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Radical Reading: Detroit – I Do Mind Dying

With the Black Lives Matter movement pushing the boundaries of what polite society finds acceptable in its social movements, it felt sensible to revisit a book that had an impact on me 16 years ago: Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin’s landmark history of radical black organizing in the city of Detroit appropriately titled Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. I own the updated edition published by South End Press released 23 years after its initial publication, and the updated material is telling. What seemed like an eminent and real revolutionary moment in the late 60s resulted in a dejected but still breathing movement for change in our present era.

The book focuses on radical black organizing in Detroit between 1967-1974, mostly around the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a faction of activists working in the city’s industrial core. Unabashedly radical Marxist-Leninist (with a smattering of Maoism, as was popular in its day), the League stood in stark contrast to the more moderate labor forces in the AFL, UAW, and CIO, and would go on to play a hand in one of the most important radical unions in Detroit, DRUM, or the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement at the Hamtramck Assembly plant. What made DRUM so revolutionary was its willingness to confront its own workplace unions while simultaneously attacking the factory’s corporate structure and ownership.

The activities and ideas of DRUM were to inspire black workers in factories throughout the United States. No less an authority than the Wall Street Journal took them very seriously from the day of the first wildcat, for the Wall Street Journal understood something most of the white student radicals did not yet understand: the black revolution of the sixties had finally arrived at one of the most vulnerable links of the American economic system-the point of mass production, the assembly line. And the DRUM militants were not simply another angry caucus of rank-and-file workers of the type that periodically sprang up in one plant or another. DRUM’s anger was the anger of the Great Rebellion and its vision was that of a new society. (Georgakas and Surkin, p.21)

The book addresses an issue still present in American political life today: the difference in economic and social interest between ethnic groups, even within the same factory and union. Many African-Americans in Detroit saw in their union leadership explicit bias towards white workers. The authors state that “99 percent of all general foremen were white, 95 percent of all foremen were white, I00 percent of all superintendents were white, 90 percent of all skilled tradesmen were white, and 90 percent of all skilled apprentices were white. All the better jobs were overwhelmingly dominated by whites, and when whites did have difficult jobs, there were often two workers assigned to a task that a black worker was expected to do alone” (Georgakas and Surkin, p. 28).

While the white working class was confronting management over wages and benefits, they were increasingly worried about their slipping standard of living as the city became racially desegregated. A large percentage of the white working class was of Polish ancestry, and while their community had a history of supporting left-wing causes and movements, the book’s authors note:

The Polish-Americans had the reputation of being a conservative force. This conservatism, like the so-called conservatism of other white ethnic groups, was often a defensive response to deteriorating social conditions in urban life. Seeing hard-won gains threatened by increasing insecurity at work, inflation, crime in the streets, many white ethnics began to act defensively in support of what they considered their own interests (Georgakas and Surkin, p.29).

This is striking in how relevant it is to discussions around race in America today. When Bernie Sanders had his confrontation with two Black Lives Matter activists in Seattle last summer, it resulted in a great deal of disagreement between Bernie’s predominantly white supporters and Black activists. While gallons of ink were spent debating tone and tactics, these conversations often overlooked an important variable that many on the political left are uncomfortable with: white Americans have different interests than their minority comrades, and simply returning to grand economic arguments will likely leave those unheeded groups without their social realities addressed. Sanders and his acolytes returned to their arguments about economic change for all Americans, arguing that it would lift all boats, an argument I am sympathetic to. Nevertheless, it’s rational for black activists to push for the social realities of their specific struggles to be heard and addressed, even if it angers other activists in their movement. DRUM provides historical precedent for such actions.

Ron March, a leading DRUM activist, made the following remark in 1969 after encountering difficulties with white workers in the factory:

White workers came to support us. Some wanted to work with us. But we found out that management knew how to divide the whites. We decided that we could work best by organizing alone. We told whites to do the same thing. Once they did that, we could work with them on a coalition basis (Georgakas and Surkin, p.39).

A controversial choice, but one shared by current activists like Martin Macias, who articulated the need for black-only spaces in recent university protests. Much like BLM and other activist groups today, their political interests exceed simply winning an election or installing like-minded police leadership. Their scope is larger and more revolutionary in nature.

DRUM also looked for more sweeping change than a single ballot would allow.

