Towards a Politics of Love Over a Politics of Fear


"We can't bombard the people with more fear. They Read more

Why I Closed the #TweetBoat


En tren con destino errado se va más lento Read more

Dispatch from Detroit 4 | Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport


  I had an idea tonight: If Detroit steals schoolchildren's tax Read more

Towards a Politics of Love Over a Politics of Fear

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“We can’t bombard the people with more fear. They are frightened. They are terrorized”
-Gael García Bernal, ‘No’

 

In the 2012 Chilean drama ‘No’ by Pablo Larraín, Gael García Bernal plays René Saavedra, a hip young ad man who is recruited to help a precariously-united left coalition topple the country’s 8-year dictator Augusto Pinochet in a nationwide plebiscite vote. The film is based, albeit loosely, on the true story of how a dictator fell from power democratically after miscalculating how powerful and united his opposition could become. Even in the last moments of the vote, when it has become clear that Pinochet will lose, his generals abandon him and his maniacal plans for a “self-coup” to incite violence and take back control of the country under pretext of a national emergency.

 

The film is powerful in our age of hyper-mediated living when a 24/7 news cycle bombards us with complicated and often contradictory sensations of fear, resolution and uncertainty. Twitter, Facebook and other social networks aim to bypass official and corporate channels of communication, but in doing so overwhelm us with an echo chamber of un-curated rage and righteous indignation. Meanwhile, our truly public spaces – once the anchors of democracy and civic participation – are quietly privatized and turned to a faceless market accountable to no one. When we turn back to these places en masse, as we did during Occupy in 2011, we are greeted by an ever-more militarized police state hiding behind a façade of “counter-terrorism.” Strange times indeed!

 

The Politics of Fear

 

Activists have long understood that autocratic regimes are upheld more by fear than by love:

 

Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with… a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred.

-Nicolo Machiavelli

 

The Politics of Fear is the staple of every cocksure dictator and crumbling empire. Grandiose displays of force and genocidal collective punishment are sure signs of a failing state, not a prosperous one. Fear immobilizes the people, turning their aspirations to apathy. The natural and prideful independence of people turns to dependence when people are shocked into fearing for their livelihoods and families. In today’s world, this fear is instilled by massive debt burdens, overbearing police forces and an imposed culture of misogyny and racism/classism under capitalism. Fear’s cousin guilt runs rampant: we are made to feel guilty for being too rich, too poor, too old, too young, too white, too black, too fat, too thin, too anything

 

A Politics of Love

 

The alternative to a Politics of Fear is a Politics of Love. It is the Politics of humor and irreverence, of satire and mockery, of creative expression. This Politics embraces diversity of opinion and lifestyle while striving towards ideals of self-reliance, autonomy, dignity, tolerance and – of course! – love.

 

Rather than demand of each other or of the government, we command over ourselves.

 

Rather than conquer, we convince.

 

Rather than oppose or impose, we compose.

 

The Politics of Love does not mean we should never directly oppose unjust systems, but it acknowledges what Sun Tzu proclaimed thousands of years ago: you don’t attack your enemy at its strongest point but at its weakest. The weak point of a regime that has lost the consent to govern (the current U.S. Congress has a 7% approval rating, less consent than King George III had in the Colonies) is to be found in the way that everyday people relate to it, not just at the vanguard of a protest march. Knowing that people desire to live in dignity, if the current system can’t provide it: can we?

 

Waging Love in Detroitphoto-3

There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance.

-John Lennon

 

The City of Detroit is undergoing massive transformations today that can be likened to a failed state. A failed state, according to Fund for Peace, is characterized by:

 

  • A loss of control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein
  • Erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions
  • Inability to provide public services
  • Inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community

 

If you’ve been watching the erosion of democracy in Detroit under the imposition of a state-appointed “Emergency Financial Manager”, you will have noticed all of these criteria present in Detroit:

 

  • Police, under emergency management, have resorted to militaristic shows of force including armed tanks and SWAT teams, further eroding the public trust in their legitimate use of force.
  • The administration, unelected and unaccountable to the people, has bypassed the consent of the governed, leading to an abysmal 5% voter turnout in the latest election primary.
  • The massive water shutoff program implemented in March aimed to shut nearly 40% of the city out of running water – a clear inability to provide basic public services
  • Detroit’s Mayor and City Council no longer govern the city nor represent it democratically to outside parties, eliminating Detroit’s sovereignty and ability to interact with outside municipalities, states and federal or foreign governments.

 

How is this massive imposition of autocracy over democracy implemented and maintained? Entirely through the Politics of Fear. Long-time residents of Detroit, most of whom are Brown or Black, live in constant fear of eviction, water shutoff, electrical disconnection, police stop, parking ticket, outstanding warrant, debt collection, and myriad other disincentives to speak out about the abysmal state of democracy here.

 

Furthermore, sometimes good people seeking to counter this trend in fact perpetuate it by themselves operating under a Politics of Fear. Often they don’t intend to do so, but even veiled threats aimed at one’s enemies can backfire and instill fear amongst one’s allies. Succumbing to provocation by police and security guards can lead to violence that then justifies a harsher police response and more drastic measures. When seen through an already-biased media lens, these skirmishes can have the effect of suppressing grassroots opposition rather than catalyzing it. It is only through a Politics of Love that a real enduring alternative power structure can be built, because it is only through love that regular people can overcome the fear instilled deep in them by oppressive systems.

 

A campaign called #WageLove, inspired by the late, great Charity Hicks, is working to end the water shutoffs in Detroit through a beautiful mix of creative direct action, traditional street protest, and mutual aid. By balancing short-term opposition and long-term institution-building over a decentralized network of organizations, I believe Detroit can win this fight and end the shutoffs altogether while also charting a path forward for water sovereignty in Southeast Michigan and beyond. As Sun Tzu said, “Build your enemy a golden bridge to retreat across.” No one fights harder than he who is cornered to death, and a solution that doesn’t work for our enemies too – once we’ve got them where we want them – isn’t really a solution at all.

