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Author Finds Lessons in Detroit’s ‘50-Year Rebellion’

In this interview from five years ago, the author of this important book discusses some of the events and policies that have made Detroit a showcase for the neoliberal mode of urban development.

The Fifty-Year Rebellion How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit
Scott Kurashige
University of California Press
ISBN: 9780520294912

We've just experienced a summer filled with exhibits, panel discussions, and books marking a half-century since Detroit exploded into international headlines. For the most part, it has been a fruitful look back, as long-held misunderstandings about what happened in 1967 have been challenged by scholarship, oral history, and many-sided perspectives. Maybe even a few who have long used the word “riot” to describe those events 50 years ago have learned why others called it a “rebellion” — or vice versa. We don't all have to agree on one way of looking at it, but it's a major step forward to concede why others might see it differently.

But as this backward-looking summer winds down, it's worth noting another look back that tackles perspectives on the ensuing half-century. That would be Scott Kurashige's new book The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit. It's inspired by the groundbreaking scholarship of Thomas Sugrue's Origins of the Urban Crisis, which Kurashige says "is really good at diagnosing the problems that led to urban rebellion" but that, even with an author's postscript in later editions, "a lot of people at the end of that book want to know what happens next."

His book's central idea is a similar one to this summer's retrospectives: For many people in and around Detroit, the story of 1967 to recent times is one of decline and decay. However, at the risk of oversimplifying Kurashige's book, concurrent with that long economic slide is another story: the struggle of Detroit’s African American community for empowerment and self-determination. Kurashige makes a strong case that the reactionary forces at work across the country find their inspiration in how the powers that be have opposed that struggle here, but also that the lessons learned by Detroit activists can provide tactics, wisdom, and hope for popular opposition all over the country.

In other words, Kurashige trains his sights on a whole new batch of popular narratives to upend. Kurashige recasts the period of Detroit's long “decline” as the rise of the city's long-mistreated black majority, which asserts itself politically. He presents Detroit's receivership and “rebirth” under the “grand bargain” as a scandal-ridden effort to disenfranchise Detroiters and neutralize people power. He illustrates how corporate interests aren't “rescuing” the city so much as taking advantage of sweetheart deals downtown while the city's most disadvantaged are squeezed out by unfairly high property value assessments, school closures, water shutoffs, and toxic pollution.

Kurashige, who lived in Detroit and taught a number of Detroit-centered classes at the University of Michigan, spent more than a dozen years studying the city, and forming friendships with left-leaning politicians, activists, educators, urban agriculturalists, and community elders. His book represents a corrective to mass media accounts of Detroit's decline and “comeback,” a primer for progressives fighting corporate overreach and government austerity, and a sort of “love letter” to the people he connected with during his many years here in our city.

He spoke with us a few weeks ago from his home on the West Coast, and we present this abridged version of our hour-long discussion in advance of his speaking engagement here at the Wright Museum Tuesday evening. (See the end of this article for details).

Metro Times: What I like best about your book is the way it takes a lot of popular narratives about Detroit and shows how topsy-turvy they are.

Scott Kurashige: I didn't grow up in Detroit, so I didn't grow up with those specific narratives as a child, but I grew up in Los Angeles, which had its own urban rebellions in 1965 and in 1992, when I was really just starting my research. I definitely could relate to popular accounts, many of which were overlaid with racial stereotypes. I certainly realized that I needed to know the deeper history. But even more than that, I am an academic who believes that knowledge is not in the ivory tower; it's within the organizations and activist movements and the wisdom of elders. My relationship with Grace Lee Boggs made it possible to get deeper insight into the history. The other thing that affected me was teaching history at the University of Michigan for 14 years, particularly on the history of race and politics. I didn't come in as an expert. I did choose to live in Detroit, which I came to realize was an extraordinarily rare thing to do. The whole time I was there, I never met another tenure-track professor who lived in Detroit. People were approaching me when I'd only been there a year to do something about having student experiences in the city. I was thrown into that somewhat reluctantly at first, because people were looking to me for leadership on that campus. Building knowledge through my connection with Detroit, I began to recognize my own limitations.