March and other DRUM activists were candid in admitting that even if their entire slate of candidates won the election there would be no real improvements at Dodge Main. The major goal of DRUM was another demonstration of insurgent workers’ power (Georgakas and Surkin, p.40).

Not surprisingly, an entire chapter is allocated to detailing the violence and strife between the African-American community and the Detroit Police Department. The authors write:

Detroit had always been known as a violent city, but by 1970 the situation was clearly out of hand. There were over 23,000 reported robberies, which meant that at least one out of every sixty-five Detroiters had been a victim. An army of drug addicts lived in the remains of 15,000 inner-city houses abandoned for an urban- renewal program which never materialized. Over a million guns were in the hands of the population, and union officials estimated that half the workers came to the plants armed with one weapon or another. The celebrated police-riot cases of 1968 followed the pattern of the Algiers Motel case: no cops were convicted. By January of 1971, the atmosphere of permissiveness regarding police misconduct and the growing chaos in the streets had prepared the way for a new police unit called STRESS (Stop the Robberies , Enjoy Safe Streets). This unit was a secret, elite section of Detroit undercover assault squads (Georgakas and Surkin, p. 167)

STRESS used police tactics now common (and increasingly apparent and controversial). At one point, the unit was responsible for the death of a sheriff’s deputy without any indictments or investigations brought against the police. Clearly, a sense that the police were above the law and would not be held accountable was potent, especially in the black community.

Organizing to succeed; it needed a different social perspective to take hold in schools, churches and family homes. This is where I find the book veers from simply being an account of radical black activism to idealistic reinterpretation of reality. They say that the League’s written output provided a “consistent anti-capitalist analysis transformed articles from simple expressions of grievances capable of reform to a critique of the entire social order”(p.17), but it is never made clear exactly how this worked. Elements of the book reads like the work of true believers too close to their subject to be able to assess it objectively. This has long been a criticism of radical historians and seems an appropriate assessment of Georgakas and Surkin’s highly celebratory analysis.

The material added to the 1999 edition appears to affirm my point. While the original chapters provide an illuminating, if not celebratory account of American history often left un-discussed, the new chapter titled “Thirty Years Later” conveys a dejected and conquered tone. While recognizing the revolutionary character of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, their position that the group was simply “ahead of its time” is unconvincing. Since the authors argue that “the nation is being herded in exactly the wrong direction” for a litany of reasons (p.208), it seems unlikely a group invested in the ideologies of the 60s would be able to galvanize the masses in our current political climate. While this chapter is a rhetorical call to arms, the fact that the authors see the same issues present today as they did in Detroit during the 1960s is defeating.

Having said that, I still find this book to be advisable for any historian or activist interested in America’s radical past. Principally considering the role Black Lives Matter played in the American debate this last year, to have a reference point for radical black activism seems timely and necessary.


Staff Writer
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Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular contributor at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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11 thoughts on “Radical Reading: Detroit – I Do Mind Dying

  1. The book focuses on radical black organizing in Detroit between 1967-1974, mostly around the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a faction of activists working in the city’s industrial core. Unabashedly radical Marxist-Leninist (with a smattering of Maoism, as was popular in its day)…

    Great post. This 60s and 70s are a fascinating period in American history because they shaped so much of the present, but the high level narrative obscures so much.

    Also, the longer that I work in economic policy and development the more I wonder what could have been if so many 20th century revolutionaries had not bought into such dead end economic ideas.

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    • I’ve never considered that question but really is an interesting one.

      I’ve only been thinking about it for a couple of minutes now so I don’t have any bright ideas, but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

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      • My current job involves economic analysis of African countries, so it is something that I think about a lot. Some of the same set of historical and cultural forces played out in the developing world as did in U.S. cities. Basically, those folks most committed to social justice and equality tend to have explicitly leftist and state-centered ideas about economics. There is a bit of path dependency here as the folks most likely to speak in favor market-based solutions and free enterprise also happened to be some of the people most indifferent, or worst, to social change.

        There are historical reasons why this is the case, but there is no real reason why it has to be. In my mind, if you care about poverty, then you don’t hobble yourself by taking a whole range of possible interventions off the table for ideological reasons. Unfortunately, lots of people care much more about ideological confrontation than they do about poverty alleviation or individual empowerment.

