Intervention – 'Doing the Right Thing in Detroit' by Andy Merrifield

Neutrality isn’t cool” — Justin Ravitz, Marxist Judge of Detroit Recorder’s Court, 1980

A little while ago, I participated in an evening of revolutionary politics at the Roxy Bar and Screen, an independent arts cinema and hip drinking den near London Bridge. Hosted by University College London’s ‘Urban Lab’ (under Ben Campkin’s direction) and compered by Louis Moreno (who also provided the techno groove), a packed young crowd settled into watching two rare documentaries from 1970 and 1980: Finally Got the News and Taking Back Detroit. “Revolutionary politics,” I know, might sound hyperbolic, even pretentious; but the two films really were about doing something militantly radical, about folks from the past organizing themselves to kick up a fuss and fight the power. Indeed, the energy of the two films created a charge that night, kindled the audience, and prompted everybody to think about what being revolutionary might still mean today, about what doing the right thing might still entail.

Finally Got the News hits out in hard-edged black and white; apt because it is about hard-edged black and white: Steward Bird, Rene Lichtman and Peter Gessner tell the tale of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, an umbrella organization uniting Revolutionary Union Movements at Detroit’s auto plants in the late 1960s. The aesthetic smacks of nouvelle vague montage, with hints of Eisenstein thrown in; but the atmosphere is of direct, head-on confrontation. Images of lynchings are overlaid with booming African tribal drums; rage wafts menacingly in the air, like in Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’, which figures in the film; Miles’ electrified trumpet rings out like a hammer knocking, getting inside you head, hard to ignore, a screaming comes across the sky. The film’s dialogue is black-cat and wild-cat, picketing and angry, like DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) organizer John Watson’s opening tirade, denouncing, Marxist-Leninist-style, the blatant exploitation at Chrysler’s Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle plant, about the super-profits and surplus value gleaned from its black workforce; about assembly-line speed-ups, floridly labeled “niggermation” by black employees; about on-the-job harassment by foremen; about industrial illnesses and injuries and death; about black workers feeling let down by the auto workers union (UAW), cosying up to corporate bosses, too concerned with their reputation, with their own bureaucratic self-reproduction, to be bothered about affecting any real change.

Early on in Finally Got the News, in the frozen dawn darkness, two shift workers journey along an empty expressway, listening to Joe Carter’s blues song on the radio: “Please, Mr. Foreman, slow down your assembly line. / I said, Lord, why don’t you slow down that assembly line? / No, I don’t mind workin’, but I do mind dyin’.” (The refrain, written by a Ford Rouge production line worker, would later inspire Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin’s great 1975 book on the League, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying.) In Detroit, it’s said, people don’t just sing the blues; they literally live the blues everyday. Blues can mean resigned passivity, an acceptance of one’s poor lot; yet sometimes it can prompt engaged activity, even interventionist action, a raging sense that enough’s enough, already; this shit must stop right here.

From 'Finally Got the News' - Photo courtesy of Icarus Films

From ‘Finally Got the News’ – Photo courtesy of Icarus Films

Still, rage can move in a number of directions: It can be eruptive and destructive, like it was in July 1967, when, after the cops raided a poor after-hours bar, “The Blind Pig,” altercations outside between its African-American patrons and the police sparked one of the worst public disturbances in US history. After almost a week of looting and tense, violent confrontations with the police, and after President Johnson sent in the National Guard and Army (together with tanks), 43 people lay dead, 2,500 properties were destroyed, and over 7,000 people had gotten arrested. For black Detroiters this wasn’t a riot but the Great Rebellion, a rebellion against years and years of institutional and popular racism and discrimination: “Burn Baby Burn!” was their mantra.

