The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit




“THIS IS MORE than a riot,” stated a Detroit police officer. “This is war.”

Fifty years ago, the Motor City was the center of national attention as it erupted in an urban rebellion on a scale unprecedented in modern American history. Prompted by a police raid targeting African Americans in an after-hours establishment, the 1967 mass uprising from July 23 to 27 resulted in 43 deaths and over 7,000 arrests. The officer declaring “war” was just one of the 17,000 Detroit cops, state police, National Guardsmen, and US Army troops sent to restore order.

Though he had yet to admit it, President Lyndon B. Johnson was already quagmired in a war in Vietnam that would ultimately doom his prospects for reelection. The last thing the commander-in-chief desired was a scene resembling domestic warfare. Bristling at a growing chorus of critics, LBJ proved no more effective at handling the urban crisis than he did managing foreign affairs.

A half-century later, it remains crucial that we reject the drive to portray Detroit as an exception and see it instead as an extreme version of national trends that arose from the ’60s rebellions. The rebellions exposed the fallacy that racism was a “Southern” problem that was solved by civil rights legislation. Metropolitan Detroit has particularly exemplified the racial divisions and the collapse of the center that remade US politics. As much as any place in the United States, it has embodied the demise of the middle-class American Dream, the economic dislocation fairly or unfairly associated with globalization, the burden of long-term debt, and related anxieties animating populisms of the left and right. Detroit simultaneously represents a bellwether of where we all may be heading and a warning of the imminent danger we all face.

President Johnson seemed, at first, to rise to the occasion, forming the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders while the fires were still smoldering in the Motor City on July 28, 1967. Colloquially referred to by its namesake chair, the Kerner Commission determined that “white racism” was structurally embedded within American society and was the source of persistent inequality, segregation, and police brutality. The commission called for “unprecedented levels of funding and performance” to promote employment, education, welfare, and housing. For many, it signaled the need for nothing less than a domestic Marshall Plan to make the United States’s rhetorical commitment to equality a long overdue reality.

The social problems the Kerner Commission cited as the source of the “civil disorders” were deeply rooted in American history. The rebellions, however, forced the nation to confront them like never before, shattering the postwar liberal vision of racial integration being achieved through incremental steps and gradual improvement. Already a bastion of the labor movement, Detroit erupted with cries of “Black Power” as the African-American community sought economic gains and political representation consistent with its status as the city’s emerging majority.

Ultimately, Black Power’s manifestation was most evident in the creation of a new class of African-American elected officials rather than a cadre of Panthers or revolutionaries. Nevertheless, the concept provoked a counter-discourse centered not simply on preserving white privilege but especially harnessing racialized fear, denial, and resentment. Today, the enduring impact of the rebellion is felt less with regard to the reforms it brought for Detroit and more for the half-century of reaction it bred in many of the places surrounding Motown. Indeed, Detroit’s post-rebellion history — to cite Michel Foucault’s reversal of Carl von Clausewitz’s famous saying — is a stunning example of how politics is war continued by other means.

Despite some notable efforts to promote interracial harmony within the region, multiple generations of white suburban politicians built their careers on the notion that their primary task was to protect their constituents from Detroit and remedy the so-called reverse discrimination that the civil rights movement had imposed on whites. As the suburbs of Detroit played a pivotal role in flipping Michigan “red” for Trump, the call to “make America great again” resonates with a nostalgic yearning to restore the Motor City to a pre-1967 condition when the factories were perpetually hiring and a blithe sense of order prevailed.

Motown is still a city of cultural and political movement at the grassroots. The United States Social Forum drew roughly 20,000 activists to the city in 2010, while organizers and observers from around the world continue to draw inspiration both from Detroit’s history and its projections of a radical, just, and sustainable future. At the level of municipal politics and governance, however, Detroit has nightmarishly become a model for hostile takeover by right-wing elements made possible by Michigan’s “emergency management” law. The place that gave rise to a new standard of living for workers is now at the forefront of privatization and austerity measures.

The Black Power movement’s demand for “community control” has given way to a government set up to serve billionaire developers bent on gentrifying the central core and disposing of as much of the rest of the city and its residents as they can get away with. Detroit is a preeminent symbol of how the War on Poverty vulgarly morphed into the War on Crime and a war on poor people themselves. Public jobs, pensions, and social programs all suffered severe cuts in the city’s 2013–’14 bankruptcy, but more than $400 million continues to be spent annually on imprisoning Detroiters.

The Kerner Commission once declared to the nation that its “present course” pointed toward “the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.” That its warning and recommendations to alter that course were dismissed seems more obvious than ever. While we cannot undo the events of the past half-century, it is time we understand what transpired and how this defines the imperatives we face in 2017.

