April 5, 2014 at 1:00 am

Brutal beating shows extreme side of bad Detroit

Mandi Emerick says the family is waiting for her dad, Steven Utash, who's in critical condition, 'to wake up.' (Family photo)

We live in Detroit Extreme, a place where man’s inhumanity to man is too often just one child’s step off the curb.

Today Bad Detroit is being lapped up by everyone from the New York Daily News to the London Independent. “White Man Beaten by Detroit Mob” was the way CBS local news insensitively headlined the story.

A Clinton Township man trying to help a stricken child becomes the focus of an irate mob of young Detroiters clustered at a gas station. They swarm the older man and beat him into unconsciousness, leaving him without his wallet, phone or — perhaps — any kind of future.

It’s a terrible story: shocking and brutal, appalling in its unfairness. Worse, it revives fears of the city we so often try to push aside like unappealing food on a plate.

Steve Utash, 54, a father, a tree cutter who is careful about saving squirrels and other wildlife as he works, is still in a coma. Driving on the city’s northeast side, he struck 10-year-old David Harris, a child who had casually stepped off the curb, without warning.

You know what happened then: Utash hit his brakes as soon as he realized the child had been hit. Then, the gas station crowd swarms, pummeling Utash to the ground.

Now young Harris remains under observation at the hospital, bandaged but OK. And Utash is in an intensive care unit, fighting for his life.

At the moment, we are working with few facts and much emotion. We have no names for the youths who attacked Utash so viciously, no firsthand testimony, no rationale for what led them to cruelty. If there was a racial tinge to their brutality, we don’t know it.

Maybe they leapt to conclusions about a stranger driving a truck, a child crying in pain. Maybe they believed, at first, they were delivering justice in a city where police protection is minimal, response time is painfully slow and even the police chief urges citizens to arm themselves.

By all accounts, Steve Utash couldn’t stop in time. By all accounts, he tried. For his sense of responsibility, for the serendipity of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he is paying a fearsome price.

Yet an incident like this doesn’t entice Jesse Jackson to change his plans for the weekend or inspire vigils or even introspection.

It pushes people backward, across our tired mental and physical boundaries. It undermines our faith in people, pushes us to recalibrate our measure of the likely kindness of strangers. That’s why the mayor is urging calm.

But we can all pull for Steve Utash and remember that Detroit’s often a place that can stun you with its generosity of spirit. By Friday afternoon, a donation website had pulled in more than $24,000 to pay Utash’s medical expenses.

An unfettered mob of misguided vigilantes is always bad news. In any city on earth.

On so many days, we celebrate Good Detroit — the Detroit of revival, of artisanal food stuffs and tai chi on the riverfront, of new office buildings or young people opening new businesses in the city’s heart. That’s Detroit Extreme, too — a place the world is almost as eager to hear about as the one that dropped Steve Utash to the ground.

lberman@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-2032

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