On one of the last nights of his life, in a room lit by the garish glow of hospital monitors, my father and I spoke as we had for so many years. About sport. About heroes. About the meaning of it all.
We started with Gordie Howe, the Detroit Red Wings legend whose career connected our childhoods, and ended with Willie Horton, the Tigers left-fielder who helped heal our city in 1967. "He told them to stop," whispered my father, a retired Detroit riot cop. "He told them to stop burning."
Horton was a Detroit-born slugger whose team had just split a doubleheader with the Yankees on July 23, 1967, when a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar sparked rioting that would lead to 43 deaths, 1,189 injured, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. Tigers executives told Horton and his teammates to go home, according to this Sporting News story. Stay safe.
Instead, Horton drove to 12th Street. He stood atop a car. He pleaded for peace. He saw the flames, the broken bottles and buildings. With tears in his eyes, the man who grew up in the nearby Jeffries Projects asked angry looters to not lose their purpose. To not destroy what little community and infrastructure they had. "¦
Horton says he did not know, at the time, what drove him to drive to 12th Street. Now he says it was God. If so, God sent Horton to the scene in full uniform, the word Detroit stitched across his chest, split apart but kept together by buttons.
The scene came to mind Tuesday when the Baltimore Orioles announced they would play a baseball game to an empty Camden Yards. Baltimore smolders like Detroit did in 1967—and for many of the same reasons, including discord between police and the poorest of the people they protect.
If my father were alive today, I'm fairly sure his sympathies would lie more with the police than with the protesters. But, for as much as he admired Horton, I know he'd love Toya Graham: the mother seen on video repeatedly smacking her son after catching him throwing objects at riot police.
"That's my only son," she said. "That's my only son, and at the end of the day, I don't want him to be a Freddie Gray." They death of Gray in police custody is what sparked Baltimore's unrest. "At some point, I just lost it. I was shocked, I was angry, because you never want to see your child out there doing that."
Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said, "I wish we had more parents who took charge of their kids tonight."
Me, too. There is no more powerful social force on Earth than the love and presence of a parent. Except, of course, for the love and presence of two parents.
But the problem isn't just bad parenting—not in Detroit in 1967, or in Ferguson last year, or in Baltimore today. Our cities keep burning because of bad policies, bad politics, bad business decisions, and (forgive me, Dad) bad policing. Our cities keep burning because we, the people, let them burn. We don't pay attention until a "breaking-news" graphic lights up our electronic devices.
"We as a country have to do some soul-searching," President Obama said Tuesday. "This is not new. It's been going on for decades."
The nation's first African-American president said the problem goes beyond police, who he said are too often deployed to "do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise" in broken cities where single-parent homes and drugs dominate, and where education, jobs, and opportunities are missing.
"If our society really wanted to solve the problem," Obama said, "we could."
Listen to Graham, a single mother with six children, talk about what it's like to raise a child near poverty. "There's some days that I'll shield him in the house just so he won't go outside," she said, "and I know that I can't do that the rest of my life."
Listen to Horton talk about the Baltimore riots and his 1967 flashbacks. "People were worried and concerned about me being hurt while I was trying to bring peace," he said. "I saw hope there. A story to be told."
Graham can't guarantee the safety of her son any more than Horton could single-handedly save his beloved city. But at least they tried.
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