 

Occupy Love and Build Institutions

 

In the aftermath of the initial Occupy protests in 2011, a patchwork of emergent organizations were formed that sought to transform the grassroots energy of Occupy into more enduring social change. I have been fortunate to have participated in several of these organizations, including Occupy Sandy, the Paul Robeson Freedom School and now The After Party. Organizations, unlike movements, base themselves not merely in mobilizing people into the streets but organizing them in their neighborhoods for change. In an age of isolation and declining Labor, community organizing is more important than ever. What will tomorrow’s UAWs and AFSCMEs look like, and who will lead them? In an age of New Work / New Economy, where workforce size and profit are dissociated and profit margins eventually trend towards zero as production costs decrease, what does labor organizing look like? These are the questions we must ask of ourselves if we seek to build institutions that will lead to a more equitable and creative future for our kids.

 

The Packard Plant in Detroit may lay barren of its once 60,000 line workers, but a few miles away a community garden is growing local food, a 3-D printer can replicate entire machines, and a community-owed solar streetlight is going up to replace the one ripped out by the city and its monopoly utility company for non-payment. Change is inevitable, but not easy without forward-thinking institutions that make old systems irrelevant. Only armed with the Politics of Love, with all of its humor and joy and sadness and hope, can we build a world where fear and intimidation have no place.

 

 

 

Why I Closed the #TweetBoat

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#TweetBoat

Photo: @Tw1tt3rart

En tren con destino errado se va más lento que andando a pie /
On a train headed the wrong way one moves more slowly than by foot
-Jorge Drexler

Below I explain why I temporarily shut down the Occupy Wall Street NYC twitter account, and how I will return it to the hands of responsible stewards.

 

The context

On the night before September 17, 2011 I found myself in the Brooklyn Commons preparing for an action called Occupy Wall Street. I was armed with nothing more than a backpack, some camping gear, a megaphone and a Twitter account with 1,300 followers that had been handed to me by a comrade. She was tasked with delivering it to someone in New York City on behalf of Adbusters, the Canadian-based culture-jamming magazine that had created it. As it turns out, all of those other things I had with me have been lost to time or to Bloomberg’s Army except one: @OccupyWallStNYC. That Twitter account persists to today, with over 174,000 followers who have tuned into a movement that still remains alive and kicking nearly three years later.

 

I began to build a team of people that I thought had interesting lenses into the movement from within. For a while it was just one young woman and I. She had backpacked to Zuccotti Park all the way from Oregon, and she struck me as an inspiring and charismatic human being. We ran the account jointly, tweeting while marching through the streets of Manhattan or sprawled out on blankets in the occupied park. There were no rules then, other than the minimum amount of security culture necessary to protect the account. I named our little team the #TweetBoat, inspired by the #LulzBoat of Lulzsec, an offshoot of Anonymous.

 

So the two of us went along tweeting and documenting what we saw, experienced and took part in at OWS. Along the way, we befriended others and grew the team organically. Soon, weekly meetings began to take place – first onsite at the park and eventually at bars nearby on Thursday nights. I bought many rounds of drinks to entice folks out and thank them in some small way for their contributions to the boat. We built a solid team of 8 or 10 folks, and at that size the boat ran relatively smoothly. Meetings were sometimes contentious, but always empowering and respectful. Sometimes a celebrity would show up, or a random stranger would wander into the back of the bar and join us. We reveled in the comradery that entangled us together in those magical nights on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

 

Consensus is a powerful too, but it is fragile. When stretched beyond the net of trust that our solidarity helped build, collective decision-making can become coercive and ultimately exclusionary: the allure of finding consensus, by pushing out dissenters, overtakes our collective desire to agree. Consensus is a tool that must be wielded carefully. And the culture that we built on the #TweetBoat allowed us to create a safe space for consensus decision-making that was inclusive of an ever-growing team.

 

What happened?

Things started to fall apart. The team grew bigger and bigger, but met less and less often. Gone were the inspiring Thursday night bar meetings, replaced with infrequent reunions of small groups of us. These reunions for me were often filled with awkward nostalgia and longing for a renewed sense of community. As meetings dwindled, more communication began to happen by email – a wholly inadequate forum for deep, consensus-based decision-making. The addition of the new tool web tool Loomio offered some promise, but nothing can replace real community building in person. The #TweetBoat had lost its verve.

 

In early 2014, a series of very toxic email threads began to shake the boat. A member who published some of its contents compromised our secured listserv, protected by the mutual agreement of all members not to share its contents publicly without consent. Newer members to the group found themselves wrapped in a dust storm of festering inter-personal conflicts. The tone of emails became accusatory and grandstanding became commonplace. I started to worry about the future of the boat.

 

Finally, things came to a head last week. A thread about “self-promotion” became just another shaming session. If we start from a place of assuming bad intentions – i.e. discouraging “self-promotion” over encouraging solid, relevant content – we will end up with rules that shame rather than empower. Group members took on the task of limiting others to “1 to 2 tweets per day” (or week) on a topic, a form of censorship that would never have been allowed in the earlier days of the boat. I had to say enough!

 

This party is over. Time to go home. Time to clean house for the next party. Time to sleep, to heal, and to reflect.

Many people will be angry. They have that right.

Many people will be saddened. I will be the first to admit my own sadness to see a beautiful collaboration turn into a toxic, unsafe space.

 

What is next?

The account is closed. No more tweets for now. I plan to read through each of the 47,806 sent tweets, of which about 80% I crafted. (The first year or so of tweets can be found here, and the rest will be published shortly for all to see.) As I read them, I’ll reflect on what happened and how the awakening that OWS was for so many of us has changed me. Perhaps you’ll read them, too.

