Days of Revolt: The Death of the American City
In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges speaks with two esteemed labor activists from Detroit about the desperation caused by industrial decline and deregulation, especially amongst Black people, and attest to the necessity and inevitability of revolt under such conditions.
CHRIS HEDGES: Hi, I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt. We’re filming this segment in New York City, and we’re talking to two activists from Detroit about the sacrifice zone that Detroit has become, the consequence of unfettered, unregulated capitalism, which as Karl Marx understood was a revolutionary force, what that has done to this city and many cities across this country and the lives of those who live there.
And joining me in the studio is Darryl Mitchell, sometimes known as Waistline, a retired Chrysler worker, a union activist, and a former union representative. He was employed by Chrysler from 1971 to 2001, retiring from the old Mound Road Engine plant. He is a former editor of the Southern Advocate, a founding member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and a founding member of the Communist Labor Party. With him is Roshaun Harris, also from Detroit, as well an activist and labor organizer for over a decade. A board member of Hush House, which is a community center in Detroit that provides educational services, work programs, as well as running a community garden, and he works in prison ministries. Thank you very much.
SPEAKER: Thank you for having us.
HEDGES: So let’s begin with you, Darryl. You bring a kind of historical perspective to this. You worked in Detroit when unskilled labor could get a union job, and you watched through outsourcing and automation all of that disappear and the consequences for the city. Talk a little bit about that process.
DARRYL MITCHELL: Actually, [I went] the industry, the first time I went out it was in 1969. I wasn’t old enough to get a job. But in the old days you could fake your identification papers, and if you were big enough the auto industry was willing to take you in. The job I retired from at Chrysler, I went in at 1972, I retired 30 years later, during the period of time where an auto worker could have benefits. You made enough to take care of your family.
I remember when I was a teen in school, I understood that if I could get into the auto industry I’d be able to have a family, marry the girl I always dreamed about. Have a home, take care of my kids. And against my father’s wishes, who wanted all of us to go to college, I opted to make money, because they were paying you a man’s wage. That world no longer exists. It’s just gone. You know, the auto industry once employed, like, one out of every three workers in America. Today it impacts one out of every ten workers in America. At Chrysler Motors, when I went in it employed roughly 125,000 people. Today it employs maybe 25,000 people. Detroit in the mid-’50s had, like, 1.5 million people. Today it’s reduced to 700,000 people. You have roughly 60 plants in and around Detroit. Today you may have five.
So it’s been catastrophic what has happened. You know, when people can’t make a living. That’s the bottom line.
HEDGES: And, and in that process, by which, you know, the working class, in essence, was destroyed. How, how would you describe the response of the government, the state, as well as the unions? I think we should also talk about the unions.
MITCHELL: You know, I have mixed feelings about the union. I was a union rep. Committee man. Local 51. And for a moment chairman of the bargaining committee, the highest positions in the union. But I always had mixed feelings about their ability to–. I don’t know how to describe this thing where you’re in love, but at the same time you hate the person you’re in love with. I don’t know exactly how to describe that. And that was the relationship with the unions. Some of it is because of a, the color issue and discrimination. But there’s a deeper side of it that deals with how far the union is willing to go to accommodate the demands of the company, which often are destructive to the company and the union.
HEDGES: Well, as you saw the decline, those unions became completely accommodationist, selling out incoming workers, finally, in the end. You know, that there, that there was a very kind of dark collaboration between those unions and corporations like Chrysler to essentially reconfigure the economy so that the jobs that you had when you began were no longer there, and I think, I think we have to blame, I would ask whether you think unions are partly responsible for that.
MITCHELL: Absolutely. The model of the union that existed when I got in was business unionism. And that was kind of [brought] about by Walter Reuther. It’s a whole history behind it, coming out of World War II, where you had changes in the American economy. Reuther became great because he could deliver on his promises. He could deliver on his promises because the economy went through a post-World War II boom. With Europe lying in ruin, Japan in ruin, the American productive institution in society, it ramped itself up to produce for the world. So the system could accommodate certain demands that the union were making.
You know, and it produced just this enormous boom. I come in on the end of that boom. You know, and, I mean, I’m grateful at the same time, seeing the collaboration and the philosophy of business unionism at work. It meant our destruction. Absolutely, it meant our destruction.
HEDGES: Well, let’s talk, Roshaun, because you’re, you’ve had to deal with that destruction. So the kind of social contract that was available to Darryl and his generation, when they began in the late ’60s to work in a union job, that doesn’t–it physically doesn’t exist, and yet ideologically it still exists. I’m asking whether you think that’s correct and how that manifests itself.
