Graveyard Detroit

Graveyard Detroit

By Imam Zaid Shakir

Detroit, Michigan is an historic American city. From its humble roots as a French trading post in the early Eighteenth Century, it grew to become one of the largest cities in the United States. It was nearly burned to the ground by fire in 1805, and was scorched by the flames of race riots in 1863, 1943 and 1967. During the Twentieth Century, its fate has waxed and waned with the rise and fall of the American auto industry. However, despite its travails, the city has displayed resiliency and had witnessed a comeback of sorts in recent years with the renewal of its downtown and riverfront areas, at least before the great financial meltdown of 2008.

A graveyard is a place where physically dead bodies are interred. This is its literal meaning. However, the word graveyard also has a figurative meaning.  It is a place where worn-out or obsolete equipment or objects are kept. Its meaning can be stretched to include a depository of worn-out ideas. In this latter sense, recent events have conspired to render Detroit a graveyard. The city serves to remind us of many worn out, expired and discredited ideas.

Among them are: the idea that for African Americans the North represented an improvement over the conditions that prevailed in the South; the idea that major American corporations are the engines of economic growth and prosperity for the masses of working people; the idea that an inherent radical “Islamic” threat challenges the hegemony of a militarized American state; and the idea that extremist “Islamist” violence can possibly secure any good for Muslim people and their causes.

The Myth of the “Promised Land”

Many African Americans viewed the North as a mythical “promised land.” The racist terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, the Red Shirts, the White League and similar groups, which was almost omnipresent in the South, was absent from the large cities of the North. Furthermore, factory work promised relatively high paying jobs, free from the vagaries of the oppressive farms of the South where work, in many instances amounted to legalized slavery. For many black folks, Detroit epitomized the promise of the North. They found plentiful work in the burgeoning factories springing up around the city’s auto industry. As a result, through the middle decades of the Twentieth Century, an expanding black middle class would gradually leave an extensive imprint on the social, cultural and political life of the city.

Detroit’s black middle class would contribute intellectual giants such as Reverend C.L. Franklin to America’s civil rights struggle. Individuals such as the boxer Joe Louis, Franklin’s daughter, Aretha, and the many recording artists of Berry Gordy’s Motown Records became American cultural icons. The prosperity of Detroit’s black middle class, in the 1940s and 1950s, was symbolized by “Paradise Valley” and its scores of black owned establishments such as the elegant Gotham Hotel. 

However, the overwhelming majority of black folks migrating to Detroit did not find heaven in the North. They found hell. They were housed in dirty, dilapidated slums as racially segregated as any southern neighborhood. Fluctuating economic cycles and the gradual exodus of manufacturing jobs led to high unemployment rates that would exacerbate tensions between the new arrivals and more established white workers. Tens of thousands would never find meaningful employment, or decent housing.

The harsh economic realities of life in the North were exacerbated by harsh social realities. Crammed into rundown ghettos, cut off from the safety net of their extended southern families, denied access to higher education that was available in the historical black colleges and universities that had been established in the South, –Howard, Morehouse, Fisk, Tuskegee, etc. –many sought refuge in readily available drugs such as heroin or cocaine, and alcohol.

The highways built in the 1950s – the construction of one, Interstate 75, led to the bulldozing of Paradise Valley - facilitated the massive white flight of the 1950s and 1960s from Detroit to now accessible distant suburbs. Another flight, that of the black middle class from the inner-city areas to the abandoned white neighborhoods, rendered Detroit’s inner-city neighborhoods poorer and more dysfunctional.

These developments, culminating in the destructive riots of 1967 (over 2,500 structures were destroyed), rendered Detroit the symbolic graveyard of the “Promised Land” idea that had attracted so many black folks to the North. Its tombstones are the blocks of burned out and ravaged buildings and homes. Many of these areas have been abandoned and they give those parts of inner-city Detroit the look and feel of Berlin or Tokyo after the firebombing of those cities.

The obituary of that dream was twice written, both times in Detroit, in July 1984 and a decade later in August 1994. First, by the death of Reverend C.L. Franklin, who had fallen into a coma after being shot during a robbery of his home five years earlier. Second, when Rosa Parks, whose heroic defiance had ignited the even more heroic African American civil rights struggle, was robbed and beaten in her Detroit home. The dream they represented was no longer deferred. In Detroit, it was dead.