 

Clearly the question of ownership of the account is a contentious one, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. The success of the #TweetBoat was in creating shared ownership of this collective resource by many different people with often divergent perspectives on what Occupy is. Still, even collective resources like gardens need human stewardship. I don’t shy away from currently being the chief steward of this account, and my plan is to reinvigorate it again by putting it back in the hands of responsible stewards. Until that happens, it doesn’t have much use. What is a garden worth if all the gardeners are fighting instead of tending it?

 

One thing is for certain: the future of the #TweetBoat, like the future of this movement, depends upon embracing change. Movements move. So do people and so do groups. It was never my intention to hoard this resource to myself, which is why I built a solid team and that team deserves praise. I hope that many of them will participate in its next iteration: clear shared leadership, more in-your-face, ground-based tactical media and democratic decision-making.

 

This boat for a long time was moving in the wrong direction. This is the first step in turning it around.

 

Dispatch from Detroit 4 | Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport

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When Emergency Managers give you lemons...

A theoretical rendering of the new Ilitch Stadium re-purposed to the original intent of its public school tax-dollar financing.

 

I had an idea tonight:

I am not being facetious. I am dead serious about this one, people.

First, some context. In case you didn’t notice, Detroit has been in a NAFTA-induced downward spiral of “free market” hell for the last several decades. The population of this once-great metropolis has nose-dived from over 2 million to fewer than 700,000 as nearly everybody with money ran for the suburbs. Wealthy suburbanites still control much of the land, some of the water, and all of the professional sports teams. That doesn’t seem to keep them from Detroit-bashing, as exemplified by suburban Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson this past January:

“I made a prediction a long time ago, and it’s come to pass. I said, ‘What we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and the corn.’ ”

So we come to learn that Detroit’s wealthiest man, Little Caesar’s owner Mike Ilitch, has decided to build a new hockey stadium – next to two other brand-new stadiums, one of which is also Ilitch’s. The price tag stands at $650 million, which of course will be paid for by Ilitch and his over $1.7 billion in total worth taxpayer funds redirected from school property taxes.

Yes, you read that correctly. The City of Detroit intends to pay Mike Ilitch to build this stadium from money originally destined for schools. (Technically, the state is supposed to reimburse the City for all school funds expended on the stadium. This, of course, begs the question of why the state didn’t just pay for it in the first place…)

Isn’t it immoral to take money from an already-stretched school system featuring 43 kids in a classroom and 26 proposed school closures this year including a school for pregnant teens?

Yes.

Doesn’t that foreclose on an entire generation of Detroit youth just to please a billionaire who doesn’t even need the money?

Yes.

But won’t it create jobs?

Yes. But not for the youth whose schools are being closed: the Detroit City Council approved the massive $1 public land handover to Ilitch without even getting a commitment that 26% of the arena jobs would go to Detroiters.

Wait, why only 26%?

Ugh. Major #facepalm.

So we are left with what you might expect of a city under “emergency financial management” – read “dictatorship” – and a corrupt City Council that is completely complicit in the ransacking and looting of Detroit by the same Old Boy’s Club that’s been driving it into the ground for decades.

Which leads me back to my initial suggestion: if the city is going to keep foreclosing on kids’ futures just to make a buck for some rich suburban dude, I propose we get ready to hold high school math class in the high-end luxury boxes at Ilitch-Land Stadium next year.

Detroit Water – A Movement Grows

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Sign up to join the Brigade at DetroitWaterBrigade.org

FOLLOW US on social media here:

Facebook.com/waterbrigade

Twitter.com/DETWaterBrigade

Video by Stephen McGee Films

Why We the People Must Stand with Detroit

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Detroit Water Protest

A young Detroiter at a Freedom Friday protest against city water shutoffs.

It is time for we the people to stand with Detroit. The work has already started. Detroit is rebuilding community from the grassroots up, and a few dedicated but under-staffed community organizations are working feverishly to grow a more sustainable, equitable and innovative Detroit than the one you hear about in the mainstream media. They’re working for the most part under-the-radar and on local scale, building housing and worker cooperatives, urban farms, alternative recycling programs, public-private partnerships, and a million other amazing ideas that could only take root in a city as ingenuous and resilient as Detroit. These are Detroit’s Davids against Wall Street’s Goliaths, and they need our solidarity now.

 

The situation

 

Today, 60% of Detroit children live in poverty and the infant mortality rate has surpassed Mexico’s. The city, under unelected emergency financial management from the state governor’s office, recently announced a plan to shut off up to 150,000 residential and commercial water accounts – almost 40% of the city – for non-payment. In some neighborhoods, more streetlights are broken or off than on, and there are more than 80,000 abandoned buildings citywide.

 

Meanwhile, Detroit’s municipal government and economy are still reeling from decades of disinvestment, deindustrialization, white flight, capital flight, and – yes – corruption that have sent former mayors to jail. Simultaneously, City Hall is being crushed under the weight of an imposing and nationally-coordinated media and financial occupation by corporate America. Michigan’s Tea Party state governor, Rick Snyder, took control of Detroit and 6 other majority-black cities last year under a controversial “emergency manager” law. Shortly after Snyder appointed Kevin Orr to run the city, Orr hired his own former corporate bankruptcy law firm to initiate bankruptcy proceedings while also paving the way for land sell-offs to preferred companies and developers as well as privatization of public utilities and services like ambulances and the water department.

 

Detroit’s retired city employees and pensioners are likely to pay a high price for the bankruptcy, while banks that engaged in dubious municipal credit rate swaps reclaim the majority of their failed loans and extract usurious interest rates on existing bad debt.

 

I thought Detroit already got a bailout, in 2009?

