04/03/2013 11:19 am ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Detroit Emergency Manager Opponents Offer Alternatives To Protest Of State Takeover

The struggle around Detroit's new emergency manager (EM) is raising the stakes on a discussion that has been taking place in Detroit for some time: how effective is protest?

In addition to filing a lawsuit, opponents of the state takeover have organized rallies, traffic slowdowns and even a brief occupation of Detroit's city hall. Protest, however, is not the only manner that activists are reacting to the appointment of EM Kevyn Orr.

A local group called the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership is taking another approach entirely. Instead of trying to focus national attention on what's happening in Detroit through demonstrations, they're calling on Detroiters and community organizations to band together into new democratic groupings independent from the EM.

The Boggs Center is a non-profit group linked to Detroit Summer, a multi-racial, inter-generational organization dedicated to transforming the city through youth leadership programming and other activities. The center is named after Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs, two Detroit activists with extensive backgrounds in labor, civil rights and other social movements. Although Jimmy passed away in 1993, Grace Lee is still active and has authored a number of books, most recently "The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism For The Twenty-First Century." Over the last several years, the Boggs Center has been at the forefront of the debate over the effectiveness of protest activism in Detroit.

Last week, it issued a call to action in response to the state's takeover of Detroit.

"We call upon all citizens to respond to this moment by deepening the emerging democratic processes within our block clubs, neighborhoods, places of faith and civic life," said Boggs.

Citing a section of Detroit's City Charter that declares the right of citizens to expect government to “advance, conserve, maintain and protect the integrity of the human, physical and natural resources of this city from encroachment and /or dismantlement,” she called on "all citizens to organize under the power of our Charter on a district-wide basis to establish Community Councils."

Shea Howell of the Boggs Center (and a HuffPost blogger) told The Huffington Post, that her organization considers Orr "illegitimate" and regards the use of emergency managers in Michigan as "an assault on democracy." Although the Boggs Center stands in solidarity with the protesters, Howell thinks it's essential for Detroiters to exercise their own power in response to Orr's appointment.

"Even though the emergency manager has lots of authority over the mechanisms of city government, the mechanisms of city life -- the reality of city life -- is very much in our day-to-day control," she said. "So we are envisioning councils where people come together and decide issues of neighborhood safety, issues of how do we want to live together in this space -- and there's a growing practice of that already in the city."

Howell cites the urban gardening movement and neighborhood groups that clean up lots and rehab house as examples of these grassroots democratic tendencies. In addition to community councils, The Boggs Center is also calling for a council of community organizations, which would address city-wide needs independent of the EM's jurisdiction.

A potential framework for this sort of organization has already begun to emerge, Howell said. On March 24, a meeting organized by the community group This Hood of Ours convened at Detroit's Central United Methodist Church to discuss developing a strategic plan for "Detroiters to take back Detroit and lead it in a way that models a renewed sense of value for a loving, just, thriving and sustainable world."

"The purpose of this gathering [was] to get people talking about how to get our needs met based on what we have," Jasahn Larsosa of This Hood of Ours told The Huffington Post.

The Boggs Center was present at that gathering, as were members of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, Hood Research, the Building Movement Project and Occupy Detroit.

Two of the most vital issues discussed were access to food and efforts to reclaim abandoned spaces in the city. Larsosa said those who attended the get-together came out with "concrete tactics for how to increase food security and how to stabilize neighborhoods using strategies that don't involve protest."

He said the topic of protesting the emergency manager came up at the meeting, but was discouraged. Instead, organizers tried to promote a more proactive, less confrontational approach called "visionary organizing."

"Detroiters and I think that people everywhere are very comfortable [with] reactionary activist-type organizing," he said. "I think the weakness in this type of organizing is it's divisive and often times there's no end game."

Larsosa refers to the rough network that coalesced around the March gathering as Detroit {R}Evolution. He said they plan to follow their last meeting with a series of neighborhood rallies and workshops -- and possibly even a month-long action camp.

Along these lines, the Boggs Center is encouraging those interested in their call for self-organized communities to join them in developing a coordinated response to the state takeover at another gathering this week. That event is scheduled for April 3 at 4 p.m. at Saint Peter’s Church, 1950 Trumbull Avenue, in Detroit.


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