Detroit — a city that has long borne the brunt of neoliberal trade and economic policies, the auto industry’s greed and incompetence, and state-sanctioned environmental racism of all sorts — is now poised to lead the nation in the growing push for a Green New Deal.
This much was made clear last Friday, when newly-minted Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib joined hundreds of protesters in front of Detroit’s Cobo Hall for the annual Auto Show Charity Preview, better known as “Auto Prom.” As with previous rallies held outside the glitzy affair, protesters took aim at General Motors and its ceaseless efforts to roll back domestic automotive production. In November, the auto giant announced its latest plans to close five more manufacturing facilities in North America, including the Detroit-Hamtramck plant. Some 14,000 workers will lose their jobs in across-the-board layoffs.
But this year’s action featured a set of demands far more ambitious and transformational than previous calls to “keep plants open.” Buoyed by Tlaib’s high-profile support, protesters called for a federal, union jobs guarantee and a rapid transition to a green economy — one that puts people and the planet over profits, and which stops placing the fates of countless communities in the hands of corporations like GM.
Flanked by signs that read “Detroit Demands a Green New Deal,” “Seize the Plant, Save the Planet” and “Eminent Domain: Take Over GM,” Tlaib took hold of the megaphone with her usual exuberance to channel the sentiments of the crowd:
“Let’s not forget what happened to Poletown. Let’s not forget every single person that gave up so much for that plant in Hamtramck to be built — and for them to [just] walk away. So I am tellin’ you, I stand with our UAW leaders, but I am for accountability today. If you leave, I want our money back. If you leave, I want our plant back. I want every single thing we ever gave you back. Because that’s what we deserve.”
It’s the kind of morally resonant, uncompromising message Rashida Tlaib was born to deliver. Recently famous for her public call to “impeach the motherfucker,” Tlaib has long been a staple of the Detroit activist community. A native of Southwest Detroit, she is one of 14 children born to Palestinian-American immigrant parents. Tlaib attended Detroit public schools, Wayne State University, and eventually Cooley Law School. She would go on to serve two terms as an outspoken progressive lawmaker in the Michigan state legislature, and then work as a civil rights lawyer at Detroit’s Sugar Law Center. In 2018, she narrowly won a crowded Democratic primary to take John Conyers’ former House seat. Congresswoman Tlaib now represents Michigan’s 13th Congressional district, the third poorest in the nation, and is one of two DSA members in Congress (the other being Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).
Few politicians look more at home at a protest than Tlaib, who happily marched, chanted, and snapped selfies in front of Cobo for hours, even as temperatures dipped below freezing. She particularly seemed to delight at chanting “Which Side Are You On?” as attendees of the Auto Prom passed by in ball gowns and tuxedos.
A political streetfighter, Tlaib knows that the battle for a just, green future will be won not in the halls of Congress, but in places like Detroit and Flint, where residents — who have largely been left out of the national economy — understand that dramatic, system-wide changes are required for any sort of real recovery to take place. As Tlaib explained in another turn on the megaphone, “We’re going to pass the Green New Deal, not only on the floor of the United States Congress, but here on the streets with you.” And for good measure, she added — “Let every single person in there sipping on champagne hear our demands!” — making clear that the battle for a Green New Deal is, fundamentally, a class struggle.
For all the fretting on the Left over whether to engage in electoral politics — and how to hold politicians accountable once they’re in office — Tlaib is remarkably approachable. She wants to be held accountable, as she often says, including by fellow activists. And Tlaib’s constant presence at rallies, marches, and picket lines provides constituents with ample opportunities to hold her to account. Indeed, Tlaib grants members of the public the kind of direct access that most politicians reserve for corporate lobbyists and donors.
Tlaib’s steadfast solidarity with the people is a reminder that we deserve such loyalty from all of our officials; they too need to show up on the streets when it counts, listen to our demands, and look us in the eye. What will make our movement successful is exactly the kind of leadership, rooted in grassroots activism, that Tlaib embodies.
In her short time on the hill, Tlaib has shown she’s not afraid to jump out ahead of her colleagues on bold, progressive legislative items. She was one of the first members of Congress to register her support for the Green New Deal. And she was the only national or state-level official to support the call put forward by DSA and the Detroit Coalition for Green New Deal to seize idled GM plants through eminent domain and put them to green public use. Her backing immediately lent legitimacy to those demands and attracted the attention of the press.
The impact of Tlaib’s support makes clear that however, we choose to engage with electoral politics, garnering the support of high-profile elected officials helps us get our message out to the greater public. Going forward, we must make clear there are no neutrals in the fight for economic dignity and climate justice. All of Michigan’s Democratic elected officials must follow Tlaib’s lead and immediately support the call for a Green New Deal, starting with self-described progressives Andy Levin, Haley Stevens, and Brenda Lawrence.
We’ll win over these officials — and many more — as we continue to build an undeniable mass movement that brings together labor, environmental, racial justice, and community groups of all kinds. Coalition building, while difficult and unglamorous, is incredibly powerful when it succeeds, as was surely the case Friday in front of Cobo Hall. Surrounded by a vibrant, diverse crowd of activists — all of whom chanted “RA-SHI-DA! RA-SHI-DA!” in deafening unison — Tlaib was visibly overcome with emotion. As the chants died down, she left her fellow protesters with a message from the heart: “I want you to know that you inspire me. You make me want to serve you even more . . . . Let’s go fight for a better future!”