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The debate surrounding the events of 1967 is encapsulated in the debate over terminology. The concept of “riot” or “insurrection” places the focus on the need to restore “law and order.” While LBJ cast aside the Kerner Commission’s proposals as politically impracticable, as historian Julian Zelizer has recounted, Richard Nixon lambasted the commission for blaming “everybody for the riots except the perpetrators of the riots.” What the rebellions signaled for Nixon and his “silent majority” followers was the need for a steeled man in the White House with the resolve to “meet force with force, if necessary, in the cities.”

For some, the deployment of thousands of law enforcement officers and military personnel to Detroit’s streets was a much-needed response that brought a sense of relief. For others, this reinforced the already prevalent sense that the black community was living under an armed occupation and that the police were the aggressors. Much of the data related to the rebellion that we have available was compiled by the late historian Sidney Fine. To be certain, more than a handful of the looters were whites, comprising 12 percent of the arrestees. Still, the vast majority of those killed, injured, and arrested were black, many for doing nothing more than observing events. Scores were beaten, detained without cause in unsanitary and inhumane makeshift jails, and railroaded by an overstressed legal system with little regard for due process. Of the 43 deaths, 33 were African American and 30 were at the hands of law enforcement.

Although many of the National Guardsmen had signed up to avoid being sent to Vietnam, they were soon enveloped within the fog of war on the streets of Detroit. For many of those poorly prepared and hastily rushed in from outside the city, basal prejudice took over. “I’m gonna shoot anything that moves and is black,” one declared. In one of the most horrific episodes, a four-year-old African-American girl named Tanya Blanding was struck by .50 caliber machine gun fire after the National Guard mistook the lighting of a cigarette for sniper fire.

The most widely publicized travesty of justice occurred at the Algiers Motel. Three young black men aged 17 to 19 — Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard, and Fred Temple — were shot and killed, possibly execution style, by the police. Others were detained for hours, interrogated, and tortured. After giving evasive and contradictory accounts, three white police officers, along with an African-American security guard, were acquitted amid loaded court proceedings marked by changes of venue (in one instance to the 99 percent white town of Mason) and all-white juries. Although well known to Detroiters of that era, the Algiers Motel killings are being subjected to a new trial in the court of public opinion as the focus of Kathryn Bigelow’s film, Detroit.

Those using the term “rebellion” have insisted that the outbreaks of violence be situated within historical context and that attention be focused on underlying political and economic conditions. Though he steadfastly condemned all violence, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dismayed “that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” Recognizing that “a riot is the language of the unheard,” King stressed the need to address the “intolerant conditions” that left many with “no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.”

The events of 1967 and their divisive aftermath built on decades on tension and conflict, generally prompted by nothing more than the mass migration of African Americans and their quest for dignity and opportunity. These patterns are well documented by historians, such as Kevin Boyle, Joe Darden, Thomas Sugrue, June Manning Thomas, and Richard Thomas. During the 1920s, Detroit was home to more than 20,000 Ku Klux Klan members and patterns that would last through the 1960s had been set. With rare exceptions, whites had exclusive hold on positions of economic and political power, and the city’s police force was nearly all white and noxiously racist.

The riots of 1943 left 34 dead — most were African Americans attacked by white mobs and killed by the police. However, even the 1943 riot, alongside the “zoot suit” riots in Los Angeles and open racial conflicts in other major cities, had produced unprecedented steps to advance “integration” and “interracial unity” within the factories and civil society. Government and military leaders alike recognized that national unity was essential to the fight against the Axis powers.

Coming on the heels of a deadly uprising in Newark and dozens of smaller but often intense outbreaks, the 1967 rebellion in Detroit fostered a heightened sense of a nation in a state of emergency. The rebellions of this tumultuous moment created a domestic crisis of governance and legitimacy that paralleled and fused with international challenges to the US empire from Vietnam and throughout the Third World. American leadership of the so-called Free World was rooted in the politics of liberalism as the centrist path between right-wing ideology, which accepted inequality as hereditary and fixed, and left-wing utopianism, which insisted that a revolutionary leap toward equality was desirable and achievable. Seeking to stabilize the industrial order, liberals acknowledged that capitalism was imperfect but appealed for mass support by promising incremental reform to build a future that was relatively more prosperous, inclusive, and egalitarian.

The crises of the late 1960s, however, provoked a polarized response, which we may see in hindsight as marking a point of no return. They marked the coming of age of a predominantly young, black street force proclaiming its refusal to go along with a system that was too slow to accept racial equality and too quick to foreclose on the economic opportunities that had elevated tens of millions of whites into the middle class. For an all-too-brief moment, policy makers saw the rebellions as a clarion call to rapidly accelerate the pace of liberal reform and racial integration along the lines of the Kerner Commission’s report.

