Comments for WILPF Conference, August 1, 2014
In our city there are approximately 40 square miles of abandoned land. Thousands of homes have been lost to foreclosures, thousands have collapsed in ruins, while over 78,000 vacant houses remain standing, like relics of a forgotten era. This is a city of loss of population, loss of tax base, deficient city services in lighting, transportation, repair of infrastructure; this is a city where the public school system has been dismantled and looted; this is a space of hunger (with children hardest hit); this is a place of homelessness and outrageous and persistent police brutality against people of color and their children; this is the space of closed parks, loss of medical services, unemployment and theft of pensions. This is a space of profound suffering and dispossession while millions of dollars are appropriated for demolition of homes, and hundreds of millions are paid to lawyers and other consultants to “manage” our city affairs.
The political policies and strategies leading to this place have been in effect for many years. Practices of capitalist exploitation in Detroit are rooted in a stubborn, unrelenting racism that has fractured city life since the nineteenth century. Racism flared in violence from the period of the Civil War through the first and second world wars, exploded in the riot of 1943, and shocked the nation in the rebellion of 1967. And during all those years, Whites were moving away from the City, steadily seeking to establish neighborhoods from which they could exclude African Americans – often resorting to violent assaults in order to preserve segregation. The shift of the auto companies to the suburbs and the South further exacerbated unemployment problems of African Americans in the inner city, while discriminatory federal housing policies facilitated the exodus of Whites to the suburbs, excluding African Americans from new housing developments.
Segregated in the city core, African Americans faced additional problems. From the 50’s, when the power structure spoke of urban renewal in the City, this meant Black removal, uprooting of Black communities and businesses from the city core. This is the legacy of racist spatial politics in Detroit and its suburbs, and this legacy influences the current political dynamics of the City, where a United States version of ethnic cleansing is now in process against African Americans and other poor communities. If the intent of ethnic cleansing was not clear before the water shutoffs, it must certainly be obvious to everyone at this point.
Though the 1967 rebellion expressed African Americans’ frustration with long- standing socio-economic disadvantages and injustice, the power elite responded as if they were the victims. An intense anger accompanied their abandonment of the City, and they watched scornfully as it deteriorated in population and tax base, necessary services and overall quality of life. This resentment was represented in ongoing media bashing of the City and its African American leadership, a bashing that became increasingly hostile during the mayoral tenure of Coleman Young. The effect of this pervasive media attack was to infer that African Americans are not capable of governing ourselves, whether in the Mayor’s office, or as members of the City Council or an elected School Board. The racist propaganda was generated not only in the popular media, but also in the elite publications of white intellectuals and cultural leaders. We can see the success of this propaganda offensive in the recent mayoral campaign and election of Mike Duggan.
By the mid 1970s, however, the corporate elite recognized its enormous mistake in abandoning Detroit, with its vital infrastructure of communications and finance, linking Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Canada, extending over 20,000 miles, and its location on the Detroit River, with links to the lake waterways, providing fresh water security in a time when scarcity is imminent, while also ensuring easy access to international transportation and trade. And so the reclamation began.
Corporate reclaiming of the city has meant the design of two Detroits, one flourishing, affluent, inviting, meant to serve the corporate agenda, the other, a neglected, abandoned wasteland. In fact, with the addition of the newly announced hockey arena plans, we can see how from Grand Boulevard right down the center of the old city core to the riverfront, a new city is evolving, a consolidation of privately owned spaces, Midtown, Illitchville, Gilbertville, and the Riverfront. The attractive, redesigned city core is successfully enticing individuals and families of the managerial class back into the City. This “whiter,” upwardly mobile population will provide an anchor for dominant corporate interests, managing the corporate offices, overseeing the technology, and supervising the manual laborers who clean and maintain the exclusive offices and amenities of a corporate command city. This is not the city of a massive working class that we once knew. In this city, which functions as a command city for powerful multinationals in a global economy, there is no need for a massive working class or a city that would accommodate them. With the creation of this corporate-owned city, with its symphony, its DIA, its Opera House, its posh restaurants, bars, ball parks and other entertainment centers, has come the increased militarization of the city police force and its integration into a network of law enforcement agencies, including Homeland Security and Border Patrol.
