The Prison in the City
Securitizing Property in Bankrupt Detroit
It is July 2014. Home water shut-offs have begun in parts of Detroit and I am staring down at a man-made beach from the window of a tenth-story office tower. The beach sits mostly empty, the cocktail bar set up on one side of it quiet, for now; a few brightly colored beach chairs strewn across the sandy square; a nearby office building casting shadows. This vista of urban leisure is one stop on a three-hour publicity tour of what is potentially the most ambitious experiment in privately financed urban reclamation in the nation. Approximately 2.2 square miles of downtown Detroit, including Campus Martius Park and Capital Park, are ground zero for multibillionaire Dan Gilbert’s current urban investment ventures. Everything I’m told to look at from the heights of Gilbert’s corporate headquarters is underwritten by his fortune.
Gilbert has purchased approximately ninety-five buildings in Detroit’s downtown core since 2007. Even while fully capitalist in their motivations and ambitions, Gilbert’s investments in Detroit have been publicly hailed as a civically oriented recoupment project by the benevolent patron of a dying city. As one New York Times profile puts it: “Opportunity Detroit, as Mr. Gilbert has branded it, is both a rescue mission and a business venture that, if successful, will yield him a fortune” (Segal 2013). In just the past three and a half years, under the corporate umbrellas of Rock Ventures, Quicken Loans, and Bedrock Real Estate, Gilbert has invested over $1.5 billion in Detroit real estate. He has also moved 3,600 of his employees (referred to as “team members”) downtown from a nearby suburb and now boasts almost 10,000 employees who work in the city’s central business district (Sorge 2013). Gilbert is buying up, at fire-sale prices, a city whose 2013 $18-billion bankruptcy declaration remains the largest in municipal history.
Detroit is the nation’s poster child for industrial decline. Once a thriving capital of auto manufacturing, the city has been devastated by almost seven decades of factory closures and job losses. Since 1990, its municipal workforce has been cut in half, and since 1992, more than three-fifths of its public schools have closed. Its predominantly African American population, already hit hard by the loss of good union wages and public sector jobs in the post-Fordist period, experienced a new round of plunder and abandonment in the wake of the 2008 housing crisis, when a wave of foreclosures and evictions decimated black home ownership across the city’s east and west ends. By the time the city was declared bankrupt and an emergency manager called in to impose a savage regime of austerity measures, Detroit had the highest rates of unemployment and child poverty of any major U.S. city. In the past decade, one-third of all residential properties entered into foreclosure, many of them still occupied at the time of being seized. The bailiffs who have overseen these evictions frequently bring backup in the form of armed law enforcement, and elsewhere, police harassment and arrest rates have escalated (Jay 2017).
The prison and the city have long held an intimate relationship, going as far back as the early industrial period and the concomitant production of new classifications of urban crime (Linebaugh 2004). The governance of cities on behalf of capital, the policing of the urban poor, and the swelling of prison and jail spaces are interrelated processes, bound especially over the past four decades in the United States by the shared vicissitudes of neoliberal restructuring, deindustrialization, wage stagnation, shifting racial inequities, and the decline of the welfare state. The structural codependence between urban restructuring and expansion of the carceral state has only deepened over the neoliberal period. Geographer Neil Smith’s description of urban transformations in Manhattan in the 1980s and 1990s would prove prescient: “Largely abandoned to the working class amid postwar suburban expansion, relinquished to the poor and unemployed as reservations for racial and ethnic minorities, the terrain of the inner city is suddenly valuable again, perversely profitable” (1996, 6). Smith noted how, in service of that profitability, then-Mayor Giuliani instructed New York police officers to remove homeless people from public spaces and to criminalize a broad swath of activities deemed inimical to “the quality of life” in city neighborhoods. The quality-of-life rubric offered a kind of blank check to the New York City Police Department, whose officers marshaled their unprecedented powers to forcibly move homeless people and poor people from certain streets and from certain neighborhoods.
While the criminalization of acts of poverty, including sleeping on sidewalks and public benches, has long fallen within the purview of gentrifying cities across the United States, a new and growing wave of cities are adopting laws that effectively criminalize homelessness and indigence in urban space. In June 2017, the New York Times reported on measures the city of Honolulu was taking to drive out the homeless, considered a scourge against the tourism industry so central to the state’s economy. The governor had just declared a state of emergency, passing tough new criminal ordinances aimed at ridding the city’s public spaces of homeless people and poverty activities such as panhandling. The tourism industry chipped in as well, offering to cover airfare for homeless people who agreed to return to the mainland (Nagourney 2016). According to a survey of 187 major American cities by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, by the end of 2014, 100 urban municipalities had made it a crime to sit on a sidewalk, a 43 percent increase over 2011. Laws outlawing panhandling and sleeping in cars and authorizing the removal of tent cities have also increased across the country.