ROSHAUN HARRIS: Well, I do believe that is correct. And there’s a personal manifestation for me. My father was a UAW worker for over 33 years. So I grew up in a union household. My father would, if he was still living, would be in his 70s. So you know, born in ’41, baby boomer generation. And was able to experience, you know, the social contract of the American dream.
I think what we’re experiencing in Detroit now amongst people of my generation is that that contract no longer exists for them. You know, and so as they enter the workforce and they’re looking to kind of find their way and find themselves and assert themselves, it becomes more difficult because all of those systems that surrounded that infrastructure have been eviscerated.
HEDGES: And yet they are, we are still fed this mantra of the American dream, of working hard, of that it’s still possible. And, and I’m wondering what kind of conflict that’s created in your generation. You know, you know, whether people have seen through that illusion, whether they’re still buying it, whether it’s created confusion. You know, what–.
HARRIS: Well, it’s definitely created some sense of disarray. You know, some sense of lack of direction for a lot of young folks. Because they’re looking and they’re saying to themself, you know, why am I not successful? Why have I not achieved these things? And so they begin to personalize these things and take it on an individual basis, and not look at some of the larger systemic issues that are causing their personal plight.
And so it becomes very difficult for young people. Obviously you have all of the ills that come along with it, whether it be depression, drug abuse, and all of these, you know–.
HEDGES: But it, it’s self-destructive.
HEDGES: I mean, it’s destructive from an outside force. But when you, when you actually internalize that ideology, which is lie, it becomes self-destructive because ultimately you blame yourself.
HARRIS: That’s exactly what–it has happened. And people are blaming themselves, and they don’t have the, the resources or wherewithal to understand, you know, what’s happening around them, why it’s not just their fault. You know, and there’s a culture around this, you know, personal responsibility that comes from individualism. And so I think that’s put on a lot of young people, and they kind of [adapt] to that. There’s a lot of ego and bravado that comes with that as well.
And so to be able to expand their knowledge base, to get them to see how these things work on a social, economic, and political level, and how it affects them and how they can be actively changing that, and not have to be docile politically and turn in on themselves, so to speak, and become self-destructive and become parasitic, in a lot of ways.
HEDGES: Let’s talk a little bit about racism. Because I know, it’s something I read an article that you had written, Roshaun, that racism is a manifestation of the problem. By focusing on racism to the exclusion of other forms of oppression, we’re actually only dealing with a symptom. One which can’t be remedied until we talk about the problem of neoliberalism and global capitalism. I think you used the word fascism. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that.
HARRIS: Yeah. And I was unapologetic about using the word fascism. And for people who may not understand, that’s the complete merger of the state and corporations. And we see that in every vestige of American life. And how does that affect us politically, well, it withers away our political power, in a quote-unquote “democratic” system.
And so when it comes to racism, obviously racism is, is rooted in our history here in America, obviously stemming from slavery. But its current manifestations are very complex. And I think even for a young African-American man, you may identify as being black, and you know fragments of that racial history. To not understand the ties to the economic history and the development of this country, you’re kind of missing the picture. So making the connection between what’s happening in Ferguson, what’s happening in Baltimore, what’s happening in Chicago, what’s happening in Detroit, you know, all over the place where you see this, this emergence of, or reemergence, of the radical black young men and women out there on the streets, 18, 19 years old, you know, protesting, asserting, you know, their rights as human beings, to not be used by a system and then also, you know, destroyed by that system.
You know, and making the connections between the state, you know, I think that’s what’s profoundly different about this particular movement is, is people are starting to see that it’s not just about, you know, white cops killing young black men. You know, historically that paradigm or that problem has existed, you know, throughout this country. You know, there has always been issues with, you know, African-American communities and the police. Detroit’s a perfect example, with the rebellion that happened in ’67.
So we have to recognize that that is a very strong part of our history, but how that represents itself today is a connection between people starting to understand how the state operates, what is the apparatus of the state. Well, the police are part of the apparatus of the state.
HEDGES: Well, bringing, bringing black officers into the police doesn’t stop [this oppression].
HARRIS: And, and people see that. And so you’ve got a lot of black officers policing black neighborhoods now, so it’s not just about white cops killing black young men and women in the streets, it’s about almost like a foreign occupying army occupying a territory that’s underserved, that has not been tended to in all of the other socially necessary ways to produce vitality within that community. And now they see this, you know, occupying force in their neighborhoods with militarized weapons and machinery, and the response is that, you know, that they’re in a state that is no longer belonging to them.
