A raucous crowd interrupted a meeting of state of Michigan and Detroit officials this week who gathered to hammer out a deal to avoid triggering Public Act 4, the controversial emergency manager law.
“No justice, no peace,” “no takeover” chanted protestors who also sang the anthem of the civil rights movement, “we shall overcome.”
But it was self-ordained militant troublemaker Malik Shabazz who perilously fanned the flaming rhetoric.
“We understand we have financial difficulties,” Shabazz said. “Give us the help we want, need and deserve, not the help you want to impose on us. We don’t want an emergency manager or a consent decree. This is white supremacy and we will fight you.
“Before we let you take over our city we will burn it down first,” Shabazz defiantly stated.
It was an asinine pronouncement. Shabazz may have just as well shouted “burn, baby burn,” a reference to the mantra that accompanied the riots that set urban cities across America ablaze during the 1960s.
His pending-doom threat irresponsibly sows the seeds of destruction witnessed during the July 1967 riot when Detroit erupted in unprecedented fury. In its aftermath were 43 deaths, hundreds jailed, blocks of devastated homes and businesses and millions of dollars in property damage.
The Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to identify the cause and determine how future riots here and in other cities could be avoided, said “white racism” that was “essentially responsible for the explosive mixture that has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”
Shabazz wasn’t around then, but other civil rights activists, religious, government, labor and business leaders embraced the Commission’s recommendation that called for national action to deal with urban ills.
The proposed therapy included a massive infusion of money, scores of government-created jobs, a higher minimum wage, significant increases in welfare benefits and increased spending on education and housing.
Both the conclusion and recommendations of the Commission turned out to be specious. Trillions of dollars in failed government-sponsored grants and programs that subsequently poured into Detroit and other urban areas could not rescue those brooding in the drug polluted, economically distressed, crime ridden neighborhoods. Most of the money went into the pockets of bottom feeders like the reprehensible Shabazz, who capitalized on the despair.
But the damage was done. The ‘67 outburst sent many middle-class residents stampeding to the suburbs. As homeowners and businesses disappeared, Detroit’s once bustling arteries became lined with boarded up storefronts and trash-strewn lots.
More than four decades after that fateful upheaval, Detroiters face a crisis different in character though no less severe. Crime and violence keeps many neighborhoods in constant danger. Alienation of the chronically poor from the mainstream has grown worse. Add mismanagement, corruption and fiscal uncertainty and the extent of the hopelessness is overwhelming.
Today, the problems plaguing the able and destitute have nothing to do with “white racism.” What ails them is also impervious to a government solution that drip feeds more money into a bottomless void. What remained constant are the rhetorical declarations that Detroit is destined to explode until old demands are met or conditions eliminated.
We can only hope that Detroiters are beyond blindly lashing out and engaging in the kind of mass lawlessness Shabazz is calling for. To advance the notion that chaos constitutes the only available option is reckless and inflammatory. To even hint that rioting or disorder is inevitable – or even understandable – is inexcusable and might even become a self-filling prophecy. Shabazz deserves our scorn, not our respect.
Detroit’s political elite must also move beyond expedients and come up with a long-range recovery strategy that makes sense. Otherwise residents may feel they have nothing to lose by striking the match that sends the city on a fiery descent into a hellish abyss from which all is lost.