Overstanding Detroit’s Revolutionary Spirit & His-story

Overstanding Detroit’s Revolutionary Spirit & His-story

By Tom Stephens

Books reviewed:

Where the Water Goes Around, by Bill Wylie-Kellermann (Cascade Books 2017, 155 pages)


The Fifty-Year Rebellion, by Scott Kurashige (University of California Press 2017, 143 pages of text plus notes, etc.)


In her majestic history of abolition, “The Slave’s Cause”, Manisha Sinha begins the introduction with a telling insight: “The conflict over the contours and nature of American democracy has often centered on debates over black freedom and rights.”  Her final sentence of that same paragraph further references “entrenched problems of disfranchisement in a liberal democracy”.

Those profound thoughts about the USA’s formative social justice movement apply directly and instructively to recent events in and around Detroit.  Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s unprecedented “emergency management” state powers enabled ruthless corporate piracy in the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy.[1]  To understand all this, one could not do better than reading these two concise, incredibly powerful books by close observer-participants of Detroit’s grassroots community: Professor Scott Kurashige and Reverend Bill Wylie-Kellerman.

Full disclosure: The standpoint of this writer on these books and their subject matter is not and cannot possibly be objective.  Bill Wylie-Kellermann has been a personal friend and spiritual/political inspiration to me for decades.  Our eldest children were in the same elementary school class together.

Scott Kurashige is also an acquaintance, a teacher and a comrade thru local grassroots civil justice communities, especially the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership.  I can no more separate myself from these two authors’ brave and principled work than I could avoid the federal marshal physically stepping on my toes as she reached over me to haul Bill out of bankruptcy court in the incident we recounted in the press release reproduced as “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE” on pages 96-7 of his book, when Rev. Bill stood up during open court proceedings, spoke eloquent truth to power and temporarily chased Judge Steven Rhodes off the bench like a frightened rabbit.  As one of the communications coordinators of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM) and our web site, honored to be a source cited by both these authors, I would never even try for such separation.

What I’m saying; this stuff is the real deal.  From now on, anyone who wants to really understand how Snyder and the giant Jones Day corporate law firm ripped off Detroit, the effects on the contours of democracy, African-American freedom and rights, and the disfranchisement of Detroit’s state of exception to supposed liberal US democracy, should touch base with the reframing and deep systems analysis offered here by Rev. Wylie-Kellermann and Dr. Kurashige.  Anybody who tries to analyze what the Detroit bankruptcy wrought – or what to do about it – without reference to the baseline understandings established in these works, in my opinion can’t really know the essential terrain they’re trying to talk about.

Scott Kurashige’s outstanding synthesis, compression, and mastery of both the myriad social issues and the mind-numbing financial figures and legal/political doctrines at play in Detroit’s “Fifty-Year Rebellion” stand out as an essential political economic reframing.  Until reading his book, I would’ve sworn on a 10-foot high stack of Motown records that it couldn’t be done in less than 300 pages. The book’s structure is very clear and informative, including original chapter summary narratives in the table of contents and a very helpful glossary at the end, as well as the usual notes and bibliographical references.

Well-chosen chapter titles like “The System is Bankrupt”, “Race to the Bottom”(brilliantly explicating the role of race in the performance of emergency management), and “From Rebellion to Revolution”logically and clearly explore Detroit’s emergency-managed experience with structural adjustment.  Key anecdotes like the acting corporate CFO who asked “Can I shoot someone in a hoodie?”; introducing compelling stories like that of Charity Hicks, the originator and martyr of Detroit’s fight against water shut offs; all of it develops a rich, even fairly comprehensive, bottom-up critique of the unjust power of structurally racist capital.

Scott names three overarching arguments as his book’s focus: 1) the bankruptcy/counter-revolution is a response to the 50 year rebellion that’s his title and subject; 2) today’s overlapping crises are the product of the 1970s/80s neoliberal turn; and 3) Detroit remains most significant as a city of hope and possibility.  His razor-sharp insights into the basic history of Detroit’s 50 year rebellion as a counter narrative to the corporate bankruptcy masterfully tell the essential political economic story: Proponents of white/state takeover orchestrated a financial coup in black-and-brown urban working class Detroit that’s too unpopular for elected officials to embrace (Fifty-Year Rebellion, P. 63).