Detroit is part of this trend, undergoing a top-down urban transformation so dramatic it has been likened to the structural adjustment policies brutally imposed on countries of the global south in the 1980s and 1990s. After decades of economic decline that led to depression-era levels of unemployment, the city is being remade as a mecca of real estate and tech finance. As municipal assets are privatized and real-estate speculators cash in on rock-bottom property prices, those excluded from the city’s economic revival are being managed in other ways. This chapter examines the Detroit Police Department’s (DPD) 2013 introduction of broken-windows policing and the criminalization of its majority-working-class African American residents in the context of the city’s privatization and revitalization efforts, in particular of Dan Gilbert’s multimillion dollar buy-up of Detroit’s downtown core. To secure the profit of downtown development for the wealthy few, real-estate developers like Gilbert are working hand-in-glove with city managers and municipal and state law enforcement to build up Detroit’s policing and security apparatus. In the Motor City, like elsewhere, police power is in thrall to the profit margin while carceral space is conjured out of the exclusions of the property relation on which that profit is hinged.
“We Eat Our Own Dog Food”
My tour begins when the guide, Bruce Schwartz, the Detroit Relocation Ambassador for Quicken Loans, beckons me to a window here on the tenth-story of the Quicken Loans headquarters. He quickly points out highlights of the landscape below, including the “publicly organized, privately financed” man-made beach in the center of the square. Like Kublai Khan surveying his empire in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Schwartz rattles off a quick list of figures and acquisitions: “We bought that building, which was one of our first acquisitions, and in four months we gutted it and we Quickenized it and we moved 2,500 people in there. It’s now 100 percent occupied. And then we bought the building to the left—First National Building. That building we paid about 8 million dollars for. And we put a lot of money into it.” Every so often Schwartz stops to reiterate Gilbert’s instrumental role in the city’s “revival”: “He is doing amazing things and he has a great mission and great leaders that are working together as a team to bring this city back. And there’s a lot of momentum. If you want to live down here right now, good luck finding a place.”
Indeed, Schwartz is right. With the influx of Gilbert’s capital and the corollary investments of another local billionaire, Mike Ilitch, the downtown of Detroit has become a significantly more exclusive place to live. As developers snatch up low-income apartments and transform them into luxury complexes, the downtown rents have soared, nearly doubling since 2010. Displacement of poor and low-wage residents has accelerated in turn. Housing in general is a major crisis in Detroit, though less so for the population of tech workers who concern Schwartz than for the predominantly poor and working-class African American residents who have lived in the city for generations. Just a couple of miles away from the urban square where young professionals are encouraged to play volleyball on their lunch breaks, neighborhoods have been destroyed by a foreclosure and eviction crisis. Since 2006, more than 150,000 Detroit residents have lost their homes due to foreclosure, the majority of them in the east and west peripheries of the city (Jay 2017, 24). For the majority, the foreclosure crisis has been disastrous. For land speculators, however, the crisis offers a financial boon. Local researchers have found that more than 20 percent of property in the city of Detroit is currently held by land speculators. Much of this surge in speculation has occurred since the housing market crash of 2008, which hit Detroit particularly hard. After the eviction of foreclosed homeowners and the seizure of their buildings, property speculators and financial firms have been able to buy these single-family homes at rock-bottom prices and quickly transform them into far more expensive rental properties (Akers 2017). The result is a property pipeline from those individuals and families with modest means to the wealthy corporate elite.
Gilbert made his fortune after founding Quicken Loans, the second-largest home mortgage lender in the country and the largest online lender. His personal net worth, according to Forbes magazine, is over $6 billion, up from $3.8 billion in 2013, and in 2018 Forbes ranked him the 71st-richest American. Quicken Loans closed a total of $96 billion in loans in 2016, a company record buttressed in no small part by its profiting from the foreclosure crisis. Gilbert began purchasing buildings in downtown Detroit in 2011, exploiting the “skyscraper sale” that followed the 2008 financial crisis, which intensified the city’s economic decline almost a generation after shuttered factories and real-estate speculation began pushing prices down and vacancies up (Akers 2013). Among Gilbert’s first acquisitions was a twenty-three-story neoclassical wonder built in 1912 called the Dime Building. Bedrock bought its full 330,000 square feet in August 2011 for the reported steal of $15 million (Segal 2013). Gilbert’s real-estate company, Rock Ventures, now owns or controls more than thirty properties (including buildings and store fronts) in downtown Detroit, totaling nearly 7.5 million square feet. His stated ambition is to turn downtown into a high-tech hub, and indeed, Schwartz referred to a number of the offices we toured as tech incubators. Roughly eighty small companies have moved into buildings owned by Bedrock, many of them start-ups founded by Detroit Venture Partners, a venture capital firm co-owned by Gilbert. They include a branch of Uber, the controversial taxi-hailing service, and Twitter. Venture capital is quickly eclipsing auto manufacturing and the public sector in the Motor City, but with no commensurate provision of unionized, permanent jobs, especially not for the city’s majority-black working class.