HEDGES: Well, they’re right. It doesn’t. And you know, what we’ve watched, Darryl, is, you know, and Marx kind of laid it out, and here we should talk about your book, Marxist Glossary 2.0, which is a long glossary of kind of basic Marxist terminology and ideas. With, you know, that self-annihilictic quality that capitalism always has, funneling money up in more massive amounts to the elites, pushing the working class and the working poor lower and lower and lower into desperation, and destroying the physical infrastructures of cities like Detroit, we are glimpsing something that’s now being done not only throughout the United States but around the world, as workers are essentially being pushed down to the level of serfs.
And when you look at a city like Detroit and you compare it, especially with the city of your youth and the city now, you have watched, as Roshaun said, harsher and harsher forms of physical control to cope with what Marx would call this surplus labor, redundant labor. And they’re either funneled into the prison or they become victims of horrific police oppression, and police violence. And Detroit, like Flint, like other cities, if not destroyed, has certainly been almost destroyed. What happens now? Where do we go, what’s the next step?
MITCHELL: Wow. Okay, that’s like, 20 questions in the one–real quick on this question of race and color. I try to always remember that the black experience, if you will, in America is the result of new world slavery and new world conquest. Blacks in America came to be who they are because of a need for labor. So even when we talk about race, a word I don’t use lightly, when we talk about it we have to couch it in a sense of we’re talking about the need for a labor force to create products and values in the system. Once you become valueless in the system, you no longer have a place in the system. So that describes a process taking place throughout our whole society. But it has taken place the fastest, the sharpest, and the greatest amongst blacks for another set of reasons.
HEDGES: [17:11] Who went at one point from being considered property–.
HEDGES: To now being considered superfluous.
MITCHELL: Well, you know, we went from picking cotton to picking steel to picking pockets. What else do you do when you’re out of work, right? So, but that process isn’t exclusive to blacks. It happens with blacks, as the sharpest point, because we came into the industrial order behind the whole wave of European immigration. And–which in itself has a pecking order, right? With the English on top, the Slavic workers on the bottom. So even in Detroit, blacks entered into the neighborhoods behind the Slavic workers. Like, behind Hamtramck, which is known as Poletown. The Detroit of my youth is gone. Is gone.
So when we talk about the change wave, it impacts every element of life in society. Who you meet. You know, I mean, it’s dramatic. I was socialized in the public school system. The public school system has broken down, so children are socialized different. So we’re talking about a dramatic change in the way of life, and structures are not being created so that we deal with this population that is outside of work.
HEDGES: Well, I would say there is a structure, and that’s called the prison-industrial complex.
MITCHELL: Well, you know, I don’t want to go there. But you know, I’m just saying, of course–.
HEDGES: And isn’t that the structure that’s created to deal [it]?
MITCHELL: Absolutely, and I have spent a lifetime avoiding it. The tragedy is that in a society that’s willing to spend $40,000 to incarcerate you, but nothing to educate you. That’s the tragedy. But even that’s connected with profit-making.
I remember, I remember when this whole mass incarceration–incarceration wave began. To convince the American people to build prisons they promised jobs. And they would promise them jobs in neighborhoods away from the population being incarcerated. You always can support something when it’s the other guy. You know, because it’s, it’s distant from you. But that in itself, the whole prison-industrial complex, that’s a whole other subject.
HEDGES: So where, where are we going? I mean, I, you know, I’ve been in Detroit. I’ve been in Flint. I’ve been in these cities. It’s hard to describe, if you haven’t been there. You know, it’s apocalyptic, whole blocks abandoned. Detroit’s lost what, about half its population.
MITCHELL: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
HEDGES: And you’re right, all of the social institutions have broken down. Where do each of you think we’re headed now? You know, what’s, what’s coming next?
HARRIS: Well, I think part of what’s coming next is a more aggressive form of, of capitalism that we’ve seen take place in Detroit, obviously with the restructuring of Detroit.
HEDGES: Right, we should mention that Detroit went bankrupt, and they brought in an outside–.
MITCHELL: Dictator. Dictator. You know.
HEDGES: Emergency manager, right. Who sort of rammed all sort of, [including] cuts to pensions, and everything else.
HARRIS: Yes. So I mean, that’s what we see happening now, and I think the response to that, you know, from the community is, well, obviously we’re fending for our lives. You know, and so it becomes a more immediate response to how to we house people, how do we feed people, how do we clothe people. How do we keep people’s water on. You know, right now there’s a huge struggle in Detroit.
HEDGES: Right. We–right. And they’re turning off water because they can’t pay the bills, and also heat.
