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By Tom Stephens July 17, 2009

Where We’re Coming From

Detroit has long been the poster child victim of corporate globalization, plagued by off-shoring, deindustrialization, union-busting, institutionalized racism and a litany of corporate abuses. With the global economic crash of September 2008, that dubious honor has transformed Detroit into Ground Zero for a profound global social, economic and ecological crisis around the quality of working peoples’ lives. Utterly fascinating and horribly tragic, the consequences of late 20th century Americanism are playing themselves out on a daily basis, as our region’s and our communities’ destiny. Figuring out what to about it seems like the only real game in town.

In a slow-motion corporate Hurricane Katrina, unsurpassed home foreclosures, accelerating joblessness, poverty and crime, and a paralyzing malaise of local leadership grip the Motor City and the crazy quilt communities around and within it. Meanwhile, people elsewhere face similar, if less dramatically crushing economic conditions, as a direct result of the epic recession over the last nine months. Trend-setting, laid-back California is said to be “ungovernable,” and as broke as Detroit , which itself is said to be “broke as the ten commandments.” Now others are beginning to learn how Detroit has lived and suffered through the last three decades of massively unequal “growth” thru neoliberal corporate domination. Now we’re seeing the answer to Marvin Gaye’s immortal question, “What’s Goin’ On?” Especially in post-Wall Street meltdown Detroit , it’s about much more than dancing in the streets.

Responding to this deep, wide and multifaceted crisis will be the stuff of history in the early years of the 21st century. Detroit is the microcosm of Planet Earth and its teeming third world slums. So far the news is mostly not so good. There remain about 800 to 900 thousand of us in the ruins of the mid-20th century Industrial Arsenal of Democracy, which peaked at over two million residents. The whole metropolitan area of over four million sags economically and emotionally from the demise of the US auto industry, which had been going on for years before the recent crash. The environment is literally melting, raining, and threatening an apocalypse unless we change everything about the way we generate, distribute and use energy – in other words, everything we do - right now. Facing inseparably connected crises of our economy and our ecology, we usually have about all we can handle to keep our feet on a daily basis in the tide of change sweeping over us. Michael Jackson’s death and spectacular funeral this summer showed us our freaky selves, as “the man in the mirror.” Most of us gaped and stared at the spectacle, mostly to avoid the painful reality our world has become since the innocent fun of the Jackson Five.

For the half of humanity who are lucky enough to get by on more than two dollars a day, the global recession of 2008-09 is pretty much like what we’ve called life here for the last 25 years or so, as wealth flowed away first to the Sun Belt and then offshore. The Detroit area’s legendary racial polarization has the core City itself isolated, struggling and mired in poverty and crime, amidst newly struggling, distrustful suburban neighbors. Even more than all of this, which is truly saying something, no one in power or in charge seems to have a clue what to do about any of it, beyond repeating the same tired clichés and futile “business friendly” bromides that brought us to this disaster. The bulk of our corporate and political best and brightest simply promote themselves, and try not to get caught up in what passes for “scandal.” The real scandal goes on all around us in our accelerating socio-economic, political and environmental health crisis, rooted in our governing institutions and the ways we get our daily bread and live our daily lives. Everything’s broken, but both Bush and Obama sent the resources we need to fix it to Wall Street, to bail out the banksters who put them in power. We know this in Detroit . It’s pretty hard to miss. It’s hard to see how to do anything about it. That’s the point of this meandering diatribe and historical review.

