That Day in Detroit


The mind creates reality by putting pieces together into a puzzle, synthesizing, and evaluating – sometimes from the slightest bits of evidence, the degree of an object’s attractiveness, the colour of the clothing, the quality of the atmosphere, one’s own background.

As the last embers of the twentieth century flickered, people in North America assumed a hesitant optimism. World wide wars were a thing of the past, the cold war was over, the wall torn down, the economy had slowed but still no one was starving, women owned their own money and were taking over the universities. Men had given up an inch or so of their territory and now feminism was a charred stick whose flames had burnt themselves into ashes.

So no one foresaw what happened that day in Detroit. And it was only a fluke that a traffic cam recorded it. Afterwards the national networks showed footage all across America and over the border into Canada too, via satellites and cable.

It was August 1999, evening rush hour on the Detroit Bridge. The television showed shots of heavy traffic on the road leading to the bridge. On the bridge, they saw traffic at a standstill, all lanes clogged. It was a hot summer twilight. The sun was setting as a glowing lump of liquid steel in the haze above the horizon. There was that eerie quiet that precedes night in heat.

It was quieter in people’s living rooms because the initial shots came from a soundless helicopter traffic camera. But that silence seemed familiar to viewers, normal, and it was almost a surprise when the studios switched to a closer camera with an active mike, and people could hear the car engines. Still, that was the only sound and there was an eeriness in that muffled growl made from a thousand car engines all revving at about the same speed in unison. A choir singing only one note.

The jammed bridge would have been only a dinner table anecdote if the camera hadn’t caught what happened, the off note in that seeming tranquility of humming engines in a scrap-metal twilight. The sun had just descended. The bridge lights came on, though they seemed as weak as candles against the background of a sky still flushed with the end of day. They would have seemed brighter if the camera had panned the other way, into the darker east.

The driver of a black four-door automobile got out of his car. It looked as though he might have just wanted a better look at the sky. But that was off. No-one looked at the sky, the trees, the river when they were stuck in a contrail of exhaust fumes on a hot metal span.  Then he approached the car ahead of him, a small foreign model, which was blocking two lanes as a result of having tried to change lanes before traffic came to a complete halt. He began shouting at the woman driver through her window. Then he began gesturing angrily at her. Quite suddenly he opened her door, reached in and grabbed her, by her shirt, or by a scarf she was wearing. It wasn’t clear. He threw her against the car.

By this point most viewers had sat up slightly. The camera operator was alert too. This wasn’t the usual traffic accident, but it promised the challenge of something, something moving, some kind of action, something more than just routine camera work. He saw the woman catch her breath after she hit the car. He saw her pull herself forward, shake the driver loose, open her mouth and start shouting angry words. She started to get back in the car. Then the man’s hands were on her again, he threw her backwards, and she was resting against the guard rail.

The camera man had to pivot to keep them both in view. Briefly he was grateful the street lights had come on. She opened into colour against the night sky. Blue blouse, orange capris, a design, paisley. Mules on her bare feet. She was straightening up when he threw her over. Even the camera operator was stunned. One minute she was in his sights, the next minute she was gone. He didn’t know where to point his camera, he quickly panned left, and right and finally drew back to catch the wider view.

Everything was the same as it had been. Rows of parked cars, a single person standing on the bridge, by the guard rail, walking now into the darker shadows where the cars were still waiting. There had never been a woman. But, there, the Toyota with its driver’s side door open. No one inside. An empty car with an open door. The camera operator stared at it too long, as if he expected something to emerge from it, some explanation, perhaps. So viewers stared into that empty car for a long time too. They saw the open purse on the passenger seat. The pastry partially hidden inside a crumpled wrapper on the dashboard. A string of beads hanging from the rearview mirror.

There was a lot of suspense in that shot. People weren’t used to such long still camera shots. They edited it, of course, for later newscasts, but people watching live got every minute. And it was almost in black and white. All it needed was a proper soundtrack — crescendo of violins, lurking drum beat — to be indistinguishable from some old film noir clip. Eventually the camera man pulled farther back.

Almost on-cue, more doors started opening. A man got out of a van. A bus driver opened his door and stepped down, looking around questioningly. People turned off their car engines and the growl faded.

I imagine people at home watching, jumping up at about that point, raising their arms, saying things to the set like “do something”. “Do something!” There wasn’t anything to do, and people on the scene knew it. They walked a few paces, around their cars mostly. They looked lost. Several looked over the bridge into the river below. What they saw was water. As usual.

By the time the 11 o’clock news came on, they’d found out her name, and so the newscasters could tell people who she was, that she was, what she was. Sort of. Her name was Emily Klein. She was 34 years old. She worked as a computer technician. Her colleagues said she was a friendly person, a responsible employee.

The newscasters spent more time on him. The man. The killer.