As GM Goes, So Goes the Nation

The Detroit auto industry represented a different type of dream for another set of people: the white middle class. Karl Marx, posited that capitalism, and the bourgeoisie it disproportionately benefitted, would collapse in the face of a massive worker or proletariat revolution brought on by the systematic expansion and impoverishment of the laboring class, and the equally systematic shrinking and enrichment of the owning class.

The emergence of the Detroit auto industry in the early years of the Twentieth Century, catapulted by management and production techniques introduced by Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford, would lead to levels of proficiency and scales of production that facilitated the popularization of easily affordable automobiles and unimagined profits. During the middle decades of the Twentieth Century, increasingly large shares of those profits would find their way into the pockets of laborers, owing in large part to the unionizing efforts of the AFL-CIO (AFL –American Federation of Labor; CIO –Congress of Industrial Organizations) and its sometimes estranged sister, the UAW (United Auto Workers).

The unionized auto industry, largely serving a white constituency, would never know the kind of revolutionary upheavals Marx and others had predicted. The white middle class emerging in Detroit not only escaped the collective misery Marx had envisioned for workers, but the automobile and its associated mobility, lifestyle and restructuring of urban and rural space led to the creation of an entirely different and deceptively enticing way of life, suburbia.

It is not coincidental that suburbia, and the deeply fragmented, alienated and racially segregated lifestyle it encouraged would be most startlingly illustrated in the vicinity of Detroit, home of the auto industry that drove white flight nationwide. “Whitetopia,” a mythical land where home ownership, having become the signal designator for attaining the American dream, where the poverty of menacing black folks, and the perceived or real criminality it breeds, was a distant reality left for others to deal with; and where consumerist passions, fueled by the salaries gifted to workers by decades of unionizing, could be freely engaged, first in the strip malls that littered the suburban landscape, and latter in huge self-enclosed mega-malls.

Unfortunately, labor’s victory would prove ephemeral. The auto industry, colluding with big oil, would pay little heed to fuel efficiency. When global economic conditions led to exponential increases in fuel prices, American gas guzzlers could not compete with far more fuel efficient and increasingly better-made foreign cars, especially Japanese ones. The rising strength of the Japanese and European auto industries and the ever larger slices of both the American and global markets they were able to win from their American rivals led to declining profits, and accelerating numbers of layoffs and plant closures in the States.

During the 1980s and 1990s unions were forced to give back many of the hard-earned benefits they had garnered for workers. Those workers who still had jobs in the auto industry found themselves struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile, the Detroit-based automakers, seduced by the infusion of bogus wealth into the American financial system during the late 1990s and the first few years of the Twenty-First Century, in the aftermath of the liberal policies of Bill Clinton, policies epitomized by his gutting the Glass-Steagall Act, banked on the continued popularity of energy inefficient, but highly profitable sports utility vehicles (SUVs). However, in the wake of steadily rising fuel prices beginning in 2003 and the financial meltdown of 2008, both the demand for SUVs, and an already hampered American auto industry, collapsed.

That twin collapse, automotive and financial, would severely cripple the “Whitetopia” surrounding Detroit. Thousands of homes fell into foreclosure or were sold at a loss as their owners packed up and ironically headed south.  Many of these properties were abandoned to the rapacious banks that encouraged their purchase through levels of manipulation and mendacity that have not been witnessed in this country since the era of the Nineteenth Century robber barons.

With the collapse of the Detroit auto industry, and the refusal of a government that had given trillions of dollars to “bail out” the banking and financial sectors to save it, the idea that big business would be the engine pushing the prosperity of the American, mostly white, middle class has died. Like the African American dream of a promised land, its graveyard is Detroit. One of its tombstones is the rusting factories in and around the city, surrounded by acres of abandoned parking lots that resemble lonely blacktopped deserts. Another is the vacated, puddle-splattered, unfinished concrete foundations and weed-filled lots of distant suburban developments started at the height of the housing bubble in 2005-2006, now given up for dead.

