Lee is nervous. “Of course I’m nervous,” she
says, “I haven’t worn a skirt this short since eighth
grade.” She is rail thin, pale, with straggly brown hair and
a small, tobacco-tooth smile that still manages to charm. She is
one of Detroit’s only Radical Cheerleaders. Her body hides
awkwardly under fishnet stockings, a clingy shirt, a spiked belt
and the dreaded skirt, a strip of black fabric that never manages
to cover her lower thighs. Last night she made pom-poms.

Laura Wong
A conference of Detroit radicals formed to discuss the necessary rebuilding efforts in the city. (Forest Casey/Daily)

I’m looking at the zines for sale at the Idle Kids
Info-shop on Detroit’s Cass Avenue when she comes up to me.
These are self-published works by local writers who are nostalgic
for the Xerox cut-and-paste revolution. There are dozens of them on
the racks with names like “Frolic,” “Golden
Kitsch,” “White Crow: a literary scavenger,”
“The Copy Cafe,” “Xerography Debt,” and
“Concrete: Think like a mountain.” Lee points out one
and says I should buy it. The price is 50 cents for a girl’s
private thoughts and rainbow-themed doodles. Lee defends her taste
by saying, “I’m a little scatterbrained.”

She is going to perform a cheer later on, after the anarchists,
socialists, anti-authoritarians, punks and poets have their say.
The sun is setting outside over churches and parking lots as these
people circle up for a meeting.

 

* * *

The new home of these radicals sits on a very old road in
Detroit. It was a farm boundary line named for Lewis Cass, the man
who became Michigan’s territorial governor in 1813 and helped
create the state’s first regularly published newspaper, the
Detroit Gazette, which sold for $4 a year to city subscribers. Cass
might have become some sort of inspiration to us if he had won his
1848 bid for U.S. president. But today, his name is synonymous with
the Cass Corridor, the area of Detroit that in the 1960s became
home to the most concentrated poverty in the state of Michigan, and
one of the most impoverished areas in the nation.

On the ground, one would never know the place had such a
distinct history; it is mostly a sprawl of tired-looking buildings
and vacant lots. Revitalization projects have reclaimed a few
houses, and further down along Cass Avenue there are some grand old
apartments for the Wayne State University community. But at 3535
Cass Ave., the Idle Kids Info-shop is hidden in plain daylight. The
only things saving the brick building from oblivion are the sign
near the door and the windows that are spray painted to read
“CDs, Records, Skateboards.”

The irony is that the street of a national leader and friend of
the press is now home to radicals who fear the mainstream press and
seek to overthrow the state. But Cass himself is ancient history
these days. The starting point for comprehending the Corridor
should be the 1960s, when poverty and political activism set it on
its present course. In 1965, the Detroit Artists Workshop founders
John Sinclair and Robin Eichele wrote of the need for a
counter-community, since “Detroit, despite all its
pretensions, has been artistically ‘dead’ for longer
than most people here want to admit.” If people would speak
so simply today, they might say the same thing. Detroit looks just
as barren to the passing hipster. But over the past 40 years, a
trickle of fine artists, poets, musicians, and revolutionaries have
been filling in the empty spaces left by poverty, taking up
residence, forming collectives, and growing roots in Detroit. The
Artists Workshop was only the start of what has become a great
loose-knit community of “Cass Corridor Tribes.”

The Idle Kids are somewhere on the edge of this movement, though
they are trying to build a base. Their shop on Cass Avenue looks
like a daycare center for radicals. The walls inside are painted
orange, red and purple-sky-blue and are covered with fliers,
slogans, murals, and a pirate flag with an eye-patched skull and
bones. Piles of silkscreen printed shirts carry pictures of
President Bush saying things like “Stop me before I kill
again.” There are books for sale on art, comics,
gender/women’s issues, veganism; titles by Howard Zinn, Noam
Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Alexander Berkman’s “ABC of
Anarchism.” Racks display clothes made by a Frankenstein
method of sewing together various pieces—the trunk of a high
school band shirt, fringe from a blouse, the bottom of a
sundress.

