For Black Detroiters, the City's History of Mutual Aid is as Relevant as EverBreaking News
tags: African American history, Detroit, radical history, mutual aid
Nate File is a Black Voices in the Public Sphere fellow at Boston Review, where he writes about Black liberation and modern forms of marronage. He holds an MFA in journalism from NYU, where he studied long form reporting and writing. Previously, he has written for Philadelphia Magazine and Bedford & Bowery. You can find him on Twitter @Nate_file.
In an open lot on Detroit’s Eastside, a small red and sky-blue refrigerator hums underneath a hand-made shelter. On this windy February afternoon, Alyssa Rogers, one of the cofounders of Detroit Community Fridge (DCF), pulls up to the lot, opens the trunk of her car, and lugs jars of peanut butter, soda cans, bagged cereal, and packets of instant rice to the fridge and its adjacent pantry space. There isn’t much fresh produce going in today, she laments, noting that fewer fruits and vegetables get donated during the harsh Michigan winter.
Detroit’s mutual aid movement is working to build the city that politicians and private actors have promised for decades but failed to deliver.
Rogers and Emily Eicher, students at Wayne State University, started DCF in August 2020 after learning about other successful community fridge programs around the country. Their work taps into Detroit’s extensive history of mutual care and community organizing. To avoid the expense of maintenance of using generators to power the fridges, Rogers and Eicher asked Ryan Yeargin, owner of Hats Galore & More, if they could set up the fridge in the vacant lot behind his store. Yeargin was eager to take part, Rogers tells me; his father, Robert, had prioritized making connections with the community when he ran the shop and would have loved supporting a project like this one. The DCF team typically stocks the five fridges they manage twice each week with donated food or food they buy themselves through community fundraising; some locations also distribute shoes and clothes. It’s hard to know exactly how many people use each fridge, Rogers and Eicher say—they certainly aren’t interested in surveilling who uses these sites—but they do know that the fridges and pantries almost always get emptied within twenty-four hours.
DCF joins a diverse ecosystem of mutual aid practices that has flourished in Detroit, where some 77 percent of residents are Black—the highest proportion of any major American city—and a third live in poverty (double the rate of New York and Los Angeles). “More and more ordinary people are feeling called to respond in their communities, creating bold and innovative ways to share resources and support vulnerable neighbors,” law professor and activist Dean Spade writes in his 2020 book, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the next), about the practice that is growing in a number of places around the world. In Detroit, some groups pool resources to address fundamental needs like food security and warm clothing, while others work on more complex issues like processing trauma and creating nurturing communities. No matter their focus or scope, the mutual aid movement here is steeped in history and working to build the city that politicians and private actors have promised for decades but failed to deliver. The sentiment that “we will not be saved” is increasingly common. But with that belief tends to come the conviction that “we can save ourselves”—by creating new, collaborative systems that better serve everyone’s needs.
Understanding this work requires understanding the distinctive economic hardships, government mismanagement, and forces of racial capitalism that have made Detroit the city it is today.
Nearly two hundred years ago, Detroit was an oft-used, final stop on the Underground Railroad as thousands of escaped slaves crossed the Detroit River into Canada each year. Free Black people found refuge there too, gradually building Black enclaves, churches, and other organizations that practiced the city’s first formal systems of Black mutual aid. The first major influx of Black people into Detroit would come with the Great Migration of the early twentieth century, some years after the establishment of the Ford Motor Company in 1903 cemented Detroit’s status as the auto capital of the country. As detailed in Thomas J. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996), Black people rushed to the Motor City for its alluring economic prospects as well as to escape the Jim Crow South; over the 1940s, Detroit’s Black population doubled to 300,000. Wartime industrial expansion stimulated significant job openings in highly sought-after manufacturing jobs, while labor unions and civil rights organizations fought to expose the hypocrisy of fighting for freedom abroad but allowing discrimination at home. The strategy worked. A 1944 report by the United Auto Workers union found that “a 44 percent advance in wartime employment brought with it an advance of 103 percent in the total number of Negroes employed.”
The postwar industrial boom wouldn’t last, however. Beginning in the 1950s, the auto industry responded to recessions and fluctuating consumer demand by shrinking workforces. Many plants were closed or relocated to cheaper cities. The forces of deindustrialization cost the workers of Detroit and other Rust Belt cities hundreds of thousands of jobs over the next several decades as manufacturers embraced cost-cutting measures like automation and overtime and were incentivized to move factories out of the city to avoid high property taxes and strong labor unions. The dangerous, entry-level jobs most available to Black workers tended to be the first ones eliminated, and factories moving to the wealthier suburbs made it difficult for poorer Black people to access those jobs. Sugrue writes that according to the 1960 census, 19.7 percent of Black auto workers were unemployed, compared to just 5.8 percent of white workers.
Detroit’s economy continued to languish over the rest of the twentieth century, while city and state governments overlooked direct opposition to deindustrialization, white flight, and racial inequality for band-aid solutions like industrial renewal, which meant demolishing and clearing condemned housing in the hope of attracting industrial plants to replace them. Industrial renewal was a significantly flawed policy choice, as it angered the current residents of those neighborhoods, and as Sugrue details, the “the city had no guarantee” in place with companies to fill the cleared land. Developing the land typically was a long, slow process that came without significant economic benefit for the city, signifying a failed “piecemeal attempt to solve an economic problem with far deeper roots.”