 

Nope, the Big 3 auto companies – Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors – got bailed out under the Automotive Industry Finance Program. In return, their top executives sold their corporate jets, and then proceeded to slash health benefits, cut pensions and reduce payments to laid-off workers. The bailout wasn’t enough for Chrysler, which went bankrupt 3 months later. It received an additional $6 billion check straight from the desk of U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, in exchange for vague promises to become “more competitive” and build electric cars. In March of 2009, Treasury approved an additional $5 billion in loans to auto suppliers.

 

One thing is clear from the auto bailouts: they didn’t do a damn thing to help 99% of Detroit residents. In 2012, two years after the bailout, Detroit still had three times the national poverty rate and half the median income. In fact, the median household income actually declined in the years after the auto bailout from $28,730 (2008) to $23,600 (2012), a full 18% drop. The auto bailout dollars didn’t enrich Detroit proper because for decades Detroit and the auto companies have been disjointed: very little of the wealth created by automobile sales actually stays in Detroit, but gets piped out to the wealthier suburbs or diffuses into the now-global network of financial centers and offshore tax havens.

 

And Americans as a whole didn’t benefit from the auto bailouts either, in tandem with how they haven’t benefitted from the Wall Street bailouts. 5 years later, the government has spent $80 billion propping up the car companies, but recovered only $54.6 billion of it by October, 2013. That leaves taxpayers on the hook for nearly $25 billion. And the electric cars promised? Chrysler built them, and then Chrysler’s CEO told customers not to buy them because they weren’t profitable. Bailing out the auto companies to save Detroit turned out to be like paying the fox to guard the henhouse, and working Americans are the hens.

 

In an ideal world

 

In a world of less dysfunctional politics, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. A functional and compassionate government would have come to the aid of a once-great American city now teetering on the brink of financial collapse and experiencing a full-blown humanitarian disaster.

 

If the disaster that has befallen Detroit and countless other rustbelt cities had occurred overnight like a hurricane or a tornado, FEMA – the real domestic “emergency managers” – and Red Cross volunteers would be on every corner distributing emergency aid. An army of social workers would descend on the neighborhoods to provided vital services. A New Deal-style emergency jobs program would put thousands of Detroiters to work repairing or demolishing blighted buildings and infrastructure

 

If the disaster of Detroit had happened in Ukraine, or Israel, or Afghanistan, or Egypt, or any of the dozens of countries around the world where the U.S. government spends over $37 billion annually on foreign aid, U.S. peacekeeping forces would be working side-by-side with local leaders to build schools and hospitals. U.N. Human Rights Observers would be on the ground to ensure the human right of access to clean drinking water. President Obama would stand proudly with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan posing for pictures in front of the Spirit of Detroit sculpture announcing a peace treaty to ensure an end to the violent water shutoffs and evictions.

 

The Cavalry Isn’t Coming – So We Must

 

In reality, none of this is going to happen if it doesn’t suit the interests of the large banks and corporations that showed us clearly in 2008 how they have our elected government fully co-opted to serve their bottom lines. To corporate America, Detroit is just a bunch of deadbeat debtors who haven’t paid their bills, not a humanitarian disaster zone. To them, a bailout for Detroit is a bailout of their own coffers; payback on their own soured gambles.

 

For the rest of us, though, it’s time to help Detroit. If you care about second chances, about life after poverty and unemployment, you are needed in Detroit to build the better world we talked about in 1,000 parks across this country in the fall of 2011.

 

You ready to start bailing out Detroit the right way? It starts with water, the basic element of life. Join the Detroit Water Brigade and help us start getting water and vital information to Detroiters in need. If we can, we’ll raise the money to buy off the $150 debts of Detroit families to keep the city from shutting off their water – Strike Debt style. If we raise enough money, maybe we can even buy this debt in bulk and bring hope and second chances to some of America’s most-neglected citizens. Once we get going, who knows where we’ll stop? Rebuild the water and energy systems with renewable technologies and designate them a public commons for all. End all evictions. Turn abandoned lots into urban farms. Rebuild schools. End payday lending and expand crowd funding of local small and cooperative businesses. The sky is the limit.

 

The bailout isn’t coming from above, people. Let’s do this ourselves.

 

Dispatch from Detroit #3, On Water

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photo

 

The waves of the Detroit River lap up onto the wall of the riverwalk downtown, and young children play in the fountains that shoot up through the concrete in the park below the towering Renaissance Center. It is Saturday in Motown, and the sun is shining warm rays down on working-class folk enjoying a day of rest.

Just a few miles away, on the east side across the highway, Jean stands on her porch and worries about the pregnant mom whose water was shut off Thursday morning by Homrich contractors working for the City of Detroit under emergency financial management. They came that morning in a red pickup truck with a homemade decal on the side. In an arc around a circle it read “DETROIT WATER COLLECTION PROJECT”- quite official-looking – and inside the circle it read “WATER ****** HOMRICH”, the asterisks representing a scribbled out word SHUTOFF that was removed after community protests about shaming neighborhood residents.

Jean came yesterday to the weekly, growing Freedom Fridays rallies at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Dept (DWSD) to voice her outrage at seeing a pregnant mother and young children denied the basic

Jean speaks out at a Freedom Friday rally, 6/21

Jean speaks out at a Freedom Friday rally, 6/21

human right to water in a city surrounded by the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth, containing 21% of the world’s surface fresh water. Her voice faltered as she worked to hold back tears on the megaphone. Her tone was one part desperation and one part pure rage, a rage that is simmering with the summer heat and the threat of over 100,000 family water shutoffs in the hot months ahead.

The media has been nearly silent on the issue of water shutoffs since Detroit’s emergency management began to ramp them up last month. With so much negative news about bankruptcy and blight already, could it be that the country has become desensitized to Detroit’s suffering? Or is it just increasingly difficult to cut through the corporate spin machine that seems to dictate so much of what we hear and see these days on the TV and in newspapers, as Conan  O’Brien famously demonstrated when he showed how local news stations were just lazily parroting national corporate press releases. Whatever the reason, you won’t be reading about this humanitarian crisis in USA Today – yet.

