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Democracy and the Detroit Election: An Interview with Charles Simmons

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    by Tolu Olorunda

    The Black metropolis of Detroit has been brought low, its population dis-employed and disenfranchised, after 40 years of nominal Black rule. “Most of the population are already disappointed with the Black political class, and this is a view held even among the Black bourgeoisie.”

     

    Democracy and the Detroit Election: An Interview with Charles Simmons

    by Tolu Olorunda

    The people who believe in Duggan are people who believe in the power structure.

    This month, voters in Detroit elected a new mayor, Mike Duggan, to carry on the work of the emergency managers and governor in rebuilding a "new Detroit."

    Duggan is self-branded as a "turnaround specialist," for his work at the Detroit Medical Center, which he "saved" from shutting down during his tenure as president and CEO in 2004. A year ago, the former prosecutor moved from Livonia to Detroit to file for Mayor. Months later, a Michigan appeals court ruling deemed the candidacy ineligible, failing to meet residency requirements. He was however able to secure a write-in ballot and in the April primaries acquire over 40,000 votes in his name (53% of the votes being write-ins).

    During last week's election, the 80% Detroit voted in Duggan as its first White mayor in 40 years, with less than 20% voter turnout, beating Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon (55-45%).

    There of course exists a different narrative of Duggan, whose name was found "illegally" graffed over public walls and heard on just about every bus ride late last year. On the bus, morning or evening, it wasn't uncommon to hear spontaneous, unprovoked lectures from innocent riders on how much Duggan was the only one who knew what to do and had the resources, character and connections to do it.

    The office of mayor would only represent an adjunct of the Jones Day Firm and Snyder administration.”

    The results of the primaries were later challenged through a campaign spearheaded by opponent Tom Barrow. Activists who attended the recount spoke of duplicate signatures on over 100 ballots in just one screening (screenshots of some of these ballots are available online). Whether or not the elections were won fair and true still remains deeply debated, yet most seem to have moved on, resolved to have Duggan now and waiting to see what he would do.

    For some, still, the office of mayor would only represent an adjunct of the Jones Day Firm and Snyder administration, without any political autonomy to shift course substantially.

    A few days before the election I spoke with Charles Simmons, veteran journalist, professor and founder of the Hush House, a renowned museum and training institute on the city's west side. Captured below, over a two-hour interview, are reflections from Simmons on the past, present and future of community in Detroit.

    We began on the state of the schools and the millage approved by voters in 1994 to resource the defunded public schools district. From 1999-2005, the state took over the district, only two years after a front page (Detroit News - Sept. 4, 1997) headline blaring: “Detroit’s state school test scores soar."

    On Schools and Black Political Power

    We raised the millage because the elders knew we had a great school system, it was something we were proud of. They (the State) kept stealing it in many ways. In the '90s, the State withheld money, and at the same time we've always been having distractions that corruption is the problem with Detroit. And that is true but that's also true all over the country. It's always been the corporations making the decisions in the city.

    The administration can at best coordinate city activity – but they don't drive it. And the auto industry, their major source of business, is not anymore in the United States but outside of

    it.

    To the extent that there was a Black political class, it can only be an appendage of neoliberal

    objectives. Most of the population are already disappointed with the Black political class, and this is a view held even among the Black bourgeoisie.

    On Decline, Industry and Abandonment

    The opinion of decline I think refers to the downsizing of the auto industry – from Chrysler to every corporation, every industry. I used to work in the auto and steel industry. I could quit a job and get another one. It was a system to support high-paying jobs for unskilled people. My father and my grandfather had also worked in these factories. So we had a culture of

    dependency upon the auto industry. Unlike cities such as Chicago and New York. They also had as much corruption as Detroit. As much crime. But our industry collapsed. Nothing else mattered.

    There's also frustration at the trade unions for not protecting the rights of the workers. They should have known about the coming economic collapse. They got think tanks in the unions, all kinds of scholars. What were they thinking and doing? The workers shouldn't have been blindsided.

    At one of the plants I visited in the early ‘90s, there were 11,000 people working in that building. I went back to visit a few years ago. They had 1100 workers. Robotics replaced everyone. The unions should have fought for training (and there was some re-training). The unions should have fought for all those benefits – maternity leaves, pensions – workers enjoy in Europe.

    Now they're fishing to restore what used to be. Detroit was the epicenter of unionism, even militant unionism. So the power structure said if we can bust Detroit, we can bust all other places.

    The attacks are coming on all fronts – political, social attacks, with people who are already

    frustrated and tired, angry and bewildered. But we couldn't imagine we could vote for

    something and the governor would veto it. So the people who believe in Duggan are people who believe in the power structure.

    (President Obama is a major supporter of the privatization of schools, so that brings the

    destruction of schools here.)

    We also have to talk about the establishment media. They've given him (Duggan) plenty of access.

    We need people who have a history of struggle. We think people like Chokwe [Lumumba] – recently elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. He been fighting all his life. Malcolm used to say we keep supporting the lesser of two evils until there's only evil left.

    On Rebuilding Detroit and Community

    I believe we have to rebuild this city from the ground up, in some kind of sustainable way, because the agenda is not just to build a monstrosity that can feed the world but a grassroots

    solution to a lot of the problems. So I don't think there's a solution for working people within

    the capitalist system, and the reason it was successful was the slavery and colonialism that was used to build it.

    There's a need for a new kind of education, from the cradle to the grave, to instill these new

    values of self-reliance. The people as a whole would have to be re-educated. And that's not going to happen overnight. We got a new system of apartheid with high-tech access. So we have to teach about new support systems, building co-operatives. We don't have enough information for people to take care of ourselves. We are in a crisis of every issue we can identify.

    On Rebuilding the Family and New Movements

    We need to build leaderships of kids in elementary schools who'll be able to talk about these

    things. We also have to start rebuilding the family. In the state of Michigan about 2/3rds of the households are run by single mothers.

    We have been set back in many ways that we have to re-evaluate and re-critique a new movement that would re-educate the masses of people in need of justice. Now we have an embryo in Detroit for that kind of movement: a lot of groups doing things very positive. But it's just the beginning. And we are against a force, an imperialistic force, that has centuries of experience, and they can use that against us. And we have to outthink them. And I think we can. But the seriousness of our situation is so severe right now.

    We have a problem now where a lot of the struggles don't have a visible enemy. We have to come up with new ideas on how to put cogs in the wheels of the machine. Some of the

    older tactics work but many wouldn’t. We didn't have youth leadership in the march on Washington and Detroit. Now we do. Those are the things that will educate the people.

    Tolu Olorunda can be contacted at tolu.olorunda@gmail.com.

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