Halfway into our tour of Gilbert’s Detroit-based holdings, Schwartz pulls out the bible of Gilbert’s corporate empire, “The Book of Isms,” which contains such plucky maxims as: “The inches we need are everywhere around us”; “We are the ‘they’”; “A penny saved is a penny”; and “We eat our own dog food.”1 The book is a playbook of sorts for the cultural branding to which Gilbert’s sprawling urban empire aspires, like tech mammoths Google and Facebook before it. By now, its tropes are familiar hallmarks of “creative capitalism,” especially in the tech field: communal workspaces, integration of “fun” in the form of Nerf guns and ping pong, and an expanding office landscape populated predominantly by young, tech-savvy white men. Of a similar tour only months before mine, New York Times writer David Segal described a walk through the third floor of the Chase Building (home to some 300 of Quicken Loans’s approximately 2,500 mortgage bankers) as analogous to “a visit to a frat party at a telemarketing firm” (2013). It is unclear whether the footballs we both happened to see thrown across an office space are a site-specific performance staged to exemplify the culture Schwartz was so keen to show off or a fully integrated part of the average workday.
It is fitting that Schwartz is dressed like a nineteenth-century captain of industry and that one of our tour stops is a refurbished but aesthetically fossilized gold vault once belonging to the Federal Reserve. The tour as a whole feels like a throwback to the boosterism of the late 1800s, when the leaders and owners of small towns in the expanding American and Canadian West made extravagant claims about the future of their settlements with the aim of attracting residents and inflating the prices of local real estate. Schwartz gushes more than once about the “amazing things” Gilbert’s “vision” has accomplished in Detroit, referring to Gilbert’s downtown investment initiatives as a “magic dust,” a property assumedly analogous to King Midas’s golden touch. Meanwhile, at a large table under the basement gold vault’s glass chandelier, two “team members” host a Skype conversation with their boss to discuss the pros and cons of outfitting the entire office with bean bag chairs.
Schwartz’s optimistic claims have a great deal of heavy lifting to do to counter the pervasive and seemingly self-evident narrative of Detroit as a dying city, a city in decline, or a “postapocalyptic” city. Indeed, Americans have perhaps become so inundated with the stock images of Detroit’s unceremonious urban decline, such as the towering Grand Central Station with its shuttered windows, that the actual flow of capital through such spaces has been obscured. As Detroit scholar Josh Akers argues (2013), drawing on Smith (1984), abandonment and vacancy are actually productive strategies of capital accumulation, part of the seesaw of uneven development necessary to capitalist growth. The state, moreover, is often a committed, rather than absent, partner in the production and exploitation of such abandonment. Akers explains:
Local governments are actively involved in the mitigation of vacancy and abandonment through a variety of approaches, many of which are centered on economic development and growth. The use of state policy to privilege private markets and ownership allows for the expansion and deepening of devalorization cycles. It buttresses a market for the exchange of vacant and abandoned property that is removed from the physical conditions of the actual structures and is reliant on the speculative possibilities of urban entrepreneurialism and grant coalitions targeting redevelopment. (2013, 26)
In other words, the “skyscraper sale” through which Gilbert’s Detroit real-estate empire has expanded in just three years was made possible by the same rent gap that facilitates gentrification in global cities like New York: a long-term widening in the ratio of land values to property that render it profitable for developers to reinvest in undervalued urban space (Smith 1996; Rousseau 2009, 770). The very conditions that lure investors like Gilbert to a city like Detroit (low prices, high vacancy, government tax subsidies, and accelerated access for those who can pay in cash) are the conditions that, in recent decades, attracted capitalist developers to some of the most expensive urban real estate in the country, including in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, preceding their generalized gentrification (Smith 2002). While those wealthy cities differ from Detroit in various ways, investors saw and continue to see spectacular profit margins at the expense of low-income residents living in neighborhoods divested of adequate infrastructure and state resources. When investment inevitably arrives there too in search of profit, residents face eviction and displacement rather than the benefits of state-subsidized private capital. Often, those state subsidies even aid in that eviction and displacement, as in Detroit, where three-quarters of the $188 million sent to Michigan from the federal government as part of the Helping Hardest Hit Homeowners program went to “blight removal,” including the razing of vacant and foreclosed homes (Jay 2017, 24).
Real estate acquisition is only one part of the profit-making equation, however. For value to be recuperated from that real estate and the corporate labor subsidized within it, space itself needs to be socially “activated”: people from elsewhere need reasons to want to be there. The social and cultural cachet associated with that real estate, or the urban space in which it is embedded, must also be cultivated. Gilbert’s strategies for activating the downtown core include constructing a skateboard park and an urban beach, commissioning international art stars to adorn a multitiered parking lot with urban graffiti, and dotting street corners with gimmicky creative-capital emblems, such as a human-sized novelty Jenga game.
The sheer volume and presence of security guards and police officers who line the urban core make clear that these resources are not intended for the city’s 20,000 homeless people, many of whom also populate the downtown core. According to the local American Civil Liberties Union (2013), the police have made a point of targeting the downtown’s homeless population, often picking them up only to drop them off late at night in far away neighborhoods.
