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Occupy Detroit Confronts Racial Tension, Struggles To Define Movement's Future

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OCCUPY DETROIT
Trymaine Lee

DETROIT -- In recent years Grand Circus Park, despite the slow gentrification of downtown Detroit, has been most welcoming to hard-luck natives, laid-off blue collar workers and other jobless, the self-medicating and many of the city's chronic homeless. Many of them, like the majority of the city itself, were black.

So when the Occupy protests sprouted here, and waves of young, mostly white protesters arrived from outside the city with their tents and their cardboard signs and people's microphones, the park's invisible demarcation lines of class and race were for a time blurred, eroding in small measure what has been one of the central complaints about the movement, its lack of diversity.

Nationally protesters have occupied cities like Detroit, Oakland, New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and others with sizable African-American and minority communities. But, especially in its early days, the Occupy movement remained overwhelmingly white.

In Detroit, a city that white residents had largely abandoned en masse decades earlier, the first weeks of the protests were no different. Whites from the nearest suburbs and from as far away as Flint, Lansing, Ann Arbor -- even other states -- came in with particular ideas of how to shape the movement, what language should be used in assembly meetings, and for the movement's agenda. Black protesters have complained that some came in with little understanding of Detroit's intricate history of protest movements, which have historically been led by labor unions and black activists.

The relationship between the actual occupiers of the park and the larger mass of the movement has at times been strained. Occupy Detroit includes many more committed protesters who have contributed their hearts and work to the cause without ever pitching a tent. Most of the campers, however, were white and from outside of the city.

"If you are not from Michigan, you have to understand that seven of the most segregated cities in our country are in this state," said Lee Gaddies, media coordinator for Occupy Detroit, who is black. "You have class and race issues. It is a systemic problem. People who live in all-white communities and come to all-black communities and never had any interaction with people of other races can't just parachute into the community and tell a 68-year-old black person what to do."

But as more black protesters have joined the ranks of Occupy Detroit, including a younger crop and their veteran counterparts, it has inspired a micro-group, Occupy The Hood, as well as another group of occupiers: those who had been using the park as a hangout before the protests. Thus a sometimes-uncomfortable union congealed into one of the more seamless Occupy protests, one without police violence or mass arrests or tear gas. The protesters even secured a permit from the city to occupy the park.

"We come out of the movement, so we were protective to the degree that we understood what the movement was about and, as I see it, what it truly should be about," said Kwame Kenyatta, a veteran black activist elected to the city council in 2005. "I think you want to guard against the hippy-yippy type movement that came about in the '60s, where you had the rich folks' children trying to find themselves in the street so they identified with the movement," he said. "I think this may be a little different. ... It seems to be in many cases people from different walks of life who are just genuinely kind of fed up with being used by the system."

Still, many of the Detroit natives at the protests resented the talking points and what they considered silly hand signs pushed by visitors from Occupy Wall Street who came out to "shape" the Detroit movement. They bucked the consensus model of agreement used elsewhere for one that required only a large majority.

And within the Detroit occupation, too, there were tensions. A heated debate erupted around a fashion show, with homeless models sporting thrift shop fashions and karaoke. Witnesses of the debate said that the dissenters were "outsiders" who were "not so eager to go out into the community" or engage with an element that some accused of undermining the validity of the movement, namely the homeless in the park.

SAFETY SQUAD

As the encampment at Grand Circus Park began to take shape, laptops, cameras and other electronics started to disappear from protesters' tents. There were occasional shoving matches and arguments between protesters and those who had occupied the park before the occupation. Food lines became testy affairs. The occasional protest march stirred emotions and sometimes tempers.

Police were taking a hands-off approach to patrols. The stolen property, the drunken arguments and growing safety concerns started to become a distraction, protesters said. To address those concerns a "safety squad" was formed, which included a core group of about five members, each of whom were black and either laid-off or homeless and who knew the park and the community well.

"What the kids brought to us, we chose to embrace," said a member of the safety squad who gave his name as Derrick, a homeless, laid-off plumber. "It was most important that we showed that we can all work together. We couldn't have no violence or anything messing that up. We can all stand for the same principles and have it mean something."

Members of the ad hoc security detail took turns staying up through the night to keep watch. They would pull people aside when they got too drunk or too rambunctious for their own good, and they defused arguments with easy words and arms tossed over shoulders.

"If I couldn't calm them down, then I'd call someone else over, and if they couldn't, we'd get someone else. Before they knew it, they were surrounded by six people telling them to cool it," Derrick explained.

Dee, another member of the safety squad, characterized the rough edges created by so many different worlds of people coming together as "enlightening."

"You never really see black and white really coming together in this city," said Dee, who worked as a cabinet maker for several years before his hours were initially trimmed and then eventually cut completely about six months ago. He couldn't afford his rent and eventually became homeless. "But out here everyone is the same who comes to occupy."

He recalled one particularly touching moment when he was having a conversation with a white business man, who hugged him with tears in his eyes and just said, "I'm sorry."

"He was basically apologizing for being a racist," Dee said. "He told me that he had never even touched a black person before."

