“Summer on Fire – A Detroit Novel” by Peter Werbe, 2021
Detroit, 1967. A swirling novel of anti-war activism, Black Power, riot and rebellion. All the boxes are ticked – The 5th Estate; the MC5; the Black Panthers; the ostensibly Trotskyist SWP; Maoists, anarchists, White Panthers, early DRUM – groups that thrived in Detroit’s radical scene. The lead characters are left anarchists at the 5th Estate underground hippie newspaper. The lead character, Paul, has a cat named Durruti, an anarcho-syndicalist leader during the Spanish Civil War. The author is now a rock DJ, still an anarchist and was formerly a staffer at the 5th Estate, who now works for the 5th Estate magazine.
So anarchism is supposed to come out looking the ‘best’ if you are chugging the political side of this tale. But it’s also a story of the counter-culture. Marijuana, LSD, Timothy Leary, Janis Joplin, Cream, the local Fillmore - the Grande; motorcycles, Zappa, vegetarian food, tie-dyes, Hare Krishnas, patchouli and always rock and jazz music. And also the political counter-culture against the Vietnam War – affinity groups, NLF flags, the National Guardian newspaper, anarcho-hippies versus Peace march leaders, socialists being shot by a right-winger, police provocateurs, ‘eating the rich’ and gullible ‘action’ anarchists intent on breaking bank windows. Hell, even Malcolm X's brother is dropped into one scene.
Yes, the book drops every name it can. For leftists who lived through this period or were part of it, this is all familiar stuff. Perhaps too familiar. For others, it might be fun, as it fits some prior images or stereotypes of goofy radicals.
HISTORY and BACKSTORY
Werbe also tells the recent history of Detroit at the time – the migration of black and white southerners into Detroit to work on the auto plants, the 1943 Belle Isle 'race riot,' the Ossian Sweet trial, white flight out of the city – and the preponderance of white southerners in the Detroit police department in 1967. Institutional racism is one of the themes, like the destruction of the vibrant Black Bottom neighborhood by 'urban renewal' and I75 freeway construction. Local references abound, as do bits about the history of the 5th Estate, Vietnam and U.S. events, so the book serves as sort of a history – something verboten in recent 'naturalist' bourgeois fiction. The French were the ones who named Detroit 'de troit' – as it was situated on a narrow waterway between lakes Erie and St. Clair. “Troit” means narrow in French.
Paul's backstory is included, showing his development towards radicalism through a troubled high-school experience and then college at Michigan State in East Lansing. He encounters the Beats like Kerouac, cool jazz, existentialism and especially Wilhelm Reich, who he seems to be fascinated with due to the influence of a hip professor. He gets into confrontations with jocks and frat-boys. Then he finds out how Michigan State is collaborating with the CIA on Vietnam. He is involved in disrupting a HUAC film shown on campus by police. This is 1962. At the end of the book, we find his well-off family living on an island in Maine.
Werbe finally covers the main event of that 'hot' summer of '67, the Detroit rebellion, which started on July 22nd. A late-night 'Welcome Home' party with booze and Motown for two returning black soldiers on 12th Street and Clairmount was being hosted by a black community organization. The party was attacked by Detroit police. In response, bottles and bricks were thrown. The rest is history.
Looting, arson, snipers, police and National Guard killing rioters, the 'Algiers Motel Incident,' and many dead, injured and jailed. The Democratic mayor and Republican governor called out the trigger-happy, rurally-based National Guard. Humphrey is asked for federal troops, which Johnson eventually provides. Preachers, baseball players and Representative John Conyers tried to quiet the crowds, to no avail. Looting, fires and gunfire spread.
After escaping the city for a night, the 5th Estate crew returns to cover the rebellion. They witness the celebratory 'carnival' of getting stuff for free from store after store, engaged in by thousands of black and white proletarians. They put out an emergency issue of the 5th Estate from all the reports they had gathered on expropriations, police brutality, civilian damage, along with a column by John Sinclair of the White Panthers. While the police and National Guard killed looters, only one cop was killed by a shotgun blast from another patrolman. In fact, much of the 'sniper fire' was coming from other Guard units shooting randomly. According to Werbe, there was no evidence of black snipers besieging police stations or firefighters. Racist cops assassinated 3 unarmed teenagers at the Algiers Motel over the sound of a starter pistol. Eventually the Army ordered the out-of-control Guard to unload their weapons until authorized to do so. But no one ordered the police to stand down.
After 5 days, whole blocks were in ruins, nearly all in the black community. It was over.
The book ends with a trip through Canada to that Maine island to see Paul's family … which reveals that this is really a personal story, not just a political one. That visit ends with some ultra-left posturing about the “propaganda of the deed” by killing 50 Coast Guard members and their dates or blowing a Post Office, which Paul and his girlfriend reject. That thankfully never happens.
But the personal story is far less interesting than the political one. The political and cultural parts of this story might enlighten a few. For leftists who lived through this period, the synthetic 'box checking' of cultural and political markers seems obvious, helping them remember 'the good 'ol days' or some such thing.
Prior blog reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left, to investigate our 15 year archive, using these terms: “Detroit,” “WR: Mysteries of the Organism,” “The Flivver King” (Sinclair); “How to Kill a City,” “Searching for Sugar Man,” “Black Radical” (Peery); “Riot, Strike, Riot” or the word “looters.”
And I bought it at May Day's excellent fiction section!
June 28, 2022