In Gilbert’s billion-dollar downtown, a Rock Ventures security force patrols the streets twenty-four hours per day, reinforcing the unflinching gaze of hundreds of high-tech security cameras affixed to the buildings purchased by his companies. Meanwhile, a model of downtown Detroit in miniature sits in the boardroom of the Quicken Loans headquarters, with Gilbert’s properties illuminated in a bright orange glow once he acquires them. Situated in one of those buildings, the Bedrock-owned Chase Tower, is a command center where dozens of computer screens monitored by security guards link to live feeds from the arsenal of video cameras planted downtown. The monitors connect to approximately 1,000 different cameras in the streets and sidewalks surrounding Rock Ventures properties in seven different states, with over 300 of those cameras located in metro Detroit alone (Davies 2013). The camera program is a collaborative effort that includes most of the big downtown property owners, including General Motors, Ilitch Holdings, and Compuware. Once a month, the representatives of those companies meet in a boardroom at the Compuware headquarters, the same building that hosts Quicken Loans, along with members of the DPD, Wayne County Sheriff, Wayne State University Police and representatives of the numerously deployed private security forces (Davies 2013).
While the scale and speed of Detroit’s security build-up in support of Gilbert’s reinvestment schemes has been dramatic, the deployment of police and security technology in the service of urban revitalization is not itself anomalous. Capital invested in property has always required the coercive scaffolding of enclosure and securitization in order to generate profit (Davis 1990; Linebaugh 2004). The most familiar form of that scaffolding is extensive surveillance technology, along with increased urban policing and the proliferation of mechanisms for criminalizing undesirable bodies and behaviors (Beckett and Herbert 2010). If the revitalization of downtown Detroit is underwritten by Gilbert’s mortgage and real estate empires, that financial investment is itself buttressed by a vast infrastructure of surveillance technology and a network of private security companies working in collaboration with the DPD. The private-public security partnership is insidious not only because it indicates the privileging of corporate property over ordinary residents but also because the limits of public law enforcement are offset by the private security guards, and vice versa. For example, the Guardsmark Inc. security guards Gilbert employs are under no legal obligation to read detainees their Miranda rights, but they do have the power to use force. They tag team with Detroit police forces when removing unwanted people from the downtown, communicating via radio and sharing video feed from the multimillion-dollar surveillance system. That system is even put to use monitoring social dissent, such as when it was used to scrutinize activists from Black Lives Matter who gathered downtown in the summer of 2016 (Jay 2017, 33).
While various levels of Detroit and Wayne County police have been absorbed into an expanded multimillion-dollar, high-tech private-public security and surveillance apparatus, reconfigured police tactics even within the municipal police department itself suggest intensified securitization and criminalization of select swaths of Detroit’s urban space. The DPD strategy in the gentrifying downtown core has concentrated around quality-of-life offenses and the criminalization of homelessness through security technology and police powers deployed to displace those deemed inimical to the corporate investment and luxury consumption for which the area is being cordoned off. The tactics deployed in Detroit’s deeply impoverished east and west ends, however, where the majority of the city’s poor and working-class African American population reside, have been even more aggressive. What this suggests is that police harassment, criminalization, and arrest are all carceral tactics that serve capital interests insofar as they help securitize property values and gentrify neighborhoods, but they also play a significant role in the management of racialized urban poverty as a whole.
Broken Windows Redux
In November 2013, at least 150 federal, state, and local law-enforcement personnel raided an apartment complex called Colony Arms on Detroit’s east side. Residents’ names were run through the system and every violation, no matter how minimal or how dated, was treated with “zero tolerance,” meaning that police action was taken (Gross 2014). Dubbed “Operation Clean Sweep,” the raid resulted in at least thirty arrests. Less than a month later, forty-two people were arrested in a DPD raid of another public housing complex, and two weeks after that, on December 17, some 300 officers and law-enforcement agencies conducted what was considered at the time to be the biggest sweep in the department’s history, flooding a one-square-mile area of the city’s west side. Monthly policing assaults have since been launched under the umbrella of an operation called “Operation Restore Order,” a series of seventeen SWAT-assisted paramilitary operations that the DPD waged between 2013 and 2015 in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods (Gross 2014).
The raids are just one manifestation of the department’s new zero-tolerance policing agenda, a component of the DPD’s recent prioritization of quality-of-life issues, such as graffiti elimination, drug enforcement, and the general problem of “vice.” Assistant Chief James E. White is quoted in one recent news report explaining the department’s approach: “We go out and do drug raids—that’s a quality of life issue. But then we go out to the local party stores in the area and if they are selling loose cigarettes or the store is dirty then they are cited for that as well” (quoted in Gross 2014). White continues in the same report:
You have to approach crime almost as a holistic approach, where you have to look at every aspect of the community and what’s happening in the community. Some people would laugh and say, what difference does it make if the store is clean? Well, if the store is dirty and there is no investment by that storeowner to have a clean store that is welcoming to regular, everyday, working class people, then you’re going to draw only the people who may be looking to what’s not necessarily a good thing.
