Editor’s note: This interview is accompanied by an article about “The Detroit Rebellion” that contextualizes the tumultuous period in Detroit history that it discusses.
Darryl “Waistline” Mitchell and Donald Abdul Roberts (Waistline and Abdul, respectively) grew up in times that resonate with our own: police brutality was radicalizing many young Black activists in Detroit. Both men were present when the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was formed, a year after what many call the Detroit Rebellion. Although today many argue that the best outlet for social change, particularly in response to police brutality against Black people, is in the electoral sphere, Waistline and Abdul offer a different perspective on power: power on the assembly line.
Mohammed Elnaiem: Let’s talk about before the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was formed, and before the Revolutionary Union Movement. Tell me about your lives in Detroit during those tumultuous years.
Donald Abdul: After leaving prison at the age of 21 years old, I left my hometown of Ann-Arbor and went to Detroit to get a job at the Uniroyal tire factory. I worked there for 19 months before I got fired. Uniroyal was a rubber plant that was right on the river. It sold tires to the racing car industry. As workers we were aware that we got the rubber from the Congo, rubber plantations in Indonesia, and rubber plantations in Brazil. We heard stories about how the more they harvested the rubber, the higher the Congolese had to travel up the trees.
When I worked at the Uniroyal factory, I wanted to see what revolutionaries did from day to day. There was a black book store on Dexter Avenue in Detroit, and I used to go there all the time. I was inspired by Macolm X when I was in prison, and began to read extensively. Before that, I was discouraged. When I was 15 and in juvie in Ann Arbor, I had to do a test. They showed me ink splatters on a paper, and they asked me what it looked like. I told the psychologist that it looked like a castle. Out of curiosity, I had a chance to steal my report later and it said I had “delusions of grandeur.” I thought “whoever wrote this didn’t want me to have imagination for a better life.” From that point on, I said, “I may not be a leader, but I’ll never be misled again.”
That’s why I was always at the book store in Detroit—everybody was reading books. Everybody conscious of the Black power movement, SNCC, the Black Panthers, all of them was moving around.
What attracted you to them?
Abdul: Resisting the status quo. In 1968, the Vietnam War had been going on for a few years, so you had soldiers coming back from Vietnam that were militant, that were anti-status quo, and for my part, I loved talking to the veterans because we were all the same age. I was 21 going on 22, they was around that age. I would say from 1968 until the first part of 1973, that is where I got my organizing experience.
Darryl “Waistline” Mitchell: To begin, Detroit was bustling with economic activity. After the war, the U.S. was in a unique position. Europe laid in ruin; Japan was destroyed; the U.S. had to ramp up its productive capacity to rebuild Japan and war-torn Europe. Returning black soldiers came home looking for an opportunity to raise their families.
I was born September 28, 1952. The second son of Maurice and Ardell. In 1963, I was involved in activity. Detroit was undergoing a boom. Henry Ford revolutionized production with the introduction of the assembly line in Highland Park. In the early 1960s, my dad, a veteran, moved us to that city. As America ramped up its economic production, it needed to bring Blacks into the lower section as industrial workers. This also meant a highly volatile situation where you had Black soldiers coming home who would not accept the laws of segregation and second class citizenship. You had a population that was willing to fight and kill over the question of segregation. My dad was one of those men, a race man.
By the time I was 11 or 12 years old, one of the manifestations was the Freedom Now party. My father’s brother, Leroy Mitchell, ran for Secretary of Treasury. That’s when I started becoming active politically. It gave me the opportunity to pass out leaflets. He was a Pan-Africanist, and he taught in Ghana. It was he who would give General Baker a book that would accelerate his development. General Baker would be the heart of the DRUM movement, and he was hired in the Dodge factory in 1963.
There exists a political continuum. I was born into a certain situation in Detroit, where my dad would get hired at the Ford Rouge plant, local 600. This gave me a certain political orientation that would later give me a role in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Now one thing that needs to be understood, Detroit had 26 factories. Most black industrial workers were concentrated in these factories. And Abdul is correct, everybody who could read was gravitating to the literature.
You’re all workers, but did you understand yourselves as workers before anything else, or did you understand yourselves as Black conscious individuals before workers? How did you relate to white workers in the factory?
