Why do they do it? It’s hard to stand on the outside and watch people try to burn their city down. It’s even harder to understand the mentality of someone who morphs from sports fan to looter, pillager, criminal. What is in the mind of the rioter?
Bubba Helms was 17 years old, he was drunk, he was high, and he just wanted to be on TV.
He got what he wanted, and he still kept the memories close at the very end.
Kenneth “Bubba” Helms was a Detroit boy, and he never had a chance. Born the youngest of six children to a GM factory worker and a homemaker, in a family with a history of mental illness. Two of his uncles had committed suicide, and Helms looked like he might have been well along that path. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade. He had a score of run-ins with the law. He was unemployed. And he wasn’t even that big a baseball fan.
Detroit was a strained, dying city in October of 1984. Industry had long gone to shit, but people were starting to notice. The Tigers were something to rally around, destined for their first championship since 1968. They had done something to tie the city together back then, that strange year of Denny McLain. Not 15 months before, Detroit’s streets had exploded in the 12th Street Riot. That one was racial, and a lot of people had died, and things were still raw, but baseball helped.
The 1984 riots weren’t like that. They were about people, generally men, generally young, (always has been the makeup, always will), getting hammered and wanting to set fires and take stuff from stores because it was one giant party. That’s what grabbed Bubba Helms, who piled into a car with his friends in Lincoln Park and drove toward Tiger Stadium.
They left home after Detroit scored three early runs. It was game five, and one win more would mean a championship, and if they didn’t close it out tonight, the series would go back to San Diego. This was the last chance to party. Helms had already drunk a fifth of Jim Beam, he had smoked marijuana, and he was feeling great.
The fires had already started by the time he got there. Someone handed him a pennant, or he found one on the ground — he didn’t remember. Cars were overturned, and Helms and his friends danced atop them.
He was right there when a police car went up in flames, but he heard it rather than saw it. He did, however, see a mass of photographers clicking away at the police car. This was not Vancouver in 2011, where everyone has cameras and cell phones and internet streams and a city bleeds itself for us in real time. Cameras meant media.
“I did it for my sister,” Helms would later say. “I told her, I promised her that I’d get on TV or get a picture taken.”
Helms ran between the photographers and the police car, raising the pennant high as they snapped away. There must have been hundreds of photos taken, but there’s really only one. He stands almost relaxed, his static poise, standing out against Chaos on all sides. The blurry fellow rioter beside him, a trail of flaming debris on the cobblestones. All primary colors, and there’s Helms wearing black and white, his gut hanging out of his shirt, the pennant aloft.
By the time the sun came up, the riot was no longer a party. This was the reverse of those last title Tigers. Baseball couldn’t help the city; baseball had hurt the city. This was destroying your hometown because your baseball team won. That photo, by Robert Kozloff of the Associated Press, ran in the Detroit News the next morning, as a city questioned its own character. It was so clearly Bubba Helms, and Bubba Helms became a symbol for what was wrong.
Bubba (and it was always Bubba, only “Kenneth” to his mother), got on TV, and in newspapers around the world. His name came out, and complete strangers would call the house, one telling his mother she should be sterilized. A year later, with his life dead-ended in Detroit, he went to live with his sister in Florida. His father, now retired from General Motors, later moved to Tennessee to be closer.
We know this because for the 20th anniversary of the riots, in 2004, the Detroit Free Press found out what happened to him after his snapshot of fame. Down in Florida, he tried meth, and became instantly addicted. He took too many painkillers. He caught hepatitis from a dirty needle. He got married to a high school girl 10 years younger than him, and had a kid, born the same year Tiger Stadium closed down.
He was fired from every job he found, possibly because of his bipolar disorder, definitely because of his drug habit. The marriage fell apart, and he moved back home.
In April 2001, just as baseball season started up, Bubba Helms put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. “Helms’ 2-year-old son was in his grandpa’s arms, watching, as his dad pulled the trigger,” the Free Press reported. The shot didn’t kill him, just shattered his jaw, and the hospital eventually sent him on his way with a prescription for painkillers. He took an entire bottle, and died.
His nephew found something in Helms’s closet while going through his belongings, the Free Press wrote. It was a 1984 Detroit Tigers pennant. The family still had the newspaper clippings of Helms holding it at the riots. It had always been the highlight of his life.