The rage glimpsed in Finally Got the News is another kind of rage that organized and channelled itself collectively, that aimed itself at a common enemy, that waged and raged against the structures of white corporate and state power. This is a dignified rage, a class rage, expressing an anger that just about keeps itself in check. Ken Cockrel, a lawyer and a Central Staff member of the League, a prime-mover in defending workers’ rights in the courtroom, takes this rage close to the nihilistic edge. Those soft “executives” working at their desks, he says, going to Exeter and Harvard, to Yale and Wharton School of Business, never producing anything, never really doing anything: “they’re mother-fucking, non-producing, non-existing bastards dealing with paper. They give you little bullshit amounts of money — wages and so forth — and then they steal that shit back from you in terms of the way they have their other thing set up, that old credit-stick-’em up gimmick society… It’s these mother-fuckers who deal with intangibles who are rewarded by society… this whole mother-fucking society is controlled by this little clique which is parasitic, vulturistic and cannibalistic and is sucking and destroying the life of workers everywhere; and we must stop it!”

From 'Finally Got the News' - Photo courtesy of Icarus Films

From ‘Finally Got the News’ – Photo courtesy of Icarus Films

Such rage fuelled an organized and disciplined revolutionary practice, a form of rebellion made by black people in a white man’s world, a world that less than one hundred years ago still had the institution of slavery. To be black in the United States means, as Frantz Fanon put it in The Wretched of the Earth, to possess a “Third World…state of mind,” “an ancestral pride strangely resembling defiance,” a defiance the League expressed; a growing radicalization of African-Americans in the second half of the twentieth-century, shifting from the rural southern plantation states toward the northern and midwestern industrialized plantation states, toward the urban ghettos, with a new emphasis on economic injustice and police brutality, of getting hassled at the plant as well as on the street.

Finally Got the News was made a year before the League of Black Revolutionary Workers folded, as much because of internal tensions as external pressure. We don’t get to hear an epitaph about its ripping apart. However, as the League’s grip loosened in the factories, it found itself getting displaced into another political arena, into the nitty-gritty legal realm, into electoral politics, infiltrating the courts and challenging the civil system, re-appropriating it for the little guys, trying to create a bigger urban space for worker organization and community coalitions. Cockrel and his law firm partner, Justin Ravitz, the “Marxist judge,” began to build and use the black worker base of the League to bid for elective office; control of the factories and control of the streets, they felt, needed to go hand in hand with control of the courts and the cops. Rebellion could and should be waged on three fronts: at the workplace, in the courts, and out in the community.

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By the late 1970s, around 1980, when Taking Back Detroit was made, Ravitz and Cockrel had both entered public office; the former elected to a ten-year stint as judge of “Recorder’s Court,” the latter a seat on Detroit’s City Council. Now, Motor City no longer appears in harsh cinematic and racial black and white; we see it instead through the lenses of softer-toned color. The imagery isn’t entirely coincidental, for now, too, the modus operandi had changed, to the degree that elective office became the base for building a city-wide political movement. Now, the drama isn’t so much about direct confrontation as pragmatic engagement; the rage is calmer, older, maybe more mature: but rage there still is; the fire this time burned not from outside but inside the power structure, inside the courtroom and at City Hall; and Taking Back Detroit takes us patiently behind the scenes, into the committee rooms and council chambers, down tense courthouse corridors — Michigan law forbids actual filming in court — into the endless meetings and strategizing luncheons.

City Councillor Ken Cockrel, from 'Taking Back Detroit' - Photo courtesy of Icarus Films

City Councillor Ken Cockrel, from ‘Taking Back Detroit’ – Photo courtesy of Icarus Films

Ravitz and Cockrel and their fellow-traveller sisters and brothers (like ace organizer Sheila Murphy, Cockrel’s wife) earned reputations as crusaders for working and poor black and white people, winning high-profile lawsuits, putting the establishment on trial — the judiciary, the corporation and the police. Cockrel rallied as an “independent Marxist,” speaking out against black mayor Coleman Young’s courting of the business community; and against the business community pulling the strings of its marionette mayor. Cockrel became famous and infamous (depending on your political persuasion) for his brilliant intellect and rapid-fire tongue; an eloquence that could dazzle audiences, that grudgingly gained respect even from adversaries. (Watch him in Taking Back Detroit at a public hearing on neighborhood revitalization, slickly dealing with GM’s clumsy honky henchmen.) Ravitz, meanwhile, became the people’s judge who didn’t wear a robe, who successfully defends welfare mothers and anti-war demonstrators; the calm, slowly-speaking Ravitz also broke protocol: in his courtroom Law and Order, the judge (himself) and the spectators had to stand up for the entering jury (not vice versa).