It is worth noting that the areas targeted for quality-of-life policing in Detroit are all predominantly black. In the Colony Arms complex, for example, 90 percent of the residents are African American (Gross 2014).
The theory of policing that White describes has a name, one familiar to many residents of large cities and theorists of urban policing and mass incarceration: “broken-windows theory.” Under the watch of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton in the 1990s, New York City implemented an expanded network of policing, surveillance, and civil ordinances under the complementary security rubrics of “zero tolerance” and broken-windows theory. The latter idea, coined and popularized in the 1980s by conservative scholars George Kelling and the late James Q. Wilson, suggested that the aggressive policing and criminalization of “undesirable” behaviors related to designated quality-of-life issues such as vandalism and trespassing, as well as drug use and panhandling, could be an effective way to stymie a putative escalation of criminal activities in the urban core. In practice, broken-windows policing in New York (and elsewhere) meant the aggressive criminalization of poor and mostly racialized urban residents, functionally displacing to the urban peripheries mostly victimless and survivalist activities related to extreme poverty, especially those deemed damaging to property or speculation on property. As Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton explain, broken-windows policing emerged out of the urban crises of the 1960s and the 1970s to become “the political expression of neoliberalism at the urban scale” (2016, 2). Its most lasting achievement has been the wholesale displacement of the multiracial poor and working class from urban spaces around the globe.
Broken-windows policing is popularly associated with major cities like New York, but in a seeming throwback to the 1990s (a period, significantly, also associated with the widespread revalorization of real estate in the country’s major cities), it is Detroit that is witnessing a resurrection of these controversial practices. In the summer of 2012 and winter of 2013, the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute “loaned” George Kelling to the city of Detroit to help implement, in collaboration with the DPD, broken-windows pilot programs in two of the city’s high-poverty areas, one in the northwest neighborhood of Grandmont-Rosedale and the other in the northeast neighborhood of East English Village. The strategy was to flood the neighborhoods with police and specifically identify and target what they call “the neighborhood’s most at risk offenders” (Manhattan Institute n.d.). Detroit’s government paid $600,000 to the Manhattan Institute and an undisclosed amount to the Bratton Group for their support facilitating the DPD’s adoption of broken-windows policing, even while it was itself, as a city, on the verge of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
It is noteworthy that Detroit’s broken-windows experiments are being championed for the same reasons and by the same interests as Gilbert’s downtown property investment and securitization efforts. In one laudatory opinion piece in the local media, the author introduces himself as a collaborator of Kelling’s in the implementation of “community-policing” programs informed by broken-windows theory. He is worth quoting at length:
Downtown and Midtown have become remarkably safer places because of outside influences. A visionary chief executive, Dan Gilbert, has purchased dozens of buildings, created a high-tech surveillance-camera system, and founded an outdoor oasis called Campus Martius Park. An enterprising university, Wayne State, has developed a strong police department to provide public safety around its ever-growing campus. And entrepreneurs have leveraged low interest rates and government incentives to open up shops in the area. These largely top-down economic activities have allowed for a vibrant civic life to develop in the urban core, and [as] a result the place has become safer. But these sorts of activities cannot be expected to occur all across the 130 remaining square miles. For the “neighborhoods,” a bottom-up and targeted approach is required . . . Just as New York began to reclaim its quality of life by cracking down on subway-fare cheats and squeegee men, Detroit has had to begin with a crackdown on home invasions. In Grandmont and Rosedale, this has meant organizing citizens to report suspicious behavior, having police take reports seriously, having probation officers serve outstanding warrants, and having prosecutors do their part. (Allegretti 2013)
One of the primary discursive contributions made by the Manhattan Institute over the past decade has been to popularize the myth that quality-of-life policing and broken-windows theory were responsible for New York’s decline in crime rates, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (Harcourt 2001). In this passage, the author reproduces this myth and extends it, claiming not only that New York “reclaimed its quality of life” through broken-windows policing tactics, but that Detroit’s putative crime problem would require the same and more, aggressive and oppressive action from all arms of the carceral dragnet, including parole officers, law enforcement, prosecutors, and even those residents convinced or coerced to collaborate with police. The question of safety for whom is never addressed, even while classist and racist assumptions about who poses danger and whose quality of life matters remain implicit.
