The 21st century has witnessed a genocide in the city of Detroit. Through the forced displacement of more than a quarter of the city’s residents, the wholesale destruction of entire neighborhoods, the suspension of democratic rights, and the imposition of unprecedented austerity measures, the Blackest city in the United States has been transformed into a global symbol of economic and racial injustice. What would have taken brownshirts and bombs in other places, was accomplished through the mechanisms of capitalist and financial power here. Many activists, such as Jerry Goldberg, refused to be intimidated by the transnational powers restructuring their city, taking their struggle directly to the banks responsible for escalating the city’s economic crisis. “Detroit should have been the center of the country for what they did to us… You look around Detroit. I cry every day. And, we feel the weight of it. We really fought it hard. I mean, I intervened in the bankruptcy for no money. I ended up going bankrupt. And, I knew nothing about bankruptcy.”
Jerry’s determination to engage the capitalist power structure itself stems from more than a half-century of his own activism. Originally from Chicago, Jerry became politically active as a University of Michigan Ann Arbor student in the movement against the war on Viet Nam and as a supporter of Black liberation in the US. He was inspired by revolutionaries he saw here such as Chicago Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton. Like the Panthers, Jerry considered himself a comrade to liberation and revolutionary movements worldwide from China to Mozambique. “If you were serious about being against the war, you tended to move towards Marxism,” he explained,“and I was serious. So, I became a serious revolutionary, Marxist-Leninist and have been ever since.”
Detroit was a national center of the Black liberation movement and working class power in 1970 when Jerry moved to the city with other former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) activists to organize. The city’s high concentration of Black industrial workers created unique conditions for the Black Freedom Movement, giving rise to organizations such as the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, which sought to leverage their productive power for the benefit of all autoworkers, the Black community, and broader revolutionary socialist aims. While most saw the decline of Detroit’s automotive industry as a natural outgrowth of automation and globalization, Jerry sees conscious decisions beyond market forces. From his perspective, automakers saw their inevitable restructuring as an opportunity to weaken Detroit’s organized Black working class. “Detroit was a city where the Black liberation movement really merged with the working class movement which made it have tremendous power. So, I always believe that that was a very conscious destruction of Detroit.” Alongside white flight and deindustrialization, this destruction has had lasting impacts upon the city and contributed to the manufactured economic crisis that came to a head in the early 2000s.
Then operating as a branch of the communist Workers World Party, Jerry and his comrades challenged the racist deindustrialization of Detroit by raising “a job is a right” campaign in opposition to plant closings and layoffs from the late seventies through the eighties. As Jerry put it to his fellow autoworkers “…you have a right to take care of these plants ‘cause they’re your property. Your sweat equity has more than paid for your jobs.” Jerry was utilizing a strategy he referred to as transitional demands, where winnable demands that meet the immediate needs of the people are raised in a way which challenges the nature of the capitalist system itself. While the efforts of countless organizers failed to save plants, Jerry and his comrades’ “food is a right campaign” during the 1980s won 17 years of federal food distribution in the city. By finding a legal basis for the distribution of food and becoming temporary allies with Mayor Coleman Young, they were able to feed many Detroiters throughout unprecedented economic hardship.
Detroit’s housing crisis of the early 2000s would be the first in a long series of crises that came to permanently change the city in the 21st century. Financiers intentionally targeted poor communities, especially communities of color, with adjustable rate mortgages and subprime loans they knew homeowners and buyers would default on. The profit margins afforded by these schemes were just too lucrative to pass up on and the victims were seen as too marginalized and precarious to do anything about their inevitable default. As the bubble burst and thousands faced foreclosure amidst the Great Recession, Jerry and his comrades’ focus shifted from organizing against the US war on Iraq through the Michigan Emergency Coalition Against War and Injustice to the formation of the Moratorium Now! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, and Utility Shut Offs.
