Power & Struggle: the Detroit Literacy Case

“Some conflicts do not yield to compromise and can be resolved only through struggle.”

– Gene Sharp,Power and Struggle

The strangely twisted presidential election campaign of 2016 coincides, in Detroit, with the gradually spreading realization that this utterly broken system will continue to fail at delivering broadly shared, equitable “recovery”. The historic emergency-managed bankruptcy in 2013-14, courtesy of the giant Jones Day law firm – who charged taxpayers $70 million for the privilege of looting our city – is officially over. But its profound after-effects on policy, quality of life and the limits of imagination linger on.

The “resurrection” narrative promoted by the emergency manager fascist (EMF) bankrupters wears ever thinner. In the face of an existential crisis of public education, mass water shut offs, mass home foreclosures, financial opportunism displacing democracy, and other effects of structural racist adjustment[1], reality is starting to sink in. Leading apologists for the EMFs’ accumulation-by-dispossession agenda, who sit on formal neutered local government bodies like the city council, have begun to allude in public to the suggestion that these arrangements are driving poor African American People out of the city – a cartoon version of the downtown development economic bubble that’s systematically extracting the value of “Detroit” from the surrounding neighborhoods – as a “conspiracy” theory. Think of it as “Resurrection” city vs. “Conspiracy” city. No place for the real Detroit in it at all.

How these worthies managed to get into their prominent positions, without a clear understanding that when the conjoined powers of capital, the state and white supremacy act powerfully in concert, that’s not a “conspiracy”, would make a great article about the pedagogical power of dominator culture all by itself. And it has everything to do with the national shit show of the 2016 presidential election: EMFs’ power destroying People power.

As that quadrennial marathon of Madison Avenue/Wall Street lies and corruption approaches its climax, I want to focus instead on the grassroots and prospects here for moving beyond our current post-Jones Day era of exploding structural economic violence.

Decapitation of Local Democracy

21st century grassroots struggle in places like Detroit should recognize that elected leaders have been systematically deprived of power to do anything except facilitate economic and racial injustice in the service of capital. Failing to learn that lesson dooms popular initiatives to “fighting the good fight”, i.e., losing. We have power and agency of our own, and we can use them to develop alternatives that build our power and create space for further, more effective bottom-up political power and struggle. But not by appealing to EMFs to do the right thing for moral reasons. 

In the bizarre context of summer and fall 2016, realization of our power (if it and we haven’t been killed) has been put on hold. A sickeningly endless series of police shootings for crimes of living while black has become a newly normalized expression of the structural violence enforced by EMFs.

Facing the election circus and inspired by righteous organizing by the Movement for Black Lives , our grassroots political agency is locally sidelined by the insistently self-proclaimed managerial wizardry of white Mayor Mike Duggan from Livonia. His personal eradication of “blight” and graffiti, with energetic abatement of taxes for corporate investors, is offered as its own absolute justification for existing power relations over Detroit. Public meetings and corporate media faithfully proclaim the technocratic triumphs of a “git ‘er done” corporate Democrat. His new EMFs exploit the brief breathing room bought by refinance of Detroit’s debt to restructure the city’s political economy, eviscerating our social and political capital[2]. Right-thinking politicos look confidently ahead to whiter, wealthier and more corporate “opportunities” for followers of “Thuggin’s” faux managerial reality. Often it’s hard even to think straight in the throes of our grassroots class rage.

Beneath this corporate media-promoted façade is Detroit’s real-world political economy: schools, water and housing crises of our People are structurally linked in fundamental ways to the Flint River disaster created just to our north by the same EMFs deploying the same “emergency” powers. In order to facilitate capital and white supremacist appropriation of “Detroit”, official leadership expresses confidence in the reigning neoliberal faith that brought about these disasters. Grotesque economic and social inequalities are dismissed as “conspiracy” theories; just part of that new normal where black life is debased, devalued and denied. But the Chamber of Commerce members’ class interests are officially deemed not the cause driving this reality. No economic or racial justice issues her, no sirree.

The Detroit Literacy Case

Simultaneous, officially denied, deep and intense crises of education, water, housing, development and democracy therefore frame the contemporary social context for the new Detroit literacy litigation, filed in September on behalf of Detroit children against Governor Snyder, by high-powered constitutional lawyers affiliated with the Public Counsel and Sidley Austin law firms: complaint ; Prof. Laurence Tribe ; Prof. Vikram David Amar .