MT: This was around the time that U-M offered a bunch of courses on Detroit, right?

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Kurashige: What happened was, after I started in 2000, in 2001 there was the 300th anniversary of Detroit, and the university wanted to connect with that. They wanted professors to offer courses on Detroit history, Detroit art, Detroit current events … and I drew together a class based on what I could gather from community organizers I knew at that point. That was one of my signature courses over 14 years. It went through different names but the general theme was race and politics and activism in Detroit. I wanted students to realize they needed to recognize their own limitations. If you're a University of Michigan student not from Detroit, you start with your own limitations. So many generations of particularly white, privileged, suburban college students had been reared on these narratives of Detroit as a wasteland, how Coleman Young ruined the city, how the "riots" destroyed the city, and they had no knowledge, in most cases, of the deep history of racial discrimination, housing segregation, or inequality within the schools. For example, when I tried to teach students about the issue of gentrification, some students, coming from their background, were really resistant to engage the topic on a critical level because they identified with those young suburban professionals coming into city, and they said that they're not like the racists of their parents' and grandparents' generations — they wanted to help the city. But there was sometimes an inability to see that hidden force — what some people call “white savior complex.” Fortunately, some of them really took away a lot from that experience, and some of them now are actually quite prominent organizers in the city.

MT: I'm sure you're aware that turning these narratives on their head often provokes deep emotional reactions. For instance, you portray Coleman Young, and quite factually, as a fiscal conservative who was accommodating to business interests.

Kurashige: I would make several points about Coleman Young. He certainly is elected amid a lot of hope. I certainly saw parallels between Obama's election and the way I heard Detroit elders talk about the election of Coleman Young. Again, the students at the University of Michigan couldn't see that at first, then a few years after Obama was elected, they saw he was being called a socialist, divisive, and spreading hatred of white people. [laughs] And they said, “Oh, I guess it really doesn't matter if you're a Harvard-educated law professor like Barack Obama or if you're Coleman Young speaking the language of the streets of Detroit, there are a lot of folks who will try to delegitimize you either way.” So I think that's one thing: Young represented a lot of hope. But I also think Young represented emerging divisions within black politics and certainly within the black power movement. Obviously Ken Cockrel and others, including DRUM, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and the Boggses, represented a much more radical political agenda than what Coleman Young was ever able to implement. And Coleman Young, as part of his efforts to do what he felt he needed to do politically, built many alliances with corporate leaders like Henry Ford II. I think the second thing that's really important is, while I think he was by every account deeply committed to trying to uplift working-class people, black people, and poor people of all races, he was in many ways stuck in an older paradigm from the heyday of industrialism in Detroit. He had developed a left-wing view informed by radicals on that industrial society, but it was in many ways contingent upon there being jobs created by the Big Three, and that would be the basis for people getting a living wage, union benefits, and fighting for their fair share of the wealth.

MT: As mayor, he was definitely at odds with radicals. He told one reporter from a workers' paper in his office, “You can 'revolution' your ass out of here.”

Kurashige: [laughs] And certainly he pushed back against the Boggses many times, and Grace and Jimmy Boggs credited him with challenging them to not just protest the destruction of Poletown or the addition of casinos, but Young created a paradigm shift for them, to go beyond protesting the current economic system and devising grassroots alternatives to that system. The third thing about Coleman Young is, I think we saw that in order to maintain the city's standing and his own political standing, he would have to balance the budget, and many times that meant he had to lay people off or make budget cuts, and this was very well researched and reported by reporters at the Free Press, like John Gallagher and Nathan Bomey. I think that is a really important corrective to the narrative because he was not fiscally irresponsible in ways that critics would like to portray him. In fact, he was maintaining Detroit in good standing with the banks and with Wall Street. If you're going to blame any of the mayors, it's the people who came after him and fell under much more sway from those sources. Again, in some ways people are missing what was wrong about Kwame Kilpatrick. Certainly he was dishonest in some ways and made some major errors in terms of ethics, but ...

MT: You concede Kilpatrick's crimes, but you portray him as something of a patsy — he was sold a bill of goods by his financial officers.