Counter-revolutionary forces, however, upended the political will for progressive or radical social change. They demanded heavily militarized policing and repressive criminal justice measures to restore “law and order.” In this regard, the 1967 rebellion never really ended, as unresolved contradictions fueled a half-century of low-intensity warfare. Rejecting structural interpretations of urban and racial inequality, conservatives framed the crisis as a problem of urban pathology that fused stereotypes based on race, class, gender, and sexuality. The perpetual fear of “riots” cast black masculinity as a threat to “public safety” — an old trope dating back to slavery that took on new meaning with the disappearance of urban jobs. Stereotypes used to rationalize harsh labor discipline were repurposed to justify militarized policing and mass incarceration. Moreover, stereotypes of the “absent” black father and the black single mother as “welfare queen” were further deployed to justify white flight to the suburbs as a defense of “family values.”

While cities like Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco moved from the failure of racial integration toward globalization and multiculturalism, Detroit never quite recovered from the multiple blows of segregation, deindustrialization, and the opening of the far suburbs.

Before 1967, Detroit was hailed as a model city — for technological advancement, middle-class expansion, and even progress in race relations. After 1967, Detroit became the ultimate symbol of racial contradictions, a site where white fears mirrored black hopes. Sheriff Roman Gribbs was elected mayor on a Nixonian platform in 1969. His signature move was the infamous policing campaign dubbed STRESS: Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets, which escalated police killings of civilians and heightened further a sense of terror among African Americans. Black political mobilization and civil rights activism fueled Coleman A. Young’s ascendency to become Detroit’s first African-American mayor. Young’s 1973 election marked the beginning of four decades of black control of city hall. Comparable to the sentiment of Americans hailing Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Detroiters felt a new sense of hope and promise that was undermined by another wave of white flight and a suburban backlash.

For all the feelings of pride and accomplishment he evoked from his African-American constituents, Young became the ubiquitous scapegoat for white suburban opponents to blame for urban decay. Making matters worse, the scale of Detroit’s mounting economic woes surpassed anything Young and the newly ascendant black political class were prepared for. Mayor Young’s counterparts were white suburban politicians like Oakland County’s L. Brooks Patterson, who championed sprawl and conservative economic policies while vetoing most efforts at regional cooperation. Patterson has been among the most prominent of voices reinforcing the narrative that whites lost Detroit and blacks ruined the city.

The 50-year tug-of-war began with black Detroiters gaining “community control” (which was not entirely illusory but a concession that would prove limited in scope and duration) and ended with the state takeover, bankruptcy, and gentrification of the city. Detroit developed the most extreme race and class disparities between a city and its suburbs of any US metropolitan region. The Great Recession that began for most of the nation in 2008 has been a multigenerational calamity for southeast Michigan. Once considered the wealthiest city in the United States, Detroit now has an official 40 percent poverty rate that is triple the national average. During the auto-frenzy of the 1950s, Detroit’s population peaked near two million. By 2015, it was down to 677,116. According to the US Census, the city is roughly 83 percent black, eight percent white, seven percent Hispanic or Latino, one percent Asian, and less than one percent American Indian.

These are local manifestations of a systemic crisis.

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While pundits debate whether the nation’s political polarization is more reflective of economic or cultural trends, engaged scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois long ago taught us to see race and class as intertwined. The crises of governance, legitimacy, and the family — first associated with the late 1960s era of rebellion and subsequently animating the “culture wars” — were interconnected in a crucial manner with a crisis of profitability, creating what geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore called “instability that characterized the end of the golden age of American capitalism.”

The response by capitalists to that crisis has been neoliberalism — an umbrella term for the concerted effort of corporate interests and conservative forces to push back the political challenge posed by the movements of the 1960s and reverse the expansion of social democratic policies and programs that defined the postwar era. While class stratification and inequality are inherent properties of the capitalist system driven by private ownership and profit, neoliberalism has intensified these polarizing tendencies by undoing measures designed to hold them somewhat in check. Through the implementation of “business-friendly” domestic laws and international “free trade” agreements, multinational capitalists have achieved a dramatic rise in their power and flexibility over the past five decades at the expense of the public commons and the rights and remuneration of workers. The political and economic tsunami that struck Detroit in the era of deindustrialization was built on the neoliberal structures of intensified exclusion and dispossession.

