You Are a Subject

“You cannot end or amend a harmful experiment  if you have not been told that you are a subject.”

– Alesia Montgomery, “Greening the Black Urban Regime

Alesia Montgomery’s subtitle, “The Culture and Commerce of Sustainability in Detroit,” introduces the diabolical “experiment”-without-informed-consent that is restructuring and bankrupting Detroit.  The Black Urban Regimes of her title are a range of oppressed communities, of which Detroit is exemplary, altho often considered an outlier.  Dialectically, the book tells a uniquely illuminating story about three crucial years in the social and political life of a great American city.

The brilliant, subtle analysis underlying these weighty title objects shines thru practically every paragraph of Alesia Montgomery’s book based on her three years of study and residence in Detroit (2010-13).  As a work of engaged scholarship, I simply cannot praise this book too highly.

Detroit youth in particular, perhaps seeking coherent narrative (and relatively accessible story-telling with wisdom and bite), about ‘why all these things keep happening here’, or the meaning of things like “austerity” in the daily life of our community,  may enjoy and benefit from this 255-page book that packs a 2500-ton wallop.

This book’s vignettes from grassroots Detroit ring with authenticity.  I was present for some of the events the author recounts, and she has a great eye.  The book’s theoretical and practical critique of racial capitalist, “developmentalist” engagement and policy-formation, related in much more easily digestible terms than that, via first-hand observations of government policy abuses in the early great recession years, is both important and little understood outside radical Detroit.  I can’t be objective because, as a differently situated (white-identified, professional male employed by local government) participant in the events, I agree with practically every one of her major judgments as a black female observant/outsider, from what to emphasize, to how to frame, and ultimately who are the villains and surviving she-roes of, the story.

For example, in the quote at the beginning of this review, the author correctly implies – crucially- that most Detroiters have been deprived of agency by obscuring the nature of experimental public policies (“Detroit Works” and “Detroit Future City”), and therefore by our condition as unacknowledged subjects of these harmful experiments.  A few pages later she explains, based on an epic deconstruction of these programs, that the foundation and corporate funding and power bases of gentrification-plus, in stark contrast to its subjects, “recognize” the resulting cursed opportunities, which she elegantly refers to as “the gap between perceptions of Detroit as a place of ruins and its lucrative potential.”

I lived these events, and was personally responsible for some of its counter-hegemonic advocacy the whole time.  I know these issues deeply.  When People would ask me about the precise location of the anticipated “land grab” during those years, I would usually respond it’s the 6 inches between our ears.  Yet I am impressed and educated by this reframing of who was the con and who got conned, the myriad meanings and consequences of “green” in the oft-told “tale of two cities”.

Kresge and their phalanx of white corporate consultants knew.  Detroiters didn’t.  Because they weren’t told what’s going on.  How elegant, simple and important.  The inclusion of green initiatives in the 2012 city charter, without defining the word “green”, was not simply an embarrassing product of weak drafting, it’s a profound “tell” regarding the uses and abuses of undefined green virtue / propaganda, and covert corporate action.  If others interested in understanding the truth about Detroit behind the “resurrection” story lines don’t get comparably valuable insights into these important truths from reading this book, then my pen name for writing about this stuff sometimes isn’t Francis X Murphy!

Every white-supremacy-and-corporate-driven attack on democracy and community integrity, like what happened in Detroit when Alesia Montgomery did the work documented in this book, has great losses.  One of our less damaging, albeit painful losses was the web site of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM), which after 2013 was built up into a valuable, very nearly comprehensive, searchable (but inadequately managed and secured) information clearinghouse for all things Detroit restructuring.  Later it got enclosured and confiscated by the privatized intellectual property rights authorities of the internet, apparently because somebody forgot to pay a bill.  Or maybe new cyber- Cointelpro.  Hard times indeed.

Thanks to Alesia Montgomery, that terrible intellectual and cultural blow stings a little less, because one of the main purposes of the D-REM web site was to help tell the real story with some damn dignity.  Alesia Montgomery’s work has accomplished that wonderfully respectful and historically significant purpose, with a touch of genius and an awesome fidelity to justice.  While Dr. King’s returned check marked insufficient funds keeps bouncing down the road from “emergency management” to “MAGA”, “Greening the Black Urban Regime: The Culture and Commerce of Sustainability in Detroit” follows the money to the hideouts of thieves and locusts, so we can go there and take it back.