This is a brief talk I gave at a screening of Finally Got the News, a film created by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers to document their project. The screening was organized by the Brooklyn branch of the International Socialist Organization.
The talk was intended to be short. The scope of the introduction is necessarily limited. My main priority was to contextualize the League as a positive response to the Great Rebellion of 1967. They wanted to channel that the spirit of the Rebellion on the streets onto the shop floor. Second to that, I wanted to emphasize the League’s focus on working-class politics and their specific position with regard to inter-racial solidarity.
One thing I would have liked to fit in if I had the chance is the aftermath of the struggle of the League, in particular the law-and-order backlash in Detroit and what it may be able to tell us about the rise of mass incarceration in general. Mass incarceration on the scale of the United States is historically unique. No other state has locked up so many of its own population in this way. I’m sympathetic to the argument advanced by people like Michelle Alexander and Christian Parenti that mass incarceration arose out of a conjuncture between the law-and-order backlash to Black Power and the economic crisis that hit in 1973.
The Rebellion opened a dramatic period of uncertainty for the city, where competing forces struggled for influence over Detroit’s black working class and control of the shop floor. As law-and-order regimes spread across the country, Detroit Police mounted a vicious campaign of repression and were particularly explicit about the need to discipline Detroit’s Black population. The state’s need for discipline and order grew as crisis erupted. Demand for labor plummeted. Detroit lost over 90,000 jobs between 1970 – 80. Many of those workers had probably participated at some point in a wildcat or the Black Power struggle, or had otherwise been sympathetic to militant, radical politics in some form or another. The established regimes of law-and-order became revitalized with yet another new crisis of social control.
This is a topic I’m interested in exploring more and will probably write about here and there.
INTRODUCTION: THE GREAT REBELLION
The League of Revolutionary Black Workers was formed in the aftermath of the greatest urban uprising of the 20th century and aimed to carry the militant energy of that insurrection to the factory floors of the U.S. auto-industry.
Finally Got the News was created by the League to illustrate the conditions that Black autoworkers faced and to document their resistance. It is not only a fascinating cultural work from a dramatic period of urban revolutionary struggle but an invaluable resource for political study and inspiration. In the context of the movement to make Black Lives Matter, studying the League in their own words provides valuable visionary guidance and raises crucial questions about the complex relationship between Black labor, capitalism, and working class struggle.
To introduce the film, I want to briefly set some of the historical context to help frame the screening and the discussion to follow.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT and DEVELOPMENT
On an early July morning in 1967, a party was being held at an after-hours bar in Detroit to celebrate the return of two soldiers coming back from Vietnam and seeing off another about to depart for the war.
Detroit police raided the party and violently arrested the mostly Black patrons. An angry crowd began to gather outside the building as the partygoers were dragged down the stairs from the second floor of the building. “Don’t let them take our people away!” yelled an onlooker, “Look what they’re doing to our people. Let’s kill them whitey motherfuckers!” A bottle was thrown. And the Great Rebellion had begun.
“We said it couldn’t happen here. Things were too good,” was the report given from a local newscaster to his television audience. Indeed, Detroit had become known as the “Model City” of the Great Society era. But much like contemporary “post-racial” mythology, this was a liberal illusion meant to obscure racial violence and poverty. The rebellion of ’67 exposed the illusion and opened a new stage in the Black struggle.
The rebellion shook the local liberal establishment. The city’s future became uncertain and control over the shop floor would become strategically invaluable territory.
Black workers made up almost three quarters of the workforce in Detroit auto-factories by the late 1960s. And by virtually every measure, they faced worse working conditions than their white counterparts, who often held more seniority and worked in skilled trades.
The Great Rebellion exposed the vulnerability of the city government, auto-company management, and the timid union bureaucrats. Marty Glaberman, a long time socialist and a close comrade of C. L. R. James, reported to the British International Socialist Journal in 1969 that, “The power of the black industrial working class was indicated,” during the rebellion, “by the fact that the July days saw the shutdown of three giants of American capitalism: Ford, Chrysler and General Motors.”
General Baker, a shop-floor leader at Dodge Main and co-founder of the League, was fond of recalling later in his life that he had begun to recognize his own power as a worker during the rebellion when he realized that the only people allowed on the streets during the rioting were autoworkers travelling to and from the factories.
The mood on the streets of Detroit following the uprising was militant but unorganized. Baker along with others who you’ll see in the film, including John Watson and Ken Cockrell, Sr., aimed to organize that mood into a coherent political force through the publication of Inner City Voice, a monthly revolutionary newspaper.
Its creators viewed ICV saw the newspaper a vehicle for political organization and education. They sought to connect with and sharpen the militant mood on the streets by providing a radical political analysis in clear and accessible language. It was intentionally modeled on Lenin’s classical vision of the revolutionary press. It was the “scaffolding” (to use Lenin’s metaphor) for their movement’s theoretical and practical activity.
ICV quickly gained a devoted readership in spite of repeated political repression and censorship. In a test of their growing influence, a coterie of shop-floor militants close to the ICV and led by General Baker, organized a 5,000 strong wildcat strike at Dodge Main in May of 1968. The Great Rebellion had arrived within the factory gates.
The Dodge Main group called itself the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement or DRUM. Their efforts inspired Black workers in plants and industry around the region. Revolutionary Union Movement groups began to form at Ford, Chrysler, UPS, and elsewhere. The League was formed in June 1969 to help coordinate and spread these groups.
POLITICS of the LEAGUE
The League was set apart from other movements of its time by its unwavering emphasis on working class politics and leadership. One League co-founder, Mike Hamlin, explained to Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin in the book, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying that,
“We came to believe that the working class had to make the revolution, had to lead the revolution, and that we had to concentrate our energies on workers…Community organizing and industrial organizing are linked up. They go together. The working class should lead the community effort.”
The task of organizing the working class as a whole meant directly confronting racial division and hostility within the working class. While the League actively put forward class wide demands that were in the interests of both Black and white workers their energy was focused on the organization of Black workers.
The League argued that capitalism has always relied on the hyper-exploitation of Black labor, from slavery to the modern “plant-ation,” and that maintaining class exploitation required both disciplining Black labor and dividing the working class along racial lines.
John Watson, perhaps the most influential political figure in the League, argued in an interview for the magazine The Fifth Estate that,
“If you look at the history of the black liberation movement over the last 200 years, you’ll find that there have been numerous coalitions, alliances, mergers, between black and white workers. Almost every time that this type of organization has developed and moved to the point where it was actually threatening the system, the system resorted by attacking the movement through racist campaigns.”
In addition to building solidarity with white workers, the League also published materials translated to Arabic to build bridges with Detroit’s large Arab immigrant population and published material in solidarity with the struggle against the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
FINALLY GOT THE NEWS
Finally Got the News was seen as an extension of the League’s propaganda. It was viewed as a tool to carry their politics to a mass audience.
Viewed today, the ideas in the film may seem to be an ancient artifact from a moment radically unlike our own. Forty years of neoliberal backlash have rendered shop-floor militancy a rare gift. However, I believe everyone who watches the film will be inevitably drawn toward considering many of the questions posed by today’s struggles for Black Lives and social equality.