Judge Justin Ravitz, from 'Taking Back Detroit' - Photo courtesy of Icarus Films

Judge Justin Ravitz, from ‘Taking Back Detroit’ – Photo courtesy of Icarus Films

Taking back the city” (rather than the factory) became the new radical clarion call, 1980s-style. The worker base was there, still, just about, but with greatly reduced level of militancy. For a while, an African-American workforce was indispensable for a particular epoch of American industrialization, an epoch that’s been labeled “Fordist.” Yet from being indispensable it turned out that they were only a contingent workforce all along. Now, a “post-Fordist,” “post-industrial” epoch of capitalism no longer needed them, had “set them free” from the immediate process of production, as Marx said. In Detroit, the factories began folding or relocating overseas where labor costs are cheaper (auto plants uprooted to Mexico); offices and infrastructure got abandoned; white populations fled in droves to the suburbs; the city’s tax base shrank; ruins ran by the block rather than by building; and violent crime soared. Between 1950 and 1980, Detroit lost nearly fifty percent of its manufacturing jobs and a staggering one million of its population. Corporate capital had literally abandoned the city, walked away from it, in a familiar, though dramatically intensified, story of what was then happening everywhere to urban America. The structures of white corporate power once created a particular city through its own presence, in its own industrial image; now, its absence continued to shape the urban fabric, tore it to tatters.

Nostrums began to enter the federal discourse, aimed at addressing fiscal crisis: one, by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Nixon’s urban affairs advisor), stemming from 1969, was “Benign Neglect.” Nothing “benign” here, though, since this was the purposeful running down of blighted neighborhoods, henceforth seen as no longer economically “viable,” much too much of a federal burden to fix; “Malign Neglect” opponents called it, emphasizing the “active” pathological nature of the process. Its partner in urban crime at the time was “Planned Shrinkage,” the Manhattan Institute’s Roger Starr’s brainchild, which federally “planned” the elimination of “bad” (read: poor, minority) neighborhoods across America. The paradigmatic case-study of Planned Shrinkage was New York’s South Bronx — it was too expensive for fire stations and fire trucks to keep putting out all those fires! — but black inner city neighborhoods of Detroit suffered appallingly as targets of extinction, too. In 1984, Marshall Berman called these crimes against urban humanity “urbicide” (in the Village Voice): the murder of the city. Despite the body count, his verdict never led to any arrests.

But then a curious thing happened: at the backend of the 1970s, and as the 1980s kicked in, federal government changed tack. Crying poverty only a few years earlier, announcing its inability to sustain demand-oriented collective consumption proclivities, government came up with the idea that federal money should try to leverage private capital investment, entice it back into urban areas previously shunned or abandoned. Before long, the private sector could bag all kinds of tax abatements, rent holidays and federal grants: CDBGs and UDAGs were two popular taglines, Community Development Block Grants and Urban Development Action Grants (inventions of the Carter administration in 1977), interest-free sponsorship when interest rates for ordinary people were enormously high.

Notwithstanding the federal mandate that CDBGs should fund low- and moderate-income people, federal public dollars poured into Detroit’s riverfront development, whose crowning glory became the “Renaissance Center” and John Portman’s 73-story Marriott hotel. Public dollars flooded into upscale redevelopment and proved a bonanza for private investors. Critics grumbled that all this hastened, not ameliorated, social polarization and inequality; few of the goodies ever seemed to trickle down to needy people. UDAGs sponsored convention centers, hotels, marinas and expensive residential complexes and became the greatest hotel-building venture in American history. And if that wasn’t enough, these hotels barely paid employees minimum wage; chains like Hyatt and Marriott also turned into big time union busters.