Yet. Because we’re going to ramp up the pressure and make this issue un-unreportable.

Yet. Because everyone in the country – in the world? – deserves to know that in the richest country on Earth poor people are having their water shutoff because they can’t pay.

Yet. Because if the water shutoffs don’t stop, an army of peaceful resistance will stop them.

This is a call to action to become part of that resistance.

Visit the Detroit Water Brigade and enlist to help deliver resources and support to those most in need.

Water is a human right.

Dispatch from Detroit #2, Slow Down to Rise Up!

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Everything moves a little more slowly here.

I called the Masonic Temple today, a majestic theatre I recall visiting with my parents as a child. I was inquiring about renting the place for a benefit concert to support the thousands of families whose water is threatened with shutoff every week here for non-payment.

“We are a non-profit,” I gently let drop as she reached for the rate sheet.

“Honey, in Detroit, everyone’s a non-profit,” she responded.

In a sense, she’s right. Who living and working in the city today is turning a profit? I’m not denigrating proud local small businesses that are fighting to make it work past the foundation grants and start-up funding and the helpful checks from loved ones. Nor am I dissing the wide web of non-profits that exist to fill the gaping holes in America’s Swiss cheese safety net – though some of them frankly perpetuate rather than curb the inequities. Finally, I am not ignorant of the behemoth corporations who exist in Detroit in name only but whose profits seep out through the tentacles of global finance to New York, Chicago, London, and then Bermuda, Caymans…

No, Detroit is – for the time-being – beautifully unprofitable for most of us. Maybe profit isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe profitability shouldn’t be the final metric of Detroit’s success in the first place.

The fiscal unprofitability of Detroit slows down time here. Demolition projects crawl along at a snail’s pace. Renovations are over-budget and over deadline. Businesses return your calls and emails a few days later. Life moves at a more human than machine pace here.

When I speak to my social entrepreneurial friends here, they talk of targeting neighborhoods that are teetering on the brink of collapse for land bank intervention or community service. In reality, I think we’re all teetering on brinks all the time, but the ones that move us to action are those that make us feel we can have a positive impact. The pride of low-income Detroit residents collides with the excitement and ambition of young urban activists and change-makers, and creates uncomfortable cultural eddies and waves that we must maneuver honestly and thoughtfully. That takes time, and not the kind that Emergency Managers and “grand bargains” offer in their bankruptcy timelines.

The first widespread viral tactic of popular revolution was the barricade in France, and it spread so quickly because it slowed business as usual in the cities to a standstill so the everyday people could organize themselves. Perhaps we need a 21st century tactic like the barricade – be it digital or analog, but always non-violent – to slow down the hectic hum of gentrification and privatization and build out plans to make Detroit more equitable, sustainable, creative, diverse and just plain fun.

To rise up, we just need to slow down.

20140613-163406-59646069.jpg

Photo: Valerie Jean

Dispatch from Detroit #1, On Blight

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Justin Packard Plant

This is the first in a series of reflections on life in the shell of a once-great metropolis that is searching again for greatness. I share stories of the people I meet between the burned-out buildings and the overgrown foliage of a land abandoned by some, scarred and ravaged by others, and still inhabited by a resilient and proud few.

 

The blight here is like a blemish on the face of industrial capitalism.

 

Each abandoned, boarded-up home whispers out to suburban blocks where kids still ride their bikes. A family once lived here, with a steady wage and a mortgage they could afford.

 

Each towering apartment building whose skeleton frame the bright blue summer sky silhouettes whispers like the air blowing freely through rooms once shielded from the outside elements. Many families once slept here, with flowers in their windowsills and milk in the refrigerator.

 

Each ghost town factory spanning city blocks with once-decadent facades drooping under Earth’s gravity whispers to empty brown fields where only heavy metals live. 100,000 men once worked here, with good line jobs that divvied up capital’s bounty.

 

Maybe that’s why those from above would like to descend on every neighborhood here and strike it from memory. Lest it be a reminder to the present of the pains of the past. Lest it be a warning to the present of the errors of the past.

 

I don’t mean to romanticize the ruins. Their mere presence here slows down time, as if history’s long arms reached forward and pulled back the present with gasps of slow down! You’re moving too fast. You’re going to do it again!

 

No, I’m not romanticizing the ruins as if they were the Parthenon in Greece. I don’t want to put a tourist kiosk at the foot of each one, with a line extending back of eager visitors to catch a glimpse of the once-great empire The Motor City. A cafe on the roof of the Packard Plant to sip lattes and peer out over the banks of le détroit du lac Érié, french for the straight of Lake Erie.

 

Don’t call in the coroner. Detroit ain’t dead yet.

 

Its ruins aren’t the remains of great palaces for the gods above. They are testaments to an era of prosperity turned to excess, of opportunity turned to greed, and greed turned to poverty. They are like burned-out tanks on the battlefield of labor versus capital, where capital won decisively and retreated to higher ground while labor fled without time to even pick up its wounded and dead.

 

But really nobody won, because everybody lost.

 

Eventually the blight will have to come down, but will we have learned the lessons first? It’s easy to say tear it all down but what will replace it? And more importantly, who will replace those who have left? And will those who stayed be replaced, pushed out?

 

That which doesn’t exist cannot have ever existed, except in the memories of witnesses and their descendants. Today’s residents are the last remaining witnesses, and their testimony has not yet been fully taken. Their stories have not been written down, their pictures not yet snapped. The media doesn’t rush to their ‘hood with cameras and news trucks when a city contractor comes to quietly shut off the water. The 7 o’clock news isn’t teeming with stories of their evictions and incarcerations and daily struggles, not like it clings to the hopes and aspirations of Dan Gilbert the savior from Above. Only silence.

