History

In 1986, Detroit Was the “Murder Capital” of the U.S. An NBA Star Had an Audacious Plan to Change That.

Isiah Thomas in a Pistons jersey against a striped background
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

In 1986, there were more violent crimes in the U.S. than had ever been recorded in a calendar year. The murder rates in Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and many other places spiked by double digits. But in newspapers and on TV news, it was Detroit that got branded the worst of the worst: “the murder capital of the United States.”

Detroit had 648 homicides in 1986, the highest per capita murder rate of any major American city. While plenty of Detroiters did what they could to make their neighborhoods safer, fixing the city’s problems felt totally impossible. But one of Detroit’s biggest celebrities thought he might have the answer.

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On the first episode of the third season of Slate’s history podcast One Year, we tell the story of Isiah Thomas’ audacious attempt to change Detroit. By 1986, the Pistons point guard had become a star in the NBA, and he wanted to make a difference off the court. That summer, while he was recovering from thumb surgery, the idea came to him: Detroit should have a “No Crime Day.”

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I spoke with Thomas about the origins of No Crime Day, some of the criticism he received, and the ultimate impact of his message. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

For the full story of Detroit’s No Crime Day, listen to the episode below or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Josh Levin: What was your idea for No Crime Day?

Isiah Thomas: At that time, the crime rate had skyrocketed. A lot of the labeling around Detroit, in my opinion, had to do with the classification of being a Black city and the stereotypes that we continue to fight being classified as Black in America.

Recognizing who I had become in Detroit, and understanding the platform that I had, it was my responsibility and obligation to try to help uplift our community. So we would have politics, business, the community coming together, representing Detroit and marching down Woodward Avenue to show that we can be other than the negative stereotypes and labels that people were putting on us at that time.

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What was it about No Crime Day that made you want to go in that direction? You could have said something like, “Say no to drugs” or “Let’s get guns off the streets.”

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I went in that direction because I come from that. I grew up on the west side of Chicago. My dad was the first black foreman at International Harvester. The family was doing quite well when he was working. When I was six, he was laid off, and my mom and dad separated. And, you know, the rest is just total devastation to our family. There was no food. However, what my mom was smart enough to do at that time was she started working and cooking for the nuns and the priests at Our Lady of Sorrows, so we were able to every now and then get a meal.

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Most people that I know who are in poverty and who have been in poverty don’t want to hurt anyone. Sometimes the system puts you in a situation where you have to eat. It’s about survival. And when you are hungry, you cannot think clearly. Those who have been hungry understand instantly what I’m saying.

But I wanted to let them know that there is goodness that comes out of these situations. I watched my mom do it. There’s poverty, but there’s a dignity that you try to maintain and hold on to. I wanted the community in Detroit to know that, hey, I’m with you.

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What do you remember about pitching this idea? You call up Mayor Coleman Young and say, “I’ve got this idea”?

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Yes, which is exactly what I did. And to his credit, he said, “Let’s do it.” He got behind it.

How realistic did you think it was for there to be no crime on No Crime Day?
Of course, there was going to be some crime. And, of course, there were certain members of the media happy to report that there was some crime. [laughs] But there were thousands of others who felt the relief of a day of peace. And again, coming from that environment, being able to lay down and peacefully sleep without having to worry about, is someone coming to take something from you or hurt you? For thousands of people that was a good day.

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During the press conference where you announced the idea, one of the critiques from the local media was that it was a naive idea. What did you make of that criticism? 
I didn’t mind being called naive. Criticism comes with the arena that you’re in. And, by the way, the critics aren’t always wrong. I didn’t mind the criticism. Because I understood the power of the thought. And it may not resonate with all, but the ones that it did resonate with, it was successful.

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A lot of what you were doing in this period was going out and speaking to kids. There were some who were cynical that it would work. 

Yeah. And I understand that. But the hope is that you can give a kid the dream that’s the inspiration to keep going. The cynicism of poverty and the depression and the lack of resources makes you understand, and it’s a harshness that sometimes comes with it that no one cares about me.  So the cynical side of it, it’s like, yeah, I see you here today, but ain’t nobody gonna listen to you.

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But those kids who were saying, “No one’s going to listen.” What I took away from that is: They listened.

You would literally go up to people who were dealing drugs and ask them to lay off for one day as a show of good faith. Do you remember doing that?

100 percent, I do. I come from the origination of drugs being dumped into our communities and seeing that devastation intimately. [When I was growing up in Chicago in the 1960s] heroin started being infused into our neighborhood and it hit our neighborhood like a bomb.

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Having a conversation with the person who was dealing or selling drugs, what I knew from experience is that for the individual who was doing that, that was the only choice he had to make money, to survive. But I also wanted to let that individual know that, as a community, we are killing and hurting our own people.

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As far as how the media covered this, there were positive stories, certainly. There was also a headline in the New York Times the next day: “Detroit Killing Mars ‘No Crime Day.’ ” It was about the killing of a police officer, Everett Williams. Do you remember hearing about Officer Williams getting killed?

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Yes, I do. And that was tragic all the way around. The naive part of me still hopes and thinks that there will be a collective “we” as a community that will come together and stop hurting each other.

In calling it No Crime Day, did you leave yourself open to criticism by people who maybe wanted to see you fail? They could just say: There was crime, so Isiah failed.

There is no safe pathway to success. Now when you say fail or failure, to some people they would laugh at that. Because I know from growing up in that environment: One night of sleep, where you don’t have to worry about someone hurting you or taking something from you or killing you, if that only happened in one household, it was a huge success.

To hear more about what happened on Detroit’s No Crime Day, listen to the full episode below or wherever you get your podcasts.

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