Kurashige: Yeah, the big thing that really had the most devastating impact on the city was that disastrous pension bond deal for over $1.4 billion, and that was celebrated by all the elites in the city! [laughs] The Free Press actually berated councilmembers like Maryann Mahaffey, who was a friend of mine I admired very much, for opposing the deal. And Kilpatrick got an award from a prominent Wall Street publication for creating “the Deal of the Year.” This was celebrated not as just a good thing for the city, but as a major breakthrough in the relationship between finance capitalism and municipal politics. And, again, it was disastrous in ways that Kilpatrick deserved a lot of blame, but the blame is not just for him making an error in judgment, but the blame is for his role in the city being basically being taken hostage by Wall Street bankers, not just even for the debt but for something like half a billion dollars in fees, which the city paid for the privilege of taking on these predatory loans.

MT: And in the aftermath, Kwame is in jail and his financial wizard Sean Werdlow is free as a bird and probably a multimillionaire.

Kurashige: I haven't followed him more recently but this was reported on: He not only got a high-paying job, but a high-paying job with one of financial firms that engineered the disastrous pension fund deal. I think this is the problem: Certainly racial divisions are very real in this country, but what we see is that the focus on Kwame Kilpatrick — and the comments he made about race and his own personal foibles — has really overshadowed this deeper conversation we should be having about how politics, not just in Detroit but in many places, have been corrupted by the influence of big banks on Wall Street, who are now using what I call a "hostile takeover" of Detroit as a model for going around the world and advocating for Wall Street resolutions to these crises.

MT: And that's another inversion in your book: that the city's bankruptcy is portrayed as something like a smash-and-grab operation.

Kurashige: When I go around the country, well-intentioned people say, “Isn't it good that Detroit is finally coming back?” It reflects how people wrongly believe the bankruptcy was a bailout. The auto bailout was a bailout — although, as I point out, it was a bailout that favored corporations, not the workers. The Detroit bankruptcy was not a bailout — other than some of the money to prop up the so-called “grand bargain” to protect art at the DIA. You don't get this infusion of low- or no-interest financing. What you get are changes in policy which all shift toward a more business-friendly direction and political disenfranchisement.

MT: An assault on voting rights and community control.

Kurashige: It's really all part of a voter-suppression wave nationwide. These policies are so unpopular with voters, even the emergency manager law was voted down by the entire population of Michigan. It wasn't even that close. These policies, when they're deemed unpopular with voters, you have schemes designed to ram these through without any kind of democratic accountability.

MT: Another narrative you flip is the downtown resurgence, which you quote Sugrue as calling “trickle-down urbanism.” You point out that, as downtown makes gains, there are considerable losses for majority of residents of city.

Kurashige: Yeah, I think it's pretty clear. When Dave Bing was mayor, he or some of his aides initially threw out this word “rightsizing.” And there has certainly been a lot of critical discussion of how you use these vacant spaces with more sensitivity to the environment and a better sense of how people can live in these spaces designed for much bigger populations. That's an important conversation. But what's happened with Detroit Future City plan was really a shift that sort of used “greening” as window dressing to promote ways to simply reduce the city's responsibility for services and the needs of residents in these areas. So it became a way for the mayor's office to collaborate with these big foundations to decide who would be the winners and losers among the neighborhoods. Well, maybe it's true that there weren't enough resources to give everyone in the city what they needed, but I think that the policy now of picking winners and losers pretty much guarantees that a lot of people will suffer. And I think one of the biggest examples of that is that over $250 million, those were bailout funds, designed to help distressed homeowners who were facing foreclosures or had properties that were underwater, and they were diverted under urging from Gov. Snyder and the Emergency Manager Orr and now Mayor Duggan toward demolition rather than helping people stay in their homes. To me, if you're worried about homes becoming a source of blight, the best way to actually prevent that is to help people stay in them.

MT: Or why not asses the houses at their realistic value so that the taxes aren't sky-high on devalued properties, and then use the funds to help people stay their homes and stabilize neighborhoods instead of demolishing them after they're forced to leave?