One of the most consistently strong qualities of both Dr. Kurashige’s and Rev. Kellermann’s books is their seeming prescience in the era of the Trump administration circus in Washington.  The basic exchange just referenced – between the financial coup and the political machinations required to overcome the unpopularity of austerity policies – seems, like, the main driver of global reality TV politics in post-Detroit bankruptcy America.  This hardly seems accidental.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann’s spiritual focus on the corporate and white supremacist bankrupting of Detroit reads like the soft tissue and blood circulation for Scott Kurashige’s theoretical skeleton of Detroit’s rebellion.  “Where the Water Goes Around” – the book’s title is English translation of the Ojibwe word for the straits where we live in Detroit now.  Bill has an absolutely unique window on Detroit’s gentrification process from his church on the corner of Corktown, and his essay asking for a real con-versation about gentrification has been the greatest hit on the D-REM web site since Metro Times’ Michael Jackman got it out to a wide audience at a well-timed point in the city’s recent gentrification wars.

Bill sub-titles his recent pieces about the racist bankrupting of Detroit the “Expulsion Suite”.  His reconstruction of the larger regional aspects of Detroit’s gentrification-as-urban-expulsion makes indispensable contributions.  Weaving together discussions of emergency-managed-assaults on public education, water shut offs, and the general, mostly unacknowledged recognition of “spirit” as central to the real power con-tests, Bill con-nects the unbelievable human story of his own decades of personal activism (“Well Bill, what’s it going to be, Jesus, or the church?”) (P. 140), with racial, political, economic and other key social dynamics shaping Detroit.  He explains “That’s the deal.  You have to know the story, the layered meanings of a place.” (P. 146)  That knowledge is among the greatest gifts of a community’s truths common to both these recent Detroit books.

Most important, what our dear friend, comrade and mentor Gloria House writes in her lovely introduction to “Where the Water Goes Around”, applies so well to both books: They are absolutely full of crucial, hard-earned lessons for present and future community social justice activists.  These stories “resacralize human relations within the web of life”[2]around historic events in Detroit.

Speaking from the standpoint of his place-based vocation for intervention against unjust oppression, Bill focuses on direct actions intending to raise social and political tensions in the nonviolent tradition of SNCC, Dr. King, and Gandhi.  Scott deconstructs secular capitalist pseudo-justifications among the evil principalities Bill’s rebel ministry calls out.  Together they provide new creative understandings of important structural dynamics that are as relevant as ever today.

In terms of my minor reservations, or more accurately suggestions for future work along the lines laid out in these texts, I’d like Bill’s team to correct as many typos as possible before future printings.  I’m curious how Scott (and Bill) would relate to the extraordinary work of Jamie Peck on Detroit.[3]  I also wonder how the briefly discussed digital production revolution via 3-D printing and its advocates really fit with the rebellion?

There are many other potential theoretical and practical debates running thru so many well-balanced issues in both these recent Detroit books. The authors focus on urban and world-historical dynamics of capital and politics that are affecting other communities today.  They provide indispensable aids to clear, radical (understanding the real roots of things) knowledge and judgment about important issues we all face.  They reflect and embody the real essence of Detroit’s struggle.  Like Charity Hicks said, wage love.



[1]The only significant difference in Detroit from Professor Sinha’s incisive framing is that here the public “debate”, such as it is, often seems more like a continuous deluge of elephant piss spewing from the state capitol and sycophantic corporate journalists who’ve sprouted like mushrooms along the banks of the Detroit River.  In this regard too, Bill and Scott’s books work as well as or better than disinfectant, deodorizer and waterproofing combined; they raise the level of debate and analysis, from self-fulfilling “there is no alternative” corporate bromides, to accessible, deeply knowledgeable, and passionate arguments grounded in rich understandings of liberation theology, history, political economy, community, power and theories of social change.  All that and love for the terrain and People of the city.            


[2]“7 Cheap Things”, by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore


[3]Jamie Peck, “Framing Detroit” – January 2013 University of Michigan Detroit School presentation ; his similar chapter in the collection “Reinventing Detroit” ; and his invaluable explanation of the extremist, post-truth ideological forces driving Jones Day’s chosen “expert” on restructuring Detroit: “Economic Rationality Meets  Celebrity Urbanology”

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