In 2013, Detroit appointed a new police chief, James Craig, who had worked under “broken windows” Police Commissioner Bratton in Los Angeles when the latter was head of the Los Angeles Police Department in the 2000s. Bratton had himself hired Kelling as a consultant during this time (Hackman 2014). As he had directly observed Bratton’s implementation of broken-windows policing in Los Angeles, the local media lauded Craig’s appointment, considering the city’s so-called crime problem to be out of control. Detroit’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, also appointed in 2013 by Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder to oversee Detroit’s bankruptcy, is on record as saying that crime was the city’s number one impediment to economic development (Jay and Conklin 2017, 27). In other words, crime is considered a problem by local powers insofar as it threatens an economic bottom line. Those deemed as threatening to the revitalization of the profit rate tied to private property in Detroit’s urban core are cast as criminals in order to render their systematic exclusion, dispossession, and containment legitimate. Meanwhile, of the thirty arrests made during the Colony Arms police offensive, twenty-one were related to parking violations, and not one person was ultimately convicted of any wrongdoing (Jay 2017, 21).
Policing, privatization, and the securitization of real estate markets are thus intertwined processes in Detroit, as elsewhere. They are also thoroughly racialized processes whose most dire consequences, including arrest and imprisonment, are borne predominantly by its poorest residents, who are also mostly African American. Detroit is a city that is 84 percent black. It is also reportedly the most segregated metropolitan region in the nation (Logan and Stults 2011; Vanhemert 2013). Nearly 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line and approximately 50 percent of the population is unemployed. Nearly 60 percent of the area’s black population lives within the Detroit city limits. Akers writes: “The material segregation of the city and suburbs is explicit in both the suburb-city boundary, but it is also implicit in the struggles over control of regional services and the reluctance of suburban communities to participate in regional approaches to regional issues” (2013, 6). In such a context, the politics of municipal service provision and the aggressive privatization of such services in the wake of Detroit’s bankruptcy are inextricable from the ongoing revanchist politics of race and class immiseration.
Water Wars and the Property Relation
At the same time as Schwartz was showing me Madonna’s favorite life-sized horse lamp in the basement office of a tech start-up, hundreds of Detroiters were facing an acute resource emergency. That summer, the city’s Water and Sewerage Department (WSD) had begun aggressively turning off the water supply of select families who had been late in paying their recent water bills. Upward of 10 percent of Detroiters were subject to water shutoffs (Jay and Conklin 2017: 41). The shutoffs began in March 2014, when the WSD announced it would begin ending water service for 1,500 to 3,000 customers per week, claiming it was facing a financial crisis that left it “no choice” but to begin cutting off residents. In truth, starting in 2011, the Detroit government had actively disinvested the Water and Sewage Department by hundreds of millions of dollars and re-allocated that money to repay Wall Street creditors. Local news investigations quickly poked holes in the city’s crisis plea, pointing out that large-scale customers such as Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions football team, Joe Louis Arena, where the Red Wings play hockey, and numerous city golf courses had also amassed huge unpaid water bills but were not being cut off.
Resource scarcity is neither natural nor inevitable. In Detroit, as elsewhere, it is a product of social processes and political decision making. Like housing foreclosures and job layoffs, municipal disinvestment is also increasingly what carceral space is made out of. Detroit sits on the edge of the largest group of freshwater lakes on the planet, and yet residents have seen water rates rise by 119 percent within the last decade, making them among the highest rates in the country. The official unemployment rate of the city, widely considered understated, is at a record high, and the official poverty rate, also understated, sits at about 40 percent (Detroit People’s Water Board et al. 2014, 3). When the City of Detroit declared bankruptcy in the summer of 2013, the well-paid bankruptcy lawyer who was named its emergency manager declared Detroit “for sale.” To lure buyers, he imposed a savage austerity regime of severe cuts to public services across the board. Water service was among the public utilities currently being considered for regionalization, sale, lease, and/or public-private partnership. Unpaid water bills operate as the utility company’s “bad debt” and depress its potential resale value. The Detroit WSD was a candidate for privatization as part of Detroit’s bankruptcy, and was therefore actively seeking to make itself more attractive to private investors. Removing poor black customers from the entity’s resource rolls can thus be seen as one part of the broader tactic of accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2004).
The Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO), a union of public assistance recipients and low-income workers, has been on the frontlines of the battle against Detroit’s water privatization and resource expropriation. A chapter of the National Welfare Rights Union, its leadership is predominantly made up of African American and Latina women, such as Maureen Taylor, Mariam Kramer, and Sylvia Orduño, with historical roots in radical, anticapitalist and antiracist struggles. These activists played central roles in historically pivotal Detroit-based organizations such as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Through their work with MWRO, they continue to demonstrate how welfare rights such as the right to water and shelter might be a cornerstone of organizing the poor and working class against those who seek to exclude them from the social surplus.