        I once watched a PBS documentary on a housing rights movement in Newark. Basically, slumlords were charging residents of the poorest neighborhoods for sub-standard housing and just refusing to do maintenance and repairs. Activists came in and did the usual sort of thing that you would expect: protests, picket lines, law suits. Makes sense, but I remember thinking that there could have been a natural arbitrage opportunity. To me, a community full of under-employed people and neighborhood full of buildings desperately in need of repair shouts out for creative approaches, but the folks who came in to fight for the residents didn’t think that way. They were lawyers and activists who felt that it was the government’s job to take care of people and that’s how they organized.

        Fortunately, things have changed. People who work in economic development today are much more attuned to looking at a range of possible interventions. And much of community development today is focused on increasing access to finance, so that small and medium sized enterprises can be the catalyst for economic growth and employment.

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        • Interesting question. Part of the reason for those forces for social change adopting a statist, top-down model was the need to be seen as doing something by the populace. If you have a population of people struggling to survive, they are going to demand the government take action to address those problems (even if those state actions may hurt the state in the long run).

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        • My current job involves economic analysis of African countries, so it is something that I think about a lot. Some of the same set of historical and cultural forces played out in the developing world as did in U.S. cities. Basically, those folks most committed to social justice and equality tend to have explicitly leftist and state-centered ideas about economics. There is a bit of path dependency here as the folks most likely to speak in favor market-based solutions and free enterprise also happened to be some of the people most indifferent, or worst, to social change.

          I think that saying that free market advocates are likely to be indifferent or worst to social change is putting it mildly. When usenet was still a thing, I participated in alt history group. When we discussed alternative histories regarding the developing world, the more free market oriented posters always advocated that the Africa should have been under European control longer because of reasons that are best life unmentioned. By the 1960s, this wasn’t going to fly. The populations of the colonies were politically aware and wanted self-rule and most European governments didn’t want to be involved in a perpetual war over their overseas territories besides Portugal.

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        • I once watched a PBS documentary on a housing rights movement in Newark. Basically, slumlords were charging residents of the poorest neighborhoods for sub-standard housing and just refusing to do maintenance and repairs.

          Landlords aren’t price makers. The ‘standard’ is question is what, set by whom?

          As for the maintenance and repairs, what was their tax bill and how much rent could they actually collect?

          shouts out for creative approaches,

          Why not exhaust your non-creative approaches first?

          1. Rank-order your census block groups according to per capita income or per household income (if that’s the only metric available). Suspend the collection of property taxes in the most impecunious block groups for the decennium; with regard to those block groups occupying a stratum just above that of the most impecunious, collect property taxes, but at a rate of assessment half that you do for those section of the city where taxes are neither suspended nor abated. The lowest stratum should comprehend 15% of the population of the dense metropolitan settlement and the transitional stratum 5%. Assess all properties periodically in the interim. Adjust the remission and abatement zone every 10 years, giving property holders two years advance notice before changing the status of their property.

          2. Barring property in urban remission and abatement zones, assess taxes at the same rate on all property. Arrange for philanthropic agencies to be fully re-imbursed by the state government out of state sales tax revenues (for that reason, the state attorney-general must be permitted to contest assessments on philanthropic agency’s property). Make public agencies liable for taxes to governments in which their property nestles, and have this liability incorporated into their budgets.

          3. Allow municipal governments and school districts to assess simple income taxes up to a capped rate. The cap would depend on how much of the assessed valuation was in an abatement and remission zone. Suburban townships outside such a zone would not have a franchise to collect local income taxes.

          4. Supplement the collections of municipal governments and school districts with general revenue sharing. In lieu of special-purpose grants in aid, distribute state sales tax revenue to local districts according to a formula which combines district pci, district resident population, and district school-age population. Do the same regarding county governments, making use of a formula which combines pci and resident population, and have them do the same regarding their component municipalities. The global distribution would be discretionary, the formula, fixed. An average municipality might receive (say) $400 per capita, an impecunious one $800 per capita, and an affluent one nothing. As for fines at all levels, deposit them in a dedicated fund and then empty the fund at the end of the fiscal year, remitting its contents to direct tax payers on a per capita or per household basis.

          5. Transfer certain functions from municipal government to county government, e.g the mass transit service, the police force, the child protective service; and planning and zoning decisions regarding heavy industry, commercial developments larger than 40 acres, developments along arteries, and downtown development.

