Detroit was not an accidental choice for the U.S. Social Forum (USSF). Take a look at the decaying Packard Plant or at boarded-up homes and small businesses, and you'd say this city is dying. Less well known is that it is a city in the midst of a rebirth from the bottom up, and the organizers knew this well when they chose Detroit for the second USSF.
“Detroit embodies both the problem and potential for solutions,” says Maureen Taylor, USSF staff coordinator. “We believe the Social Forum process will stimulate some hope for the people of Detroit and help the people turn this city around.” Organizers expect 15,000 to 25,000 people to arrive from around the country for the forum. And while the attention focused on Detroit may help turn the city around, Detroit’s bottom-up style of activism may also open up new ideas and possibilities for those visiting from around the country.
Detroit is known as the place where thousands lost jobs when the automobile industry crashed well before the 2008 Wall Street collapse. White flight, expressways built through formerly vibrant African American neighborhoods, the outsourcing of manufacturing (and the failure of the Big Three to transition to eco-friendly cars or renewable energy technologies), along with the anger and violence that resulted from hopelessness and drugs have all played a part in Detroit’s demise. Solutions from city government have mirrored the lack of vision of corporate leadership. Neither the promotion of casino gambling nor the shiny new downtown towers have helped.
But in the neighborhoods, young media makers, owners of small businesses, former Black Panthers, and a scrappy group of activists connected with the Boggs Center are setting a different direction for their city. They aren’t looking to corporations to bring in jobs-they have seen how those big projects suck up land and tax money only to leave town for lower wages or higher tax breaks some place else. And they aren't looking to the government for solutions. Many pinned high hopes on the election of Detroit's first African-American mayor, Coleman Young, in 1973 only to find he was taking the city in the same destructive direction as his predecessors.
For this group, protests are almost passé. They recognize that there are plenty of reasons to protest a massive, pollution-spewing incinerator, police brutality, and companies that are all too ready to cut off life-sustaining water and heat when someone gets behind on bills.
But these new 21st-century activists don't believe those who hold positions of power actually have the vision or capability to turn things around, no matter how much is demanded of them. Corporate and city establishment leaders belong to a dying epoch, they say. It's of limited use to make demands of a system that is on its way down.
Instead, these Detroiters are rebuilding their own future, creating the city they want to live in, and transforming themselves at the same time.
“Mayor Bing and corporate interests ... are top-down ‘leaders’ who can't see the grassroots Detroiters who are rebuilding, redefining and respiriting our city from the ground up," says Grace Boggs, who at 95 is a leading thinker and activist in Detroit. Grace, who has been a Detroit activist for more than 50 years, will be among the speakers at the opening session of the USSF.
The examples of this bottom-up renewal can be seen around the city and will be highlighted on the first day of the social forum. Here are just a couple that I encountered in a couple of days in Detroit.
Myrtle Thompson Curtis and Wayne Curtis took a small, empty plot of land, brought together friends, members of a nearby church, and other volunteers, and began the Feed'om Freedom Growers. Tomatoes, greens, strawberries, and other crops grow in raised beds and in rows. They also teach classes on healthy cooking, and a book club was started by young people who work in the garden.
“I went to my old neighborhood, and I had to cry,” Curtis told a group visiting his garden as part of a tour sponsored by the Allied Media Conference. “There's nothing there. Nothing at all. They were telling me about their friends, who were my friends growing up, who are no longer with us.”
Slowly, their new block is changing. Myrtle Curtis was encouraged when neighbors down the street came out when they saw a crowd of people getting off a bus and out of a caravan of cars to visit the garden. “We don't see our neighbors much,” she said. “This area is too scary to mingle. But they came out to participate, and that's what it's all about.”
Now Wayne and Myrtle are looking to expand to an empty lot across the street from the garden, and they'd like to use an abandoned house that borders on the lot as a community center.
“It’s a question of money and control and misuse of power,” Wayne Curtis told the group. “This is a problem we need to resolve like adults,” he said. “I was homeless, and I walked past a grocery store, and I was hungry, and that didn't make any sense to me. ... How can we get this land. How can we get seeds and bees so we can make honey. How can we have an economy so that people don't go hungry.”
There are over 800 community gardens, ranging from the small and precarious, to large entities like Earth Works that are increasingly able to bring fresh foods to Detroit's food deserts and give Detroiters opportunities for meaningful work and involvement in their communities.
Like in many U.S. cities, the standoff between police and community members all too often turns deadly. Most recently, the city has been mourning the death of seven-year-old Aiyana Jones, who was killed last month in a drug raid gone wrong.
Ron Scott, a founder some decades ago of a Detroit chapter of the Black Panther Party, heads up the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality. Scott believes the community must learn to resolve its own conflicts and must redefine relations with police.
“What cities like Detroit are facing is increasing militarization,” he told me. “Police agencies used to be public service agencies that were an extension of the community, not a suppression of the community.”
The community can take the lead in redefining the relationship. Eighty percent of the conflicts in the community are related to substance abuse and domestic violence, he said. “We can intervene by mediating disputes and also by creating independent economic entities.” For example, a group that had been in conflict with police took an abandoned lot, started a garden project, and renamed it Peace Park, he said. They use the lot to mediate disputes themselves, rather than calling in police.
“The most important thing we're doing is taking responsibility for making sure in cities like Detroit that we can reshape communities the way we want them. The people running this city and others are not blatantly evil. It's that many of them are not capable of dealing with the collapse of the economic system. What happened in the past is not gone, but it’s whimpering and dying.”
“We’re working to build something that is creative and new in the city,” he said. “This movement, unlike movements of the past, is not based on one sex, one race, one ideological frame,” Scott said. “It’s based on love and appreciation, and transformation of humanity.
Scott and others are working to create more of these peace zones and—as fellow activist, author, and former prison inmate Yusef Shakur says—to turn predators into protectors and put the neighbor back in the ‘hood.
The attention of thousands of activists will be like a mirror, raising the awareness of Detroiters themselves of the powerful innovations that they are bringing into the world. But it may be that the social movements represented here will also find new models and strategies from these grassroots leaders.
“I can’t begin to tell you how much Detroit means symbolically worldwide and nationally,” Grace Boggs says. “Detroit was once the national and international symbol of the miracles of industrialization and then became the national and international symbol of devastation of deindustrialization. Now it is becoming the national and international symbol of a new way of living-of great transformation.”
Detroiters are creating new ways of caring for one another and caring for the Earth, she says.
The U.S. Social Forum may be like a fierce wind that picks up the seeds of these grassroots innovations and spreads them across the American landscape. “What's happening this week here in Detroit,” Grace says, “is the beginning of something new.”
Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Sarah is YES! Magazine's executive editor.