by Meg Marotte
If you live in Detroit and haven’t seen any of the RoboCop movies yet, go see them. Why are these silly action flicks from the 80’s still worthy of our attention? The movies’ themes connect to an ongoing debate among activists and artists over privilege, philanthropy and public space in the city. It has grown louder since a group of Detroiters launched a fundraising drive to place a larger-than-life statue of Robocop somewhere in the city.
Let’s turn to the last and (so far) final chapter in the life and times of Detroit’s favorite cyborg. RoboCop 3 is certainly not the best film of the trilogy. Only three of the original actors remain, the plot is riddled with holes, and the PG-13 rating causes the movie to lose much of its gritty allure. But between over-the-top dialogue and poorly designed ninja-robots there remain connections to current day Detroit.
The ever-present evil corporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP) is finally moving forward with a plan to “relocate” the poor residents of Old Detroit in order to make way for the construction of the shining new Delta City. They have all but taken over the police force and even created their own special forces known as the Urban Rehabilitators. “The Rehabs” claim to be moving citizens of Old Detroit but we never find out to where. The displaced are never seen again. Later, we find out that some have even been killed.
Those who are not captured band together in resistance. When RoboCop is deployed to the scene, he must decide whether to Protect and Serve the People or Uphold the Law, two conflicting directives he was programmed to carry out. Tapping into the remnants of his humanity (he is a reborn version of a city cop named Murphy who was killed by thugs in the first Robocop), he joins forces with the resistance—directly violating the mysterious Directive 4, which prohibits him from acting against his creators at OCP.
RoboCop becomes hero of the people and enemy of the state. Feeling its grip on the Delta City project slipping away, OCP orders the police department to put all its energy into the “rehabilitation” efforts in Old Detroit under their leadership. This leads to what is undoubtedly the best line in the entire movie, when Sergeant Reed brashly declares to the leader of the Rehabs, “Driving people from their homes is no work for a cop.”
He then rips off his badge, throws it on the ground, and walks out with the rest of the police force. They too join the people in the streets, helping build barricades to defend the community.
*********************************** Robocop’s New Home in Detroit
A collaboration of ideas by MLK-Buchanan & Corktown Residents
1. Near the train yard on the Southwest side: John Kronk at Central. Lots of trafficking of scrap metal goes on and he will be a reminder of how lucrative it can be, if you can just get the big score.
2. On top of the Motor City Casino Hotel…or in the lobby.
3. Proudly displayed on the riverfront at Hart Plaza with labor and underground railroad memorials. Robocop helps people fleeing slavery on their way to Canada; Robo has always been with us.
4. Across the street from the house of the Robo statue’s brainchild, so they can enjoy the contribution they made to this city everyday.
5. Rather than a life-size statue, 1,000 small Robos that are given as awards to anyone who wants one because they believe they are awesome.
6. Six feet under in the northeast corner of Roosevelt Park with a ten foot high grave marker made of salvaged material that reads “Worst Idea Ever.”
7. Solanus Casey Center on Mt. Elliot with the group of bronze statues of notable 20th-century people who exemplified the Franciscan values. Like MLK and Mother Theresa, Robo can help the center achieve their mission to create “a place of pilgrimage, healing, reconciliation and peace.”
8. Del Ray…exactly where Ambassador Bridge span is speculated to cut through.
9. In the foundry of US Steel.
10. Bottom of the Detroit River.
Detroiters today know all too well how corporate interests can influence public affairs. RoboCop 3 reflects our society’s worst fears of what can happen when the people lose their ability to check power. But amongst all the horror, we see the beacon of hope through the actions of the resistance movement: ordinary citizens working and living communally, fighting back against an unjust system.
The resistance in Old Detroit takes up strategies useful to present-day Detroiters:
* Joining together with others suffering the consequences of decisions made by self-serving corporations and power-abusing City officials;
* Learning media-making skills and using indy media sources, like Robocop’s technician, who appeals to the citizens of Old Detroit on a pirated radio transmission rigged by a 9-year-old tech-prodigy.
* Using our knowledge of the city to find spaces for community-building that are resources to the grassroots movement. The resistance adopts an old church as their headquarters and turns it into a communal living space.
The indigenous leadership of the rebellion is exalted, a rarity in Hollywood. A black woman named Bertha is the heart and soul of the resistance. Not your usual “white-knight savior” narrative. True, RoboCop must ultimately save the day. But his brute force amounts to nothing without the help of the resistance, which saves his life twice. The rebels confront Robocop with the moral choice that brings him closer to his (Murphy’s) humanity—and to a defense of the uprising he’d been sent to destroy.
It might not raise as much money on Kickstarter, but Detroit should consider a statue of Bertha. Still, even she represents just one in a movement. The efforts to honor Robocop in the city betray a misunderstanding of social change in the city. It is not about the super cop, but the people who compel authorities to change their evil behavior…or create solutions that make the “authorities” obsolete.
The Robocop statue campaign reflects an attitude common amongst its supporters and city officials:Detroit needs a savior, and it will come with little input from Detroiters—and regardless of their wishes.
A necessary conversation about the role of activists and artists in the future city continues. We do not know if and when Robocop will grace us with his presence, and we don’t know where he will be placed (see above for some Detroiters’ suggestions). But one viewing of the film makes it clear where he stands.