If you want to understand how US cities became what they are today, look to Detroit. In 1980, Detroit handed General Motors more than $100 million to build a new factory where the working-class Poletown neighborhood stood. After months of protest, it took deploying a SWAT team to clear out the last residents (including women in their seventies), who were sheltering in a church. These types of corporate inducements have emptied Detroit’s coffers, and the poorest residents have shouldered the burden. Since the city’s bankruptcy in 2013, thousands of families with unpaid water bills or property taxes have been evicted: victims of predatory mortgages, illegal and discriminatory tax assessments, and water bills that have increased 120 percent.
If you want to understand what US cities will become in the future, look—again—to Detroit. In particular, look at this photograph from 2016. A group of people sit on a sidewalk, reclining against a construction fence. The heat of the city is palpable. Behind them, a slogan on the fence captures Detroit’s industrial history, postindustrial nadir, and purported rebirth, all at once. AMERICAN CRAFTSMANSHIP AND URBAN LUXURY, it says. THE HOTEL ONLY DETROIT COULD BUILD. On one panel of fencing is the corporate logo for Bedrock, one of the real-estate companies owned by Dan Gilbert, who also owns the Cleveland Cavaliers. On the other, the logo for Shinola, a company which, before it entered the hotel business, was best known as Barack Obama’s favorite watch brand.
A few minutes after the photograph was taken, Detroit police and private security cleared the area. If the Shinola hotel is meant to celebrate Detroit’s industrial past and predict its future, it’s a vision in which there’s apparently no room for the city’s Black majority.
The police—today, yesterday, and tomorrow—are here to ensure the city looks only one way. With housing-justice campaigns gaining power and calls to “defund” putting the human and fiscal cost of policing at the center of political debate, understanding the relationship between gentrification and police power is more important than ever.
With A People’s History of Detroit, Mark Jay and Philip Conklin have begun to do this work. Their book is equal parts an urban history of a single city and a sweeping theory of capitalism. (The photo described above is from the book.) Against the dominant narrative of Detroit’s “renaissance,” some contend that there are two Detroits, separate and unequal. But Jay and Conklin take a third approach: A People’s History of Detroit is “a tale of one city,” in which an urban renaissance is being built on the backs of ordinary residents.
Jay and Conklin join a growing number of scholars, activists, and filmmakers attacking Detroit’s booster narrative by instead holding both Detroits in the same frame. And what unites these two seemingly separate cities, Jay and Conklin show, is policing: with officers serving as the shock troops of displacement and dispossession.
For Detroit to run on tourism and high-end consumption requires the dispossession of the majority, backed by the power of police.
In almost everything that has been written about Detroit’s bankruptcy and cultural reinvention, the city is treated as exceptional. Detroit is said to have the opposite problems of San Francisco, say, or New York. Instead of an acute housing shortage driven by unsustainable growth, the story of Detroit is one of massive population and job loss going back decades. But while the current mayor laments that Detroit is no longer a “center of invention,” post-Fordist Detroit continues to innovate. Today, the city is a model for governance-by-dispossession.
The Shinola hotel photo is a window into how police enforce the cost of uneven development. For Detroit to run on tourism and high-end consumption requires the dispossession of the majority, through mass home foreclosures, water shutoffs, and regressive tax policies—each backed by the power of police.
That inequality is inherent to capitalism would not have been news to the radical thinkers of Detroit’s past. To a greater extent than other books on the city, A People’s History draws on a long genealogy of Detroit activists, including James and Grace Lee Boggs, Raya Dunayevskaya, C. L. R. James, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW). Across different eras and from different positions, these activists sought to make Detroit into “an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism,” as LRBW cofounder and City Council member Kenneth Cockrel put it, in the 1980 documentary Taking Back Detroit.
But A People’s History of Detroit builds on this legacy by emphasizing that the police are an engine of uneven development. Just as the global North developed by dispossessing the global South, so are Detroit’s core and periphery mutually constitutive. The constant possibility of military intervention underpinned colonial “indirect rule,” and discretionary policing performs a similar function in today’s cities.
When Coleman Young was elected Detroit’s first Black mayor, in 1973, he promised to remake Detroit into an exemplar of “law and order, with justice.” Young’s inauguration speech famously linked the city’s fortunes to its ability to get the Black underclass in line. “I issue forward a warning now to all dope pushers, to all ripoff artists, to all muggers,” Young proclaimed. “It’s time to leave Detroit.”
Black liberals like Coleman Young believed they could strip Nixonian “law and order” policies of their racist subtext and pull local police departments back from their unconstitutional excesses. In practice, however, law-and-order liberalism shared much DNA with the policies of Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan. Just look to the violent dispossession of residents to make way for General Motors and ask how different this process was from past violence—or the violence practiced today.
In Detroit today, politicians sell law and order and exclusive redevelopment as the city’s spiritual redemption. Once synonymous with the Big Three auto manufacturers, Downtown Detroit is fast becoming a real-estate playground. Between 2006 and 2014, investors funnelled more than $9 billion into Greater Downtown real estate, with hundreds of millions more handed out by the city and state governments in tax breaks in the years since.
The poster boy of this recapitalization is Dan Gilbert, founder of a stable of finance, real estate, and technology companies that includes Quicken Loans, the nation’s largest mortgage lender. Gilbert and his companies have snapped up hundreds of buildings in the rebranded “Midtown” area, just north of Downtown.
