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It was one of the ugliest episodes in Detroit since 43 people died during the civil rights uprising of 1967. But this time there was no possibly redeeming social revolution behind the violence. It was so utterly pointless: Eight people—including three children under the age of 11—were killed in a night of madness brought on by the success of the local professional basketball team.
The Detroit Pistons had just won their second straight NBA title, with a last-second basket by Vinnie Johnson that clinched the championship series four games to one over the Portland Trail Blazers. Johnson made that shot on Thursday in Portland, some 2,000 miles away, at about 11:30 p.m., Detroit time. Within seconds the craziness began.
Gunfire cracked all over town. Firing shots in the air is a traditional method of civic celebration in many cities, but before the night was over, 26 people had been treated for gunshot wounds. Another 99 people were treated for injuries ranging from knife wounds to baseball bat bruises. Fights broke out in at least one emergency room. "It was ridiculous," said Robert Egan, a nurse at Mount Carmel Hospital. "In my three years here I've never seen anything like this."
A television reporter, Anne Thompson of station WDIV, suffered a gash over her left eye when a mob of 20 people carrying crowbars and bats smashed up her news vehicle as she sat trapped inside. "My fear was that they would turn over the car and the car would catch fire and I would burn alive," she said.
There was also violence in Detroit in 1984, on the night the Tigers won the World Series. That outbreak resulted in looted stores and one death but was confined mainly to the environs of Tiger Stadium, inside the city limits. This time the violence affected many black neighborhoods in the city and the largely white, surrounding suburbs. In Detroit, police made 141 arrests for assault, breaking and entering and other alleged offenses. In River Rouge, an industrial suburb to the south, a mob of youths went on a window-smashing spree; there were 28 arrests. Far to the northwest in Auburn Hills one person was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct amid stepped-up security at The Palace, the Pistons' home arena, where 21,400 people had watched a telecast of the series-clinching contest.
A 25-year-old man died in Detroit when he fell off a roof after standing too close to a Roman candle. A 19-year-old youth died when someone fired a gun into a crowd celebrating in a parking lot. A four-year-old boy darted toward his home across a street full of celebrators in River Rouge and was killed by a car. The deadliest event occurred at 1:15 a.m. on a street in depressed northeast Detroit. A crowd of merrymakers had gathered on a sidewalk when a Thunderbird swerved out of the heavy traffic and plowed into the people, hitting five of them before speeding back into traffic and out of sight. Four people lay dead—two children, aged 9 and 10; a 15-year-old girl; and a 21-year-old man. Eyewitnesses told police that the driver's action appeared quite deliberate. Someone got the license number, and soon after, police arrested Bruce Burdett Thomas, 41, of suburban Warren, and charged him with four counts of second-degree murder and one count of assault with intent to kill.
Not surprisingly, Detroit officials tried to play down what had happened. Mayor Coleman Young declared himself appalled but then blamed the media for exaggerating the events. Charles Kish, the assistant chief investigator for the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office, was loath to link the deaths directly to the celebration. "Death is an ambiguous thing," he said. "Who can say those people wouldn't have died anyway? When your time is up, your time is up."
In one sense, Kish might be right. Through much of this century Detroit has been stained by violence—from the brutal auto industry strikes of the '30s to the race riots of the '40s to the epidemic, often drug-related killings of the '70s and '80s, which earned Detroit the sobriquet Murder City. Yet even against this bloody backdrop, Detroit's sports-associated mayhem seems particularly senseless—not worthy of a city of champions.