Building on their strategy of transitional demands they had developed through decades of work in the city, they fought in courts and neighborhoods to keep Detroiters in their homes. While fighting to save every home they could, Moratorium Now! put forward a broader demand for a moratorium on home foreclosures and evictions in Michigan. Citing legal precedents for moratoriums on foreclosures and evictions won in 25 states by Left-led movements during the Great Depression era, they argued a person’s property right to their home superseded the right of banks to seize them. Though Moratorium Now! saved many individuals’ homes, the state never implemented a moratorium, leading to over 65,000 foreclosures from 2005 to 2010 that forced a quarter of Detroit’s population out of the city in just 5 years. “That was our great liberal Democrat Jennifer Granholm, who I blame four-square for the destruction of the city of Detroit because that was before it happened,” Jerry explained. “See, the neighborhoods were still intact when we raised that demand. It could have stopped it. It could have been stopped.”
The manufactured housing crisis of the 2000s wiped out a significant portion of Detroit’s tax base, laying the basis for the suspension of democratic rights through emergency management and Detroit’s bankruptcy in the 2010s. The bitter irony here is that the banks and financiers who created this crisis were given ultimate authority over the city and its residents to manage the crisis to their own benefit. In the context of emergency management and the subsequent bankruptcy, Moratorium Now! became a center for organizing the city’s pensioners who were being forced to bear the brunt of Detroit’s financial crisis. Their slogan “Make the Banks Pay!” was taken to court and the bank’s offices on banners and placards, where it came to be internationally recognized as the rallying cry of average Detroiters against the dictatorship of finance.
Building on their prior experience, Jerry and his comrades waged a struggle on multiple fronts to defend the city against the blind self-interest of the 1%. By representing city retiree and fellow activist David Sole in bankruptcy court, Jerry was able to challenge the wholesale looting of Detroit and save the city over $100 million in payments to the banks. When talking about Jerry’s role in court, journalist Curt Guyette said “Jerry, this private practice, sole practitioner guy that is definitely not a thousand-dollar-an-hour lawyer, he’s the people’s lawyer, you know, helping prevent foreclosures and things like that, he stood up against them and won a really significant victory for the city…” Moratorium Now! leader Abayomi Azikiwe emphasized the role of organizers and Detroiters themselves at the time, saying “This victory was not just won in a courtroom. It was the ongoing mobilization of Detroiters against the banks that played a pivotal role in getting the judge to deny this giveaway to the banks that destroyed our city.”
Jerry and Moratorium Now! have continued to challenge austerity, privatization, and racist displacement since the bankruptcy. In 2018 they organized the National Conference to Defeat Austerity in Detroit, sharing the experiences of Detroiters with organizers across the US while learning from their struggles as well. Ricardo Santos Ramos, former president Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union of Puerto Rico, was a featured speaker at the conference and later that year hosted Jerry and another Moratorium Now! organizer in Puerto Rico. The way Jerry sees things, it’s all one fight. “…to the extent that we can share our experiences for Detroit to contribute to that victory, whether it’s in Detroit, in Puerto Rico or anywhere, we’re ready to do it at the drop of a hat because that’s needed. We’re not just fighting for one city, we’re fighting for the savior of a planet.”
Though organizers like Jerry’s efforts to save Detroiters from ruin and displacement have faced major defeats from the financial and political powers of the city in the last twenty years, their commitment has saved thousands of homes, millions of dollars, and supported the development of local people to become dedicated organizers. When looking towards the future, Jerry sees the reconstruction of Detroit emanating from the people themselves. “.Don’t collaborate with those who cause the destruction because what you’re doing is taking the guts out of the struggle,” Jerry explained. “There’s all sorts of well-meaning people, but my belief is we gotta fight the system for the resources to do it, and the people who will rebuild Detroit are not [Mike] Ilitch and [Dan] Gilbert and all these pigs but are the people themselves who know how to rebuild it, but we have to fight for the resources to do it, and we have a right to those resources because they’ve been stolen from us.” Today Jerry organizes with the Party for Socialism and Liberation.
Jerry Goldberg, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, May 3, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.