Detroit meeting and interview

Ruined factory in DetroitDetroit is a city of legends for the left arising from the level of mass worker militancy there during the 1960's and 1970's.  But it is also a city legendary for its decay in the years since and the anti-social crime that accompanies urban decay.  Some months before I arrived I'd done one of the very first meetings of the tour just a km away across the river in the Canadian city of Windsor and been told all sorts of horror stories by the four people who had crossed the border from Detroit for this meeting.  As I looked across the river the next morning and wondered how two cities so close together could be so different I'd not guessed I'd be in Detroit just a few months later.

Detroit is a city in deep decay, the population if the city area is only some 40% of what it was 25 years ago.  There is city block after city block of abandoned factories.  But by the time I was getting to Detroit the idea of US urban decay was becoming routine.  From West Philly to Baltimore to Syracuse to Buffalo to Pittsburgh to Cleveland many of my stops had been in cities that are synomonous with urban collapse and spiralling crime. At almost all those stops I was told the city was the poorest city in the US or the one with the highest murder rate or both. I think different cities top these polls in different years so probably all those listed have held one or both 'awards' in recent years.  Most of these places I travelled through in the grey cold of late winter or the first stirrings of spring but stirrings that were still accompanied by slush piles of ice and snow.  Weather that reflected, at least in part, how those cities felt.

My trip to Detroit started in one of those run down cities, Cleveland, Ohio.  I was getting an early Greyhound out of Cleveland and it was one of those situations where there were obviously too many people in the que to fit on a single bus.  Passengers are used to being abandoned if they fail to get on the available bus so this situation always ends up being uncomfortable and a little tense, a situation not helped by the fact that often there is no clear queing system and departure gates are changed at the last moment.  The trip from Pittsburgh to Kent had been bad but this was worse as the departure time arrived and went with no sign of a driver or any news as to what was going on.  Time passed and people were getting angrier and edgier with a couple of minor rows about que jumping breaking out. Finally a full hour after the departure time the driver arrived and the departure doors were opened.

By this point I was well practised with Greyhound ques so even though I'd arrived quite late I had got myself well placed in all the shuffling that was happening and got on the bus which rapidly filled up.  Now normally on Greyhounds there isn't much group conversation and not even that much conversation with the stranger next to you.  But the long wait had got people agitated so this trip turned into an interesting exception, basically the entire back half of the bus got into a whole sequence of animated discussions starting as you might expect with giving out about Greyhound and then moving onto sports (pretty much 90% of the back were young males).  But it got more interesting, this was the moment at which Obama was becoming a serious candidate for the democratic nomination and there was some discussion of this in my Pittsburgh interview of a couple of days earlier.  Obama soon got discussed and out of this arose a discussion about racial politics in the US and what Obama's success meant in that context.  I'd guess the back half was 2/3 black, 1/3 white and as typical with Greyhound pretty much drawn completely from the poorest sections of the US working class including as it turned out a number of people going to and from prisons and parole officer meetings.

Given the still early hour it turned out that some of those involved were pretty out of it.  After a while the conversation flipped over to one guys stories about some bar or nightclub he'd been in where the barman wore nothing but a cowboy hat.  We stopped for 'lunch' (a shed full of candy and crisp vending machines) in the middle of nowhere and a car arrived to pick him up after which the conversation turned to exactly where he'd been and what he was really up to.  Ater that the conversation petered out I switched to editing the audio of the interview I had recorded in Pittsburgh on the laptop until we pulled into a surprizingly flash Detroit Greyhound station.

I was met there by the people organising the meeting including Chris who had briefly stayed with me in Dublin just as I was leaving Ireland and Mike a long time activist in Detroit (going back to the 70's). Over the two days I spent in  Detroit Mike spent hours driving me around the city and explaining what had been going on in each district in particular periods.  Not all of it was positive.  The story of huge number of black workers moving from the south to Detroit to work in the auto industry I was aware of but what I didn't know is that huge numbers of white workers also moved from the south.  There was a sustained violent attempt to maintain segregation in housing which meant not only the flying of the confederate flag as a boundary marker (in a similar manner to the way the butchers apron and the tricolour are used in Belfast) but also dozens if not hundreds of pipe bombings of the homes of black families who moved into 'white areas.'  And violent, large scale riots at the intersections of areas were not unusual.  All in all that aspect of Detroit sounded very like Belfast with 'race' replacing 'religion' as the marker that kept workers divided.  Much of the formal racist organisation was done under the banner of the Ku Klux Klan and its certainly been claimed that the origins of the KKK has its roots in loyalist Irish migrants to the USA who had been members of the Orange Order. The OO is of course not very keen on this claim, pointing out that today it has African and Mohawk lodges which would hardly tie in with the KKK agenda, but the story of the attempts to maintain segregation in Detroit certainly rang a bell of somewhere closer to home.

The rust belt remains the region where the far right are at their most active in the US and where regular confrontations continue into the present.  I'd had some conversations at my Kent State stop with my hosts about the fall out from one such confrontation but Detroit was I think the only city where the concern was great enough to have some door security prepared.  As it was though apart from some projector problems - which saw a last minute but unsuccessful drive around the tech shops in the city in the search for an adaptor - the meeting in an Irish bar called the Baile Corcaigh went fine with around 33 people attending.

After the meeting we talked a bit about conditions in Detroit before driving home.  Detroit, like Baltimore, was full of stories of really nasty anti-social crime, everyone had some bad story about what had happened to them or a friend.  Driving around the city earlier we had passed through a neighboorhood where back in the 70's there would be some 15 left meetings of a Friday night.  Today maybe a third of the lots are cleared, a third are occupied by vacant, burnt out or collapsed houses and the remaining third still have occupied but frequently ramshackle houses. This is pretty typical of most of the inner city of Detroit, it looks as if there was a big battle fought a few years back with enough time for the weeds to populate the burnt out ruins.  

