muckraker report

Chilling message on abandoned Packard Plant removed by popular blogger

Packard SignA popular Detroit blogger tore down an offensive message Tuesday on the overpass of the abandoned Packard Plant that alluded to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Gone are the infamous words, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which was spelled out in the same font that greeted Jews as they were ushered into the gates of Auschwitz for an almost certain death. More than 1 million people were murdered.

“I went up with a hammer and tore the god damn thing down,” Randy Wilcox, who runs the blog, said.

“Arbeit Macht Frei” translates to “Work Will Make You Free,” which was a lie to Jews and others who died in gas chambers.

On Tuesday afternoon, the day we first reported the sign, Wilcox ripped off the letters using a claw hammer to remove about 80 strong pastic and metal ties.

“This is a straight up hate crime,” Wilcox said. “It has been up for a few days with nobody stepping up to get rid of this thing.”

On his blog, Wilcox caught some criticism for removing what some people think was art, not a message of hate.

“I like how fucking offended people get over a stupid sign,” one commenter wrote on his blog. “Ignorance is bliss.”

How is it art? That’s debatable, but the message seems clear: People who swarmed to Detroit for auto jobs in the early 20th century, especially poor black people, were promised decent pay for a family. In other words, work will make you free. Placing the letters above the Packard Plant overpass, which once welcomed people to the Motor City, seemed fitting because Jews and other victims of the Holocaust were “greeted” with the same message over a gated fence. Since auto jobs left the area, the city is one of the poorest, most segregated areas.

But Wilcox and many others are offended that anyone would try to compare the atrocities of a concentration camp to anything.

“This one is off the charts and offensive,” Wilcox said.

Got tips or suggestions? Contact Steve at

Steve Neavling is an investigative journalist and former city hall reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Living on the city’s east side, Neavling explores corruption, civil liberties and the underbelly of an oft-misunderstood city.

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for daily updates, investigations and photos of Detroit.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

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  • Thaddeus Besedin

    Randy was appalled by the notion that images he couldn’t copyright could continue to be extracted from his pet project. Here is a quote of his in an article :
    “I didn’t want this image of this sign to go nationwide or international, because it is that kind of thing that they would report on in Russia, Saudi Arabia. . . . Germany. Israel. I decided to publish my photos and talk about taking the sign down to steal thunder away from whoever did it, and turn the control back around to our side. Now it is a story about some guy getting rid of a massively inappropriate sign. That is better than everyone gawking at the sign for weeks, and filling the Flickr pages with photos of it.”
    Now the bridge only promotes vandalism, drug use (see “TOKE”), and poverty, but its much less offensive to Russians now.
    It seems he likes to steal appearances from public view, embed them with his URL to protect them from “copyright infringement” and use them to bring attention to his blog, as you’ll notice here:
    All you need is a camera, and the world is yours.


    Just to clarify my statement about this being a hate crime in my opinion: What if the sign maker had instead chosen to make a social statement with an effigy of an African American hanged from the Grand Boulevard overpass lynching style- would that be “okay” and “free speech” and “art” ?

    Would so many people be so critical of me destroying that ?

    Wouldnt that be a “hate crime” ?

    To me the two things are no different, no less offensive to the concerned culture and all sensible people, no less grotesque.

    Whoever the sign maker is, I say they are terribly misguided. If this was supposed to be an art piece – they failed really hard in getting any clear message across. Because the Nazi association is so much more powerful than anything else they wanted to say by using that sign.

    And just a reminder, as long as the sign maker is anonymous, nobody can say what the intent of their actions were. We are left with what we can see with our eyes, and I found that to be an unacceptable thing to be put in public the way it was.

    The term “hate crime” is really a legal term referring to the ability to prosecute somebody for acts like this. The determination of whether or not this applies here is up to the authorities.

    Putting that crap on an Albert Kahn building ? Way to go, sign maker.

    • Jon Whitener

      I assumed from the start that it was intended as an artistic/social statement, and even an idea I think is important. But I think the bottom line is simple, and Detroit Funk nailed it: “the Nazi association is so much more powerful than anything else they wanted to say.” That’s a simple, direct artistic critique, and one that I think is difficult to argue against.

    • Thaddeus Besedin

      I think if one had installed images of piles of skeletalized corpses beneath the bridge, your analogy would be symmetric, Randy, but I agree with you – the scale of insensitivity would be just as outrageous, and aimed at a much more populous demographic, possibly as polarizing as a “Reichstag fire.”To be proportionately sensational, the magnitude of the Arbeit … placard is congruent to installing an oversized model of a B-29 at the moment it is dropping its payload on Hiroshima. Remember, those responsible for the preservation and maintenance of the surviving concentration camp museums did NOT remove or alter (only restored) their portico slogans. Using, to the same purpose, symbolic objects unanimously recognizable as being concommitant with the institution of slavery to promote critical dialogue may have been less ambiguous, if indeed the intention of the “artist” was to implicate the abuses of capitalism.

  • Jon Whitener

    “Self-righteous superhero” seems to me as overdone as the original sign.

