Motor City rebels

Issue: 170

John Newsinger

A review of Mark Jay and Philip Conklin, A People’s History of Detroit, Duke University Press (2020), £20.99.

On 25 July 1967, the crew of a United States tank mistook someone standing at an apartment window and lighting a cigarette for a sniper. They machine-gunned the building, killing a four year old girl. This was not in Saigon or Huế. It was in Detroit and the four year old was Tonya Harding, a black girl. Hers was not the only apartment block machine-gunned by the forces of law and order.

The “Great Rebellion of 1967”, as Mark Jay and Philip Conklin call it, was a product of poverty, deprivation and racist policing. Only a few years earlier, in 1962, Deroit’s “liberal” mayor, Jerome Cavanagh, elected with black and trade union support, had introduced “stop and frisk” as a way for the police to control the population of the black slum districts. The following year, police shot a black woman, Cynthia Scott, three times—including twice in the back—killing her. This provoked demonstrations with 5,000 people marching on police headquarters, chanting “Stop Police Killers”. Later, on 9 August 1966, an attempt to arrest three black youths for “loitering” provoked three nights of rioting. How did the city authorities respond? Instead of addressing “the root causes of social unrest—poverty, unemployment, poor housing, and violent and racist policing” (p141), they relied on repressive police action. This policing had a clear racial dimension, shown by the differing treatment that black and white were accorded at every level of the so-called justice system, from the streets to the court rooms.

What provoked the Great Rebellion was an attempt by the police on a Saturday night, 22 July 1967, to break up a party celebrating the safe return of two black soldiers from Vietnam. They arrested 80 people. Crowds gathered and began to fight back with cries of “Black Power”. The episode quickly turned into a full-scale rebellion with the police driven off by bricks and petrol bombs. Sunday saw the rioters in control and Mayor Cavanagh called in the National Guard. The following day, President Lyndon Johnson sent in 4,700 paratroopers to help restore order. Tanks were deployed on the streets of Detroit. Incredibly, one leading black businessman actually condemned the police for being too restrained, castigating their “failure to use fire-power to stop looters” (p144). This sentiment was echoed in the city’s black-owned newspaper, the Michigan Chronicle. Trade union leaders, including Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers, and civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, joined in condemning the rebels. Yet there was no condemnation of the police who arrested one black youth and then told him to “run away” before shooting him in the back. Similarly there was no condemnation of the police for raiding the Algiers Motel in response to what turned out to be a toy gun. By the time they had finished, they had “killed three unarmed black men; nine others, seven black men and two white women, were viciously beaten and forced to endure hours of what can only be described as kidnapping and torture” (p150).

The “rebels” armed themselves by looting gun shops—over 2,500 rifles were liberated. Police and troops soon found themselves under fire. Serious clashes continued until Thursday, and the last exchange of gunfire took place on the Friday. By the time “order” was restored, 43 people had been killed, 33 of them black. The forces of law and order had fired over 150,000 rounds; indeed there were so many bullet casings strewn across the streets that people made necklaces out of them. Over 7,000 people were arrested. The treatment of those arrested was appalling, with hundreds of people held for days in an underground garage without any toilet facilities. Many of those arrested required hospital treatment after interrogation, and there was at least one rape perpetrated by a police officer and covered up by his fellow officers.

Was this a riot or a rebellion? A poll taken after the events showed that 56 percent of black respondents insisted it was “rebellion or revolution” with only 19 percent calling it a riot. Most of those who took part were either car workers (the number of car workers arrested seriously disrupted production in the factories) or unemployed. Many of them, as Jay and Conklin insist, were white. They write that, “Though the uprising was black-led, thousands of poor white workers, many of them Southern migrants, took part. Some 12 percent of those arrested were white” (p151). One black revolutionary militant, General Baker, noted that on the bus taking him to prison there were two white men charged with shooting at police and troops. The rebellion prompted the formation of the Revolutionary Union Movement, which led dozens of militant unofficial strikes in the car factories, and of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. On one occasion the Black Students United Front, set up under the auspices of the League, called 150,000 school students out on strike to celebrate Malcolm X’s birthday. The city’s response to this activism was to have police officers permanently stationed in high schools.

The Great Rebellion and its aftermath are often blamed for inaugurating Detroit’s subsequent “40 years of decline”, but Jay and Conklin completely reject this. As they argue, the deindustrialisation and hollowing out of US cities was a product of capitalist development and was repeated across much of the country. Yet it was “particularly devastating in Detroit…culminating in 2013 with the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history” (p2). The scale of the disaster was incredible. In 1950 Detroit had a population of 1.8 million; today it is less than 700,000. The city has gone from being overwhelmingly white to overwhelmingly black. Levels of poverty, unemployment, low wages and bad housing were already appalling when the city was hit by the impact of the 2008 world financial crash.

