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How a Radical Black Tradition Could Buoy Biden in Michigan

The Black vote may have cost Democrats the election here in 2016. This year is poised to be different.

In an expansive lot in northwest Detroit, at the corner of 6 Mile and San Juan, roughly 100 people gathered on a Sunday afternoon in August for a pair of events. The first was an “All Black Lives Matter” rally. The second was the weekly meeting for Detroit Will Breathe, a coalition that has been at the forefront of Detroit’s uprisings in response to the grisly police murder of George Floyd in May. At the time of this writing, the city has seen more than 130 consecutive days of protest.

The agenda that Sunday contained a new wrinkle. Detroit Will Breathe had to decide whether it would endorse Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, for president. It wasn’t a long discussion. “I think that it is really important for us to build a movement that is completely independent,” said Tristan Taylor, an organizer with DWB. Nakia Wallace, co-organizer with Taylor, put it plainly: The role of long-term activists is to be “prepared to do what we need to do to get our demands met no matter what.”

“The truth is,” she added, “Joe Biden isn’t prepared to do shit for us unless we make him.”

DWB’s decision to remain outside the electoral fight, which has been framed as a do-or-die contest for American democracy by no less an eminence than Barack Obama, may seem counterproductive. Bill Clinton summed up this view in his eulogy for civil rights titan John Lewis in July, clucking that “there were two or three years there, where the movement went a little too far towards Stokely, but in the end, John Lewis prevailed.” The implication was that Stokely Carmichael’s more radical politics would have led the civil rights movement to a dead end—and that today’s activists would do well to mind the lessons of their forebears.

But this distorts what actually happened. The civil rights struggle landed its most devastating blows against racial injustice by wielding independent political power, a strategy championed at one time by both Lewis and Carmichael. As it turns out, through almost no effort of his own, Biden is likely to benefit this fall from the nationwide uprising that has reframed the debate around racial justice and further eroded Donald Trump’s standing with mainstream America. And nowhere is that kind of cavalry needed more urgently than in Michigan, a crucial brick in the Democrats’ so-called blue wall that crumbled on Election Night in 2016.

When Michigan went for Trump, many in the media and political class fell to their knees in shock. The locomotive of history was thought to go only in one direction, and the best data campaign money can buy told us that it would soon breezily deliver Hillary Clinton to the White House. What had taken hold of this once-great kingdom of industry and denim and rough hands?

Journalist after journalist voyaged into white working-class quarters like Macomb County to explain Michigan’s abrupt turn away from the Democrats. It was deindustrialization. It was trade policy slavishly devoted to corporate power. It was the revenge of flyover country. What received much less attention was that Macomb County, a suburb of Detroit that once ruthlessly guarded its segregated border (and, in many ways, continues to do so), sits just eight highway lanes across from some of the nation’s most reliably Democratic neighborhoods. Instead of lining up for Clinton in numbers similar to Obama’s, many of the residents responded with the equivalent of: “Why the hell would I do that?” They stayed home.

Hillary Clinton campaigned in Michigan the day before the election in 2016, to no avail. She lost the state by fewer than 11,000 votes.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When Black voters were discussed in the election’s aftermath, it was often to chastise them for their recklessness or to mourn their sad and inevitable return to apathy, all because they no longer had a figure like Obama to rally behind.

Democratic organizers are already fretting that Black voters may stay home again this time. And maybe they will. But there are crucial differences between 2016 and 2020, starting with the largest mass movement in the nation’s history, whose spillover effects will reverberate throughout this election and beyond. The irony for people like Bill Clinton, who would have Black activists learn their history, is that this movement has been here all along, running right through Detroit’s heyday in the postwar era to the present moment.

In 2016, the Hillary Clinton campaign suffered from a thousand death blows, many of them self-inflicted. Yet one in particular stood out, at least when it came to Michigan. Campaigns have one job, and, according to campaign insiders, the Clinton camp utterly failed to do it: give people a compelling reason to organize and turn out for the candidate. Staffers admitted they hadn’t offered “a real clear sense of why she was in it,” according to Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s campaign autopsy, Shattered. The consequences were devastating: Black turnout in Michigan dropped more than 12 percent that year, likely swinging the vote in a state decided by just 10,704 votes.

Afterward, the national Democratic Party’s presence in the state all but vanished. People were “hired in August and gone by November,” Branden Snyder, the executive director of Detroit Action, who led the Clinton campaign’s youth voting effort in Michigan, told me. “It was literally grand opening, grand closing.” He added, “There was never really a plan that spoke to people’s imagination” or talked candidly “about the fact that shit wasn’t great during the Obama years,” noting the enormous and avoidable suffering caused by the opioid and foreclosure crises. There was no message, he said, for “working-class young Black people.”

It was a sentiment I heard in interview after interview. Black communities rank terribly low in the hierarchy of human value and are painfully aware that Democrats only literally come knocking when it’s election season.