 

Silence like the wind blowing through the skeleton silhouettes of burned-out buildings.

 

Letter to a Stranger

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The Nehalem River (Photo: Justin Wedes)

 

Dear Stranger,

 

There’s a light rain in the river bay today. I can see it out the window of my new home perched on the hill. You sit on the road below in your Chevy truck, engine humming with the babbling creek. Foggy mountains frame the distance. Frogs perch in their moss beds.

 

I haven’t met you yet, but I’m bound to in this small town. Your fate will wrap up with mine like an ivy vine, at least for a short time. At least while we both inhabit these mountains. So I suppose I’ll introduce myself.

 

Last week I rode in from Brooklyn, New York. My pants are dirty with the dust kicked up by buses and trains from a dozen towns stretched across this great country. My mind is still racing and I’m restless. I’ve been wound up by years of city life and now I’m unraveling. Give me a few days, though, and I’ll settle right in. Deep down I’m a country boy I reckon.

 

You should know that I’m trouble. Not like a corner-store criminal, but more like a rabble-rouser. A non-conformist. A fighter. I’m passionate and principled. I’m an arguer. A lover, too.

 

On the way here, I met a man named Josh from Michigan. He was a mighty boxer until a jab to the head landed him in the hospital for brain surgery and four weeks in a comma. The doctor thought he might not ever wake up, but he did. He remembered almost everything, and has three kids now. I told him my biggest fear was to lose my memory, and he told me it isn’t that bad, when you know which parts you’ve lost and which you’ve still got. I told him just thinking about that just gave me a numb thud deep inside my head. I guess I’m cerebrally sensitive.

 

I met a queer writer named Laurel who writes poems and stories. She was thinking about moving from Oregon to Brooklyn and had taken the trip east by train. When I met her she was on her way back home but thinking of swapping coasts in just the opposite fashion as me. It occurred to me she might be my mirror image, moving at 180° angles to my own life. Maybe there are many of us moving in these orbits, entangled in a quantum dance no matter how distant from each other, unbeknownst to any of us.

 

You, stranger, might also become entangled with me. Or perhaps we have already crossed paths before. Folks don’t remember most of the people they encounter in life, right? The ones they never speak to or do business with or fall deep in love with. Maybe I ran past you in Central Park last year? Or perhaps your email address is in my inbox? Could it be we share a distant cousin? They say humanity’s most recent common ancestor – the great predecessor we living humans can all trace our converging lineages back to – dates back to 209,000 years ago. Wooly mammoths roamed these parts only 15,000 years ago, so you and I go way back. It’ll be nice to re-meet you.

 

Have I come on too strong? Let me slow down and listen to you for a minute. Your story is just as important as mine; just as captivating I’m sure. Tell me about it.

 

The fog is starting to withdraw and I can see the farmlands across the river. The rain halts for a moment, and it is eerily silent up here on my hill. A dog barks in the distance. Birds chirp in the trees. The gears of my mind start to slow down and I can finally begin to relax. I meditate on the sheer beauty of this temperate rainforest. In this space I am a stranger, too. I’m a visitor to the door of mother Earth, beckoning to be let in and to calm my human temper to match the irresistible tranquility of the natural world. Grant me serenity, please.

 

I am drawn out of my meditation by the muted thump of your Chevy truck door closing. The engine lets out a rough cough and then that same low hum. You’re pulling away and driving into the distance, across the bridge over the river and out of sight.

 

A rooster sings out in the distance.

 

I suppose I’ll see you again soon, but for now please accept this letter from one stranger to another.

 

Until we meet again.

Farewell to the Concrete Jungle

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“Not all those who wander are lost.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

The Arrival

The view from my 1st Brooklyn apartment

In those first sleepless nights, the smells of the Gowanus Canal were stirred up into the air by the cars down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. They wafted up into my artist loft apartment as I tossed and turned in my under-sized, rented bed. The honeymoon had ended and the reality of city life had begun to creep in. I would repeat to myself, “Some days you win, some days New York wins” with the resignation of a poker player. Those days New York usually won, but now and then a Midwest kid got his chance – and pounced.

You couldn’t tell in the summer of 2008 that we were about to crash. I played music with my band on a kiddie cruise around Manhattan to pick up some extra change while I prepared to enter the public school classroom. The city was always full of life, and you got out of it exactly what you put in – or a little more if you were lucky. Usually, that meant smiles and beers and late nights that soared into the skyscrapers because you always knew someone who knew someone. Work hard. Play hard.

 

On the Other Side of the Slope

The autumn arrived and teacher life began. Early mornings and ties laced up around the neck on the way to the subway station. Park Slope is that part of Brooklyn where all the NY Times reporters are rumored to live. Where the momma mafia rules the streets with strollers and organic, homeopathic, macrobiotic, vegan-tastic baby food. Your status in this ‘hood is determined by how high up the slope you lived. I started on rusty 3rd avenue, but with aspirations of 7th ave and then majestic Prospect Park West. It never occurred to me that work took my in the exact opposite direction, down 2nd ave to 1st and then across the stinky Gowanus to uncharted territory: Red Hook. Projects. Payday loans. Buses. Graffiti. And so much heart.

I thrived in Red Hook. It has this quirky mix of urban industrial yard and Scottish fishing village. Gentrification was, for the moment, on hold. Education was thriving. Spanish rice and beans from Papi on the corner.

Something changed. My teacher friend John told me he had to move because his roommate had been canned from Lehman Brothers and he couldn’t afford the steep Carroll Gardens rent anymore. Every day another bailout, another bank on the brink. Us teachers were getting anxious. Job cuts always loomed, and not just for Wall Street bankers. Unease lay itself down across the borough like a blanket of clouds.

 

Second Year’s a Charm

Meanwhile, in Red Hook, I was becoming worth my salt at the school. The students respected me now. They knew I didn’t take their crap, but that I really cared about them. I could level with them without losing my stature. I could lead without them falling behind.