Shepherding these investments requires a major show of police power. Gilbert has enlisted the Detroit Police Department and private security companies, while also creating a veritable panopticon of surveillance technologies. This effort includes having cameras installed on the roofs of buildings his companies do not own. Gilbert’s security guards can directly radio the Detroit Police Department, a special relationship that mirrors the city’s Project Green Light, in which businesses pay a premium to have cameras that feed directly to the police via Comcast.
This combination of police power, privatized security, and technology behemoths is becoming a staple of gentrifying cities around the country. In 2017, Detroit attempted to woo Amazon to build its second headquarters in the city, with a little help from Dan Gilbert. Gilbert urged the company to “discover the opportunity that is called ‘Detroit.’” The city’s $4 billion package of incentives failed to set its bid apart, however, further showing how these types of giveaways have become a race to the bottom for cities—one that Detroit helped start. As Coleman Young wrote in his 1994 autobiography, “Detroit today has always been your town tomorrow.”1
The problem is an ideology that treats marginalized Detroiters as impediments to economic growth.
Understanding that police enforce uneven development forces us to recognize gentrification as a material process more than a cultural one. The number of white people in Detroit has increased by more than 25 percent since 2010, with most settling in Downtown or Midtown, the latter an area that was the epicenter of Black radical organizing in the late 1960s.2 Since 2010, it’s been known as the place Dan Gilbert’s companies have set up shop.
“Gilbert now effectively owns more than half of Downtown Detroit,” Jay and Conklin observe, “an area of more than 13 million square feet.” Rents have doubled in so-called “Gilbertville,” while newcomers arrive “without that context or understanding” of the city’s history, as one urban planner puts it.
Yet, by calling on middle-class residents to “respect the neighbors,” the cultural response to gentrification takes the politics out of the process. Gentrification is not an inevitable consequence of impersonal market forces that can be tempered by asking people to be kind to one another. Gentrification is the result of policy choices that “displace real communities for prospective future residents” and that are enforced by massive expenditures on policing. Being kind to strangers may be good manners, but it’s not a political solution.
The problem is not a result of cultural misunderstanding, but of an ideology that treats marginalized Detroiters as impediments to economic growth. Only by understanding gentrification as inextricably linked to police violence can researchers and activists understand what’s at stake: the forced displacement of poor and racialized people to meet the needs of real-estate capital.
According to this logic, residents’ displacement becomes an inevitable trade-off of “order maintenance.” “When you have a strong foundation of investment, that brings more law enforcement and people who are more likely to report crimes,” a Detroit professor of urban studies told a reporter in 2016. “The criminals are forced to go elsewhere.”
If these are gentrification’s “growing pains,” what’s not to like? Middle-class white residents are meanwhile praised for their discreet participation in the underground economy. “They use social media” to acquire drugs, a police captain observes, avoiding the unseemly spectacle of public use, which threatens property values. “Hipsters generally aren’t walking down to Second and Peterboro to score.”
In the early 20th century, corrupt police departments pushed open-air vice markets into racialized neighborhoods.3 Today, gentrification has reversed the relationship: police tolerate “respectable” drug use while continuing the War on Drugs through SWAT raids on Detroit’s poor and Black peripheries.
One dimension not covered in Jay and Conklin’s analysis is settler colonialism. At first pass, this may not be surprising. After all, theirs is a history of the 20th and 21st centuries, in a city where less than 1 percent of the population identifies exclusively as “American Indian,” according to the US Census.
But Indigenous studies scholars have long argued that colonialism is a condition that continues in the present. “Invasion,” in Patrick Wolfe’s famous turn of phrase, “is a structure not an event.”4
What makes this omission striking is that A People’s History so thoroughly foregrounds dispossession—and resistance to it—as the driver of history. “This is a people’s history of Detroit,” according to the introduction, because it is a story driven by the theft of land and labor. Jay and Conklin demonstrate the disturbing ways in which dispossession has become an overarching strategy of governance in Detroit, tracing this history back to the early 20th century.
But before Detroit’s workers could be “dispossessed … of the wealth that they produced,” the land on which they labored had to first be stolen. Just across the Detroit River, Indigenous activists in Canada remind us that it was police who performed this task. Together with Jay and Conklin’s powerful account, this history should lead us to consider how questions of community, safety, and Indigenous self-determination relate to each other.
Through a detailed exposition of one city’s past, A People’s History of Detroit imagines what a people’s future could look like in Detroit—and in other cities. “Reconceptualizing how we think of Detroit’s past,” Jay and Conklin write, “is part and parcel of [the] struggle toward building a more humane future.”
A number of organizations continue to view Detroit as two distinct cities, one experiencing a renaissance and the other showing its resilience. But Jay and Conklin convincingly argue that Detroiters need more than praise for their “resilience,” a term implying a certain acceptance of the political and economic status quo.
What is required, then, is to uplift the fights against evictions, water shutoffs, and corporate giveaways, while recognizing how police uphold inequality across the unified system that is Detroit. With proposals to “defund the police” having surfaced all over North America, the moment is ripe to deepen the links between the movement against police violence and the struggle for livable cities. As tenant organizers in Brooklyn are showing, “Fighting for Black housing is fighting for Black lives.”
If Detroit has become a blueprint for inequality, it follows that Detroiters will be the ones to collectively imagine a just future. Today’s urbanists and activists can learn a lot from Detroit: not least because people in power—those who developed the playbook of using police to violently defend and expand real-estate capital—already have.
- Coleman Young and Lonnie Wheeler, Hard Stuff: The Autobiography of Coleman Young (Viking, 1994), p. 2. ↩
- Heather Ann Thompson, Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City (Cornell University Press, 2001). ↩
- Eric C. Schneider, Smack: Heroin and the American City (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). ↩
- Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 1, 2006), p. 388. ↩