Detroit—“Democracy shall live—it shall not die!” This call-and-response closed out the Aug. 17 People’s Forum where 200 social justice activists came together as D-REM (Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management). The Forum was but one of thousands of ongoing actions and conversations about the new status of Detroit under Emergency Manager (EM) Kevyn Orr, who was appointed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder in March.
Orr was appointed late in 2012 after voters, state-wide, had rejected an earlier emergency manager law. The Chapter 9 bankruptcy petition Orr filed in July is being contested in court to determine if Orr negotiated in good faith with the city’s creditors (over 100,000 because every investor and retired employee may be owed money). Everything is on the table—city employee contracts, health plans and retiree pensions, as well as all tangible city assets. Orr as EM is paying Christie’s auction house $200,000 to appraise the Detroit Institute of Arts collection estimated at several billion dollars, one of the largest public art collections in the U.S.
Mainstream media images of Detroit today are entirely dystopian: a wasted landscape of vacant weed-choked lots with piles of rubble and garbage, decrepit drug houses, empty shopping strips dominated by cartoon-figure stereotypical Black male criminals armed and terrorizing. It’s no longer the Motor City but Grand Theft Auto. Even The New York Times writes as if there are no people here other than criminals and young, white artists and urban homesteaders who bring culture and sanity to a cowed, faceless population. Our small downtown is portrayed as gratefully awaiting rescue by benevolent capitalists and corporations: the Illitch family sports team owners, Quicken Loans, Compuware, and the three casino gambling palaces.
Little attention is given to the historic and economic context. In the 1950s, freeways were deliberately built across neighborhood lines to ensure that none would become powerful enough to challenge the city’s political structure. The most blatant example was the otherwise inexplicable routing of I-75 along Hastings Street, a flourishing center of music and culture in the Black community. The exodus of the white population was fueled by racist real estate practices that guaranteed property values would decline when Black families moved into white neighborhoods.
In the same period, capitalism profited from the suburbanization of the entire country and revolutions in production methods due to automation. The four-square-mile Ford Rouge plant employed 80,000 people when bloody battles were fought there to establish the UAW; it now has around 2,000 workers.
Marx had seen, despite physical and mental alienation, the factory workers’ potential for cooperation on the job. So did the capitalists: thousands, large and small, abandoned plants and businesses in Detroit. They have never been held accountable for securing and cleaning those sites, including the toxic wastes left behind. Furthermore, those at People’s Forum read this history as the disempowerment of Black power. The disempowerment continues today in the plan called “Detroit Future Cities, the next 50 years.”
Recently, there is a new image being projected: “Detroit is coming back.” Long-empty downtown high-rise buildings are being bought up and renovated for young professional residences and upscale retail businesses. Some have evicted low-income senior tenants to do so. Meanwhile, the majority of neighborhoods in this 139-square-mile city continue to languish, with poor bus service, unkempt parks, vacant houses and lots. One third of the streetlights are dark, and there are only 20 city ambulances and 800 firefighters for a population of 700,000.
But a different Detroit is struggling to be realized in the minds and hearts of its citizens: individuals (unrecognized thousands of whom routinely maintain nearby abandoned property) as well as organizations—from churches and small businesses to youth and athletic programs, block clubs and neighborhood associations, and social and environmental justice organizations. Political and economic uncertainty has led to a resurgence of community self-organization, a conviction that “it’s up to us.” The question, “What kind of human society do we want, can we create?” is implicit in Detroit right now.
The challenge is to envision and work out that society against the opposition that comes from the capitalists, who want to rebuild their empires on our scorched earth, as well as the limitations of thinking that stop us short of building a human-based world. As important to a community as the practical aspects of safe, clean neighborhoods are the ideas for the kind of society we want. One participant at the People’s Forum emphasized, “We don’t just want to rebuild Detroit, we want to redesign Detroit.” We can envision a self-organized, human-based society and make it a principle of our own activity to elicit, critically discuss and realize humanistic social relations.