Stories in the Corporate Media

One of the most prominent flashes on all this in recent days is the New York Times Sunday Magazine article dated June 28, 2009, “GM, Detroit and the Fall of the Black Middle Class.”1 This piece profiles a devout working class everyman, African-American auto worker Marvin Powell and his family, as they experience and contemplate the ongoing urban meltdown. Local institutions like the soon-to-be-closed Pontiac Assembly plant, Greater Grace Temple, Paradise Valley (“a small ghetto on the East Side of the city”), Fordism, the UAW, the 1967 riots, and the election of Coleman Young in 1973 have leading or cameo roles in this portrait of the unraveling of a once-great city and metro. Among writer Jonathan Mahler’s most prominent conclusions from this contemporary urban passion play:

  • “We’ve been hearing this phrase – ‘the death of Detroit ’ - for years now, but this is what it’s going to look like, how it’s going to play out.”
  • “The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington research group, predicts that African-American unemployment in Michigan , which is already at 23 percent, may reach 28 percent by mid-2010.”[2]
  • “I saw the images of the postapocalyptic city to which we’ve all become accustomed: the deserted streets, overgrown lots and empty storefronts with boarded-up windows and faded signs for long-closed stores and restaurants … As familiar as these images have become (just punch ‘Detroit’ and ‘urban decay’ into YouTube to see them), it’s only when you’re actually riding around Detroit and can see that this goes on for block after block, mile after mile, that the profundity of this idea – the death of a city – really sets in.”
  • The famous “Hybrid Hope” autoworker-support service at Greater Grace in December 2008, with three US-made SUV’s on the altar, “likely came across to anyone reading about it or seeing coverage of it on TV as another spectacularly misguided, comically desperate and, at bottom, self-serving gesture. After all, nearly half of the church’s 6,000 members work either for an American carmaker or for a company whose fate is directly linked to the Big Three. As goes the US auto industry, so goes Greater Grace, which depends on its members to tithe, or donate ten percent of their earnings to the church.”
  • Mr. Powell and his family are relentlessly besieged by political con artists, who claim “Barack done opened the door” to future success and prosperity, and religious hucksters, who told a church entrepreneurial workshop that “the key to success was to stop thinking negative thoughts,” so they shouldn’t pay any attention to economic news.
  • “Talking to Powell, I was constantly torn between marveling at his faith, his stubborn belief that everything was going to work out, and the urge to tell him to look around, to read the paper on any given day, to see the train that’s heading straight for him and so many others and try to make a viable plan for his future before it’s too late. But what would that plan be? What if you were 38 and had spent the last 12 years doing one thing for a company and an industry that allowed your predecessors to escape the Jim Crow South, that gave generations of black workers a shot at dignity and their rightful place in the American middle class, that allowed you to buy a decent home in a neighborhood right next door to white families who had fled your city years before? Maybe it wasn’t the job you dreamed of when you were 20, but it was what you did and what your father did and what you and almost everyone around you knew, and it had never failed you before. What would you do? How would you prepare for the loss of all that?”

Good questions that deserve straight answers. You sing and you dance and you pray and you rebel against the powers that are keeping you down, Jon. You take their power and use it to build a just, clean and democratic tomorrow.

“I go to the movies and I go downtown/ Somebody keep tellin’ me ‘don’t hang around’
It’s been a long, long time comin’, But I know a change is gonna come
Oh yes it will/ Then I go to my brother/ And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin’ me back down on my knees
There’s been times when I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on”
- Sam Cooke

Jonathan Mahler’s New York Times Magazine article on Detroit ’s crisis and the Black middle class succeeds both in humanizing Marvin Powell’s family, as a symbol of Detroit , and in depicting Detroit ’s mind-boggling political economic and social catastrophe in human terms. In a city, region, state, nation and world that are too often plagued by name-calling, finger-pointing blame games, we experience the end of a community’s way of life, and the inevitability of change, through others’ eyes. The July 14 Detroit Free Press reported on film crews from all over the world coming to Detroit to witness and document our community’s profound crisis.3 The change has come. It’s even bigger than we could imagine. This isn’t just an economic collapse, it’s a great turning point for industrial civilization itself. So where do we go from here at Ground Zero?