He was a black man, which reassured many viewers. In those days people labelled each other by colour, as though they were shoes. It was a code, though, people recognized they were actually talking about kinds of people, rather than colours, as people might discuss apples at first by colour, knowing all the time that the green apples and the red apples were actually Granny Smith’s and Macintosh’s, cooking apples and eating apples. In terms of people, black meant, to some people a “violent and without reason” kind. To others, it meant “a drug-addicted kind.” To the majority of people it simply meant “not my kind.” It was primarily because of that that the news episode fell, by the next day, under the news category of “racial problems”.

But that first night, nobody knew what category it belonged to. After the first few sentences, ending with “the exchange, including the physical assaults on the women, happened in full view of hundreds of motorists,” all the announcers said different things depending on which network they worked for. The ABC announcer said, “No one came to the woman’s assistance–” apparently tentatively categorizing the event as “apathy in America”. None of them could offer any explanation, although by that time their reporters had interviewed as many of the nearby motorists as they could find.

A problem was that there were no facts beyond what was visible to everyone in the video clip. A woman had been thrown off a bridge by a man, who was black, which hundreds of nearby people saw. And yet, which none of those hundreds of people actually saw.

We can’t see what we don’t understand. The images can’t find a route to the brain.  We see what we expect to see – our very vision is constructed by the world we live in. Nobody expected to see a man throw a woman off a bridge. They should have, though. They should have.

All of the motorists said they didn’t know what they were seeing, it happened so quickly. If they had known what was going to happen, they would have gotten out of their cars earlier. They wished they had gotten out of their cars earlier. Given this, the “apathy in America” angle could not be pursued and ABC dropped it.

The stations then focused on the problems of blacks in Detroit. As the case went to court, they were able to tell the public that the black man had just lost his job – he was also a computer technician — grew up in poverty, had an alcoholic father who was gone most of the time, had already evidenced a problem with anger management. This was his first criminal offense. It was too bad, they suggested, he had been on the right track. He was a black man who had been trying to overcome the odds. His temper was his downfall.

The talk shows, a kind of program that allowed the facts of the daily news to be digested and turned into a variety of opinions as a model to viewers, then focused on the various issues affecting black men in America. The more right-wing of the guests argued that a man’s background offered no reason for mercy, every man had a choice to kill or not to kill and owed it to society to behave in a reasonable manner. Those who could not should be executed.

The more liberal of the guests discussed the discouraging lack of improvement made in the lives of people who grow up in poverty and despair, and brought with them memorized statistics that over and over again revealed that change has to happen at the economic level, that children must not be permitted to grow up in poverty, that the state needs to spend money to stop the generational cycle of abuse.

Emily Klein was seen either as a victim of a “soft” society that failed to adequately punish criminals, or as a victim of a society that failed to alleviate the distress of its poorest members. Crime and punishment. Social welfare. Those were the realities the opinion-makers offered to the public.

We now know that these pundits were wrong. The straw, this tiny incident, was the straw of oppression. Of a woman. By a man. That people didn’t recognize it is not surprising; it is in the nature of straws that that they seem a minor irritant, something that causes a sneeze, something to be brushed away. “Oppression” was not a term used in American news broadcasts. We might say it was not a term in the American lexicon. There were no oppressors in the land of the free. Political analysts were more likely to talk about rebellion, revolt, terrorism — terms to describe what threatened the holders of power.

The language of a culture reveals what exists for that culture. The man on the bridge spat the word “bitch” to Emily Klein. He had language to invoke his enemy, a woman who threatened his power by blocking his way. Emily had no word for him. Had it been twenty years earlier, she might have had “male chauvinist pig,” but that phrase had disappeared from the language when enough feminists had gained enough power to regret coining a term that always sounded like jarring jingoism.

These little straws, insignificant though they seem, are almost the mightiest force in any society, as well as in any individual life. People are remarkably adaptable. They can, and do, adjust to almost anything, and this adaptability is the primary cause of people’s misery, of the misery and pain they inflict on each other. Even the most heinous criminal, a man for example who throws a woman off a bridge in a fit of pique, is revealing his adaptive powers.

People are adaptable in the same way that alcohol is addictive. They accept change in small increments, they accept their growing limitations, their growing frustration, their growing inability to be masters of their own lives in small increments. Eventually one of these small increments proves too much. They hit bottom, in the language of the support group, Alcoholics Anonymous. Their first task, when they stagger into whatever church basement is holding their nearest AA meeting, their first task is to give a name to their condition. The name they give is “helpless”.

The black murderer never did hit bottom.

He gave that honour to a woman.

She had no choice but to wear the badge, as she’d had no choice but to bear the spitting insult that conjured an enemy for a man who needed an enemy to conquer.

In a humane society no man would throw a woman from a bridge. Detroit was not a humane society. Neither was New York, or Los Angeles, or Chicago, or any major American city. And things were only going to get worse.

North Americans are notoriously literal-minded, which was why no one recognized the symbolism of the bridge. So they crawled, like so many beetles, toward the next century, blind to what was waiting for them.