The Robin Podcast
Broadcasting socialism from station to station
Organizing in Michigan was difficult during the Rick Snyder administration. They created Emergency Financial Managers to engage in union busting, and worked tirelessly to make Right to Work a reality in Michigan. Republican supermajorities controlled both houses of the Michigan Legislature, and the degree of transparency was murky at best. Reports frequently rated Michigan as one of the most corrupt states in the country. It was an all-out assault on anything that could hold power democratically accountable. Things were bleak.
Entering leftist politics at that time was gut wrenching, especially after Line 6B, an Enbridge pipeline, ruptured near Marshall, Michigan, spilling into the Kalamazoo River. Although it happened during the last months of Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm’s administration, the task of holding Enbridge accountable, and the ensuing debacle over Line 5, became central to Snyder’s administration. There were only a handful of existing activist groups around the state’s west side, and most of them were older and unsure how to work with younger people. They focused on direct action, but without much explanation for their tactics, and while they passed around a lot of information, their work largely lacked a critical perspective.
American media has largely lost any geocentric news. The problem is, of course, that our political bodies are determined by our geography. The past two decades have seen a consolidation of print media into a single entity called MLive. What followed was predictable. Newsrooms were emptied and stories became homogenized. Without local analysis or reporting, local organizing becomes tied to national campaigns. Climate change, police violence, and neoliberal capitalism look different in different communities. In Michigan, multinational corporations have become household names. Enbridge, Nestle, and 3M have all presented unique challenges to the working class here.
Enbridge, for example, threatens the Great Lakes, and yet only maintains a staff of less than 300 workers in the entire state. Nestle, renowned for its human rights violations, has taken municipalities like Fremont and Osceola Township hostage. 3M is one of the main corporations behind the ongoing PFAS contamination crisis.
All of them are so close. Relatives and friends worked for these companies. It demanded that we explore those relationships. What interests a corporation in a location and how can workers organize against it? What happens if a corporation leaves? Jeremiah, myself, and a few friends decided to work on an internationalist media project to bring those relationships into focus. Calling it Borderless, we worked on it for a few years, but it was hard to hack it.
Simply put, we tried creating an audience from the network of internationally-minded organizations around us. Lacking capital, a cohesive movement, and facing struggles to decommodify the project or organize with it, eventually it became too much.
We joined the DSA after interviewing a number of Michigan chapters for the Borderless podcast. We interviewed the member of Borderless who started the Grand Rapids chapter of the DSA, Tj Kimball, first. Then we crossed the state going to Lansing, East Lansing, Ann Arbor, and Kalamazoo. Most people were only just beginning to reexamine socialism and trying to toss in internationalism seemed a bit overwhelming. There was a pulse to the DSA missing in other organizing circles in Michigan, the most important aspect being that DSA wasn’t afraid to be public.
It might seem like an auxiliary issue to some, but the ability to stay connected to other organizing projects is crucial. There is a caricature on the left of a Trotskyite ranting about newspapers, and while it’s good to be able to laugh at oneself, the reality is that communication is important. Without the ability to reach a mass audience, ideas, tactics, and tendencies will sit unheard in the dusty corners of the internet.
Likewise, people cannot build coalitions if they don’t first publicize their presence. That’s the point of media. It can help broadcast to sympathetic people and allow them to explore these ideas. The national media is never going to pay attention to city level politics in Michigan; it’s our job to do that. Much of our following is explicitly Michigan-based activists. The list of our guests reads like a roll call of radicals from across the state.
Typically, activists have nowhere to turn to hear about other actions taking place. Major media outlets simply deride or ignore them. The photos and videos of twenty or thirty people don’t jive with the imagery of the Sixties and the millions that poured into the streets. The reality is that those movements were fueled by underground newspapers, coffeeshops, and office spaces. The movements had intellectual and physical form. People could find it in their cities. Granted, there’s a lot to be said about the lessons from the Sixties, but this one is poignant and recurrent.
Every mass movement needs its own media to define itself. Without it, people engaged in it have to rely on the depictions from the opposing side. Much of our inspiration came from the Maple Spring in Quebec: rather than relying on capitalist media outlets to disseminate the news about their protests, they published their own newspapers, just as radicals always have. The distillation eventually produced Ricochet, an incredible pan-Canadian news outlet that covers issues from a leftist perspective.
Our trip to Montreal to interview organizers from the Maple Spring, and the discovery of Ricochet, led us to ultimately shelving Borderless and creating The Robin. Internationalism will not happen unless it is undergirded by local organizing. Rebuilding and strengthening organizing efforts in Michigan became the goal. With one eye on local and statewide issues and the other on international solidarity, we began to change.
For the past eight years we’ve lived under the Republican trifecta, and they’ve controlled the state senate since 1992. Conservative officials sent Michigan, especially with the deterioration of Detroit and Snyder’s union-busting, into disrepair. This terrain calls for adaptation. There’s a lot of bitter tastes about unions in this state and general disillusionment. Simply reviving the UAW, AFL-CIO, and MEA won’t be enough to take on the neoliberal times we live in. Simply put, one tendency won’t be enough. By having guests from multiple tendencies on The Robin, we hope to examine how they might function together in Michigan.
Having guests on the show while simultaneously remaining accessible to other organizers means that if people hear about a project that someone is working on, they can reach out to us and we can help connect them. This has happened specifically with regard to prison abolition work and ecosocialism.
Before the Green New Deal action in Detroit, we had Jessica Newman on to discuss it. Over the course of the interview, we all stressed how vital conversations like that were. In its wake, DSA members from Detroit, Huron Valley, Southwest Michigan, and Grand Rapids began organizing a statewide ecosocialist caucus.
Coalition building is desperately needed and by sharing these conversations with groups around the state, we aim to connect listeners with non-DSA organizers. Aside from the MSU and Detroit DSA chapters, the rest are newly minted. Yet there are years of experience with activist and labor organizing and more in our communities. Hoping that people have enough time to get to conferences or run into people at protests isn’t enough. Building solidarity through communication is at the heart of all we do at The Robin.