Simmering Tensions Boil Over in Melting Pot of Hamtramck

Joel Kurth, Detroit News, Dec. 8, 2005

HAMTRAMCK—To some, they’re ethnic gangs. Others call them youths—sometimes of different nationalities—who punch, beat and knife each other.

Either way, an outbreak of violence has community leaders worried in this 2 1/2-square-mile stew where recent immigrants and longtime residents pride themselves as being an oasis of diversity in a region marked by segregation.

Longtime tensions—and new ones—have erupted into bloody fights this year among the 25-plus ethnic groups in the city of 23,000 residents. In spring, Hamtramck High School spent $22,000 installing discreet, saucer-sized cameras after averaging a fight every three days. The middle school may follow suit, and there are ongoing discussions about stationing full-time police officers in schools.

“It’s a mess, and it’s a wonder no one has died yet,” said William Hood, a community activist who campaigned unsuccessfully for City Council last month.

Police and school officials downplay talk of gangs or ethnic violence but acknowledge altercations have grown increasingly violent. They say fights sometimes break down along racial lines, but that’s inevitable in a school district where students speak 26 languages and dialects.

“I don’t know if there’s an ethnic problem so much as kids being more violent nowadays,” said Police Chief James Doyle. “In this day and age, it always seems to escalate into bats, sticks, knives or occasionally guns but if it’s not organized. If it was, this would be the United Nations of gangs.”

Community leaders have hosted meetings throughout the year to broker peace and foster understanding. Titus Waters, a school board member, said they’ve eased tensions in the city where any given street is lined by Polish bakeries, Arab markets, Indian restaurants and Bangladeshi offices.

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Patrick Victor has walked the halls of Hamtramck High enough to wear out two pairs of shoes a year, memorize the number of steps in every stairway and know that—despite all efforts at integration—different ethnicities stick together.

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Waters and other longtime Hamtramck residents say tensions between Arab and black students have persisted for years at the high school. No one knows why they began, but student Terrell Beasley said animosities are passed down like old generational family feuds.

The black 17-year-old was attacked in June by a group of about a dozen Arab-Americans who jumped out of a car and beat him with a bat or cane. Briefly hospitalized for nerve damage to his neck, Beasley insisted there was no provocation for the attack.

“It ain’t really the school’s fault. It’s the students’ fault,” said Beasley, who is now a senior.

“It’s just the way things are. Blacks and Arabs don’t get along. It’s been like that since the beginning. You fight, then someone’s family member goes after somebody. It just keeps going on and on.”

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Like other urban districts, the school requires all students to pass through metal detectors to enter the school. For the last few years, students have been required to wear clip-on photo IDs. The measures have helped, said Fatmir Palojak, 17, a senior whose family emigrated from Kosovo eight years ago.

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