  • Whitney Sage

    I don’t know why we are crying foul over this being taken down. If it was intended to be art then they likely took photos or have accessibility to dozens online so they have documentation. Now due to all the media stories they also got their 5 minutes of fame to put on their resume of being “edgy and controversial”.

    So what if someone decided to take it down? This was not their property and thus technically the work was vandalism and any other vandal/trespasser is welcome to do with it what they please.

    That being said, freedom of speech DOES protect ones right to make ignorant, unsophisticated, one-liner art. I mean…seriously? I am more offended by easiness of throwing a controversial saying about genocide/oppression on an abandoned building in Detroit…if you had any real cahones, you’d drive down to Dearborn and paint this on Ford headquarters if this is really the point you’d want to make.

  • laphoque

    “A straight up hate crime” would imply that this was actually directed at one of the groups who were targeted during that infamous genocide. It’s pretty clear to me that the area around the Packard is predominately populated by blacks folks who were not at all numerous before, during, or after in the areas that participated in the holocaust.

    The only link I see between the industrialists and Hitler is their planned fascist coup which never happened. There was also their tacit support before the war that got lost in the patriotic fervor that imprisoned many Asian Americans and rendered people with Axis ties suspect.

    It doesn’t make sense to be offended by this sign.

    Be offended by our continued inability to implement poverty reduction at a level that would actually make all of this richest country’s neighborhoods places that we could take pride in. Be offended that there are still people who go bankrupt because we want to make a profit from their healthcare. Be offended that the bank-owned houses that surround the Packard aren’t secured and kept up to code. Be offended that most Americans’ wages haven’t risen when adjusted for inflation for over four decades.

  • Rob Michaels

    So Randy Wilcox “hated” the sign and tore it down.

    Is that a hate crime too?

  • Eric

    The sign should’ve been placed at the Ford Highland Park factory when you consider Ford and GM’s operations in Germany leading up to and even during WWII. I think people have just forgotten history all of these years later.

    • Steve Neavling

      Great point.

  • Alan Stamm

    I’m with Randy — off-the-charts offensive,

    Reasonable people certainly can interpret it otherwise, no question. But I respectfully suggest, Steve, that this comparison and use of “welcome” is misguided and unintentionally inappropriate:

    “Placing the letters above the Packard Plant overpass, which once welcomed people to the Motor City, seemed fitting because Jews and other victims of the Holocaust were welcomed with the same message over a gated fence.”

    Newly hired migrants and others arriving to build Packards came voluntarily and were paid. Perhaps they were exploited, segregated, treated shabbily in other ways and victimized by social injustice inside and outside the plant. But they were not prisoners and were not doomed in the literal sense..

    A dictionary defines the verb “welcome” as “to greet someone arriving in a glad, polite or friendly way.”

    I doubt that’s now my maternal grandparents felt when they passed through the gates of Auschwitz under the original sign in their native language.

    Best not to strive for any equivalence on this, Steve.

    • Steve Neavling

      Alan, my use of the word “welcome” was not intentional. I should have said “greeted.” I quickly made the correction as soon as you pointed it out. Thanks.

    • Alan Stamm

      I appreciate your openness and quick response Steve, and really don’t want to be tiresome about this (or at least not as tiresome as when I was a line editor reviewing other writers’ work!)

      But frankly, greeted doesn’t work either. (“To salute or welcome in a friendly and respectful way.”)

      Maybe I’m overthinking it . . . or maybe you’re trying too hard to connect two signs in two settings that really have nothing in common that I can see,

      There is no right word because there is no equivalence.

      I do appreciate your cordial response, of course, and will let it go now.

  • Tom – (Grew up near Flint before GM abandoned the city)

    A hate crime? I think it is more of a comment about how the auto companies used places like Detroit and Flint (and their people) and then abandoned them for more profitable locations. Locations where they could find people to work for less money.

  • Chris Schneider

    I wish artists would remember that they need to get their ideas cleared with Randy Wilcox first before making any kind of public expression.

    • MSchultz

      I think if you speak to the public in public you can’t cry about it when people speak back. I think that Randy Wilcox wasn’t alone in his opinion. Don’t want to hear the opinions of others… Stop putting your “art” on overpasses.

  • Michael Panyard

    How ironic that a “blogger”, someone who you think would appreciate “freedom of speech”, would remove something that didn’t coincide with his own beliefs! Hypocrite!

    • Toka313

      Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom of uncontested speech. Street art is never meant to be kept up forever. Tearing it down is as much of a speech act as putting it up.

  • Steve Dibert

    So Randy the Self-Righteous Superhero decides to taken upon himself to save peoples’ feelings.

    Genocide is offensive and ugly but wasn’t one of the lessons we learned from holocaust survivors is to never forget? To watch for the warning signs of monolithic bodies trying to take control of our lives? Genocide doesn’t come wrapped in a bow and handed to you like a present nor does it just come out of the blue. It creeps up on you and when it starts it’s too late to do anything. Sometimes, you have to give people a message that is loud and offense to remind them.

    What Randy and others are forgetting is the only difference between ethnic genocide and economic genocide is one takes longer than the other. Other than that genocide is still genocide.