The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

“The Fire Next Time”:
Detroit 1967

Jul 23, 2017

In 1965, Detroit’s then mayor declared that the revolt in Watts couldn’t happen in “his city.” In 2017, Detroit’s current mayor declared that 1967 wasn’t an uprising. But it DID happen, and it WAS an uprising, an uprising of oppressed people. Before it was over, the Detroit revolt of 1967 would become the largest of any uprising in 20th century America. It was “the fire next time” that James Baldwin had written about in 1962.

In 1967 – no matter how many marches, how many court cases, how many laws – unemployment continued. Impoverishment drained people. Cops went into neighborhoods like an occupying army. There was a vast powder keg of unmet needs and grievances.

All it took was an “ordinary” incident of police brutality to set it off. On July 22-23, police provided it. They rousted people celebrating the safe return of two soldiers from Viet Nam in an after-hours place.

Several thousand people reacted, crowding onto 12th Street. A police commando unit swept down the street in a large wedge, pushing people aside. The crowd parted – but only to fall in, trailing the cops.

The police began to cede ground, giving up a 16-square block area, waiting for the crowd to go home.

Instead, crowds grew larger. Cops, vastly outnumbered, stood by as people walked into the stores right past them, getting what they needed or wanted. People were laughing, calling on friends to come on down. Time magazine called it a carnival. Yes, it was – a carnival of the oppressed.

Black politicians and celebrities were called on to talk people off the streets. People booed them.

Groups of young people moved down the streets, setting fire to many of the stores before they were even emptied. Others had to tell them, “Wait, people need these things.”

People were NOT setting fire to their own neighborhoods – the slander always repeated. They were torching the little groceries that charged them outrageously high prices for spoiled food, and the check-cashing places that took a big chunk out of their paycheck. They were standing up to a police department that had made its name for brutality.

Factories and offices were closed starting on the second day. For the rest of the week, downtown was empty, freeways deserted. The capitalist owners of big industry, along with their servants in government, woke up to the realization they were powerless to deal with masses of people in revolt.

In contrast to other revolts of the 1960s, which were contained in restricted areas, the uprising of 1967 spread through much of Detroit. And a part of the white population, living under similar conditions, joined in.

The government brought in tanks and paratroopers. 43 people were killed. Thousands were arrested. But people were not battered into submission. And the capitalist class, feeling their control threatened, conceded vast improvements – quickly.

Hiring halls were set up on 12th Street. Within nine months, 28,000 people had been hired by the three auto companies, Michigan Bell, the three utilities, and Hudson’s Department Store. Almost as many got jobs with the city, county and state. HUD, the federal housing agency, opened the spigot on mortgage money. Medicare and Medicaid were extended.

But at the end of the 70s, recession hit, and American capitalism wallowed in crisis. Cutbacks mushroomed. And all the old problems rushed back. The situation in Detroit is worse today than it was in 1967. Unemployment is higher. And the racism of a society born in slavery dictated that the brunt of unemployment would hit black workers the worst.

Of course, the Detroit area isn’t what it was. Many black people in the middle class found their way into the suburbs, as did a number of black workers. That also is a consequence of 1967.

The decades-long destruction of Detroit is not the result of the uprising – a charge thrown against the people who revolted. The destruction of Detroit and the lack of jobs was caused by the normal functioning of capitalism, made worse by the crisis.

Few of those who went out into the streets in the 1960s saw the link between the functioning of capitalism and racism. But they understood that power concedes nothing unless it is forced to. And they saw power concede to them. They felt their own strength for a while – the strength that masses of people can have when joined in common struggle.

That is the real meaning of Detroit, 1967. Not the fires in the neighborhoods.

The future can be built on that collective strength. The next time, it is necessary to set fire to the capitalist class and their whole system. Throw it all out.