As Jay and Conklin point out, the Detroit working class, black and white, were made to pay for the resuscitation of the capitalist system. The bailout of US financial institutions cost some $20 trillion, and this was paid for by a regime of austerity. In their words, “The working class paid for the profit recovery through layoffs, wage cuts, reduced work hours and slashed social services” (p44). This was, of course, very much a global phenomenon. A good indication of the viciousness of the assault on working people in Detroit is that between 2010 and 2018 the Water Department issued 143,000 “shut off notices”, affecting over 40 percent of the city’s population. The city drastically cut the pensions of retired employees and reduced their health benefits, then initiated a programme of privatisation and asset selling. No matter what the cost to ordinary people, the rich and super-rich had to be protected from the consequences of their own greed. Indeed, the crisis was blamed on the laziness, extravagance and profligacy of the poor. They had been cosseted for too long and now, as the New York Times put it, “The chickens have come home to roost” (p46). The result was that Detroit has the highest rates of poverty, child poverty and unemployment “of any large US city”. In Detroit, and indeed throughout Michigan, “corporate tyranny is ascendant” (p47).

However, is the recovery at last underway? Is Detroit being “gentrified”? Certainly parts of the city have faced “gentrification”, resulting in skyrocketing rents and house prices. Often the poor are being driven out, many of them evicted with just 30 days notice. The city authorities are committed to making the city attractive as somewhere for the rich too live; after all, this is the way forward and the working class is merely an obstacle. While areas of the city are being reshaped for the rich (again, as Jay and Conklin point out, this is very much a global phenomenon), for the working class there is the one-day contract (“jobs without a tomorrow”), slum housing, poverty, sickness and police repression. In 2016, the city spent $547 per capita on the police, but across the state of Michigan “per capita spending on food stamps…was less than $21” (p57). The Detroit police have undergone the same process of militarisation as other police departments across the US and have developed the mindset that goes alongside it. They regard whole swathes of the city’s population as “enemy combatants”, and the police are reinforced by an army of private security guards who work in close conjunction with them. Inevitably, this has led to increased levels of incarceration. Whereas in the 1970s there were around 8,000 people in the Michigan prison system, by 2016 the number was 41,000; moreover, in the same period prison sentences were dramatically increased. In Detroit itself there are some 25,000 people “under some form of punitive state control, including several thousand who must wear electronic collars” (p67). Moreover, the city has been at the forefront of dystopic technological innovation; as early as 2007, it was involved in developing facial recognition systems, although this did not come to light until 2019. This is all part of the management of poverty and its consequences for the benefit of the rich.

Although Jay and Conklin examine these issues in admirable detail, there is one gap in their discussion of policing: the issue of corruption. This is all the more surprising when one considers that black Chief of Police William Hart was indicted in 1991 for corruption. Together with his deputy, Kenneth Weiner, he was charged with having embezzled $2.6 million of department funds. Weiner had left Detroit Police Department in 1986 and gone into a business partnership with Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor. Hart and Weiner were both sentenced to ten years. Young’s involvement in the corruption was never established.

A last and important point is that from 1974 up until 2014 all that was inflicted on the Detroit working class was inflicted by “black political elites”. Young, who was elected mayor in 1974 and remained in office until 1994, had once been close to the Communist Party. He had even been summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was involved in union organising. Nevertheless, he had made his peace with capitalism by the time of his election. He proceeded to divert city resources from the poor to big business, simultaneously making clear his readiness to criminalise the most disadvantaged sections of black working-class people. He showed how committed he was to police repression on 5 November 1992 when police pulled over an unemployed black steelworker, Malice Green, and beat him to death. Young certainly condemned the killing, but his main response was to step up police patrols in black working-class districts in order to prevent any protests and shut down any resistance. By now the US trade union movement was in full retreat and most of the black revolutionaries still active in Detroit were in prison. The black middle class, as represented by Young, had been integrated into the political establishment. A later black Democratic Party mayor, the wholly corrupt Kwame Kilpatrick, was sentenced to 28 years in 2013 and even had this judgement commuted by Donald Trump. All this has “occurred alongside, and was inextricably linked to, a deterioration in living standards among the poorer sections of the working class—a deterioration that continues to this day” (p194).

There is much more in this powerful people’s history than can be covered here. Jay and Conklin look at the activities of the Industrial Workers of the World, the great working-class struggles of the 1930s, the racist oppression of the black working class, and the post-war strikes and class struggles. They also detail the activities of the revolutionary left in the city, among whom were the Marxist writers C L R James, Grace Lee and James Boggs, the remarkable revolutionary and community organiser Kenneth Cockrel, and many others. It is a timely volume that deserves a wide readership.