While the counter-revolution draws its energy from real and perceived economic anxiety, it scapegoats non-elite social actors for problems that are structural in nature. Twentieth-century Michigan, and more specifically Detroit, was once the birthplace of the American middle class. As the booming factories of the Big Three automakers (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) drew scores of migrants from the nation and the world, Detroit was simultaneously a marvel of advanced technology and the catalyst for the modern American labor movement. The crisis of US industrial workers in manufacturing began with automation over a half-century ago and was punctuated by the 2009 bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler. In its stead arose a polarized world of cutthroat global competition resulting in spectacular wealth for the few and rising debt, insecurity, and underemployment for the many. Although immigration to Metro Detroit has been relatively low in comparison with other major metropolises, the sense that the region is on the losing end of globalization has fueled a nationalistic and xenophobic reaction that Trump’s election dangerously stirred up again. As such, it is more critical than ever to understand the root causes of economic dislocation.

While the power of workers and unions has waned, new financial overlords have filled the vacuum. One of the most damaging signs was the 140,000 foreclosures that struck property owners in Detroit between 2005 and 2014 as median home sale prices fell as low as $7,000. Following the odious history of racial covenants and insidious legacy of redlining, far too many residents found themselves at the mercy of predatory lenders. Here again, Detroit has been at the front end of a societal pattern. As business writer Rana Foroohar of Time recently declared, “America’s economic illness has a name: financialization. It’s an academic term for the trend by which Wall Street and its methods have come to reign supreme in America, permeating not just the financial industry but also much of American business.”

Still, Detroit’s bankruptcy was far from a straightforward financial matter. It was an overt political act shaped by a state government whose three branches have been under one-party Republican rule since 2010. (The effects of gerrymandering can be seen in the GOP’s outlandish 27-11 control of the senate in a state where half or more voters regularly lean Democratic.) An outsider coming to politics straight from corporate executive positions and venture capitalist investments, Governor Rick Snyder deployed the state’s sweeping and controversial “emergency manager” law to strip the city’s elected officials of all powers and deliver them single-handedly to a corporate attorney charged with gutting the public sector while making Detroit amenable to developers, big business, and Wall Street financiers. A proud city once at the forefront of the fight for labor and civil rights became the poster child for voter disenfranchisement and balanced budget conservatism.

Bolstering the ranks of billionaire cabinet members, Trump’s selection of Michigan’s Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education signaled an intent to accelerate this trend at the federal level. The billionaire DeVos family has advanced a far-right agenda, spending millions to promote vouchers for parochial schools, for-profit charter schools, and policies that neutralize teachers’ unions and public oversight. Drastic policy changes have sown chaos in Detroit and exacerbated racial inequality under the guise of “school choice.” From 2000 to 2015, Detroit closed a jaw-dropping 195 public schools and lost 70 percent of the students in its school district. DeVos is one of many who entered Trump’s cabinet advancing an Orwellian logic: destroying public schools is the key to saving public education.

The long battle to define and shape Detroit’s “revitalization” provides a window into the epochal conflict between two alternative futures, one characterized by the shift toward authoritarian plutocracy and the other by participatory democracy. That is what is at stake for all of us living and organizing in the 21st century.

Twenty-first-century Detroit reveals the transformative potential of organizing that is grassroots in character but responds to the array of global and local forces conspiring against the city. With women of color especially playing a leading role, Detroit activists have created models of survival and resilience that prefigure social relations of a more just and democratic system. In response to the emergency manager ordering water shutoff for tens of thousands of low-income residents, the People’s Water Board formed a coalition of over 30 labor, environmental, antiracist, faith-based, and human rights organizations to uphold water as a human right, provide direct assistance to those most affected, stop the privatization of the city’s water system, and advance a water affordability plan. Rampant police shootings have prompted both Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the formation of “peace zones” where residents proactively promote community safety through training in de-escalation and instilling cooperative economic relationships. The assault on public education has prompted a revival of the “freedom schools” movement using the city as its curriculum and stressing the development of critical thinking and shared leadership skills.

Perhaps, above all, Detroit has become internationally known as a “city of hope” owing to the hundreds of urban farms and community gardens that have transformed blight and abandonment into the promise of self-determination, environmental justice, and sustainable community. It is a sign of how collapse of the factory system and its correspondent social order has led some of Detroit’s most visionary organizers to go beyond conventional notions of redistributing wealth to reimagining the meaning of work and wealth. They strive to build a postindustrial society based on noncommercial forms of local ownership and production rooted in cooperation and mutuality.

Through organizations like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, We the People of Detroit, East Michigan Environmental Action Council, and dozens of others working at the grassroots, this new form of radical politics — still grounded in the black community but advancing social transformation for all — has again situated Detroit in the vanguard of struggle. In the age of Trump, resistance is necessarily everywhere. Fifty years of rebellion, however, have taught Detroiters not only to resist forces of oppression but also to redefine and remake the social relationships that sustain life and community in the face of abject disposability and existential crises to humanity.

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Scott Kurashige is Professor of American and Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington Bothell. His prior books include The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles and The Next American Revolution (with Grace Lee Boggs).   


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