Waistline: The reason we were named the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, instead of the League of Revolutionary Black People is because we understood that we were industrial workers. I am a second-generation Industrial Worker. I am proud of that. This dichotomy simply didn’t exist. We knew we were Black, how couldn’t we? We also understood that we were living under conditions of police terror and violence. There was a consciousness of being a worker, and you had an aspiration of being a worker as a paid member.
What’s called modern identity politics did not exist as such. During the period I was growing up in, the identity movements were the trade unions and they were the organizations for whites. No greater sign of an identity movement than that: only white people could join. We sought to integrate them so that they could lose their identity.
Let us not impose an ideology that was developed for the past twenty years with a reality that existed back then. My life was that of the industrial workforce. My dad went to work everyday. It was six of us in my family, all of us had jobs everyday. We had to make our bed the night before we went to school. Our aspiration was to make the man’s wage. To fall in love, marry the girl from next door, to raise a family, to have an automobile, and go forward.
The assertion by Blacks was to get into the system as equals, rather than to get out of it. The fight was to reform the system in our favor, but only in that process did we run into revolutionary ideology: Marx, Stalin, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, we understood those ideas from the generations that came before us, and the revolutionary tradition. And the specific kind of factory organization, developed initially by the Communist Party USA.
Me being born in 1952, by the time I was 11, I was prepared to take my place in the industrial system. And being Black meant I was a descendent of slaves. We had to enter the system on the basis of the color question, fight it out on our own. The others did it on the basis of the “ethnic question.” Here is an example: in America, you came from Poland, you were at the bottom of the order because you were Slavic. If you were Irish, you came in, but below the English. Before Blacks entered, there was a pecking order based on ethnicity. So we had to fight it on the basis of the color question.
Had it been different, if Blacks were integrated into the American working class, would you have organized yourselves as the League of Revolutionary Black Workers?
Waistline: Before the entry of Blacks into the industrial order you had what was called ethnic clubs and ethnic press: If you were Albanian, you had the Albanian social club. If you were from Ukraine, you had a Ukrainian press. Things became confusing when we talked about Black, though it shouldn’t have been. The rulers wanted to make the obvious muddled. Now when DRUM came along, the reason we could not unite with the white workers in the same organization is because they didn’t want Blacks in the factory. They didn’t want us in the factory, because unions are based on ethnic factors.
Even before our time, an enormous fight took place to open the system. But then they developed something we called benevolent neutrality. Most whites didn’t oppose Black entry because, as they came in, the whites then got better paying jobs. They moved up the social ladder. It didn’t make economic sense. They went up. But it was not possible to integrate whites into a Black organization, nor was it desirable. Why would we? Yes, strife took place, we had to fight and some of us went to work armed, because we were not going to be pushed around.
Abdul, what was the situation like with the police? What was it like to be a Black person during those days in Detroit. Did that play a role in the rebellion, and in your radicalization?
Abdul: As we grew up in Ann Arbor, and when we left our segregated neighborhoods and went into broader society, we became targets. The police would practice their training on us. This meant by the time we were men, we was ready to fight. So, when I get to Detroit, based upon my experience, if you was a young worker, you dressed a way that let the public know that you might be poor, but you had confidence. You wore jewellery for example.
Detroit, at that time, it was the fashion capital: Italian nets, Johnson and Murphy’s. You’d get stopped because you look good. Now they wanna pat you down, they grabbing your money. That’s when [it] gets ugly. You might be gambling, or hustling good. You might have more than they expect. The police might take all your hundreds. That happened too often. The line gets drawn real quick. You braced to not let it go any further. The outlaws and the workers were mixed there together, and the police was hustling. It was that kind of dynamic.
Waistline: As a child, I understood you could not be in the street long, because the police would come and beat you up or murder you. In Detroit, there was the big four. The big four would drive Chryslers, and if you was walking down the street, they would roll down the window and say “give me that corner.” If they came back and you were there, you would get beaten up. The police would pull up and grab you as you came back from school. We called it the colonial status of Blacks in America. No such thing as rebellions not caused by police murder, and it’s been like that since slavery. We witnessed that with George Floyd.
That is common in America, but this time it was filmed, and it produced world consciousness, as his last words were “I can’t breathe” and “Mama,” and that resonated everywhere. It was the murder of Cynthia Scott in 1965 that caused a mini riot on the east side of Detroit for us. This was the prelude to the great rebellion in 1967. In 1967, it was the largest uprising against the state since the Civil War. In Detroit, the police used to beat us up, we had to hide in the alleys—that’s why the rebellion happened.
