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.