This is not your father’s working class.
On Wednesday evening at Detroit’s Wayne State University, the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) held an “emergency meeting” that was to feature residents of Flint, whose water has been poisoned with lead and other contaminants, and Detroit Public Schools (DPS) teachers who have been staging “sickouts” for the past two weeks to protest, among other things, the deplorable conditions of the city’s schools.
The meeting as advertised held promise. The idea of bringing together Flint residents and Detroit teachers suggested the tantalizing possibility of galvanizing a unified class identity between the two groups. What discussion might occur if the two groups and others at the meeting took up common cause, identifying the common sources of the two disasters and developing a common response? And with the eyes of the country momentarily on both Flint and Detroit, what national effect might a melding of the two cities’ protests have?
Unfortunately for the meeting and these hopes of class unification, too many eyes were on Flint last night. Rachel Maddow and the MSNBC cameras had descended upon the city to hold a “town meeting,” and almost all of the Flint residents who had planned to attend the meeting in Detroit opted for the cable news show as the bullier pulpit.
Also unfortunate for the SEP meeting was the fact that, though DPS teachers were reputed to be in the audience of approximately 100, none chose to speak during the long open discussion segment of the evening.
In fact, most of the audience was comprised of Wayne State students, some of whom had come in order to earn extra credit for a class. Nevertheless, the audience did range broadly in age with many of those on hand demonstrating strong feelings about both issues and about the state government they hold responsible. So what went wrong?
The evening began with talks by two SEP leaders. First was Lawrence Porter, who spoke of a pattern of unrest among the working class. He cited the recent rift between the United Auto Workers (UAW) and its rank-and-file membership over the sellout contracts the union “negotiated” (my quotes) with the Big Three automakers. Porter compared that situation with the teacher sickouts, which are being held in open defiance to the teachers’ union, the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT). The people of Flint too, Porter suggested, find themselves abandoned by the entity they had relied on, the State of Michigan, and are protesting in outrage, demanding the resignation and even the arrest of Governor Rick Snyder.
The next speaker was SEP’s Jerry White. A strong orator with occasional fiery flashes, White delivered a tour de force analysis of the decimation of Michigan’s formerly industrial cities, laying the blame right at the feet of the corporations who pulled out of Flint and Detroit decades ago, turning the two cities with the nation’s highest per capita incomes in the 1960’s into centers of blight where the state’s monied interests now seek to privatize necessities like water and public education. The mantra of “There’s no money,” so reliably heard in response to the people’s protests, White said, is belied by the country’s constant and astronomical spending on war.
White concluded to warm applause, opening the floor to audience questions and comments, and asking specifically for ideas to lead the way forward for the working class. One speaker warned of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) in the world’s food supply and decried the revolving door between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and GMO giant Monsanto. Another cited the threat to the nation’s water supply, and freedom, by a corporate plan to privatize drinking water, recommending citizens provide themselves with water catchment systems. A third, a former soldier, called for boycotts of banks and corporate stores as a way of diminishing their power over workers.
The night’s most moving moment came when Baxter Jones, a former Detroit school teacher and coach, was wheeled to the front to speak. Jones, disabled by a car accident in 2005 and laid off by the DPS in 2010, has been on a hunger strike since September. Like the evening’s theme, his protest is broad. In 2010 Fannie Mae foreclosed on his home, and in 2013 he was finally evicted. Since then he has taken up the fight for all Americans in a similar plight and, outraged over what has been done to Flint, he has added the necessity of and human right to clean water to his cause.
Weakened and hoarse, Jones spoke with feeling about the need for grassroots movements (a term he found most of the college students in the audience had never heard). He also spoke of “bullying” as a metaphor for what was happening to those in Flint and to those Americans who have lost their homes to the greed of banks. Jones’s message resonated with the crowd.
So just what went wrong?
Photo credit: techonomy.com