In Detroit, heroism can be a fool's game

Eastern Market Fight“You’re just like the U.S. politicians, only showing one side!” an Arab American shouted at me outside his produce building at the Eastern Market in Detroit.

It had been a rough 30 minutes for him. A young relative was slumped over, blood draining from his eye. The man who had socked him was a long-time friend, handcuffed to a security golf cart, bleeding from the mouth.

Two young girls sobbed in horror.

It was a bright, busy Saturday afternoon at the market. My girlfriend and I were finishing up shopping for vegetables and fruit when I heard a fight outside of Maceri Produce.

I have a tendency to run toward trouble; it’s more of a reflex than a stubborn act of courage.

Three Arab Americans were wrestling a black man to the ground, pinning him to a bulky box of celery. They flung cases of strawberries and blueberries at him. Then came the punches – unhindered blows to the man’s defenseless face.

Market-goers either paid no attention or gawked at the scene momentarily and walked off.

Not me.

Eastern Market Fight

If you’ve never heard the sound of a hard punch to the face, it’s nothing like the movies. It’s a nauseating thunk that sounds like a raw piece of meat being slammed against a hard surface.

There was little I could do physically, so I grabbed the only weapon I had – a camera.

I yelled at them to stop, telling them I had captured the assault on camera and would take the evidence to police. They let him go, his lip split and eye swollen. He stumbled away with smashed strawberries on his shirt, disappearing into the crowd.

As some of the produce workers returned to work, another walked up to me and explained that his father had been attacked inside the building by the man who had been pinned down, a 30-year employee of the family business. He was going crazy, he told me.

I only knew what I saw, I explained, and didn’t doubt there was more to the story.

“You guys were punching a defenseless guy in the face,” I tried to reason. “You can restrain him and wait for security, but you can’t beat him senseless.”

An uneasy feeling settled over a small crowd that eventually gathered. They knew the fight wasn’t over.

Soon enough, the man returned with a long, deliberate gait and rage in his blood-shot eyes.

“You saw them,” he screamed at me. “They attacked me. You saw them.”

Security guards were following behind, but not close enough to stop what was about to happen.

Eastern Market Fight

The man, bleeding from the mouth, walked up to one of the produce workers and punched him in the face so hard that the skin around his eye split open. Blood dripped like a leaky faucet from his eye.

Security guards pounced on the attacker, bringing him to the ground where he was handcuffed and carted off after a long struggle.

“You saw them attack me,” he muttered one last time.

Security wanted to know what I had seen. I showed them the pictures but emphasized I didn’t see what started the fight.

That’s when one of the Arab Americans walked up to me. “You’re just like the U.S. politicians, only showing one side!”

I couldn’t blame him for his anger. I intruded on a very personal, painful event and only saw a fraction of what had happened.

I explained that I wasn’t making any judgments, that there are always two sides to a story. If I’ve learned anything as a journalist over the past 15 years, it’s that nothing is ever as it initially appears.

He walked over and shook my hand. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean what I said.”

“No need to apologize,” I responded. “I hope your family is OK. Take care of yourselves”

I walked away feeling heavy and nauseated, carrying my smashed grapes and bruised fruit. It wasn’t my fight. My presence may have escalated the brawl, I told myself.

I know rules are different in Detroit. I’ve had two guns pointed at my head because I didn’t back down when I should have. But I’ve also benefited from brave strangers who intervened when I was in trouble.

We’re too often burdened with having to make split-second decisions that have life-altering consequences. We live our lives too deliberately to throw them away on an impulse. But we also have a deep-rooted instinct to help people in trouble.

It’s a predicament I hope not to find myself in anytime soon.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.