Photo: Justin Douglas

That didn’t mean everything was rainbows and butterflies. When you teach at a school for drop outs (“formerly truant students” was the more optimistic term used), you hope for the best but prepare for the worst. A student once tried to assault me in the classroom. Another time, they saw me with a female teacher taking a walk and the rumors began to fly between class bells. In other moments, students would confide deeply personal things to me. I have always had a soft spot for the underdog, but their stories took my empathy to a whole new level.

I would start the day in the projects and end it at a cocktail party in the penthouse of McGraw-Hill in Manhattan. This, I presumed, was the role of the teacher: bridge-builder between society’s classes, the glue that holds together a fragmenting, unequal nation. I started to piece together a topology of the social structure. My mind raced.

 

The Bridge Begins to Burn

By now, I had moved up to 6th ave. This wasn’t quite majesty, but as Plato once said: Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress, no matter how slow. The move up the slope had exposed me to the reality of life slightly higher up the “yuppie” (young professional) food chain: it really sucked. It sucked like ‘furniture-too-delicate-and-antique-to-sit-on’ sucks. So much momma mafia. Hefty rents. Before long, I had to get out of there.

Bed-Stuy, short for the Bedford-Stuyvesent neighborhood of Brooklyn, called in the form of a room opening up with a good friend. A traditionally black neighborhood, it was facing gentrification by young artists and creative types priced out of trendier hipster Williamsburg or yuppie Park Slope. Paradoxically I felt more at home here, perhaps because it reminded me of my hometown metro Detroit. Good, honest people with little presumption.

At work, fiscal austerity had multiplied the tension on staff. Somebody was going to be axed at the end of the year. Seniority dictated it would be a young teacher, but there were plenty of those at my school as there are at so many hard-to-staff, so-called “low-performing” schools. Restless to take on some leadership, I had gotten myself elected to union chapter leader and I became an advocate for many other teachers who felt the strain our principal put on us. It was flowing down from above him, as the DOE sought to pressure schools to graduate more kids faster and to do it with less resources. Teachers and their students were paying the bill left behind when bankers got up from the table and split.

I started to spend less time at McGraw-Hill and more at local union rallies and organizing meetings. It was exhilarating to know that there were so many staunch advocates for public education out there, from parents to teachers to community leaders and elected officials. I was introduced to that seminal rite of passage into the activist world: the Panel for Education Policy meeting. Here, passionate parents and firebrand teachers ridiculed and tormented the Mayor-appointed panel that made final decisions on which schools would stay open and which would close, which projects would be funded and which would not. The energy was electric!

One day at work, I was startled when my principal called me into his office to tell me that, because of the budget cuts, my position was being excessed. I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t ready for my teaching career to come to an end so soon. In a rare display of fragility, I broke down crying as soon as I left his office. The pain was raw and deep.

 

Reassessing

Out of the public schools now, I took a sabbatical from New York to clear my mind and found a teaching gig at an elite private boarding school. I went from teaching the poorest of the 99% to the elite .1% of the 1%. The difference? Nearly naught. Kids are kids. They face the same teenage angst and feelings of neglect from their parents who were either too poor or too rich to pay sufficient attention to their needs. The teacher would have to fill in as parent now.

I tried to help them put their hard times in context. I aimed to open their minds to the struggles of young people on the other end of the spectrum. It was like an economic abyss had opened up and I had a leg on either side as the two cliffs inched apart and I faltered precariously. The slow death of the middle class was tearing our country apart, and I felt the call of activism pulling me out of the classroom.

I returned to NYC rejuvenated, ready to take on the world again. Protests were erupting everywhere, as democratic uprisings threatened entrenched powers from Tunisia to Egypt to Spain and Greece. We would bring them to Wall Street, the belly of the beast, the “global Mubarak” as Occupy co-creator and visionary Micah White would put it. The year of 2011 filled me with a revolutionary fervor that invigorated my body and mind. Causes converged and the street became the public forum in which the people made not only their grievances but also their aspirations heard. Imagination was let loose. Hope and change were untied from their politics-as-usual leashes.

 

It’s the long haul that matters

By now, I had lived in NYC long enough to know that if you walk backwards on a moving escalator you end up going nowhere fast. But if you run forward, eventually you’ll hit your wit’s end, crash and burn. Best thing to do is ride the wave, and know that only so much can be accomplished in one Big Apple day.

I filled each day with beautiful action. I visited every borough, met new activists and took chances on people. I was wagering everything on this global revolution. I was all in, the only way I know how to be. And it was purely joyous.

I agreed to take on a project with the student leadership class at Paul Robeson High School alongside my partner-in-justice Radio Rahim, the inspiration for the Spike Lee character of ‘Do The Right Thing’ fame. Radio just happened to be my Bed-Stuy neighbor down the street and a venerable character in the education activism scene. The project began as a simple morale-boost for the students as the city was targeting them for closure, but with the energy infused by Occupy it morphed into an all-out campaign to save the school.

The students escalated their campaign in April 2012, releasing a video calling on students across the city to walk out of school with them in solidarity on May 1st, “May Day”. The principal responded with a school-wide clamp-down and a letter home to parents the day before the planned action, complete with a link to the students’ video. His actions back-fired, as parents watched the video with their children and sided with them against the administration. The next day, dozens of them joined community activists and leaders outside to greet the protesting youth.

I was elated. Radio and I had worked hard to garner community support for the students, but they were the ones who had pulled off the magic: all their peers walked out with them! Not only that, but hundreds of students from schools across NYC joined them as well for a teach-in at Fort Greene Park. Even youth from the esteemed Brooklyn Technical High School – far from a struggling school slated for closure – joined their peers from Robeson that day in protest. It was a victory not just for public education, but for the now-globalizing Occupy movement, showing the pendulum was swinging back from banks and corporations to workers and students.