SEEDS OF A MOVEMENT

Years before the national economy soured and the housing bubble burst and unemployment rates hit crisis levels, particularly among blacks, Detroit was already ailing, with a declining population, factory closures and a stagnant economy.

"Now you got college kids, white kids getting out of college and can't get jobs. Now their plight is the same as ours. We're all in the same boat. Now you have seniors that have in their pensions taxed and people getting kicked off welfare," Lee Gaddies said.

But Detroit has also been at the center of many previous protests movements: It was home to a number of black nationalist and Pan-Africanist movements, originated the Shrine of the Black Madonna movement, the Nation of Islam and played a pivotal role in Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association, among other grassroots movements.

"Detroiters have been organizing resistance to corporate greed and violence for nearly a century, from the birth of the labor movement here in the 1920s to the current poor people's campaigns against utility shutoffs that kill dozens of people each year," Yusef Bunchy Shakur, a community organizer, recently wrote in a blog on The Huffington Post. "We have organized resistance to racism, sexism, homophobia and the criminalization of youth, to the systematic destruction of the environment in poor communities of color, to the dehumanization of people with disabilities, and so many other injustices -- as they manifest in policy, and in our everyday lives."

Councilman Kenyatta said that while a broader racial coalition seems to be forming around Occupy Detroit, the seeds of the movement were laid long ago with black activists. "You're always skeptical, because we know that the real movement in the '60s and '70s was the black power movement. These other movements kind of benefit and came out of that," he said.

"It has been a different kind of movement," he said of Occupy Detroit, "because when I was doing stuff inspired by what Stokley [Carmichael] and other folks were doing, you didn't apply for a permit to occupy, you just occupied."

Kenyatta lamented that the "movement" of yesteryear was not dead but "on its back now," but praised the youth, black and white, for taking action.

"It's the youth that actually pump life and energy into a movement, and I think those of us who are veterans at this point, what we should do is provide the resources by way of intellectual history and be a wealth of resource for them and try to inspire them to get involved, and then of course, move aside," he said. "Too often what happens is we get in positions and we don't train those underneath of us to take our place."

Other local officials, including councilmember JoAnn Watson, have lent their support. Even Police Chief Ralph Godbee praised the occupiers, tweeting, "Many thanks to #OccupyDetroit for working with DPD to truly maintain peace and exercise free speech in a manner we all should be proud of!"

The praise and general feel-good nature of the relationship between Occupy Detroit and law enforcement stands in stark contrast to the violence in other cities, where protesters, even in the most peaceful actions, have been pepper-sprayed, beaten back with batons or shot at with rubber bullets.

"You can clearly see all the fallout in other cities and that hasn't affected us in the least bit here," said Evangeline Isom, 66, of Occupy Detroit. "We have to continue standing up. This ain't over yet. Especially for black people in this city, we must give 105 percent to this. Our people are in the streets, losing homes and jobs."

Isom, in a black sweater, black beret and black sunglasses, recalled moments of the black community's recent past, when a job at an auto plant was a pathway to the middle class and when black-owned businesses and restaurants thrived amid an abundance of pride.

"At one point you could come right out of high school, right up from the South, get a job at a plant and make big money, drive a big car, live in a big house and couldn't even speak good," Kenyatta said.

But Isom also remembers the riots of 1967, when the frustrations of the black community about a number of political, economic and social issues spilled over, leaving wounds that have never truly healed.

A NEW DAY

Now, new movements are taking hold to challenge the status quo, specifically corporate greed and an economic system that many occupiers argue is rigged to enrich only the wealthy and most fortunate.

"I'm seeing this movement give birth to new activists," said Ife Johari Uhuru, an activist in Detroit who co-founded Occupy The Hood, a movement dedicated to bringing people of color into the national protest movement. Since its inception shortly after the birth of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy The Hood has grown to include 15 chapters across the country, including chapters in Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis and Chicago.

"I am here because of those that came before us, and my sons will be walking in our footsteps," Uhuru, a single mom, said of her boys, 13 and 8. "They are going to be black men one day. How powerful is that? I am passing down the power of doing work for your community. I know they are young, but they see and hear me."

A few days before Thanksgiving, Occupy Detroit's permit for Grand Circus Park expired. Volunteers dismantled small wooden sheds, tore away sheets of blue tarpaulin and gathered up the residue of the weeks-long occupation. The protesters have scouted out alternative locations that have been offered by wealthy friends to shelter the movement during the tough Michigan winter. Others have taken to friends' couches, while still others are said to have occupied a few of the abandoned and foreclosed homes that litter the city.

Occupiers have started promoting future actions, including voter registration and education drives. They are teaming with nonprofit community groups that fight on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised and are working to repeal the state's Emergency Manager law. And they are plotting ways to keep the movement churning despite their eviction from the park.

"I think that everything is there for this to happen," said Destiny Turnboe, a community organizer and Occupy Detroit protester, "it's just a matter of getting people involved who have the heart to keep going. It will take more than holding signs and marching and sleeping in a park. It has to go beyond that."

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