The Menace of “Islamic” Terrorism

Detroit is also the graveyard of the idea of the menacing Islamic enemy. That there is the threat of a minuscule percentage of alienated, suicidal or just plain angry Muslims engaging in acts of mindless violence that threaten the lives of an even more miniscule percentage of Americans is undeniable. However, the idea that there is a strategically significant Islamic threat possessing any significant resources that can be translated into the kind of power needed to challenge a militarized America or its global financial empire is a baseless fiction.

The killing of Imam Luqman Abdullah, a Muslim activist in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Detroit exposes that fiction. Imam Luqman was allegedly the leader of a group of radical, separatist-minded Muslims whose potential danger warranted the infiltration and surveillance of their mosque, entrapping them in an elaborate scheme involving stolen property and finally the staged ambush and brutal slaughter of the Imam.

The entire operation exposes the fictitious and empty nature of the Islamic threat. While it is true that Imam Luqman was known to engage in fierce anti-American rhetoric, what actual capabilities did he and his followers possess? Their mosque, in one of the poorest sections of Detroit, is in serious disrepair and threatened with foreclosure. The state of the mosque alone demands that one asks, “How could a group so poor that it could barely afford to operate a small mosque in one of the poorest neighborhoods in America overthrow the United States government or establish a separate state anywhere on American soil?” The answer is obvious except to those whose minds are so poisoned by their narrow, self-serving agenda that they cannot see reality for what it is.

Hence, when Imam Luqman was gunned down by a hail of bullets unleashed by the agents arrayed against him, the real nature of the threat he represents was exposed. Even if he did possess a single firearm, as it is alleged, what threat did he represent in the face of the fully automatic high caliber arsenal in the hands of the bulletproof vested, numerically superior forces arrayed against him? Little or none! Extrapolate from that situation to the global confrontation between America and “radical” Islam and you will understand the true nature of the “Islamic” threat.

With the brutal murder of Imam Luqman, Detroit is once again a symbolic graveyard. In it is buried the idea of the existential Islamic threat. Its tombstones are the tiny mosque Imam Luqman once headed and the cold warehouse in nearby Dearborn where he was gunned down, handcuffed, and then left to die with less dignity than the shot government dog that was evacuated by helicopter from the scene.

The Glorious “Jihad”

Finally, Detroit is a graveyard for the idea that “Islamic” terrorism can secure any benefit for the Muslim people. That idea fizzled as surely as the bomb allegedly hidden in Farouk Abdul Mutallab’s underwear fizzled over the skies of Detroit –an unexploded, unspectacular, yet unmitigated disaster.

In the aftermath of that event we are left to ask, “What benefit would have accrued to Muslims had that bomb exploded, murdering three hundred unsuspecting, innocent passengers in American airspace on Christmas Day?” None whatsoever! Instead, an exponentially larger number of impoverished, innocent Muslims than those already experiencing American-style justice would have bombs and rockets raining down on their towns, hamlets and villages. An exponentially larger number of innocent Muslims than those already herded into dungeons scattered around the world would be hauled off to be tortured, brutalized and humiliated.

Ordinary Muslims, with no connection to the troubled stranger who operated so ruthlessly in their name with neither their permission nor their counsel would have been left to bear the consequences of his act of unenlightened self-negation. The noble actions of those people resisting the occupation of their lands, the usurpation of their resources, and rankled by the murders and humiliation of their countrymen and women would be callously dismissed as wanton “terrorism.” Furthermore, the patience of even sympathetic Americans, rendered insensitive by the coldblooded action of a clearly disturbed individual, would have been seriously challenged.

There are deeper questions one can ask concerning the nature, targeting, timing and efficacy of the violence of the so-called “Jihad” movement, but we will leave those for another time. For now we will just state that the idea of any benefit accruing to Islam as a result of “Islamic” terror died December 25, 2009 aboard Detroit-bound Northwest Flight 253. Its tombstone is in the Detroit-area dungeon Farouk Abdul Mutallab has been thrown into.


So what is the connection between these disparate ideas buried in Graveyard Detroit? African Americans, most of whom are still waiting for the deposit of the funds to cover the bad check Dr. King referred to in one of his speeches, the white middle class whose homes, retirement and pension funds, jobs and sense of security have been stolen by the latter-day robber barons, and Muslims along with others whose lives and lands have been or will soon be laid waste by the American war machine? They must all be made to see that they are being brutalized by the same globalized corporate forces. That being the case, they must find ways to unite if their resistance to those forces is to have any efficacy.