In their Submission to the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, for example, the MWRO (in concert with the Detroit People’s Water Board and others) made it clear how Detroit’s water cutoffs constitute a continued gentrification strategy in a city already deeply segregated by class and race:
These water cut-offs to poor Detroit households need to be understood within a broader context of Detroit’s appeal in the real estate market. With its proximity to the Great Lakes and the Canadian border, the city is considered prime real estate, and is available at fire sale prices. People’s overdue water bills are being transferred to their property taxes and people are losing their homes as a result. Given the utility’s lack of interest in cutting costs or generating revenues by collecting on the arrears of business users, fixing leaking pipes, and cutting off services to abandoned homes, the organization sees the crackdown as a ploy to drive poor people of color out of the city to facilitate gentrification—what the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization refers to as a ‘land-grab.’ (Detroit People’s Water Board et al. 2014, 4)
Reports from the MWRO indicate that some families had been living without water for over a year, eventually becoming homeless as a result. As many as two-thirds of the water cutoffs are happening in homes with children, moreover, increasing residents’ fears about speaking out. Many of them know through experience that child-welfare authorities may remove children from such homes in accordance with a state policy mandating working utilities in all residences with children (5). Meanwhile, there are reports of people being charged as much as $500 per month for water. The average water bill is about $150–$200 for a family of four.
The recent story of Detroit’s water cutoffs, the broken-windows policing strategy, and the accumulation of downtown real estate by Gilbert, taken together, recall Peter Linebaugh’s “history of the neck” in The London Hanged, which he describes as “a history of the eighteenth century class struggle that includes both the expropriation of the poor from the means of producing (resulting in ‘urbanization’) and the appropriation by the poor of the means of living (resulting in ‘urban crime’)” (2004, xxiii). In this history of eighteenth-century penalty and its political economy, Linebaugh demonstrates that crime and capital operate in dialectic relation; so too do the spaces of capital and the carceral. The property relation is a central bridge between the two, insofar as it prescribes a set of political imperatives and practices of power while simultaneously transforming the social landscape into a fixed set of structural arrangements and ideological commitments (Blomley 2004, 5). The investment, boosterism, and racialized securitization of Detroit’s downtown core by Gilbert and his companies emerge out of a political economy that itself produces the dispossession and criminalization of Detroit’s impoverished black residents. Indeed, the profit margins of real-estate investment and speculation are made possible by dispossession and criminalization. In restructured urban cores like Detroit across the country, the property relation motivates the enactment of police power, while penal tactics of dispossession and containment are deployed to produce class-fortified enclaves of carceral space.
In using the term “property relation,” I mean to distinguish the relation from property as such, or from merely the objects of ownership. Rather, “property” as it is used here points to an organized set of relations, primarily between people, in regard to a valued resource. As a relation, then, property organizes much of the world, legally and socially. It assigns resources to owners, it allocates rights and duties, and it serves as the grounding for a great deal of contestation and protest. As Nick Blomley reminds us, property provides both a rationale for dispossession and a ground for its opposition (2004). Property is an expression of social relationships, insofar as it organizes the way in which people relate to and exercise power over each other and their material environment. Calling into question the secure “thingness” and individualized ownership of property not only brings to light the socially determined nature of who gets to own what in our society, as Shiri Pasternak points out, but also provokes important questions about who gets to divest, police, govern and incapacitate whom, on the basis of one’s ownership status. “By ‘social relations,’” Pasternak writes, “I mean the legal and political institutions that create, protect and enforce property laws, which in reciprocal ways, socialize us to understand and accept the particular distribution of ownership in our society” (2010, 10). Property as a social relation thus organizes and legitimates state and private practices of securitization, livelihood dispossession, and criminalization, intertwined processes whose political geographies, as I have demonstrated, connect city neighborhoods to the jail and prison cells overcrowded primarily by the urban poor and under-resourced.
Akers argues that Detroit provides an opportunity to examine this dynamic in action within spaces of decline: “Rather than inert places left behind or struggling to keep up, spaces of decline incubate reconfigurations of state power and capital. It is in these reconfigurations—the shifting accumulation strategies of capital to feed off disinvestment and government interventions in the making of markets and privatization of space” that decline is produced (2013, 263). Such activity must also be seen to include the state production of prisons and prisoners. In asking how capital is being deployed in spaces of decline and to what ends, rather than simply assuming its singularly outward flow, we are able to better grasp the intricate relationship between capital and the carceral as it plays out in urban space. Downtown Detroit constitutes a carceral space, insofar as the production of prisons and prisoners emerges from both the abandonment of the urban core and the activities of the state there on behalf of investment capital. This occurs through technical innovations in securitization and policing as required by the restructured privileging of urban markets and the privatization of urban property, including real estate. It also occurs through the production of “crime” itself (for example, defining as “theft” the continued use of water in situations of nonpayment), the creation of scarcity through propertization, and the uneven dispossession of residents of the means of their own survival: most recently, in the case of Detroit, that of water and of shelter.
“Abandonment,” “blight,” and “vacancy” thus constitute the material terrain of capital accumulation and the ideological fodder for its coercive infrastructure. It is significant that the Detroit imaginary invoked by Schwartz during our tour of Gilbert’s revitalization efforts is replete with metaphors of frontier and settlement. These imaginaries have a long history not only in the reconstruction of urban land markets (Smith 1996) but also, of course, in the colonization and theft of Indigenous lands. As Akers points out, “the apparent disuse or non-use of land and the array of policies deployed to put land back into productive use raise questions about fundamental claims to property in settler colonial societies based on Locke’s notion of use and productivity” (2013, 267). The frontier ideology deployed to secure property rights throughout the ongoing settler colonial history of the Americas is also put to work today in the making of urban real-estate markets, in part by rationalizing social differentiation and exclusion as natural, even inevitable.2 The work of Detroit’s frontline activists, however, like Taylor and Kramer, has long been to demonstrate that it is neither.