          6. Amend zoning and building codes along lines suggested by Mark Hinshaw, in core cities especially. Hinshaw’s quite particular about mixed use, maintaining that heavy industry is really the only thing that needs to be segregated. He also maintains that some health-and-safety regulations fail a cost-benefit assessment when one is considering housing for the impecunious and that one effect of cookie-cutter codes has been to reduce the number of housing types which are effective options for the impecunious. How often do you see boarding houses, flop houses, apartments with shared kitchens, &c?

          7. Send supplementary street sweeping crews into slum neighborhoods to hoover up trash in the streets and vacant lots, identify and cite property owners for graffiti, and (after a decent interval) sandblast graffiti off the sides of buildings and bill the owner. Cite and fine owners for broken windows.

          8. Eschew public housing and housing subsidies (as well as grocery and utility subsidies). If you’re concerned about income levels in the slums, adjust the tax rates and institute and amended EITC.

          9. Eschew rent control. Where it exists already, allow rents to increase pari passu with nominal personal income per capita in the county in question and grant landlords a franchise to purchase the rent-control rights of a tenant with a lump sum, putting a unit on the free-market going forward.

          10. Arrange for an amply funded parastatal legal aid society, but write the landlord-tenant law such that welshing tenants and destructive tenants can be evicted toute de suite. Make analogous adjustments regarding the law of foreclosures. Don’t be New York.

          11. Expand your police presence in slum neighborhoods, and train police in best practices. If you’re complaining about ‘mass incarceration’, adjust your priorities. New York’s experience suggests that a homicide rate of 13 per 100,000 in a slum neighborhood is a realizable goal.

          12. Fix mean compensation per worker among public employees to 110% of that of private sector employees within the geographic ambo within which a local government nestles. Move from defined benefit to defined contribution plans re retirement programs for public employees. Require that any individual compensation package exceeding the 96th percentile in value vis a vis private sector compensation per worker in a given ambo receive the approval each year of a majority of the elected members of the local council in question, with the yeas and nays for each member recorded.

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          • Why not exhaust your non-creative approaches first?

            All that stuff sounds great, but what does it look like when you actually try to implement it in real life?

            And that doesn’t have to be a rhetorical question. We can look at how other anti-poverty interventions were implemented as a guide.

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    • It was probably inevitable that most of the colonial independence movements would adopt different forms of socialism as an economic policy. Most of the people in the colonies associated capitalism with colonial exploitation rather than how the average person in the United States saw it. The citizenry of the new countries had decades experiencing most of the down sides of capitalism and markets with few of the upsides. Even in Europe, there were millions of people that had a more intimate experience with the negatives rather than positives of capitalism compared to the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Its why anti-capitalist sentiment ran stronger. The arguments made by the socialists were more convincing because of this. The tendency of the capitalist and market advocates in the mid-20th century to be blind towards colonialism and racism did not help.

      Another issue is that while adopting market policies would probably have paid off in the medium and long run, very few politicians are going to have the courage to induce nation wide delayed gratification. Expectations were high after the colonies one their independence and people wanted the good life now after decades of colonial domination and exploitation. Market economics would have required deferring this for at least several years while socialism promised instant gratification.

      Finally, socialist economics didn’t look as dunder-headed in the mid-20th century as they do now. Hindsight is twenty/twenty but the USSR made a convincing argument that socialism works at the time. The Bolsheviks were able to turn a very agricultural and hierarchical society with low levels of literacy into a very educated industrial society capable of putting people into space within decades. Many of the most ardent anti-Communists during the mid-20th century actually feared that communism could work and that is why it must be defeated. Only a few passionate capitalists thought that communism was going to fail big.

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  2. Though anyone writing in *1999* that an explicitly left-wing and aspirationally revolutionary movement was ‘ahead of its time’ were themselves, ahead of their time.

    the black revolution of the sixties had finally arrived at one of the most vulnerable links of the American economic system-the point of mass production, the assembly line.

    That this is no longer the case is what most Berners and like minded people forget.

    Though on the other hand, the wiser heads know that organizing public sector workers is where the critical node of power lies these days.

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  3. Great piece Roland.

    My wife was born in Detroit, one of those Polish kids. Her parents left not long after, looking for a better life. Ended up in the hinterlands of northern California, Oroville, Chico, places like that. This helps explain why.

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  4. Pingback: Recent Pieces at Ordinary Times | in hope and darkness

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