HARRIS: Yes. Yes, so you’ve got over, a population of over 40,000 people in the city of Detroit who are living without either utility, lights or gas. So that creates a situation where it just becomes difficult to just live. And so when we talk about educating a people to be self-sufficient, politically self-determined, that’s a challenging process on a community level. Because as we said, all of those structures have been eviscerated. They don’t exist anymore. The public school system has been devastated. Even though you have champions in there fighting, you know, for those kids’ lives, basically to try to educate them, but with menial resources.
But what we’ve created in Detroit is a community of activists. A community of people who, who love so hard, who, they’re willing to make these sacrifices, who are willing to educate people, who are willing to take time to grow food in their backyards and give it to people in their community who they know that aren’t eating, who live in these places called food deserts where there’s no viable source of food, you know, within a square quarter mile.
HEDGES: And so how are we going to–what do you, what do you think, you know, the next few years, the next decade, what does it bring to a city like Detroit and other cities in this country that have suffered from the same devastation?
HARRIS: Well, I think you’re going to see an increased radicalism, because people have no other choices. I think people are seeing that the walls are closing in, and so their options are being–.
HEDGES: And what will that look like, that radicalism?
HARRIS: That, that radicalism will look like a place like the Hush House. You know, a small community museum, owned by someone who is a professor, but who came from that community, who is invested in that community, who believes in that community and is willing to educate and take the sacrifices to bring people up from the very grassroots.
HEDGES: Is it articulated as anti-capitalist?
MITCHELL: In my opinion. Can I–if I can jump in for a minute. Behind the whole wave of Occupy, which in Detroit started October 14, right behind a September 17 movement. Which I know you know, you were very instrumental in that. We had the development of new networks of people who ended up fighting to take over these areas, these homes, that had been devastated, right. You know, due to the mortgage crisis. So we’re starting to get fragments of networks of people who are operating in portions of the city that’s been abandoned. We have areas of Detroit that’s been abandoned. You have an amount of empty homes in Detroit that could fill up the city of Boston. It’s that devastating.
So we make contact with and work with some of these people who take over these empty homes. And they’re not harassed as much as they are in other cities. On the one hand, we have that. Something that looks like an outline of a developing infrastructure of people, literally operating outside the official economy.
HEDGES: And that, and that’s key. Because in cities like New York you can’t afford to build that infrastructure.
MITCHELL: No, no.
HEDGES: That radical infrastructure, I’m seeing if you agree, is only going to come up out of cities like Detroit, or Baltimore, or other places, because it’s a place where radicals who can’t make any money can survive.
HARRIS: I think the radicalism that’ll be born out of places like Detroit will be a really organic quality. Because as you say, people won’t have any other choices. You know, they’ll have to look at capitalism and confront, you know, its deficiencies. And they confront those deficiencies every day in their lives, and see the lack of provision that the system provides. So I think it creates a good breeding ground for new thought about what the destruction of the old form of capitalism actually looks like. You know, what does de-industralization look like. Well, it looks like what we’re living in. So what is the vision for our future? What type of society do we want to push for, moving forward?
MITCHELL: And that’s a profoundly moral question that goes back to most of our upbringing. You know, I mean, it’s basic. You have your deadly–seven deadly sins that I was taught about, coming up in the church. And I mean, it’s corny to talk about it. But we’re fighting evil. I mean, we’re–you know, we’re fighting evil in the real sense. And we look at it, we make a determination about the world we want to live in. Is it worth it to share in the world we want to build? Is it morally justifiable that you have a system that allocates–because I don’t want to call people evil simply because they’re part of a system that has allocated them a role.
If you’re a capitalist, how do you not be a capitalist? How do you not accumulate? Nothing living commits suicide or wants to kill itself. So we’re challenged with figuring out how to change the system in a different way than earlier revolutions. I believe we should study all the labor history, we need to study different revolutions. But we need to figure out the course of the American revolution, which will have its own flavor and distinctiveness. I think we’re there.
My last point about the global economy. I remember in my teens, I think the group WAR did the song, The World Is A Ghetto. Well, the world has been globalized. We’re looking at gentrification not just in New York, San Jose and Detroit, we’re talking about world gentrification nowadays. We’re talking about a mass of people planetwide that’s being shoved out of the civic society, or the old bourgeoisie, who once was revolutionary. No doubt about it. But we’re at another point. And we have to make a determination: are we going to murder these people, allow them to die in pain and ignorance, or are we going to address a more profound question about our role in nature, on earth, and how to build a humane society? That’s where I think we’re at.
And we’re discovering that in Detroit, the hard way. The hard way. Paradise lost, man.
HEDGES: All right. Thank you very much.
HARRIS: All right, thank you.
MITCHELL: Thank you, Chris.
HEDGES: And thank you for watching Days of Revolt.
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