In the 1980s, the City of Detroit passed hundreds of project abatements of real estate and property taxes, freely giving away land, granting interest-free loans and federal monies with no strings attached, other than the investors stay around a while, which often they didn’t. Cockrel pushed for quid pro quos, maintaining that part of the deal should be for recipients to guarantee a certain number of jobs and commit themselves for X number of years. The line didn’t go down well in council. In one revealing scene from Taking Back Detroit, Mayor Young leads a tax abatement debate. “Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes…,” goes the vote, as every councillor agrees to the deal, until Cockrel, defiantly, says “No.” He’s the sole nay — the sole brother with soul.

Some of the most fascinating sequences of Stephen Lighthill’s marvelous documentary — aspects that make it an uplifting, inspiring vision of Detroit when it could’ve easily been depressing — are when Cockrel and Ravitz recognize their constituency isn’t inside City Hall: it’s ordinary folks on the outside, in the redlined and block-busted neighborhoods. If Cockrel is dead against tax abatements for capital, he’s categorically for something else; he dares for DARE: Detroit Alliance for a Rational Economy, a different vision of another Detroit, a bottom-up vision of outsiders helping insiders reshape that inside. On film, we witness DARE campaigners and activists running teach-in bus tours around Detroit’s new waterfront, letting ordinary people, hitherto excluded from decision-making, hear and see for themselves, vividly, where their tax dollars and public monies go: into the upscale construction right outside the bus window.

It’s an amazing propagandizing outfit Cockrel and Murphy orchestrate, exposing the ruling class’s political-economic shenanigans, revealing its behind-closed-door deals and machinations, stuff that people should know about. DARE dared to mobilize Detroit’s residents, dared to be mobilized by Detroit’s residents, and tried in the mix to get community control of basic urban institutions back on the public agenda. Maybe the only thing that had really changed in Cockrel’s politicking since the League of Revolutionary Black Workers glory days was the battlefield: “the primary thing that can be done to prevent the occurrence of repression,” he told an audience on January 30th, 1970 at Detroit’s Saint Joseph’s Church, “is for those of us of the oppressed classes to take over, to take power, to run every goddamn thing in this country, to run everything, this world — and certainly to start out by running everything in this city.”

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It’s sad and touching to think that Cockrel’s life was suddenly cut short not long after Taking Back Detroit: he died, after a massive heart attack, in 1989, aged 50. By that point, disillusioned with disempowered insiderness, he’d decided not to stand for re-election. He went back to practicing law, rejoining old partner Ravitz, and began considering running for real power, for the Mayor of Detroit, a longstanding dream, until that fateful April 25th day struck him down and out. What to add about these two films that isn’t self-evident from viewing them? What could I say in my after-film rap, late in the night, to a boozy audience, the majority of whom weren’t even born when Taking Back Detroit first aired? What political message could be gleaned, continues to speak to younger generations now, still resonates as we hear news of Detroit’s imminent bankruptcy, circa 2013?

The city teeters on edge of collapse with a $900 million budget shortfall for 2012 (and $14 billion in longterm liability). (How much of this debacle, I wonder, is rooted in the 1980s? When precious tax dollars weren’t invested in public infrastructure, but handed out to the private sector, who duly pocketed the booty and later split the scene…) Incumbent Mayor David Bing has just relinquished power to Kevyn Orr, the “emergency financial manager,” who in 2009 helped (along with a federal bail-out) Chrysler resolve its Chapter 11 woes. (Over the years, federal government has bailed-out all Detroit’s auto industry.) Now, apparently, “everything is on the table,” says Orr, which presumably means more public sector layoffs, more selling off of public assets, further privatization of city services, including, to belt-tighten utilities, dimmer (and darkened) streets at night. Diego Rivera’s great frescos at the Detroit Art Institute would doubtless fetch a tidy sum at private auction. R.I.P. Ken Cockrel…