The Dance: Converge, Protest, Resist, Transform

Detroit is a sprawling metropolitan regional community of diverse tribes. More than “Detroit” the Motor City, the Big Three car companies, the southeastern Michigan urban/suburban tri-county area, or even the history and culture of this border town in the heart of the Great Lakes bioregion, “Detroit” lives on like Planet Earth lives on; in its beings’ culture and our conflicts and crises. What all this means will be up to us. Only if we learn to see beyond the flickering screens broadcasting the Michael Jackson Casket Variety Show Review, and the Presidential Stimulus Plan Flavor of the Month, only if we begin to come to grips with the enormity of the change we are living thru and how it is changing us, will we be able to turn this mess of exploitation, war, injustice and confusion into something beautiful and alive.

Historical change is contingent, it is determined by forces that can be affected by exercising many kinds of power, and it is always happening. Today not only in Detroit, but all around the world, as every community confronts the interrelated crises and realities of climate change and potential environmental catastrophe, the food crisis, the energy crisis, poverty and violence, imperialist domination and terrorism, the ground is shifting suddenly under our feet. Concentrated powers try mightily to distract us from this, but today they are having more and more trouble doing so. In Detroit it’s especially difficult (tho not impossible for at least some of the people, some of the time).

Reading “GM, Detroit and the Fall of the Black Middle Class” in the New York Times, from my perspective in Detroit’s streets, neighborhoods and city hall (where I work), I was reminded of the famous Ghost Dances, usually associated with the slaughter of Native Americans on the high plains around the end of the 19th century, at the Wounded Knee massacre.

“Noted in historical accounts as the Ghost Dance of 1890, the Ghost Dance was a religious movement incorporated into numerous Native American belief systems. The traditional ritual used in the Ghost Dance, the circle dance, has been used by many Native Americans since prehistoric times but was first performed in accordance with Jack Wilson's teachings among the Nevada Paiute in 1889. The practice swept throughout much of the American West, quickly reaching areas of California and Oklahoma. As the Ghost Dance spread from its original source, Native American tribes synthesized selective aspects of the ritual with their own beliefs, often creating change in both the society that integrated it and the ritual itself.

At the core of the movement was the prophet of peace Jack Wilson, known as Wovoka among the Paiute, who prophesied a peaceful end to white American expansion while preaching messages of clean living, an honest life, and cross-cultural cooperation. Perhaps the best-known facet of the Ghost Dance movement is the role it reportedly played in instigating the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, which resulted in the deaths of at least 153 Lakota Sioux. The Sioux variation on the Ghost Dance tended towards millenarianism, an innovation that distinguished the Sioux interpretation from Jack Wilson's original teachings.”4

“Praying for supernatural aid and release was a common impulse for western Indians everywhere in the face of cultural annihilation and personal suffering. So-called nativistic religions, blending old-time Indian beliefs with Christian concepts and driven by a hopeful vision of an Indian tomorrow – whether in this lifetime or in an afterworld where whites did not exist – predated the California Indian Ghost Dance of 1870 and would continue long after it. …

It is unfortunate that the infamous Wounded Knee massacre, as sadly commemorated in American literature, seemed to validate the ‘myth of the vanishing Indian’ by implying that an entire way of life had ended symbolically in this terrible finale. It served the dramatic needs of popular Indian history, but the reality was very different. For one thing, revitalization movements like the Ghost Dance survive in diverse forms throughout Indian America right up to the present day, still providing succor and hope to native peoples caught between the often contradictory creeds of two cultural worlds.”[5]

Where We’re Going

If the analogy of all this and Detroit in Obama time isn’t obvious, just picture a congregation looking up toward three hulking sport utility vehicles in an urban mega-church. Or thousands of mourners moon walking around Hitsville USA on West Grand Boulevard to remember Michael. Or a tent city demonstration in Grand Circus Park downtown, to protest the national corporate economic summit at the GM headquarters building in June 2009. Or a community where union members, civil rights organizers, immigrants, progressives of all stripes and flavors, and the dwindling auto industry’s corporate royalty rub shoulders in a unique, funky urban milieu surrounded by formerly all white bread, now diversifying suburbs.