Kurashige: Instead it was simply accepted that the foreclosures and the evictions were basically a fait accompli and so the money should be used to tear many of those houses down. Again, I think that, along with roughly 200 school closures, after the emergency managers took over the school district, and water shutoffs, anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 people losing their water, it's a sign that the city is now only set up to serve some, and it's really telling others [to leave]. It's not the same specific kind of forced removal that occurred during the rampant era of eminent domain and urban renewal, but it's accomplishing those dynamics.

MT: When you remove neighborhood schools, when you jack up the cost of water and put liens on homes, when you unfairly assess the value of homes, when you take funds that were supposed to help homeowners and use them to demolish homes, when you focus services downtown and that means fewer services for the neighborhoods, you don't need to force people to move. They move.

Kurashige: Yeah. I think what that also shows, though, is that's what makes the activism in Detroit not just important as a sign of resistance to these measures but it really as a sign of a paradigm shift that Detroit activists are fostering for the whole country. Because given what's happening in Detroit, it's not an option for people to say, “Well can we have a little bit more equity?” or “Can we get slightly better wages?” or “Can we get some reforms?” Not when you have people being pushed out, when you have a whole school district being eviscerated, when you have whole neighborhoods being subject to demolition, when you have this strategy of investment downtown and simply make these other neighborhoods go down in value, in aesthetic, market, and use value, and you see something like a giant hand coming in and saying, “I want to buy up all this property for corporate farming.” What you see from the grass roots is people saying, “We are not going to make decisions based on the logic of how developers value neighborhoods. We are not going to base our decisions about community-building on what big foundations or the mayor's office says. We are going to focus on preserving our relationship with our neighbors, on our cultural history, and creating really a noncommercial alternative: urban farming, economic cooperatives, freedom schools — noncommercial alternatives.” Again it's not coming out of City Hall. You can't expect that. It would be nice if the community groups were strong enough to impose their will on City Hall, but right now what you're seeing is opposition and resistance that has the potential to create, in the future, an alternative system. And what we're seeing around the country now is people realizing that even our basic democratic rights are under attack. We're in a really once-in-a-lifetime maybe once-in-a-millennium struggle to determine what is going to be the future of humanity: Are we going to continue to slide into this authoritarian autocracy, which is pretty much the driving ideology behind emergency management, or are we going to not fix the system but create an alternative?

MT: Just to underline the “counternarrative” aspect again: Here we are just coming off all these remembrances of 1967 as the death knell for the Detroit that was so loved by so many people, and your book portrays the 50-year interval as an explosion of black pride, self-determination, and a struggle to chart a more equitable future. And that actually the bankruptcy and the supposed rebirth of the city are actually the imposition of a sort of economic feudalism.

Kurashige: Yeah, and I think for me and for many what the rebellion exposed wasn't just that racism and inequality were deeply rooted within the system in Detroit and throughout the country. That was known for a long time. There was a period in which people were investing in reforming the system through racial integration, civil rights, labor rights, and union membership, and I think '67 was the voice — as Martin Luther King Jr. said, "A riot is the language of the unheard" — of those recognizing that this reform not only was not happening fast enough, but had in many ways reached a roadblock. And the nation was going to have to confront these issues of racism, police brutality, and economic inequality much more directly. In many ways, that's why we're living in a much more polarized world today. If we pretended these problems didn't exist, then you can act as if Detroit and America has this Golden Age. But the reality is that people would not stay silent. And so you have people today that are much more empowered, you have a whole different set of activist politics around social justice that exist today, since '67, but you also have this counterrevolution from those who simply would not accept change, who viewed equality as "reverse racism" — and I would agree that there is now this counternarrative in Detroit as you point out, but it breaks down into different factions.

MT: How so?

