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Isiah Thomas Asks Day of Peace in Violent Detroit : NBA Star Challenges Crime One-on-One

Times Staff Writer

Detroit Pistons basketball star Isiah Thomas broke out of Chicago’s West Side ghetto long ago. He’s made his fortune in the NBA. He doesn’t have to go back to the streets.

But for the last few weeks, Thomas has been walking through some of Detroit’s most violent neighborhoods, searching out drug pushers, juvenile delinquents and inner-city high school youths on the verge of going bad. He’s a driven man with a message for his adopted city: Stop the killing, stop the crime, for at least one day.

“It’s gotta stop somewhere. It’s gotta stop somewhere,” he tells a group of troubled youths who have been expelled from Detroit’s public schools. “It should stop with you.”

The 25-year-old all-star guard is the driving force behind today’s “No Crime Day” in crime-ridden Detroit, a novel attempt to persuade Detroit’s criminals to take the day off.

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With the backing of Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, Thomas has put out the word in the schools and on the streets, asking everyone to “keep cool” today and to leave porch lights on all night tonight to demonstrate solidarity.

Visits City’s Poor

In a way that few established civic leaders could do, he’s been able to go to the city’s poor, talk to them directly about crime and ask them to help stop it. In return, he pledges that he will try to get the business community to fund scholarship and job training programs for inner-city youths.

“He’s gone into the streets, into the alleys, talked trash to them, in a language they understand,” Young said.

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In fact, Thomas hasn’t been shy about taking his message to the city’s hard-core felons. On one recent day, he went into some of the most dangerous areas of Detroit’s East Side to ask local drug pushers to go along.

“I understand what’s going on there,” Thomas later explained. “Going to Mack Street was like going back to where I grew up. It was just like the West Side of Chicago. I know those people740324201I was brought up. It’s the same problem, just different people living it.”

High Murder Rate

But Thomas has his work cut out for him if he hopes to make a dent in today’s police blotter; Detroit has the highest murder rate of any city in the nation; “crack houses” busily selling cocaine have sprouted throughout the inner city, and shootings among teen-agers have reached epidemic proportions.

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At one recent meeting with a group of about 75 inner-city teen-agers, Thomas asked how many had personally witnessed a shooting, and a dozen hands quickly rose.

Thomas knows the streets and has no illusions. “All except two of my friends from grade school are either dead, in prison or strung out on drugs,” he tells a crowd of students at Detroit’s Cody High School. He likes to say he “hit the lotto,” and otherwise could have easily ended up the same way. “For every one of me, there’s a million at home. That’s not very good odds.”

But he still thinks No Crime Day is better than doing nothing, and he’s trying to persuade the National Basketball Assn. to sponsor No Crime Days in all of the league’s cities. He’s already asked his friend Magic Johnson of the Lakers to head a drive for such a day in Los Angeles.

Emotional Appeals

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“It makes no sense to have a situation where people are killing each other, taking each other’s lives. If one less guy or girl gets shot, if one less mother has to cry, then it’s the most successful program ever run in Detroit, because one less person died. I think we’ve convinced at least one person not to do anything.”

Thomas has also tried to use his campaign to make emotional appeals to cynical inner-city teen-agers to start turning criminals in, to help clean up their neighborhoods.

“I really don’t like what you’re letting people do to you,” he told students at Martin Luther King Jr. High School last week. “If you choose not to do anything about crime, then you are just waiting for your turn to be a mistake, for your turn to be a 16-year-old to die.”

Later, at Detroit’s Benedictine High School, he brought the mother of a recent shooting victim, a Benedictine junior, up on stage with him as he addressed hundreds of students still shocked by the killing. “This is somebody’s mother,” he said. “Don’t let it happen to you. We’ve got to put a stop to it.”

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Fear of Action

But students, like 16-year-old Alola Wilson, know it’s not so easy. If you turn in a pusher or a thief, Wilson and others say, he will be out on the street the next day, and he will be coming after you.

“I can be going to the store, and see the police with their vests on going into the crack house on my block, and see a face getting into the back of the police van,” Wilson says. “And then I see that same face on the street the next day. You gotta be scared to do anything.”

Although Young supports the No Crime Day effort, he has also been trying to hold down expectations, perhaps so that Detroit’s image will not be further sullied if a mini-crime wave breaks out today. With a big march planned through downtown Detroit to publicize No Crime Day, the news media are sure to be watching to measure the level of criminal activity in the city.

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“No one expects a one-day appeal to have an impact on crime,” Young says. “But at least this program has already brought people together. When you get kids talking about laying off drugs and talking about not shooting each other, that’s an impact.”


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