Detroit's Renewal: Can It Inspire the Social Forum?

Detroit is known for its decay, violence, and gas-guzzling cars. With thousands of activists coming to town, will it also become known as a source of hope?

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
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

For this group, protests are almost passe. 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

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
, 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.

Feeding the hunger

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

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
, 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.

Security in a militarized city

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

Detroit as a Model

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."

This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.