Detroit: City of Hope

(written for AREA Chicago’s Notes From the Forum blog about the 2nd US Social Forum)

Last night’s plenary session “From Detroit to National” at the US Social Forum was truly inspiring. Skillfully facilitate by Adrienne Band Jerome Scott, and interluded with songs from participants in Detroit Summer Youth Program, the evening started off with a panel of social movement elders, featuring General BakerRon Scott and Grace Lee Boggs all discussing Detroit’s history and legacy. I was so excited for this particular pairing because these are all people I had read about last year in the incredible book Detroit I Do Mind Dying, the most compelling narrative about the historical period of the 1960s and 1970s I have ever read. They each played a key role in the development of not only Black Consciousness in that period but also real struggle, experimentation and institution building. The panel reminded me of “Between Lefts”, a piece written for AREA#7 in which Chicago’s elder activists all active since the 1950s talked about their work and intergenerational dynamics. I think the most important insights hit on by this generation of activists in Detroit is the analysis of the Black worker being made obsolete and the decision that communities have to make if they are going to accept their family, neighbors becoming irrelevant or if they are going to find a way to make life matter in another way, regardless of people’s economic productivity. James Boggs, Grace Lee’s late husband, wrote precisely about this subject in the book American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook in the early 1960s BEFORE most industrialization had even occurred. Grace Lee concluded her message by reminding the audience that “Detroit is a city of hope, not just a city of poverty and devastation.” General Baker concluded “Detroit was never the intellectual center of the movement, it was the practical center of the movement.” This was reflected in the concrete work which the rest of the brief panels reflected on.
Whole Panel Q and A
Next there was a group people working with immigrant and American Indian communities in the context of Detroit’s increasingly militarized border with Ontario, Canada – Elena Herrada (Centro Obrero), Dawud Walid (CAIR Michigan) and Sharon George (American Indian Health and Family Services). George opened up with an explanation that her “people dont recognize those borders” [between the US and Canada] and are really struggling to get the border patrol to recognize that they have treaties with the US Government that allow them to move freely. Since the “Patriot Act 2” people have had to show passports to cross into Canada and a much harsher and well funded border patrol is in place. Herrada explained this border patrol is patrolling the streets of Detroit much more intensely than before, and encourages us all to not let deportations and raids become normalized. Walid further re-enforced this by referencing the seeming acceptance of Islamaphobia but also reminded the audience that Detroit was the site of the first Mosque in the US and also the birthplace of the Nation of Islam, saying that in Detroit’s international context “What goes on in Palestine, Nigeria and Kashmir is a local issue here.” This insistence that Detroit is an international city and a border city is hugely important to grasping and thinking through the connection between local work and global issues.
A third panel with Starlet Lee and Andrea Ridges from Detroit Summer Youth ProgramMalik Yakini from Black Community Food Security Network and Yusef Shakur from Urban Network all spoke about their work in Detroit as being a model the US and the world can learn from. Yakani spoke of 1,200 community, family and school gardens in the city rising up and becoming a new model for economic independence and autonomy. But he was careful to remind people who are jumping on the food bandwagon that “food justice” cannot happen without social justice and that it cannot be extracted from larger social problems, struggles and most importantly solutions.
Finally, the MC known as InvincibleAneb Kgositsile, and Carla Perez of Movement Generation all spoke and reflected about lessons they have learned in their social movement work in Detroit. This final mini-panel did a fantastic job of assessing what people could take from these local experiences in Detroit and what opportunities can arise from crisis. Invisible warned that despite all the great things happening locally, that “They, the predatory planners and politicians, see opportunity in our crisis too as they speculate on our water and land.”  Carla Perez insight-fully focused on ecological concerns claiming that what we need to think about now, yesterday and tomorrow is a concept of “Ecological Justice” which is “holistic transformation of the social order that acknowledges connection to our earth home and wants to see all living things thrive.”
Kgositsile reflected on her decades of experience to develop a list of her “10 lessons” learned. I couldn’t write them all down but some of them in a nutshell were:
-Priorities of struggle arise from aspirations of people you work with
Seek and work with those most severely injured by imperialism
– respect the culture/religion/spiritual work of people we work with
– stay local and indigenous
– stay independent in funding
– protect and secure the children
– allow for human weaknesses (like egotism) but you’ve got to say something when enough is enough
– done work so hard that you loose your health
– love and protect those who stand with you
– trust that even insurmountable odds can be resisted and eventually overcome
These amazing people gave the audience a real gift of their local knowledge. For me this affirmed the power of doing locally rooted work, and the responsibility to stay focused on that slow, gradual process while also taking the time to reflect for people elsewhere and share lessons learned. Thanks Detroit. I look forward to learning more with you.
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