What was the trigger that led you to join the Revolutionary Union Movement and the league?
Abdul: When I was growing up, my mother worked for well-to-do white people. She cooked and cleaned their clothes. Me and my young brother got leftover encyclopedias from that family. One of my habits that I got from prison, was to study like Malcolm X did. Malcolm X started with a dictionary, and I just started with Black paperbacks. I would buy enough that I could read in seven days, and wait for the next week.
In one paperback, I was reading Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James, and I was on the Shane bus—the one that goes from downtown Detroit all the way to Eight mile and Lahser road—which was about an hour and a half going and coming back. On the bus, I’m reading a part where they up in the hills and they calling this meeting. It’s the field slaves and the house slaves. They coming from different plantations, but their signal is the drum. And so I’m reading this part, then all of a sudden, I hear some drums while I’m on the bus. I got off the bus, and I see this brother with dreads all the way down to his back. His name was Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts. He said, “This is a wildcat strike.”
I said, “What’s that?”
“Well if you come to the meeting, Oakland and Owen, you’ll learn, We’re Black workers, and we gotta make demands in this factory.”
The next day was a Sunday. I got up early to get there. I sat down and different people started saying what factory they are from. The majority were from Dodge Main. This was October of 1968. I wasn’t the only one from Uniroyal there, and a few others were sent to form a committee with me. I took off my hat and put 10 dollars in, said, “I’ll donate,” and told them, “but in the meantime, If I find out this is an undercover and secret NAACP meeting, then I want my money back!”
They brought General Baker to me and he handed me a paper, a copy of a letter he wrote to the draft board. And this letter was so outstanding. I read it and I said, “Damn.” When I went to the draft board in 1965, I told them, “If you send me to Vietnam, I’m going to join the other side.”
So I told him, “I said the same thing, but the way you did it, this is way more elegant.” That’s what triggered me. I didn’t join DRUM—I got involved. I was not into the NAACP approach of joining stuff. I considered myself an activist, if you do something I like. No signing papers, none of that.
Waistline: I met and knew General Baker. My parents knew him as a young man. My dad’s brother gave him a political orientation. I didn’t join the League; the league was extended family. In 1968, I was 15 years old. The first strike happened, and I ended up joining at the end of the year, as a child, but my role was to pass out leaflets and literature. My peer group, we ended up forming Black Student Voice, which extended to 19 schools. This was in 1968, we were part of the black student and youth wing of the RUM.
As kids, our slogan was “arm yourself or harm yourself.” Our parents were part of the movement as well. The young people who formed DRUM didn’t step out of a vacuum. They had connections all throughout the city. We in Detroit had a unique history. We held no disdain to intellectuals and lawyers. We felt it was honorable to learn, to be fortunate enough to go to university. We never had this hate of intelligence. We loved books. I met Abdul as a child, what made me fascinated as an individual is that he gave me my first Marxist book. It was a whole strata of us: we did not know we were a new phenomenon, a genuine proletarian intelligentsia.
You were young in 1968, when the RUM movement happened. When you turned 18, did you go into the factory?
Waistline: That’s right. In fact, my first job was age 16. I forged documents and ID. I adopted the outlaw ideology to get a shortlived job. I wasn’t ready for the factory system, but I enjoyed having a man’s pay check. Later, I would get hired in Chrysler, in March 1972, and I would retire thirty years later. I became a union rep, a committee man. We started the last RUM paper, Mound Road Engine Revolutionary Union Movement (MERUM) paper. Listen, Detroit was not this dreary place. It was where every paper boy could make it big.
But the working conditions post-World War II was horrendous. When we look at the industrial history of America, we talk about the development of industrial unionism based on the IWW. They were like the original anarcho-syndicalists, the Wobblies. The IWW were the first Wobblies in America. We used to like to say in the League of Revolutionary Workers, we were the last Wobblies. Our initial development was as anarcho-syndicalist revolutionaries who were won over to Marxism. And even then, we loved the heritage of us being anarcho-syndicalists first. We would fight at the drop of a hat, man. There was none of that book shit for us. We loved intellectual development, man, but we liked fighting more than that. That was our heritage.
What was the indication that the Revolutionary Union Movement’s were coming to an end?