Kurashige: When I first started teaching at the University of Michigan in 2001, the idea that any student that came from the suburbs would even think about living and working in Detroit was an entirely strange concept — even among the students who took my class! [laughs] It was kind of a big step for them to even be interested in Detroit. I used to have to do it as kind of a speculative teaching exercise. Like, "If you were to live in Detroit, what would you do?" The idea of living in what they now call Midtown and going to Corktown to eat at Slows Bar-B-Q was to them this kind of rebellion. [laughs] It's comical now. Now that is no longer a counternarrative, it has become the dominant narrative. Detroit is a place where white suburban professionals can be comfortable and eat and drink as they please, have high-paying jobs and luxury apartments. I think that has been fueled by the Dan Gilbert narrative, that he's creating Detroit 2.0 and he's going to rehabilitate all these buildings into luxury skyscraper apartments and corporate offices. I think that goes against the narrative of "last one out of Detroit turn off the lights." But I think the counternarrative that you're really alluding to is coming from the grass roots. It's coming from organizations like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, the Boggs Center, the Allied Media Project, We the People of Detroit, the People's Water Board, Detroit Eviction Defense. The groups I really try to highlight are the ones that have been — since '67 in some cases, in some cases more recently — not just fighting for social justice but to create a different vision of the city and to create a different economic and political system to make the city work for everyone.

MT: You're not exactly portraying the 50-year interval as some kind of "Great Leap Forward" either. It's a period where there's also a lot of disagreement even, I think, among activists on where to go, right?

Kurashige: Yeah, and I think that's important to recognize. There's not one blueprint that leads us to liberation and salvation. There's not one party or leader that has the solution. And I think there have been earlier times — and a lot of this comes out of my work with Grace Lee Boggs — when people in progressive movements wanted to believe that there was a blueprint, leader, or party that could take us there. What we realized out of '67 is that the problems are much more complex, and, in some cases, you can have movements advance and produce more contradictions than they resolve. I think we see that Detroit's crisis in 1967 — problems in governance, equity, and racial and political divisions — in many ways has foreshadowed what we see on a national level. The point is, not to say that there are easy solutions, but that we need to learn from people who have been struggling to identify these contradictions and propose ways to resolve them. Not that everyone can simply vote for one group or follow one leader.

MT: Ultimately, what do you hope your book will provide to those who pick it up and read it and aren't in Detroit?

Kurashige: The book's subtitle is How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit. I don't think anyone who's half-awake at this point in history doubts that there is a political crisis in this country. [laughs] Looking at its origins in Detroit helps us understand the danger of right-wing authoritarianism, racism, police brutality, and voter suppression. And we see that counterrevolutionary response to the rebellion of '67 now manifesting itself not just on an urban or regional scale but on a national scale. Now we have a president who equivocates rather than denouncing white supremacy. But at the same time, because Detroit had faced its crisis earlier and in much more profound ways than other parts of the country, we also see that activists have been challenged to also be ahead of the curve in developing not just resistance but transformative alternatives to the current order. And I think that's why, at the end of the day, I believe Detroit gives us hope. It's a love letter to Detroit — though not a conventional love letter [laughs] — but it is to me a love letter to the city of Detroit in the sense of creativity, resilience, and hope that I got in the 14 years I was there. And I think, you know, again, this is a moment of great danger from climate change, authoritarianism, and white supremacy, but these things have always been there. Perhaps they haven't been so shockingly in-our-face, but people in Detroit have been dealing with these problems in much deeper ways, and that's why, again, there's hope — although there's been incredible devastation and suffering in Detroit, there is this vision of how we can not just survive but actually change the world and create a different social order. It's not going to happen tomorrow in Detroit, the United States, or the world, but it's something we can dedicate our lives to and can happen in the course of our lives.

MT: But in order to get there we have to listen to voices that aren't heard.

Kurashige: Yup. Right. I think we're back to Martin Luther King: "A riot is the language of the unheard." And I just want to emphasize that I named a number of activist groups that have inspired me. To me, in writing this book, I owe everything in the end to them. There's other information that would have been available to me, but the real text of the book comes from what I've learned from them particularly African American elders.

MT: Well, hopefully your book will help provide a corrective to the sort of "popular wisdom" about Detroit.

Kurashige: There are historical distinctions between what happened after the South lost the Civil War and after the majority of whites fled Detroit. There's something to the "lost cause" narrative that's worth exploring, because Detroit has its own "lost cause" narrative about people nostalgic for a time that certainly was more prosperous for some but more rooted in segregation and repression for others. That idea of wanting to “reclaim” Detroit in many ways is resonant of that type of "Make America Great" message — some people find it empowering, and others find it quite threatening.

Michael Jackman is a Detroit Metro Times staff writer.