by Catherine Wilkerson [http://www.pslweb.org/liberationnews/news/detroit-bankruptcy-plunders.html]:
"History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created." —William Morris
Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s benevolent dictator, as he calls himself, has devised a sinister strategy to push through his plan to transfer more of the Motor City’s wealth from the workers to the capitalists. One aspect of this is to pit pensioners, city workers and poor people against preservationists of culture.
On July 18, Detroit became the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy. In what was nothing short of a coup, Gov. Snyder appointed Orr emergency manager of Detroit in March, seizing power from democratically elected officials. Snyder granted Orr control over the 83 percent Black city, including all of Detroit’s assets. Among those assets are 60,000 pieces of artwork in the city-owned Detroit Institute of Arts.
Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, here is how bankruptcy lawyer Orr, compensated $275,000 a year as EM, sums up Detroit and the working class: “For a long time the city was dumb, lazy, happy and rich. Detroit has been the center of more change in the 20th century than I dare say virtually any other city, but that wealth allowed us to have a covenant [that held] if you had an eighth grade education, you’ll get 30 years of a good job and a pension and great health care, but you don’t have to worry about what’s going to come.”
Orr has already terminated union contracts, started privatizing public services and announced that retirees’ health care and pensions are to be cut drastically. And to pay off Detroit’s more than $18 billion debt, its assets are likely to go up for sale to the highest bidder.
At the forefront of the assault on Detroit are the simultaneous raids looming on the pensions and cultural treasures, both of which belong to the people. Pensions are deferred income, money paid either entirely or mostly by the workers themselves, and represent the fulfillment of a social contract between workers and owners. Culture is the means of expression of the people, the manifestation of human creativity. Cynically, the media portray this as a matter of tough choices between art and human needs for the material necessities of life, as if these cultural gems have no value to the people of Detroit.
This false dichotomy is voiced by people like Mark Young, president of the Detroit Lieutenants and Sergeants Association, representing 500 mid-level managers in Detroit’s police department. “The Van Gogh must go,” said Young. “We don’t need Monet—we need money.”
False dichotomies and lies -
The assault on Detroit is based on such false dichotomies as well as outright lies. Among the lies are the claims that there is no money to bail out Detroit, that the pensions are insolvent and that the cause of Detroit’s devastation, as articulated by Orr’s vile remarks, is inept governance and greedy, lazy workers.
The pension funds are controlled by the very banks that are first in line to be paid off in the bankruptcy process, banks that made hundreds of millions through managing these funds. What is more, a recent analysis determined that Detroit’s pensions are not in the dire straits claimed by those seeking to slash them. According to the Bond Buyer, a Wall Street publication, “the pension funds' optimistic assessments fall mostly within accepted industry standards.”
The Obama administration refuses to bail out Detroit. Yet the cost of bailing out Detroit amounts to less than 10 days of U.S. military spending, one-fifth of the auto bailout, and one-thousandth of the estimated total cost of rescuing the banks. The fate of Detroit, its people and its assets has been thrown to the wolves.
In May, Orr ordered an appraisal of the DIA artwork which the city may lose in the bankruptcy process. Also to go could be the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Detroit Historical Museum as well as Belle Isle Park and the Detroit Zoo, the latter for the land, as the animals are considered to have no commercial value.
The estimated value of the DIA collection, including works by Matisse, van Gogh, Picasso, Rembrandt, Rodin, and Caravaggio is $2.5 billion. The DIA is perhaps best known for the Detroit Industry murals of Diego Rivera.
Diego Rivera and the Detroit Industry murals -
From the DIA website: “The Detroit Industry fresco cycle was conceived by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) as a tribute to the city’s manufacturing base and labor force of the 1930’s. Rivera completed the twenty-seven panel work in eleven months, from April 1932 to March 1933. It is considered the finest example of Mexican mural art in the United States, and the artist thought it the best work of his career. Rivera was a Marxist who believed that art belonged on public walls rather than in private galleries.”
The devastation of Detroit is as Marx described the stage of capitalist development characterized by super-accumulation of wealth by the few at the expense of the impoverishment of the many. A careful reading of Detroit Industry foreshadows how this Marxist vision would come to pass. The radical implication of the work was recognized by many at the time of its unveiling.
On the 80th anniversary of the DIA debut of Detroit Industry in March, the Detroit News reported on how the art originally was received. Many despised it, including prominent civic members and political figures and scores of religious and social organizations. They denounced the work for promoting communism and class warfare and embracing racial equality; they called for its destruction. The Detroit News itself had run a scorching front-page editorial at the time, concluding that "the best thing to do would be to whitewash the entire work completely."
Detroit Industry survived after workers mobilized to defend it, with some 10,000 viewing it on a single day. However, a subsequent Rivera mural at Rockefeller Center was destroyed because of its portrayal of Lenin. And whitewashing was precisely the crime committed against the works of other Marxist artists, including Mexican muralist David Siqueiros.
In 1932, Siqueiros’s masterpiece Tropical America Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialism was whitewashed by anti-communist forces in Los Angeles. One cannot but wonder if the objective of the capitalists is to whitewash Detroit Industry now, if not literally as with Siqueiros’s work, then figuratively, by privatizing it, charging the people to view it, or convincing the people that preserving it, and other art, is contrary to their interests, a threat to their very survival.
Destruction of Malice Green mural -
If events relating to the recent destruction of another Detroit mural are any indication, the people of Detroit will not fall for this capitalist propaganda. On July 8, a mural representing a reminder of a very real threat to survival was reduced to rubble. The iconic mural of Malice Green, on a wall at the scene of Green’s 1992 killing by police, was painted by Detroit artist Benny White Ethiopia.
Police officers Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn bludgeoned Green to death with a flashlight during a stop-and-frisk for crack cocaine. They were convicted of second-degree murder. According to Ron Scott of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, Budzyn and Nevers are the only two police officers in the city’s history to be convicted in the death of a Detroit citizen.
The mural was a monument to that rare moment of justice, especially for African-Americans. Interviewed after news of the clandestine bulldozing of the Green mural, Nevers’ widow, Nancy Nevers, said she was glad it was gone and expressed her sympathy for George Zimmerman.
Ron Scott and many Detroiters are outraged by the bulldozing of the Green mural. White Ethiopia plans to paint a new mural. It will take outrage and organization to protect the DIA and Detroit Industry.
What happens in Detroit—from the emergency manager coup, to the assault on the pensions, to the plundering of the city’s cultural treasures—is being watched all over the country. If the capitalists succeed in Detroit, then Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and other major U.S. cities will be next on the capitalists' agenda to meet the same fate.
The people of Detroit should not be fooled into having their culture plundered to pay off the banks or into giving their money to billionaires to cleanse the city of Black working-class people and build million-dollar condos, as Orr’s gentrification plan promises.
Only when the workers control their pension funds will they be safe from capitalist predation. Only when we seize the banks will we be safe from the impoverishment and suffering inflicted on us in the quest to maximize profits. And only then will the art of the people, created by the people for the people, be safe from whitewashing and demolition. Until then, the people will struggle, and the artists will inspire and remember.