On the podium, I remind people of Do the Right Thing, a film made the same year as Cockrel’s death, another tale of tense race relations and urban politics. I recall the moment when Radio Raheem goes into Sal’s Bed-Stuy pizzeria with his boom-box blazing Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’. Radio Raheem won’t turn the volume down; Sal gets mad and loses his rag, reaches for his baseball bat, and, bawling assorted racial epithets, smashes the boom-box to smithereens. (Sal seemed like a decent, tolerant guy, an honest Italian-American serving a modest-means black clientèle, but really he’s a racist like a lot of them.) Radio Raheem leaps across the counter, onto Sal, and a fight erupts. Black customers pitch in, wrecking chairs and ripping Frank Sinatra, Al Pacino, Joe DiMaggio, Robert de Niro et al. off the pizzeria’s Wall of Fame (Buggin’ Out had always complained there weren’t any brothers on that wall). Locals arrive, including Mookie, Sal’s delivery boy (played by director Spike Lee), to see what’s going down. We watch Mookie walk away, think that he’s leaving, that tensions have calmed and it’s time for everyone to go home. But then Mookie picks up a garbage can, turns around, and, running back into the fray, hurls it through Sal’s windowpane. All hell breaks loose, an insurrectional moment, a rebellion, a ransacking of Sal’s place. (The long history of urban “riots” has shown us how destruction and property damage is rarely indiscriminate. During the 1981 uprisings in my native Liverpool, two of the first targets to go up in smoke in Toxteth were the Racquet Club, a rich, white-gents-only establishment, and the Rialto dancehall, which for years barred blacks.)

This window-breaking act, the most significant in the film, didn’t do Mookie a whole lot of good. He lost his job and his employer, and lost a steady bit of income. Yet he did the right thing. He knew something wasn’t quite right; he knew there was injustice going down, that Sal was really a racist. What we saw tonight, I say, with those guys from the League, with Cockrel and Ravitz, were people who, perhaps above all else, also did the right thing. The League knew there was injustice at the plant, knew workers were being ripped off, exploited, dehumanized. So they organized, they did the right thing against the union and the bosses. The thing about doing the right thing is that, often, your actions are conditioned by a basic principle of what’s just and what’s unjust, about what’s fair and unfair. And there’s a limit to which you can be pushed around before something gives, before something begins to intrude on those principles, violates those principles. This can get you into a lot of trouble. We saw it in Taking Back Detroit, when in the council chambers Ken Cockrel was the only no vote, when everybody else said yes.

Here’s a guy who acted on principle, who wanted to do the right thing. It didn’t go down well with his fellow councillors, nor with Mr. Mayor Young. If we fast forward thirty-odd years, if we saw this same city office today, or any city office, any formal meeting in a bureaucracy — and we have bureaucracies everywhere in our lives today, don’t we; some of us likely participate in them — as a vote gets cast, what would happen? My bet is that what you really think, according to the principles of your value system, is, like Cockrel, NO, that doing the right thing necessitates a NO vote. And yet, when the hands eventually go up, somehow you vote YES alongside everybody else. Afterwards, quietly and privately, perhaps under your own breath, perhaps whispering to somebody else, off-record, you admit you really didn’t agree with a YES, but you thought it best to comply, to follow the majority. (And who knows whether others thought like you?)

In a sense, I think this explains much about what has happened since 1980, what we glimpse here in Taking Back Detroit. That is how doing the right thing, how having a principled value system, has been whittled away in ways that people — us — really weren’t aware of. We have somehow sold ourselves out. We waved the white flag of conciliatory surrender long ago, began to participate in what Guy Debord, in 1988, called “the mass psychology of submission” (in his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle). By not saying NO, by not taking a defiant stand, we eventually created a world with a self-perpetuating feeling of frustration about what can and cannot be done, about what we can and cannot achieve. As it stands today, submission has consolidated itself into a self-reinforcing notion that real change is no longer possible, so why even bother to try; and so those principles of doing the right thing, at first slowly, then steady, now rapidly, are tossed out of the committee meeting room, out of sight and out of mind.

