Nobody is a villain in their own eyes.
In the movie Three Kings, about the first "Iraq War," a black soldier, asked why he's serving in Iraq answers: "I come from Detroit. I'm on vacation."
The "inner city" of Detroit used to be home to over two and a half million people. Today, if the statistics are correct, the same area is populated by a half million. In its "golden age"--the 1950's--as my father used to say it was tied with Brooklyn, N.Y. as the fifth largest city in America.
The last time I visited "the old house on Lawrence," it was the last house standing for five or six acres. It looks a lot like Berlin after the war or Gaza today. We were on the "near" East Side. The tower beside the original G.M. Headquarters was visible from my bedroom window. The other houses in the neighborhood, once the proud residences of a proud community, were burnt out hulks. There was a corn field where the houses that used to shelter the prettiest girls you ever saw once lived.
Today, we talk about New Orleans and the terrible disaster brought about by Katrina, the neglect of the "city fathers" to protect the city from a natural disaster, but what about Detroit--by far the greatest "disaster" an American city has suffered in the nation's history--but aside from the latest political scandal, the causes go unmentioned, unexamined, and not on any radar I've seen--even as the auto industry is going under.
When I grew-up the problems were beginning. The city was increasingly ruled by gangs--white gangs, black gangs, Spanish gangs, Arab gangs, motorcycle gangs. Anybody from any ethnic group that gathered in numbers of more than one had a gang. There was no longer a sense of civic community.
By the time I was fifteen I'd been in a half a dozen fights where it was pure luck I survived. The stories don't deserve telling any more--they only bring it all back. Some of my friends and their parents or relatives did not survive. The city was divided into invisible territories--pity the kid on the wrong turf without staunch companions.
The worst offenders were often the cops, most of whom were ill equipped for their task--including my own uncle and godfather who turned out to be a life-long racist. The city became known as the "murder capital," until the riots in the late 60's when any semblance of civility was wiped off the charts--and still "nobody knew nothin'."
When the drug epidemic arrived, the city was a stewing goose with swollen veins. The citizens of old Detroit were witnesses to humanity turning against itself in a lethal display of ignorance, naivete, racism, over expectations, self-destruction, and a disparate culture that still hadn't decided what it had in common, and what was worth saving.
It's important to note the country itself was then undergoing a cataclysmic transformation in which it totally re-defined itself in ways that are just now coming to fruition. Detroit and the working class cities attached to it may well have been it's greatest loser. The Catholic Church, for instance, one of the most stabilizing influences in the city was about to see most of its priests and nuns walk out the door, and an institution that had maintained itself all through the formative years of the city would never be the same. (I'm not saying that's the reason for the downfall of Detroit, only one example of the shifting of the "old order" that too frequently goes unmentioned.)
What's also peculiar is this wasn't a time of scarcity, but the greatest abundance the city had ever seen. The American auto industry had yet to be challenged and beaten at home and abroad by the Germans and the Japanese. Perhaps, it simply taught more than has been fully recognized, since everyone knows its plight and to admit it is to admit their own powerlessness.
It doesn't fit the simplistic economic analysis. That much is known. While the labor/management battle had been under way since the 20's; the finger pointing was a way a life then as it is now--the battle in the streets seem hardly noticed by the leadership of the city, and when it was--it was too little, too late. My grandfather was a politician and my father lived in that same house for 50ty years. Neither of them had a clue what was going on.
When I came home beaten and bloody, his attitude echoed my friends' fathers. "What'd you do--call somebody a name?"
"No dad. What do you think I am--dumb?"
"People don't start fights for no reason. You must have said something."
It was denial on a collective and individual basis. The same kind of denial seen all over the world when one people are subjugated by another at one time in their history and take it out on whoever gets in their way. My family had been in the city for three generations, and before that three generations on the farms near the Ohio border. The newcomers had something to prove--as newcomers always seem to do.
The city provided a wealth and freedom not known to the recent arrivals from any background, but it didn't make up for the repression they had suffered--the shame that had been dealt them they wanted to rid themselves of at any cost.
What I am arguing for here, and probably not making many friends doing so, is a way to look at the seemingly indecipherable and intractable conflicts that break out here and elsewhere in terms of a simple human axiom.
The oppressed will oppress in a seemingly endless cycle of repression until a few individuals start to wake up and speak out, or conditions become unavoidable that there has to be another way. I wonder if that isn't finally happening in the Middle East, and yet there are those who still can't quite make up their mind what to do next. This suffering has got to stop and I believe it's important more Americans start to look at it in terms of our common humanity.
Coming from Detroit, I learned the lesson a lot earlier than most. A repressed collective, regardless of their race, will not respond logically; they will not follow the "ideals" projected upon them by an unaware and incredulous world of outsiders--who only make matters worse by reacting themselves--as the established population of Detroit did when they panicked and ran en mass to the suburbs and abandoned the city to the mob mentality.
It's so endemic to the human condition it is hard to explain why it's necessary to be brought up, but it does if there is to be any understanding in the future. I've been writing about the Middle East lately and been called a lot of names for it--I think mostly by people who are themselves in the grips of a fear that is irrational and they will steadfastly deny. Instead, they will only make more enemies and more victims defending actions that are reprehensible and ultimately self-destructive to themselves and the nation they hold dear.
My family finally moved to the suburbs in my last year of high school, after one of my sisters had been nearly accosted. That was the last straw for my mother. We were among the last of the "old" families to go. She moved us to Royal Oak in a matter of months and told dad he was welcome to come along. (The poor man had the shit scared out of him by the Jesuits, but he was no fool.)
It was a lillywhite neighborhood--part of the "white wall" that surrounded old Detroit and still does. They said a black family lived near us, but I never actually saw them. One day a lady from the NAACP came to class to talk about racial equality. I knew instantly she was of mixed race, and intermediary at a time when that took a courage that is hard to imagine.
When she was done explaining the radical truth that we are all created equal, she asked if there were any questions. The pimply kid sitting next to me raised his hand. "Do Negroes have tails?" he asked--with not a fucking hint of sarcasm.
My stomach formed a hard knot. Back in "old Detroit" the bloodbath would have been begun in a matter of minutes. Race was as forbidden a subject as sex. I couldn't imagine what the woman was going to say. I hadn't known how deep the divide was--how much ignorance there was among those who had not been exposed to what I had been exposed to.
"No," the kindly woman said. "Negroes do not have tails. Thank you for the question." And neither do Palestinians, or Hamas, or any other of the demons that arise when the soul of a people is squashed.