For example, African Americans cannot see Latinos who are “stealing all of the jobs” as the enemy. They must understand that the system that forces campesinos from their land through unjust and inequitable agricultural policies and sends them flowing desperately northward is the same system that structurally marginalizes and criminalizes young African American men and then profits off their incarceration. 

Disenfranchised white folks must understand that Islam is neither their enemy nor a threat to their existence any more than the Vietnamese in the 1960s, Latin Americans leftist organizations in the 1980s or tomorrow’s bogeyman, whoever it may be. All of our “enemies du jour” are just desperate people trying to the best of their understanding and ability to preserve their land, culture, and resources against the rapacious appetite of a global empire. The white middle class must understand that it is not the Muslims who have closed down their factories, eliminated their jobs, stolen their retirement funds, devalued their homes, and burdened their children with a mountain of debt by bailing out the banks, insurance underwriters and finance houses.

Furthermore, the white middle class has to stop playing the silly game of political musical chairs, blaming the incumbent party, be it the democrats or the republicans, for the ravages of a morbid system. The problem is not the democrats or the republicans when both parties have sold out to the corporate interests whose army of lobbyists floods Capital Hill shelling out money to the quislings of both parties who in turn sell out the voters they pretend so hypocritically to serve. The problem is a system that facilitates such a pernicious farce.

The mounting frustrations of the white middle class against the failures and excesses of the political system will not be solved by tea party protests or scapegoating hapless groups such as Muslims or Latino immigrants. Only united and focused nonviolent political action that works to undo the oppressive structures that advance what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as the evil triplets of poverty, racism, and militarism will lead to any lasting change in this country. The white middle class, or its surviving vestiges, must be an integral part of such action.

For their part, Muslims must have the wisdom, insight and sagacity to realize that the current wars being visited upon Muslims are not evidence of an American or Jewish-led crusade against the faithful, any more than the Vietnam War, the first Iraq War or the invasions of Panama or Grenada were crusades – despite the existence of some rhetoric that conveys that impression. They are all geostrategic conflagrations fueled by an outdated Machiavellian logic that ultimately transcends religion.

Muslims must also realize that in some instances poor people in America are brutalized by the police, prison guards, ICE officers and other agents of the state in ways that make many poor neighborhoods in America microcosms of occupied Muslim lands. The validity of this comparison is reinforced by the image of Blackwater mercenaries prowling the streets of New Orleans keeping the “refugees” in check in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Muslims must also understand that there are many American groups and individuals, including Jewish ones, who are working tirelessly to reverse the policies that demonize Muslims and direct bombs and missiles towards their lands. Furthermore, Muslims must see that only by forming bonds of solidarity with those oppressed groups in America and elsewhere will they gain the critical mass needed to begin addressing their grievances and alleviating their suffering.

There is no group, which alone can undo the dangerous policies and politics of a global empire that in many ways threatens the very existence of our planet. Opposing that oppressive force will require a globalized resistance that has the ability, like transnational corporations and their surrogates, to transcend national boundaries. That resistance must have the insight to engage in a deep level of analysis that looks beyond the superficial categories presented by corporate-sponsored pundits and ideologues to see the underlying causes of our collective problems, the structures that unite the disparate groups that suffer as a result of the policies that facilitate the corporate dominance of the world, and the strategies that will be needed to move forward.

If Graveyard Detroit can teach us anything, it is the degree to which our lives have become intertwined. Whites, African Americans and large numbers of Arabs, many of them Muslims –Lebanese, Iraqis, Yemenis, Syrians and others - live in and around Detroit. Globalizing economic forces have brought them together, and despite the periodic traumas and great stresses that threaten to tear them apart they have been able to form a civic community, which had begun, prior to the 2008 financial meltdown, to come together to begin to rebuild their city. If these communities are able to regroup and then cross the lines that divide them, perhaps their example will inspire a world in desperate need for a new direction, and Graveyard Detroit can become a symbol of rebirth. 

SOURCE:  Imam Zaid Shakir’s site New Islamic Directions