In the early hours of the hot summer morning of July 23, 1967, a rebellion erupted on Detroit’s 12th Street. Over four days, it would become the largest urban uprising in U.S. history. In his address to the nation on July 27, President Lyndon B. Johnson drew a straight and unequivocal line between protest and crime: “First—let there be no mistake about it—the looting, arson, plunder and pillage which have occurred are not part of the civil rights protest. . . . That is crime—and crime must be dealt with forcefully, and swiftly, and certainly” (U.S. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders 1968, 297). Dealt with forcefully it was, as some 7,000 National Guard and U.S. Army troops were deployed alongside thousands of police officers to quell the protests. By the time the rebellion was over, forty-three people were dead and hundreds injured and nearly 1,400 buildings had been burned.3
Sparked by the police harassment of a homecoming party for two black soldiers, the Detroit rebellion was fundamentally an expression of deep-seated discontent with chronic state disinvestment, police brutality, and urban renewal policies whose destructive consequences were born most heavily by the city’s working and wageless communities of color. The revolt, meanwhile, was just one in a wave of large-scale protests that swept urban downtowns across the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of them led by African Americans in multiracial, predominantly working-class coalitions. “These cycles of rebellion,” Camp writes, “articulated demands for dignity and freedom among aggrieved and insurgent people who had been displaced and dispossessed by joblessness, housing segregation, militarism, and aggressive policing throughout the postwar area” (2016, 1). Indeed, urban life during this period was deeply marked by racialized uneven development: white flight to the suburbs, accompanied by capital investment in suburban housing and infrastructure, produced wealthy outer rings, while deindustrialization, state disinvestment, and intensified assaults on trade unionism coalesced to undermine the quality of life of the predominantly African American and Latinx working classes left residing in the nation’s inner cities.
Forged out of the urban ferment and racial rebellions of this period, including the Detroit uprising, President Johnson’s Safe Streets Act of 1968 exemplifies the profound and long-standing imbrication of the carceral system with urban structures of capitalization and governance. A massive piece of crime-control legislation, the Safe Streets Act expanded police powers at the municipal level in order to quell the uprisings rocking cities across the country. The close relationship between this extension of state power to arrest and incarcerate and the urban crises of racialized unemployment, public disinvestment, and ongoing racial discrimination fuelling the rebellions was clear to urban activists of the period. Community-based African American and Puerto Rican organizations such as the Black Panthers and the Young Lords drew a chain of equivalence in their analysis between the underdevelopment of ghetto spaces in the nation’s largest cities and the criminalization and imprisonment of their racialized urban residents. The Black Panthers’ dictum to organize the “brothers on the block” was thus understood to apply simultaneously to both the cell block and the city block (Berger 2010, 59).
Detroit’s black-led, multiracial, working-class rebellion expressed a collective awareness that a few were being made rich at the expense of the survival and well-being of the majority. Politicized by imperialist war in Southeast Asia and systemic racism and inequality at home and then emboldened by the power they found in collective action, participants in the uprising, in the eyes of the state, had to be put down. For their actions in the name of freedom and equality, Detroit’s rebels were cast as a threat, transformed from protestors with legitimate grievances to criminals who posed danger to the average citizen. Their threat, in fact, was to the social order. The dispossessed and unemployed working-class African Americans of today’s Detroit are similarly cast as security threats, begging the question: what, exactly, is being secured? In this case, it continues to be the profit rate, here invested in urban real estate. The practice of protecting property values, existing and projected, is fundamentally connected to practices of policing and the carceral management of urban space (Bonds 2018). As in the municipalities of St. Louis County, poor people of color are being systematically excluded from the new residential and commercial property markets of Detroit. The property relation organizes the strategy of the police state, while disinvestment and dispossession condition the production of carceral space. Whole neighborhoods are divested of water, amenities, schools, and jobs and then cast as dangerous enclaves requiring massive police repression.
An excavation of the carceral spaces of contemporary Detroit demonstrates that it is the property relation, and specifically the valorization of real estate as a central engine of urban revitalization strategies and their attendant displacement of poor, mostly black residents, that underpin and reproduce the carceral order. Thinking about the city and the prison as dialectical spaces whose transformations are structurally bound by shared imperatives and relations of power not only reveals the prison as an expression of the property relation and its centrality to contemporary urban economies but also simultaneously invites us to consider the prison as an urban exostructure. Its dismantling will require no less than a transformation of the structures of profitability that currently organize urban space—a lesson we see further demonstrated in the neoliberal prison reform initiatives being enacted in cities like Brooklyn, New York.