Detroiters have been “shitted on for so long,” Tawana Petty, director of the Detroit Community Technology Project, told me. “If you’re surviving by the skin of your teeth every day then you know that this isn’t something that happened four years ago.” After decades of being politically “invisible,” Petty added, many justifiably ask themselves, “Why should I run out [to vote] because you’re now saying I’m significant to this apparatus, when every other day of the year I’m begging you to realize my humanity?”

The Democratic establishment has grown to “expect a lot for no effort,” Snyder said. The conventional wisdom in the party is “that you don’t actually have to do any work for Black voters,” he continued, because the alternative is so bleak.

In his 1999 book Uneasy Alliances, Paul Frymer showed that the reality is actually much worse. Not only does the Democratic Party speed-walk past the concerns of Black voters; it also deliberately marginalizes them to make room for the white moderates whose approval the party desperately seeks. The thinking is that “public appeals to Black voters will produce national electoral defeats,” Frymer writes, since they would alienate “Southern, working, and middle-class whites.” And because of the Republican Party’s undisguised pursuit of a one-party ethnostate, Black voters are “captured.” As a result, establishment Democrats have spent decades making racial appeals to whites, by engaging in a low-grade version of the same dog-whistle politics that Republicans pioneered and mastered.

You couldn’t find a better embodiment of this kind of behavior than Joe Biden. He is one of the great legislative architects of America’s incarceration-driven, and viciously racist, criminal justice system and spent the 2000 election hoping “to God that Bush attacks us on crime” because Democrats “would eat them alive.” Meanwhile, under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, Black communities in Detroit and elsewhere were ravaged by economic hardship and neglect.

Race riots burned parts of Detroit in 1967—scenes that would be repeated across the country during the summer of 2020.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Democrats’ strategy appeared to work in Michigan, which voted blue in every presidential election between 1992 and 2016. A newspaper report from the 1992 campaign noted that white Michiganders saw themselves in a moderate Democrat from Arkansas who would stop the party from “moving so far to the left” and giving a hearing to “every loudmouth special interest”—code at the time for Black, women, and disabled voters. But in the long run, the strategy has been catastrophic, resulting in the party’s devastating loss at the hands of a racist scam lord because he had the inside track on disaffected whites and Democrats had to rely on voters who had been left out to dry.

If the Democrats win Michigan in 2020, it will not be because of anything they or Biden have done for Black people—indeed, Biden & co. appear to be retreating to the old strategy of appealing to white moderates, despite the fact that Black voters gave him the edge he needed to emerge triumphant in the primary. Preliminary evidence suggests the ploy could pay off in Michigan, as Biden makes up ground with those voters. But if he also benefits from a windfall of Black votes, it will be because of another theory of political power that was operating in the party’s shadow.

Michigan has long been a critical theater in the battle for the Democratic Party’s soul. It was here that conservative figures like George Wallace amassed cultlike followings among white voters. Wallace, Alabama’s segregationist governor, won the 1972 Democratic Party primary in Michigan as the champion of suburban fury, cleaning up with residents eager to express “their anti-busing solidarity by flocking to Wallace’s banner,” as Rick Perlstein writes in Nixonland. Between its viciously segregated geography and its deep pockets of economic misery, Michigan is an easy target for the sort of divide-and-conquer politics perfected by figures like Wallace and Ronald Reagan and eventually Trump. In response, Democrats triangulated to win some of those voters back by doing their best Republican impersonation.

This puts Black Michiganders in a terrible bind but also clarifies things. Frymer describes two ways that the awful fusion of racism and the two-party system can be overturned. One is massive electoral reform. The other, he told me, “is when there are movements that are active” and force the interests of Black communities onto center stage. He highlighted the abolitionist era, as well as the period between 1964 and 1966, as “years of great progress” when “movements pushed the progressive party to the left” and set off seismic changes in the country’s politics. Today’s organizers take this vital lesson as their creed: Every significant step the country has taken toward justice begins not with great men signing documents but with ordinary people gathering and demanding a better world.

When Frymer’s book was published in 1999, the left was in smoking ruins, and the establishment was fat on the good times of the Clinton years. The idea of any movement rising to challenge the leadership of the Clinton-led generation of New Democrats seemed like the punchline to a sneering joke. Twenty years later, the streets are crackling with unrest, while the establishment, by no means weak, finds it has a lot to answer for. In places like Michigan, the Democratic Party’s crisis of authority is on a collision course with leftist organizing, especially in the corners of the state where Black radicals both past and present have pushed the limits of political imagination.

“The movement in the streets,” Petty told me, “comes out of a long-standing tradition” in Detroit. In 1966, beloved local radicals James and Grace Lee Boggs penned “The City Is the Black Man’s Land,” a classic essay of the Black freedom struggle. The city’s toiling masses, they wrote, were fighting a battle against racial and class oppression, and “independent Black political action” was their most powerful weapon. By the next year, the unrest would combust into the most fearsome rebellion of the long, hot summer of 1967. President Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to study the underlying causes of the riots, requesting that the commission “wax cautious concerning solutions,” Perlstein says. Instead, it “demanded 30 billion dollars in new urban spending,” the same amount Martin Luther King had “announced as the goal for his upcoming Poor People’s campaign.”