Abdul: You asked the wrong question, and you’ll get the right answer. Not only did the Black Panther Party go through splits, DRUM went through splits, the League went through splits, Students for a Democratic Society went through splits, the whole country went through a split. The revolutionaries around the world, in Vietnam, the Chinese Communists, they went through splits. Quite naturally, we couldn’t escape a split.
Out of all my studies, the Black workers were always in a key, decisive and critical point in the productive process. Once we started to move on the basis of those areas, I could see when the ruling class would change their tactics as well. They wouldn’t let the Black workers stay in a dominant position. It looked like to me that the DRUM movement helped accelerate the digital movement. It wasn’t the industrial system anymore. Things were getting automated. There came a point where I didn’t think there was going to be a revolution soon. I wanted to get out of the way to develop skills in other areas. This is when I found out I was blackballed. Not only could I not hold a dishwashing job, I couldn’t hold a job in the car-wash. There was a car-wash on the east side of Detroit, in the heart of the working class district, the outlaw part of Detroit. Everybody that worked there was either on parole, running from parole, ready to commit a crime, or wanting to not get caught. I was probably the cleanest person. The boss came to me one day, and he said, “you ain’t gonna believe this, but I gotta let you go.” I understood what a blackball was.
I was forced to figure out how to survive. From 1974-1979, I played on the race track. I got into poker, and eventually became a petty thief and an alcoholic. I lived an outlaw life. Outlaws were the ones who could take police pressure. Because I was blackballed, I couldn’t hang out with my movement friends. If I tried to hang out with my movement friends, we got pressure from everywhere.
Then my mother got sick. I didn’t have a way to make a living in Ann Arbor. I wound up getting a breaking-and-entering charge, but I wasn’t white, so I wasn’t charged for trespassing. They sent me to prison for 21 years. I went from a high-paid worker in the industrial factory system to the lowest-paid destitute worker. April 28th of 2000, I got out.
Waistline: I did not know our period of history had come to an end until much later. The strike wave peaked at 1973 and 1974, but we had no way to know that. There’s no way to know it. In 1974, we elected Coleman Young, and he began to dismantle the police station as it exists. In 1975, we elected Marxists to political office. In 1975 and 76, we elected socialists to city council. In 1974 to 76, Baker ran a communist campaign. We entered into an agreement with the Socialist Workers Party. I got laid off in 1980.
Our literature knew and detected that something different was taking place. I get back to work in 1984. I owed $13,000 in child support, ready to take care of my family. But I could sense a political change that was subtle. Militants didn’t return to the factory system. There was a shaking out that took place. I witnessed the first robots to come into the plant. There was new machinery with a touch screen. They wouldn’t even develop that until the digital phones in the 90s. Computers were sent to the assembly line. In 1976, we went on to form the Communist Labor Party. We had a Black chairman. The Communist Labor Party lasted till 1989. In 1989, it became clear that things were fundamentally different.
Any parting thoughts?
Waistline: Our fight is for the life of the mind. Interviews like this help us to learn how to think things out. George Floyd’s murder has caused the world to unify against police violence. The majority of people in this country is white. To pretend we can do something without them will get us slaughtered. Abraham Lincoln was able to enlist a white working class that started out hostile to him, in what became one of the bloodiest wars in human history. Something happened, where you had thousands of people singing, “let us die to make men free.” Something’s happening like that now. Y’all have to learn how to love different. Study in a different way. Abdul told you his story. We are educators. Education is more important than practical activity. That’s your job. So you develop into a significant educator.
George Floyd, a man crying his last words, “Mama.” Everybody has a mother. The world heard it and they were outraged. You must forsake identity and ideology. And you’re gonna lose friends over this. You must be true to science. One more thing, Abdul, how did we know it was over? I didn’t man. It was like my whole extended family got broke up, and I went through an intellectual and emotional crisis.
Abdul: That hurt.
Waistline: I think about it now and want to cry. I felt like someone took a chunk of my heart. When Al Greene sang, “how can you mend a broken heart,” I cried buckets of tears. It hurts now. Your organization was like an extended family. I was a kid. It allowed me to grow up. It gave me the love, the nurturing I needed. That’s what we look for in organization. This fight for the life of the mind, is everything.
If you were a Black radical during historical struggles, whether that was organizing the favelas in Brazil, working with shack dwellers to fight apartheid in South Africa, a member of the WPA in Guyana, or a Black Panther in Oakland, California, please get in touch with the author. Leaders with an existing platform are welcome, but rank-and-file members with stories that we haven’t heard are preferred.