Before he was known as Malcolm X and propagated “a theology that called for self-emancipation by breaking the shackles of white-imposed economic and psychological slavery,”[6] Malcolm Little’s street name was Detroit Red, and this was the site of the biggest urban American rebellion of the 1960s. The Motown sound, hard bop jazz, insanely loyal sports fans, and now the site of hundreds of urban gardens planted amidst the vacant lots, factories and neighborhoods. A place and people shaped by the unique social and natural environments of the auto industry and the Great Lakes . This is a place with its own spirit, history, culture and meaning won the hard way (the only way you get it). The second US Social Forum is coming here, June 22-26, 2010, when tens of thousands of activists and awakening people will come here to witness the spectacular ruins of the Rust Belt, and the stirrings of its transformation thru struggle into the Heart of America’s North Coast in the new millennium of freedom and justice.

“The US Social Forum (USSF) offers an open space and a process for creating movement convergence and coordination across our many struggles, sectors, regions, and rich diversity. The USSF lifts up the voices and demands of working people and youth at the grassroots in building for fundamental transformation in the 21st century. Through the US Social Forum our emerging movement develops and models structures and processes for inclusion, participation, self-organization, collaboration, and collective reflection. The Social Forum process seeks to create movement infrastructure, capacity, and resources. The USSF process can be a space to communicate and educate, organize and mobilize within the broader society, and with our partners in the Global South. We envision another United States and another world, and are deepening our shared political practice and strategy to make it a reality.”7

The answer, if there is one, is coming from the grass roots, and from ordinary peoples’ efforts to separate the hokey from the holy in spiritual and political uprisings. Like ancient Ghost Dancers, Detroit’s and America’s real leaders, the ones who don’t run for office or get powerful corporate or political appointments, are feeling the way to the future in a time of great changes, formulating, asking and answering the key questions thru practice, struggle and throwing ourselves into our lives and our communities instead of mass entertainment spectacles.

One of the keys to separating the hokey from the holy is accepting the need for political struggle. Some would have us believe that personal lifestyle changes are the best we can do. That organized protest, resistance and socio-political and economic transformation are futile and a waste of time. These widespread beliefs (like the idolatry of SUVs and weird entertainers…) are modern equivalents of the faith that wearing a specially blessed shirt while doing the Ghost Dance would stop the imperial bullets of the Seventh Cavalry. Detroit is about the real world. This includes corporate domination, political corruption, economic exploitation, environmental degradation, and working folks changing all that. Not just by making individual lifestyle changes. Also by getting together with the neighborhood, with the churches, with the unions, and with our other co-inhabitants of different racial, sexual, religious, physical and other diverse attributes, taking the power to change it and make it better and fairer for all of us.

“We can follow the example of those who remembered that the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.”8 That’s dancing in the streets of Detroit . Start putting together the US Social Forum and be a part of this.9 It’s big. It’s happening. You’ll never forget it, and you’ll regret it if you miss it.
“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities and our aspirations.”
- James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” Ebony, 1965


[2] For comparison, the official unemployment nationwide was 9.5% in June. In Michigan , the official rate for the population as a whole in May was 14.1%. EPI’s prediction that twice that percentage of Michiganders of African-American heritage could be officially recognized as out of work within a year may be optimistic, depending on the course of the recession between now and then. Also, “real” unemployment numbers, especially in hyper-exploited urban ghetto communities, are far worse than the “official” figures acknowledge, because they don’t count people who are so chronically unemployed they have given up looking for legal compensated work, among other reasons. The real world unemployment and poverty rates among African Americans in the City of Detroit itself are simply obscene. Mr. Mahler pulled his punch by focusing on official unemployment statistics for Michigan as a whole.

[3] Filmmakers see Detroit as test case for ideas on urban revival, by John Gallagher, Detroit Free Press, 7/14/09

[4] Wikipedia:Ghost dance

[5] The Native Americans: An Illustrated History; Turner Publishing, Inc. (1993) Pp.365-367

[6] Sweet Land of Liberty , by Thomas J. Sugrue, Random House (2008)

[7] USSF Vision and Goals

[8] Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change, by Derrick Jensen, Orion Magazine, 7/8/09

[9] USSF Planning Wiki