The Black Activist- Journal of the Black Left Unity Network

A Struggle & Analysis Journal for Black Liberation initiated by the Black Left Unity Network

The Occupation of Detroit

23 The Occupation of a City

by Ife and Tdka Kilimanjaro (Detroit)

Detroit is in crisis. In every area of life, Black folks, who comprise 84.8% of the population, are under assault: the education system has been dismantled, unions broken, houses foreclosed on, pensions defunded, emergency services selectively applied, street lights permanently shut off in certain areas, black farmers thrown out of Eastern Market, environmental injustices abound, social safety net services defunded, will of the people (through democratic processes) denied and so on.

Just as the mainly Black Detroit public school system of over 230,000 students in the 1980s was carved up (with barely 41,000 students in 2013) and parceled out to outsider White profit-driven Charter school companies and a claimed “statewide” failed schools initiative (with only Detroit-area schools funding it)---Detroit as a municipality is today on the same chopping board. The majority of Blacks took part in a democratic voting process in 2012 to oppose the appointment of an Emergency Financial Manager (EFM), we voted elected officials into office that we hoped would represent our voices at the locate and state levels, we spoke out against the large scale land sale to private developer John Hantz, we’ve opposed and pushed back on other policies that would further disenfranchise us, however the Whites at the state level made sure that our officials had no authority to govern.

The state-level officials appointed their czars to oversee and have veto power over all decisions made in the city, i.e., 2009 and 2013 appointments of EFM over Detroit Public schools and the city of Detroit, respectively. In July, the Governor appointed EFM filed bankruptcy. Defenders of the systematic denial of democratic processes justify this move by drawing upon racist, ahistorical and inaccurate stereotypes of Black people, simply go online yourselves, note the tone of news articles about Detroit and read the comments at the bottom. Many of these comments reflect the views of Detroit EFM, Kevyn Orr who recently was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that “For a long time the city was dumb, lazy, happy and rich… [and] if you had an eighth grade education, you'll get 30 years of a good job and a pension and great health care, but you don't have to worry about what's going to come.”

The representatives of the ruling elite, including state and local elected officials, use a variety of other coded language to justify this denial of democracy and other forms of abuse-by-proxy. For example, city and state supported targeted investments are made in certain parts of town (i.e., Boston Edison, Mid Town, etc.), while nearly half the street lights don’t work in other parts of the city. Such misleading words as privatization, strategic investments, targeted spending, and focused resources on improving services are used to promote a long-term strategy for boosting Detroit-based jobs and stimulating economic growth, which are key to attracting new residents and improving living conditions in the city. These are code words for a rapid and brutal gentrification process that inspired such corporate moguls as Dan Gilbert and others to throw elders and poor folks out of their subsidized homes, disrupting families and networks of relationships with sometimes as little as a month to prepare. These code words mask the rapid process of privatization that is behind the dismantling of city services (see recent request for proposals for waste management), laying off of city workers, defunding of pensions, closing schools, and more.

Many argue that race has nothing to do with the reality that cleaning up an economic mess is a priority. However in spite of the fact that many Michigan cities have been struggling in the midst of the economic crisis since the 1990 EFM law went into effect, only the ones with large Black populations have been placed under EFM rule. With Detroit now in the mix, the nearly half of Michigan’s Black population is denied access to the democratic process. (The cities are Allen Park, Benton Harbor, Detroit, Ecorse, Flint and Pontiac). We are not anymore talking about the $220 million the state owes Detroit in revenue sharing; it is no longer being discussed as the Governor said the state won’t pay. The majority White Michigan population voted for the White right-wing politicians who supported this theft of democracy. These same elected officials voted in March to make Michigan the country’s 24th right to work state, thereby stripping whatever remaining bargaining power unions had. These messages get lost in all the coded language used to justify the flagrant theft of taxpayer money and denial of voting rights, while blaming Black folks for messing everything up.How are we fighting back? There are many bravely and consistently organizing and staging protests (city workers, fire fighters, residents, mothers, youth, and more) to oppose the decisions and actions of the EFM and various corporate interests buying up large swaths of Detroit. There are committed activists, long term Detroit residents and more who are organizing people by district to support certain candidates for the upcoming City Council and Mayoral elections; candidates who better represent the interests of the people than current office holders. There are courageous activists of all ages who consistently attend City Council meetings, who charter buses to Lansing to raise concerns, who fight to put people back into homes, who work to keep water from being privatized, who oppose construction efforts that would harm the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities. There are many ways that Detroiters are pushing back, fighting back and raising hell.

Is this enough? Enough for small reforms but not fundamental change. Protest politics play an important role in raising awareness of issues facing people. They also provide wins for reforms, where there is room or broader support for such reforms. In the long run, more fundamental change is needed; the early stages of which require the work of professional organizations that independently fund themselves through their members.

Professional organizations that systematically address each area of life, now and where we need to be in terms of food, clothing, shelter, ecology, transportation, morality and ethics, language and culture, and more. Professional organizations that evolve as the conditions change, expand and contract according to what is needed in a given moment, operate openly or clandestinely based upon the realities. This is what we know.

Source: From The Occupation of Detroit (publication September 2013).