Simultaneously, the corporate elite has launched a determined campaign to plunder the city’s assets: to seize, control, reconfigure and/or privatize major City assets and institutions such as Recorder’s Court, Detroit Medical Center, Cobo Hall, Belle Isle and other parks, the public schools and now to take another step towards control and privatization of the Department of Water and Sewerage. Such objectives have been facilitated by the illegal imposition of emergency managers, and the circumvention of duly elected public officials by foundations and other private agencies in the processes of city policy and development. Through such strategies, the majority Black populations in several Michigan cities have been disenfranchised.
In pockets throughout the city, individuals and groups are resisting this takeover in every way we know how. Moratorium Now is continuing its struggle against foreclosures, others are working towards food security through farming, others are creating artist co-ops, small businesses, forums for resolving conflict, educational and cultural programs and activities. And most recently we are working to provide emergency water relief.
Detroit has a national reputation for its spunky organizers, innovators, ingenious leaders and problem solvers. But these innovators have not been included in planning Detroit’s future. In fact, the resources and energy of many such organizers are being exhausted in the daily work of resistance.
One of the problems we are facing as organizers is the difficulty of coming to terms with the inhumanity, savagery and barbarism of corporate emergency management strategies, and the fact that these strategies involve simultaneous assaults on multiple arenas of our lives. Moreover, with the media at their command, the corporations have successfully popularized narratives that mask or disguise their objectives.
I would like to quote here from an article by Diane Bukowski, a brilliant Detroit journalist, who is devoted to serving our community. The following citation makes it clear why it is so difficult to resist corporate strategies in the city. Ms. Bukowski gives us an example of how power is conflated in the hands of a few individuals and agencies that control multiple aspects of city development:
George Jackson, Jr. a DTE executive for 27 years, is president of both the Detroit Economic Growth Association (DEGA) and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC), as well as Detroit’s Chief Development Officer under Mayor Bing. …. The DEGA and the DEGC have the same officers and directors…. The DEGC also serves as the professional and administrative staff for the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), the Economic Development Corporation of the City of Detroit (EDC), Tax Increment Finance Authority, and Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (DBRA).
The DEGC’s Secretary is Attorney David Baker Lewis of Lewis & Munday, which receives city contracts. Developer and builder Michael Tyson is DEGC’s Treasurer. Directors include William Brooks, a retired GM vice- president, Denise Starr, Compuware’s Chief Administrative Officer, and Roderick Gillum, a GM vice-president and chairman of the GM Foundation. Bob Rossback, spokesperson for the DEGC, said the DEGA and the DEGC are separate legal entities, with the separation allowing the DEGA to administer grant funds from organizations like the Kresge, Kellogg and Skillman foundations. DEGC is funded by the city.*
The names and the relationships of the players provided by Ms. Bukowski illustrate the concentration of links in the apparatus of corporate power in our City. The agencies and individuals named influence so many aspects of city administration — the appropriation of land, facilities and other resources, even extending to the influence of artists and cultural production through grants, media and public relations campaigns.
In the face of this kind of domination, let me conclude by saying that, those of us who insist on self-determination, who insist on discovering alternative means to sustain our lives, must begin to envision and construct an altogether new society. The methods of securing social order and justice that we have fashioned in the past do not apply now because we do not have a scaffolding of law to which we can appeal and on which to rely, as this is a time of government and corporate racist lawlessness. Though we have to continue the forms of resistance with which we are familiar to hold back the assault against our humanity, it is important to recognize that there is an additional, essential arena of work. That work is the conceiving or imagining and building of new forms of community, which our children and grandchildren will continue to develop. That is our calling in this time and this place: resistance to oppressive forces on the one hand; conceiving and building of a new society on the other.
*Bukowski, Diane. “Bye, Bye, Detroit,” The Michigan Citizen, March 11, 2011.