Nowadays, there are many decent, honest people who maybe haven’t so much sold out on their principles, but who find it hard to relocate those principles, to aim those principles, and to have the courage to act upon those principles. Those guys on film didn’t sell out on their principles, neither as outsiders in the League nor as insiders in City Hall. They did the right thing as both outsiders and insiders; and in doing the right thing as insiders, which is perhaps the hardest place of all to act on principle, people like Ravitz and Cockrel became a species that anyone who’s still interested in revolutionary politics, who still might even believe in revolutionary politics, needs to become: a double agent. We have to know the law, know how to “play” the game on an unimportant pragmatic level; but at the deeper level of values, of values that you hold dear to your heart, values that are non-negotiable and which inspire your hope and optimism — they must guide your important actions. The trick is figuring out how you can find other people who feel the same, who share the same value system, and how you can act together around those principles.

And like folks in Finally Got the News and Taking Back Detroit, there are lots of us around who, on principle, have had enough with what’s going down these days, had enough with governments’ ubiquitous austerity programs; we’re sick to death with calls for public sector downsizing and private sector rightsizing. This as Wall Street fat-cats get fatter and fatter; as Royal Bank of Scotland bosses, after finagling Libor interest-rates, award themselves dazzling bonuses in excess of £250 million; this as on Budget day, when Chancellor George Osborne implores ordinary Britons to continue the squeeze, Barclay’s bigwigs pocket shares worth £40 million. (Investment banker Rich Ricci didn’t dally in cashing in his £17.6 million’s worth.)

Now the arena of battle isn’t just about the workplace, nor even about the city: it’s about the globe. And if we factor in social media, this means we can organize and communicate with our soul brothers and sisters thousands of miles away, see their faces on Facebook, share stories about oppression and injustice, about corporate lies and governmental blind-eyes, do it with Egyptians and Tunisians, with Greeks and Spanish Indignados, with occupiers and workers, with insiders and outsiders everywhere. We can try to do the right thing together; say NO when politicians and bankers say YES, say YES when they say NO.

It’s time to take back the world, to channel our seething rage about those mother-fucking intangibles, time to organize our own counter-propaganda machine; make films like the League did, start newspapers, inform the people and reform things now, see ourselves as part of moving history, as history lived as ongoing struggle, as a process wherein we’re the subject who’s finally getting the news. The key militant tagline we might hold dear is one Ken Cockrel knew well, DARE: dare to challenge, dare to fight the power, dare to confront the structures of power and wealth that are only entrenched because we’ve let them be entrenched. Dare to do the right thing. Those who fight can lose, Bertolt Brecht famously said; but those who don’t fight have already lost.

In memory of Kenneth Cockrel, Sr., 1938-1989

Finally Got the News and Taking Back Detroit are both available from Icarus Films.

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Andy Merrifield is an independent scholar based in the United Kingdom and France. His books include The Politics of the Encounter: Urban Theory and Protest Under Planetary Urbanization (UGA Press, 2013), John Berger (Reaktion, 2012) and Magical Marxism: Subversive Politics and the Imagination (Pluto, 2011), among many others.


  1. Peter Kuttner

    I spent three months in Detroit as a crew member on Stephen Lighthill’s film “Taking Back Detroit.”. I have no doubt that under the progressive leadership of a mayor like Ken Cockrel and a staff of DARE organizers like Sheila Murphy and Justin Ravitz, Detroit, would have been a better, more just and democratic city in which to live. One can only guess what they could have done with the 19 years in office Coleman Young had.
    Thanks, Andy, for your right-on reading of two great documentaries, and thanks to the programmers for understanding their importance to young audiences today.
    -Peter Kuttner
    Chicago USA