and beaten with a piece of broken concrete during a rash of racial disturbances. After three trials during which several witnesses developed convenient amnesia, Peoples was acquitted.
Marshall’s story is a more perverse tale. Marshall was a brilliant student in school. He was the product of a broken middle-class home; his mother, Mary, was a secretary, and his father, Wallace, owned a shoe shop. Marshall grew up in an attractive dwelling in a West Side neighborhood, Russell Woods. Wallace later married Constance Blount; her stepmother, Beatrice Blount, was the widow of the founder of the Great Lakes Life Insurance Co. On August 19, 1974, Marshall’s father, stepmother, her mother, and Beatrice Williams, Beatrice Blount’s nurse, were murdered. Marshall was charged with the knife-and-meat-clever slaying. The police report mentioned traces of semen on the bodies. After two mistrials, all charges were dropped in August 1978. Marshall said after the trial, “Justice has been done after four years. I’m going up north to fish and think.”
Marshall must have pondered long and hard, because it was around this time that he and Peoples began YBI–allegedly with more than $70,000 collected from Marshall’s father’s insurance. Starting from the northwest street corner of Prairie and Puritan, YBI’s tentacles eventually covered Detroit and several counties.
By 1981, YBI’s employees were 300 strong, all teens and preteens, who were immune to the harsh punishment for drug trafficking. Many law enforcement observers have noted that YBI was run like a military outfit, organized into soldiers (street dealers), lieutenants, and the “A-Team” (enforcement). But YBI was more like a $400 million corporation–that was YBI’s estimated gross in 1981–not unlike its hometown predecessor General Motors. Salesmen were instructed never to use the product. Milton “Butch” Jones, third man in YBI, would drill his soldiers in “marketing” meetings to “get high on money.” As reinforcement, top salesmen were given expensive perks–gold and diamond jewelry, and goose down leather jackets with fur-trimmed hoods known as “Max Julians.”
“YBI was the first drug organization that I know of to use brand names on their heroin,” said U.S. Attorney Roy Hayes. “They had names like CBS, Rolls Royce, and Coochi Khan. It was a Madison Avenue approach–you can trust our product.”
When the competition copycatted, YBI undercut them by selling low-grade heroin under a competitor’s name. YBI’s drugs (they were selling $3 plastic packets of crack, back in 1982) were the most coveted in the state. YBI was aware of this, and brazenly began to hand out flyers in the neighborhood that stated brand name, price, day, date, and time of sale. Drugs were distributed using Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, taxi cabs, scooters, and 10-speed bikes. Sales areas were patrolled by members of the A-Team in Laredo and Wrangler jeeps, packing Uzis for warding off rival gangs. Jeeps eventually replaced luxury cars for drug distribution–their four wheel drive insured delivery in snow storms, and made it easy to elude cops by escaping into off-road brush.
YBI made bloody examples of those who crossed them. On May 30, 1984, Rickey Gracey, 26,, and three accomplices tried to rob the home of Butch Jones. The attempt was thwarted by Jones’s wife, Portia, who wounded Gracey with a shotgun as the other three escaped. While he hobbled on the front lawn, Portia put in a call to Charles Obey and Spencer Tracy Holloway, members of the A-Team, and driver Andre Williams. When they arrived, according to Williams’ testimony, Portia was outside waiting for them. Gracey apologized and asked them for some water. Obey shot him five times with a .38 automatic. After Gracey had revealed the identity of his partners, Holloway shot him with an Uzi. Fifteen times. Gracey bounced up and down on the grass. Later, his body was found dumped in an alley on the north side.