Dave Riddle, 1942-2012: Thinker, Author, Activist, Trucker, Detroiter
By BILL McGRAW
At various times in his life Dave Riddle taught American history at Wayne State University, drove car-hauling trucks from coast to coast, wrote books, belonged to the Teamsters, played classical piano, assembled truck motors, marched, picketed, rode a motorcycle, tried to organize the working class and, with a sardonic sense of humor, described himself as “a self-indulgent Leninist.”
His adventurous life ended Saturday night, when Mr. Riddle, who had battled Parkinson’s Disease for many years, died after a short illness. He was 69 and lived in Detroit.
Mr. Riddle came to Detroit in 1969 with a master’s degree from Berkley, a young intellectual firebrand interested in a workers’ revolution. His life, not to mention his ideology, evolved greatly over the years.
But no matter what he was doing, he never stopped studying American society, especially Detroit labor history, politics and culture, with an eye toward making life more equal for poor and working people.
“This is not a fair society and most people know that,” he told an interviewer in the early 1990s. “And it has a lot to do with the way the economy runs and the way people are divided from one another.”
Mr. Riddle’s interests came together in his 2010 book, “The Color of Law: Ernie Goodman, Detroit, and the Struggle for Labor and Civil Rights,” a meticulously researched biography of the legendary Detroit labor lawyer that Mr. Riddle wrote with two friends, Steve Babson and David Elsila.
The title comes from Goodman’s belief that police and other authority figures, whether in Detroit or Mississippi, applied the “color of law” to trample the rights of poor people and minorities.
“We’re really going to miss him,” said George Corsetti, a friend and fellow activist who accompanied Mr. Riddle to both demonstrations and the Cadieux Café, where Mr. Riddle enjoyed black-and-tans and the Tuesday night music. “He was a thoughtful person who always had the assessment of the situation, whether in Detroit or wherever.”
Friends say Mr. Riddle refused to let Parkinson's cramp his life. He remained active in local causes until his recent illness, including Occupy Wall Street and the fight against foreclosure evictions.
Richard David Riddle was born in 1942 in Paris, Texas, and was raised in a middle-class family in Kansas City, where his father owned a small civil engineering firm.
His first taste of protest came at DePauw University in Indiana, when he and fellow students picketed segregated fraternities during rush week.
“We nearly got our asses kicked,” Mr. Riddle told Robert H. Mast, who included an interview with Mr. Riddle in his 1994 book on local activists, “Detroit Lives.”
Mr. Riddle came into contact with Karl Marx’s works while at DePauw, when he wrote a paper about the confrontation between Marx and Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist. He told Mast he read Marx’s writings about the alienation of labor and how man is an appendage of machines while he was tethered to a cattle-feed processer in a corn-products factory, breaking up jams with a high-pressured hose.
“I felt like there was something to this guy Marx,” Mr. Riddle said.
Mr. Riddle received an M.A. in Early Modern European History at the University of California at Berkeley in 1966, just after the campus had been roiled by the Free Speech Movement. He lived in what had been an all-Asian rooming house and became radicalized by fellow students who questioned the United States’ involvement in Vietnam.
Burned out on California, Mr. Riddle came to Detroit in 1969. Like many other well-educated radicals who saw the city as a center for labor activism and black liberation, Mr. Riddle perceived a role for himself in helping to spark a revolution. He believed big labor was as evil as big capital, and black leaders could do no wrong, even if their actions appeared ill-founded and even corrupt. Thirty years later, he acknowledged “there was real intellectual arrogance” among activists like him at the time.
Mr. Riddle lived in a commune on Avery Street, wrote for and delivered the Fifth Estate weekly newspaper and worked for 18 months at the Dodge Truck Plant in Warren, one of the many Detroit area auto factories in the early 1970s buffeted by racial change and radicalized young workers. He contributed to a newsletter that attacked both the UAW and Chrysler Corporation, and was fired for insubordination.
“He dropped a washer on the floor and refused a foreman’s order to pick it up,” recalled Millard Berry, a Dearborn-based photojournalist who lived with Riddle at the time and also worked at the truck plant.
At the commune, Berry said, Mr. Riddle was much more accommodating. He was perhaps the most principled of the many residents.
“Dave was always into making it work politically and philosophically,” Berry said. “He was very supportive of the women’s movement.”
After teaching for a few years in local community colleges, Mr. Riddle eventually attended truck-driving school and in 1977 began driving car haulers around the country. He became involved in the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which challenged the union’s notorious leadership.
By the early 1990s Mr. Riddle was back in school, studying for a Ph.D in history at Wayne State University and working as an administrator for a program charged with distributing so-called “Red Squad” files to people who had been placed under surveillance by police for supposed Communist activity before and after World War II.
To complete his studies, Mr. Riddle wrote a 386-page dissertation that delved into Warren and the phenomenon of “Reagan Democrats,” working class voters who by 1980 had defected in large numbers from Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson to Republicans. He investigated the effects of the HUD controversy, the busing crisis and Vietnam protests, among other issues.
“What explains the rise of the "Reagan Democrat" in Warren, Michigan?” Mr. Riddle asked in his dissertation.
“Part of the answer is the racial anxiety and resentment stemming from a long and bitter history of competition over jobs and neighborhoods with Detroit's black population. But race was not the only factor. Liberalism was partly responsible for its own defeat in Warren. Motivated by an idealistic vision, it dictated social reform ‘from above.’ It also tended to preach.”
By 1995, Mr. Riddle was teaching survey classes in modern American history at WSU. He was a resourceful and provocative instructor, blending recorded music and videos into his lectures. When discussing the 1950s, he played scenes from “The Honeymooners,” Jackie Gleason’s popular TV show, and asked the young students to notice that the Kramdens and Nortons were both childless. He then asked whether they thought their lack of progeny had anything to suggest about the impotence of the American working class of that era.
In the end, Mr. Riddle said he wasn’t really a revolutionary, and he acknowledged that he was mostly an observer, but, speaking to Mast, Mr. Riddle described himself as an optimist, at least politically.
“I don’t feel weird about my life,” he said. “As a mater if fact, that’s the source of my political optimism. I don’t feel the least bit strange. I figure if someone can come up the way I came up and end up thinking what I think it must be possible because I’m not insane.”
Mr. Riddle is survived by a daughter, Katie, to whom friends say he was deeply devoted. He will be remembered at a memorial service at a future date.
PHOTOS: Dave Riddle with hat: Millard Berry. Dave Riddle sitting on steps: Daymon J. Hartley.