On the markerboard behind a desk, someone has written “We
could rise black and white unbound and make them pay for every tear
for every fear, defend our yesterdays.” Next to this is,
“Word of the month: deletitious.” At the other side of
the room, hidden in some shadows, is a cardboard sign for the
reading library where books by Albert Camus and George Orwell sit
unborrowed: “In the process of growing.”

It is early evening on a Friday, and the Kids are holding a
meeting called “Building a Culture of Resistance.” The
format is something between that of a U.N. meeting and an AA
meeting. Radicals sit in a circle and say what they do.

Peter runs the Fifth Estate, the longest running English
language anarchist newspaper in North America. Its title is a jab
at the press’s claim to be democracy’s fourth estate,
after the three bodies of government. He tells young people the mag
is a model for what they can do, since “we were simply late
teens early twenties kids that saw this as a possibility and took
it.”

Carol and Marie are from Sisters Empowered and the Sweetwater
Alliance. Marie is planning to do a public housing takeover.
“We’re going to break down the doors, scout it out,
make sure it’s livable, and move people in who have no
housing.” This is for people who have no heat or water, after
Detroit Edison and the water department cut off at least 40,000
households last year. A similar takeover was staged in 1992, in
which locks were changed and new tenants were hustled in. She
convinced 267 ex-offenders to get on board yesterday. She wonders
if the anti-authoritarian groups would like to help, too. “We
need people who are willing to use a crowbar.”

Phil is from the Industrial Workers of the World’s Detroit
general membership bureau. “We believe that workers are
entitled to all they produce.” He has a hefty voice.
“We also cook.” He’s part of the wobbly kitchen,
which cooks for striking workers, for people trying to raise strike
funds, and so on.

Then there are the Nader crusaders, Lawrence and John.
They’ve come from Ohio, where Ralph offered to stick them in
a bus everyday and a Motel 6 every night, and they said yes. All
night, they’ve been sitting at a table with their literature
laid out and their bumper stickers that say “Vote for the
Arab.” They want to let everyone here know that there’s
an option besides the two-party system.

A couple dozen other people introduce themselves, and there are
discussions. By the end of the meeting some things have been agreed
upon: that there should be an anti-war protest on Nov. 3, called
“The Day After”; that another meeting will be held in
two weeks; and that people should sign an e-mail list.

By this point, everyone is tired. Many leave as discussions
peter out, but at least a dozen stay to hear the music and poetry
of Blair, a big-chested black man with a mohawk. He doesn’t
ask anyone to break down doors for him. He just talks and sings.
One of his poems relates the confusion of a mixed identity:
“I liked boys, and that made me gay and white. But I beat
boys up who called me nigger, and that made me black and
straight.” When he sings, he strums his guitar like Richie
Havens. He performs the Clash’s “I’m So Bored
With the USA.” Blair is a teacher at a Detroit public high
school. He says it’s revolutionary to be able to express
yourself well. Rain begins to fall outside as he goes into a slow
ballad, and the sound makes the room pregnant and soft. All the
people who have come here, from all their groups, are silent
together.

* * *

Lee comes out with four other girls once the music is over. They
are all slightly modified versions of each other, wearing all black
and green, with black boots, miniskirts, and purple pom-poms in
hand. One girl has an AK Press sweatshirt on. Bandannas and
barrettes hold their hair in place. There is still a little crowd
left to watch.

A girl with short blond hair speaks up: “This one’s
called ‘Resist,’ because this is the culture of
resistance festival …

“Squad Set?”

You bet.

R … is for revolution

E … is for everybody

S … subvert the system

I … ignite debate

S … we’re gonna smash the state

T … we’re gonna tear it down

Resist. Resist.

Raise up your fist

Resist. Resist.

We know you are pissed

Resist. Resist.

Fight the capitalist

Resist. Resist.

Show ’em what they can kiss

(They turn and slap their butts)

Show ’em what they can kiss (slap)

Show ’em what they can

Show ’em what they can

Show ’em what they can kiss.

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