During that time, the auto industry was also the site of explosive labor agitation. Motown was home to organizations like the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Criminally understudied and under-celebrated, the League showcased the incredible power regular workers can wield when they link arms and fight for workplace democracy alongside racial justice. Active across the 1960s and 1970s, the League made the city’s political and economic elite sweat furiously as they ground production to a halt in critical workplaces. The group also pioneered new techniques for building independent political power, helping to elect not only the city’s first Black mayor, Coleman Young, in 1974, but also successfully running socialist candidates for City Council in 1975 and 1976.

This is the political heritage not of the current Democratic Party but of the countless activists on the streets today. Detroit Action, Snyder’s organization, is “a union of Black and brown, low and no-income, homeless and housing-insecure Detroiters” that is dedicated, he told me, to “building power every day” outside the pageantry of the four-year election cycle. Tawana Petty, along with a network of racial, environmental, immigrant, and disability justice advocates, has fought for the adoption of a Detroiters’ Bill of Rights. Its demands are straightforward and ambitious: a robust welfare state where everyone has a right to food, water, sanitation, housing, recreation, transportation, and more.

There are many more organizations like these, doing invisible work that, perhaps once in a generation, becomes visible to other people. Michelle Martinez, statewide coordinator for the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, told me that we are in “the most important political decade of human existence,” citing the United Nations’ claim that we have only 10 years before climate change becomes irreversible. The MEJC couldn’t possibly pin its hopes on the goodwill of establishment leaders, Martinez insists. “You can only promise that getting involved in the fight will help build a stronger movement,” she said. “And through our movements we will change the election process.”

She cited the example of freshman Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who represents parts of Detroit. Tlaib quickly rose to prominence nationally, Martinez said, “because she reflected the language and the vision” of her community, which was crying out for the very things that Tlaib now champions in Congress—like bold climate policy, clean, free water for all, and massive public housing expenditures—and that mainstream politicians call extreme or politically unrealistic. (In August, Tlaib smoked an establishment-backed candidate who called protesters against police violence “totally disrespectful.”) “If we’re lucky,” Martinez said, “our movement will continue to produce folks like Rashida Tlaib, who grew up in Southwest Detroit.”

Beyond generating candidates from their own ranks, protest movements have other graspable electoral consequences. As the chattering class nervously wonders what Black voters will do this fall, it’s worth mentioning that mass mobilization often benefits whichever candidates are most closely aligned with that movement’s goals. In The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy, Daniel Q. Gillion wrote that “protests are the canaries in the coal mines that warn of future political electoral change.” Gillion shows how protest is adept at mobilizing its ideological base to “turn out on Election Day,” even when the movement behind the protest doesn’t officially endorse a candidate, as in the case of Detroit Will Breathe.

“Movements across the board 100 percent agree that Trump sucks and has got to go,” Snyder said. But he argued that the core problem doesn’t lie with radical activists but with the Democratic Party. The great lesson of the last election was that you can’t have “faith in, like, the party establishment to turn out and mobilize” the low- to no-income voters who fill the ranks of organizations like Detroit Action, Snyder added. “It’s really up to us to do it.”

All this raises a classic dilemma for popular movements that see their role as being unsleeping adversaries of political and economic elites. If Democratic candidates get swept to power on waves of grassroots energy from the left, how do you avoid being absorbed into a party that will hit the eject button the moment your cause stops being politically advantageous?

As Micah Sifry reported for The New Republic in 2017, the Obama campaign after 2008 handed its grassroots machinery over to the Democratic National Committee, which swiftly converted it into a pitiful hub for campaign merch and memorabilia. And that’s just electoral infrastructure. In Biden, the left faces the possibility that all its goals will be watered down in Biden’s oft-repeated plan to work with a Republican Party whose only agenda is white grievance and tax cuts for the wealthy.

Snyder stressed that independent political movements must remain independent and “really push and ensure that Biden is working hard to earn our vote.” It is an assignment forged from the lessons of the past. “People are less tied to just the president,” Tawana Petty said. “They learned through President Obama’s [term] that you can’t just toss the ball to him and expect that everything is going to be taken care of.” Already, the pressure from the left has produced results, including Biden’s leap toward more liberal policies on immigration, climate change, and criminal justice reform. As Biden downplays those commitments in a groveling bid for “Biden Republicans,” the importance of building lasting independent political power becomes obvious. “Without the movement,” Martinez told me, “elections really aren’t all that much.”

What Bill Clinton missed in invoking the ghost of Stokely Carmichael is that today’s activists are both pulling from the best of John Lewis’s tradition of making “good trouble” and building on the work Carmichael (later renamed Kwame Ture) did to create what he called an “independent base of power”—all while furiously rejecting the Clintonian legacy of triangulation. Joe Biden might not know it, but if he wins Michigan in the fall with the help of the Black vote, it will be because of a Black radical tradition that began before either he or Clinton appeared on the scene—a tradition that has set its sights not only on aspiring tin-pot dictators, but on the Bidens of this world, too.