Detroiters fight apathy in battle against violent crime

George Hunter
The Detroit News

He prowled the sidewalk outside his storefront church, clutching a Bible in his right hand and a microphone in his left, his pleas to stop the violence in Detroit amplified by a small portable speaker. No one paid attention.

“God is going to hold us responsible for what we are not doing,” Pastor Dennis Donald implored Wednesday in front of God’s Established Foundation on a busy stretch of Seven Mile during lunchtime.

Cars whizzed past. Next door, a woman walked out of Prince Pizza, never glancing at the street-corner preacher. In a nearby auto repair shop parking lot, two men huddled over the hood of an old Buick, focused on the busted car, not Bible verses.

Donald is among the Detroiters fighting the battle to chip away at the city’s long-entrenched crime problem. They preach, pass out fliers and knock on doors seeking witnesses to crimes, often getting blank stares in return.

“People won’t come into my church, so I try to bring the message to them,” Donald said. “We’ve got to change the mindset of the people somehow.”

A few blocks away on Gratiot, in the Greater St. Paul Baptist Church basement, about a dozen people met Wednesday to discuss plans to canvass the east side to seek clues in the Christmas Eve killing of musician Anthony Tolson, who was gunned down after leaving church on his way to take gifts to his kids.

They sat at a folding table, sipping coffee and discussing ways to stop the violence. Everyone agreed: It starts with a cultural change.

“People get killed over things like shoes, coats and glasses,” said David Bullock, head of the civil rights group Change Agent Consortium. “When I was growing up, it was Starter jackets. My mom said she’d buy me one, but I couldn’t wear it outside. What good would it do me? This was before Facebook, so I couldn’t even show it off to anyone.”

While Detroit has long had a violence problem, there’s more firepower on the streets now, said Pastor Kevin Johnson of Calvary Presbyterian Church.

“In the old days, it was a .22,” he said. “Now? They’ve got all kinds of automatics.”

Johnson lamented the senselessness of Tolson’s killing.

“They steal a man’s vehicle, kill him — and then burn up the vehicle. How does that make any kind of sense?” He shook his head. “Kill a man over a vehicle you’re just going to burn up anyway.”

As more people straggled into the church, Bullock said he wasn’t disheartened by the low turnout.

“The team that took down Osama Bin Laden wasn’t big,” Bullock said. “It might be great to have 5,000 people here, but I’m not sure that would be as good as having a small group of people who know what they’re doing.”

Bullock’s group broke camp and drove to a shopping center at Eight Mile and Gratiot, a few blocks from where Tolson was killed in a liquor store parking lot. More volunteers joined them in passing out fliers from Crime Stoppers, which is offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest of Tolson’s killers.

“This can work,” said Bullock, who attended Tolson’s funeral earlier Wednesday at Greater Christ Baptist Church. “A couple of times this summer, we got tips to the police, and they picked people up.”

Cops appreciate the citizens’ efforts, Detroit Police Sgt. Cassandra Lewis said.

“We know policing the city is a job that takes the entire community,” she said. “Everybody wants to live in better situations, and the citizens and the police need to work together to make the city a place we can all be proud of.”

Andrea Clark, president of Mothers of Murdered Children, helped Bullock’s group Wednesday. Three days earlier, she attended a candlelight vigil for Tolson, where she stood guard over a group of candles the victim’s children placed on the spot where he was killed, making sure they weren’t knocked over.

“I know from experience: (Tolson’s) mother hasn’t even begun to feel what she’s going to feel,” said Clark, whose 30-year-old son, Darnell Perkins, was killed April 16, 2011. “I just want her to know there are other mothers out here who know what it’s like, and we’re here for her.”

On Monday, Minister Malik Shabazz organized a prayer rally and march to memorialize the first anniversary of the unsolved killings of Paige Stalker and Christina Samuel. Shabazz has organized several excursions into the east side neighborhoods where the crimes occurred, passing out fliers.

“When you see a crime happening, or hear about a crime after the fact, don’t snitch — just tell,” said Shabazz, who also attended Tolson’s candlelight vigil. “We need to take Detroit back, and that means standing up and doing your part.”

Johnson agreed.

“I’m not naive enough to think we can get rid of all crime,” he said. “But we need to do something — either that, or just say the problem is too big and give up.”

Every weekday at noon, Donald said he drags his speaker to the front of his church and preaches for about an hour, hoping someone will hear him.

“I’m just trying to give people a little hope; a little faith,” he said. “They need it.”

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