Detroit was bankrupted by that bizarre phenomenon known as “American exceptionalism.” The lack of a socialist or labor party arguing on behalf of factory workers and establishing an industrial policy led to the death of the world’s most powerful manufacturing center.

Detroit’s demise is personal to me. I lived there most of the first 31 years of my life. I was born in 1955 when, to quote Bob Seeger “They were making Thunderbirds.” We lived on the west side of Detroit in a working class neighborhood with people of mainly Appalachian descent, called Brightmoor. In 1961, my family moved to 12802 Stout, still in Brightmoor. My dad worked in a tool and die factory across the street, a job essential to the automobile industry.

In ’67 the city exploded in one of the worst urban riots in U.S. history. Forty-three people died. White-owned businesses on the main arteries of Gratiot on the east side and Grand River on the west side were torched and remain burned out, in most instances, to this day. Everyone knew the cause of the riot. A racist, nearly all-white police department whose key function was keeping blacks from entering white neighborhoods was the underlying problem.

Still, despite the riot, Detroit offered hope of renewal. The hippies in the Cass Corridor, led in part by the legendary John Sinclair, began moving back into the Victorian and other large houses that had been left abandoned to rot in the city. The scene around Plum Street was vibrant and dynamic. Hippies were rejecting the suburbs and settling into the center city, following a European pattern of residential living, rather than succumbing to the sterile suburbia offered by the American Dream.

Consequently, the new mayor and former police commissioner conspired with Detroit Edison to buy up the houses on Plum Street and turned them into a parking lot. The police openly harassed John Sinclair and his followers, driving them out of Detroit into the more liberal confines of Ann Arbor.

In ’69 my family fled just across Detroit’s western border into Redford Township where we were living just enough for the suburbs. Yet my heart and soul was still connected to the magnificent city of Detroit – Its high-energy downtown and my ties to the Greektown area where my father grew up.

After I finished college, a decade later I moved back into the city. I assumed a mortgage for $20,000 on a six-bedroom custom built brick house from the ‘20s on the city’s east side. At 12749 Kilbourne I had a political commune until I left on New Year’s Day 1987 to move to Columbus. At one time my home was called “Acorn East” after the activists who spent their time moving homeless families into boarded up houses that the city preferred to let decompose.

Our only key ally at the time was the provocative Detroit City Councilman Ken Cockerell. His organization DARE – the Detroit Alliance for a Rational Economy – did tremendous public policy work. Their tour of the city analyzing patterns of investment and disinvestment in Detroit neighborhood and industrial corridors was mandatory to truly understand how corporate capitalism was destroying the Motor City.

Unfortunately Cockerell died prematurely at 50, with most saying he would have been Detroit’s next mayor. Conversion of Detroit factories were drawn up in great detail, not only by DARE and its allies but by the United Automobile Workers (UAW). It was the first time I heard the phrase “Green New Deal.” There was talk in the early ‘80s of building solar panels, promoted heavily by Jimmy Carter, and battery powered cars.

The architect of the Great Society, Michael Harrington, came to town regularly to preach the gospel of peacetime conversion from a military economy to a high-tech green industrial economy. But after all, Harrington was a socialist, just like many who lived across the Detroit River in Canada.

When the New York Times noted that the only automobile factory left in Detroit at the time of its bankruptcy last week was owned by the Italian company Fiat it just underscores the unique difference between the European Union and the United States. Between 1965 and ’95, General Motors moved some 65 of its factories from the industrial Midwest and northeast U.S. to the maquilladoras of Mexico.

As Detroit lost jobs, it lost population. As it lost population and homes were abandoned, it lost income tax and the property revenue needed to sustain a city.

The election of Ronald Reagan was understood to be the death knell for Detroit. During the Carter administration, the federal government matched every dollar in the Detroit budget with 70 cents to stabilize the city. The Reagan administration cut that to 40 cents immediately and when the President was shot, I was in a bar on Woodward Avenue and was even surprised when the local autoworkers stood up and cheered.

The rhetoric on the burned out buildings on Gratiot and Grand River read simply: “Ronald Wilson Reagan – 666 – Mark of the Beast.”

But what was the real Beast that Detroit grappled with? Essentially it was the lack of an industrial policy that kept good paying jobs in the United States. And while Reagan may have shown the way towards so-called free trade and the ideology of “neo-liberalism,” but it took the New Democrat Bill Clinton to usher in the era of NAFTA.

I had the privilege to fight Clinton in 1992 at the Democratic Party platform hearings where I was a spokesperson for Jerry Brown’s campaign. With a far-right wing capitalist party known as the Republicans striving for free trade, and their junior partners the new Democratic Party of Bill Clinton, Detroit was doomed.

One the wealthiest cities in human history – home of Motown, the greatest industrial manufacturing center on Earth – driven to bankruptcy by patterns of corporate capitalist investment and disinvestment and a two-party system that does their bidding no matter how destructive to real human beings.

My father died last August at age 80. One of his last wishes was to visit his favorite spot in the city, Belle Isle. His own father had planted trees there as part of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps. Now they’re talking about selling off Belle Isle for a couple hundred million dollars, privatizing it, and cutting it off from the people. Generations of immigrants slept on Belle Isle when the heat in their tenements was unbearable or their apartments were fumigated. It’s all my dad liked to talk about the last few months of his life, on how he swam there and played there, and how much it meant to him.

The other thing he was proud of was the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Art, which reflected the dignity of labor, especially the automobile industry he worked in. Now they’re talking about closing the museum and selling off the art. Of course the Obama administration does nothing and the policies advocated by Mitt Romney of bankruptcy are now embraced in a bipartisan way.

In 1982 I managed the Zolton Ferency campaign for governor of Detroit. My father supported that campaign. At the crux of it was Ferency’s promise to call out the National Guard to seize the shuttered auto factories and re-open them as worker’s co-ops. He also pledged to build the State Bank of Michigan that would invest in Detroit and the state’s citizens. Ferency didn’t win the Democratic primary, but I wish he had. It would have been nice to see the guns used to support the people instead of those who closed the factories and took them to Mexico and China to exploit cheap labor.


Video of Bob Fitrakis at the 2010 Rally to Rebuild Detroit, a look at his family home on Stout and his junior high school, and his Brightmoor reunion