Of course in some ways there was.  The population of the central city area has dropped from two million to around 750,000 both due to migration out of the region altogether but also because those with more money have fled to the suburbs which have split off leaving the city proper with almost no tax base.  That in turn reflects the closure of the auto plants with many of them being moved to areas where the unions are not so strong, chiefly the south.  That (pretty one sided) class war it turns out can scar a city almost as badly as one fought with tanks and bombs.

Revolutionary Socialist League flag

On the wall of his house Mike had the Revolutionary Socialist League flag pictured above.  The RSL and its ex members are a subject of some controversy among North American anarchists.  They were an unorthodox trotskyist group organised in a cadre type fashion where huge commitment was expected from their members.  Mike told me how in Detroit they had to establish their 'right' to sell papers at the auto plants by physically defeating the Maoists who would only allow the trotskyists to be active on the university campus.  For their first sale he said they had a couple of people selling papers and a couple of dozen guarding them with pick axe handles.  At least one of their members was very seriously injured in these confrontations, when the Maoists ambushed her on the way into her house, leaving her with broken ribs and missing teeth.  But you could sell 500 papers at a single shift change at a plant at this point in time when auto workers were widely seen as the vanguard of the US proleteriat.

The RSL had a range of other activities including community organisation building that would bring young mothers and children out on camping trips to lakeside parks near Chicago. They were heavily involved in anti-racist anti-Klan organising. But over time they became increasingly critical on the legacy of Lenin plus their members got older and the level of class struggle decreased.  A small minority became anarchists and at the wind up conference of the RSL in 1989 convinced the rest to allow them to take the remaining assets and use these to try and establish an anarchist group.  This process led to the formation of Love & Rage, which despite its looseness, was thus always being accused by anarchists hostile to the network of being a trot front.  Ironically in that context when Love & Rage started to break up and some of the newer members adopted a neo maoism it was the older RSL ones who defended anarchist orthodoxy.

House collapsed across street in DetroitApart from Mike I had met a couple of other ex RSLers in my travels but he gave me the first detailed account of what the RSL had been and its involvement in the formation of Love & Rage.  While in Detroit I also did an interview with Peter Webe for 'Fifth Estate', a long running anarchist magazine published out of that city which had been very hostile to the Love & Rage project.  He admitted that in retrospect the hostility and paranoia towards Love & Rage was not really justified if perhaps inevitable at the time.  The interview is listed in the Summer 2008 (no 378) issue but isn't online and I haven't seen it, if your aware of it online or have the text email me at andrewnflood@gmail.com

The morning after the meeting myself and Mike headed to a diner for breakfast and more stories of the RSL before driving to East Lansing, my next stop.  On the way out of Detroit Mike drove me around a couple more districts and recounted their history (at this point in time I wish I'd had a hand recorder with me at the time as I can recall only brief details). In one particularly derelict neighboorhood where Mike literally had to drive around the rubble of buildings that had collapsed into the street some artist has been using trash to create a sort of exhibition that must cover a couple of city blocks.  I remember a house completely covered with discarded teddy bears for instance.  Apparently the city had initially opposed this scheme but by the time I was passing through it had gained a reputation such that school tours were being brought to see it.

Stuffed toy house in DetroitWe also drove around some of the abandoned auto plants and factories.  There were complex's that ran on for block after block of broken down brick and smashed glass.  Finally on our way out of the city we passed by one of the last sad remanents of the years of struggle, the picket lines at American Axel where workers were several weeks into a bitter dispute arising from the attempts of management to impose massive pay cuts of the order of 40%. 

Mike was one of the people I met on the tour who really impressed me because he had maintained decades of activism which had started at the high point of class struggle in early 70's Detroit and seen decade after decade of defeat ever since as the city was run into the ground and the union movement and the left smashed down into a tiny remanent of its former self.  It's easy to maintain your militancy when the struggle and the movement is growing as most defeats will at least have the silver lining of leaving a stronger movement in their wake.  But doing it in the reverse situation for so long takes some commitment.  And the period I was there was where Mike, Chris and a few others in the mid-west were in the process of launching a new organisation, Solidarity and Defence.

I did a long interview with Chris and Mike in the basement of the Baile Corcaigh that looks at the radical history of Detroit and current anarchist activity in the city. It covers the period from the CIO upsurge and the mass migration to Detroit from the south, the Black liberation movement and the influence of maxism leninism to the formation of Anti-Racist Action (ARA). They also talk about issues in the city today and the formation of the new group Solidarity and Defence. You can download this from http://www.indymedia.ie/attachments/apr2008/detroitinterview.mp3


More more on the tour see Extending the accounts of my North American speaking tour

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )

Comments

 Well obviously this was

 Well obviously this was written 6 years ago but I'm fairly confident that this was the figure mentioned and Mike didn't strike me as much of a spoofer in that regard. Plus our conversation in general was a rather sober 'things were good but went nowhere in the long term' one.  I think that figure is early 70s though, I'd imagine there may have been a huge difference between the radical high point of '72 and say '78.

Anyway it would be interesting to heard your recollections in detail, in particular if you are considerable more downbeat about what Detroit was like at that time.  There is far too little information available on what happened considering the energy the US ploughed into Detroit and the car plants in particular.

Sell 500 socialist papers at

Sell 500 socialist papers at one shift change at a Detroit auto plant in the 70s?? An absurb exaggeration, to say the least. Most leftists back then were lucky to sell 5 papers! Been there, done that. Let's tell the truth.

  


Like what you are reading?  Get a notification whenever we post a new article to

Anarchist Writers via Facebook or Twitter

where you can also like and comment on our articles