 

After the Protest

It isn’t easy to sustain the energy of the streets when everyone is back home. My Bed-Stuy mentor, the late and great Jitu Weusi, once taught me that to make a social movement sustainable it must be about education. As Occupy Wall Street’s raw and righteous anger simmered down, my education activism ascended once again but with a new consciousness. The post-Occupy world was different. The analysis had sharpened: we now spoke of class and capitalism instead of just austerity and tax justice. An intelligentsia of sorts was emerging, and I struggled to find my place amongst the greats: David Graeber, Naomi Klein, Angela Davis, Cornel West, Elizabeth Warren, and young rising stars like Nelini Stamp, Marissa Holmes, Jesse LaGreca, Micah White, and many more.

Back in Brooklyn, the veteran students of Robeson had joined together to help us build the Paul Robeson Freedom School to carry on the legacy of the closing high school. I was asked to serve as co-Principal alongside Radio, and we worked to build local partnerships to open a summer program for at-risk middle-school students. The timing couldn’t have been better, as activists from Zuccotti Park searching for community engagement mingled with local youth at street barbecues in the hot city summer evenings. The NY Times even called it “Camp Occupy”.

 

Going Global

I knew that what we began in Zuccotti had been just the continuation of an international wave of revolt. After the first summer of Freedom School, I grew anxious to chart out the contours of this global uprising. I spent 2013 visiting and speaking at conferences and with activists in 10 different countries: Brasil, Tunisia, Egypt, Paris, the UK, Turkey, Mexico, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Austria. I met revolutionaries and regular folks swept up in a movement for real democracy, social justice, cooperative economics and dignity for all. I dodged tear gas canisters and shared heady late-night conversations with visionaries who dared to believe that another world is possible. I soaked it all in.

Yousef runs a small internet cafe just off Taksim Square where the #OccupyGezi uprising began in April, 2014

My last visit was to the Lacandon Jungle of Southern Mexico. The occasion was the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista indigenous rebel uprising, and a Freedom School was being hosted to bring together global activists, academics and journalists to learn about the progress the indigenous peoples had made since putting down their arms and picking up plowshares. I heard for the first time the term “city savages”, and as a city boy for life it stung. The seed of my mental transformation away from New York City had been planted.

 

Back to the Big Apple

I find myself today packing up and wrapping up the loose ends of my nearly 6-year dive into Gotham life. I can’t help but take stock of what has and hasn’t changed.

There’s been a good dose of progress towards a more just and equitable New York City since I arrived in 2008:

  • I arrived to a billionaire mayor who spent snowstorm weekends in Bermuda, and I leave the city to one who campaigned in Zuccotti Park on the Tale of Two Cities and tackling income inequality.
  • Cathie Black, magazine-publisher-turned-cocktail-party-friend-of-the-mayor-turned-schools-chancellor, has been replaced by a life-long educator, Carmen Fariña. (I’m particularly proud of having spearheaded the campaign to oust Black.)
  • A fierce direct action campaign begun by US Uncut and escalated by Occupy Wall Street helped secure the extension of the Millionaire’s Tax and now de Blasio’s proposed tax on the wealthy to fund universal pre-K.
  • Young activists are pushing the envelope to find new ways to collectivize and organize workers, like the Hot & Crusty crew.

Not all news is good, though. Some worrying trends since I arrived in New York City:

  • The reported number of homeless people in city shelters has nearly doubled, to 53,270 (Source: CoalitionForTheHomeless.org)
  • The Bloomberg administration has closed 171 schools, nearly all of them in low-income, black and Latino neighborhoods
  • The city’s wealthiest residents and developers are still lavished with unnecessary tax breaks in return for campaign bribes, like those for One57 and four other luxury Manhattan condos.
  • Stop-And-Frisk isn’t dead yet, and police brutality is still rampant in the force – most notably and disturbingly inside and around public schools

 

The Path Ahead

I am excited to share with you that I’ll be moving shortly to Nehalem, a small town on the north coast of Oregon. I’ll join fellow activist and Occupy Wall Street meme creator Micah White to help kick off the #YouAreNeeded campaign to build grassroots political power. I’ll also take some much-needed time to reflect and write on my experiences as a young activist and educator. The Pacific coast of Oregon is perhaps one of the most beautiful features of this country, and it is a treasure that belongs to the people. The Zapatistas say, “The land belongs to those who work it.” In the same way, those who cultivate the real estate of their minds – thanks, Chuck D for that one! – can truly claim ownership over their thoughts. It’s time to tend to my mind.

 

I met this guy in Chiapas, Mexico

Thank you, New York

I owe the deepest debt of gratitude to all of those who enriched my life here in New York over the past 6 years. You have made this city bearable. You have comforted me when the grinding wheels of the subway trains, and the blazing sirens, all conspired to derail my calm. You have nurtured my creativity and my endless curiosity. You have challenged me to live more fully and without holding back, and then rescued me from the edge when I tipped. It is to you before any bank that I owe an infinite invoice of appreciation. Thank you.

To my closest friends: love massive. (To my closest enemies: the same!)

To Radio Rahim: peace noble.

To the staff and students of South Brooklyn Community High School: keep dreaming big. The elevator out of Red Hook soars to the sky.

To the Robeson FightersAkeem, Sue, Troy, Lizzie, Ana, all of you – never give up. Know that you inspired thousands with your brave stand.

To all of the corrupt NY state politicians who aren’t yet behind bars: don’t sigh a breath of relief so fast – I leave in my stead a solid cohort of progressive activists who are the future of this broken political system, and they’re finding their way into it.

To Occupy Wall Street: all day, all week.

To Wall Street: keep looking for that way out. We’ll have good-paying jobs for you on the other side once we win.

To all my family and my people in Detroit: you put the fight in me.

Solidarity forever,

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo: Charles Meacham