This landmark class action case alleges the violation of our children’s equal protection of the law, and several other basic constitutional rights, by denial of access to literacy – a claim of right conceived brilliantly by the lawyers to apply to the whole range of humans’ ability to encounter and deal with our social and political realities. The 130-page complaint, which is not weighed down by excessive legalese, but tells a heartbreaking story of racist educational injustice to the point of state-created danger, should be read by everyone. If children confined to a separate and unequal school system are denied opportunity to achieve literacy and therefore social and political agency, their fundamental human rights are violated. This case has been a long time coming.

What the courts eventually do in this longstanding civic struggle that the Detroit literacy case lawyers have just brilliantly escalated will be years in the litigation. For Detroiters engaged with power in struggle, it seems to signify a new stage in a long process that’s been central to the EMFs’ whole restructuring operation for years: high- powered outsiders do important things for (in the better cases), or (in not-so-good examples) to Detroiters, far too often not with us.

How broader social-political power issues around the Detroit literacy litigation play out in struggle will be interesting and probably historic. We know this because it already happened after the historic case of Milliken v Bradley , whose narrow 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 1974 drew the high-water mark of the civil rights movement around Detroit, striking down the trial court’s inter-district school busing plan to desegregate city and suburbs.

The need for strong, Detroit-grounded community presence and political advocacy to complement the new Detroit literacy litigation was spelled out by the great dissenting Justice Thurgood Marshall’s questioning of Michigan’s Attorney General at the very end of his oral argument to the Supremes in Milliken:

Thurgood Marshall: You said that you don’t represent the city.

Frank J. Kelley: That’s correct Your Honor.

Marshall: You don’t represent the school board.

Kelley: That’s correct.

Marshall: And that nobody here represents them.

Kelley: That’s correct Your Honor.

The absence of Detroit agency, power and struggle from that historic context not only helped enable the state of Michigan to screw up Detroit’s schools, as so ably demonstrated in the Detroit literacy case complaint; it also helped lay the pattern for the whole regional nightmare of beggar-thy-neighbor development, structural and spatial racism, and the latest corporate-promoted bankrupting and restructuring of a great American city.

By 2012 and the advent of Governor Snyder’s unprecedented, racist “emergency management” policies, among professional capitalist EMFs and their restructuring contractors from Jones Day on down, the assumption is an article of faith carved in the stone of neoliberal dogma: Detroiters can’t do anything, don’t know anything, and our communities should be disregarded when “reviving”, “restructuring” and even “resurrecting” Detroit. One key metric for evaluating the Detroit literacy case, like every other intervention in power and struggle in Detroit, should be the extent to which it either perpetuates, or alternatively begins to reverse this outrageous, structurally racist usurpation of Detroiters’ agency and power.

As Justice Marshall said at the end of his dissent in Milliken: “In the short run, it may seem to be the easier course to allow our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into two cities — one white, the other black — but it is a course, I predict, our people will ultimately regret.” Are we there yet?

It’s challenging to advocate reality-based power and struggle in a time and place of post-truth politics like Thuggin’s Detroit. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that a crack team of People’s constitutional lawyers has done the much-needed service of opening this can of worms, even as the public relations bloom is coming off the rose of Defendant Governor Snyder’s corporate Detroit “miracle”. Steps toward transformational civic literacy may be emerging from the smoke and mirrors.

Best wishes for surviving this awful election. It’s the system, stupid. Change it, or die.


[1] See “Detroit 2016 Linking Struggles for Racial and Economic Justice” for an itemized discussion of this reality.

[2] This was all foreseen as it was happening, altho political and journalistic elites managed to ignore and cover it up for a few years: “Detroit’s New Bankster Plutocracy” : “In short, while an “emergency manager” like [Jones Day partner Kevyn] Orr can slash spending and balance the municipal government budget, and may be able to negotiate credit extensions with Jones Day’s Wall Street clients (on favorable terms to creditors), he will then leave behind a community wracked by poverty, racism, crime, and looted infrastructure, with an eviscerated social capital and political leadership as a direct result of the state’s brutal, anti-democratic takeover. Corporate media are blissfully untroubled by such elementary calculations of cost, benefit and agency.”

Frank X Murphy is the pen name of a Detroiter seeking emergency anger management resources and opportunities.