US Social Forum–We’re Here!

I flew into Detroit last night with two wonderful women from the Hunters Point Family agency that our Earth Activist Trainings partner with.  Lena Miller directs the agency and Jasmine Marshall runs the Peacekeeper program, working as a case manager for many of the girls who work in the gardens where I’ve volunteered.

We arrived—and attempted to reach our motel by the river—just at the moment Detroit’s Riverfest culminates in a massive fireworks display.  A million people go down to the river to watch—which made reaching out motel a challenge.  We finally had to abandon our taxi and walk the last block, with all our bags.  But we got there to find the streets humming with people, a party in progress in the parking lot, barbecues going on patches of grass by the sidewalks, and the sky alight with the thunder and a rain of light and color.

We got settled and headed out to find food.  I have to say it was a different experience for me, walking down the street in those crowds and crowds of people, mostly young, mostly black, all of them dressed to look good.  The whole city was drenched in heat haze and pheromones, and I enjoyed seeing it a bit through the eyes of much younger women who were looking pretty good themselves—and definitely attracting far more male attention than I ever do on my own these days.  Jasmine, who is twenty-three, was so excited!  “I can’t believe it—all these black people out on the streets, just chillin’, having a good time, and nobody shuttin’ it down!  Why can’t we have that in the Bayview?”  And it’s true—with all the economic devastation of Detroit, there are thousands of people out here enjoying themselves, wearing short shorts and gold platform shoes.  A trio of trumpeters in an empty lot blast out a riff.  A couple of trombone players across the street answer them—and they play back and forth, a musical conversation in the street.

Why can’t we have it in the Bayview?  There’s a long history, that goes back to the bulldozing of San Francisco’s Fillmore District back in the 60’s for redevelopment, destroying a thriving and lively Black community.  To the closing of the naval shipyard, once the big employer in the Bayview, and the resulting unemployment and poverty and the residues of toxic wastes.   And most immediately, to the intertwined gang violence and police violence.  More people die violently, per capita, in the Bayview than in Iraq, or so I’ve heard.  The infant mortality rate in the Bayview is on a par with Haiti or Bulgaria.

As I’m writing, Jasmine and Lena are gossiping and the conversation moves to all the young men they know who are dead.  Jasmine says, “My whole age group is gone.  All the boys I grew up with—they’re all gone.”  Dead, or in prison.

We spend a lazy morning, sleeping in, and finally make our way down to Cobo Hall, the big convention center that houses registration for the Forum.  The line to register stretches about a mile back.  We take turns waiting.  In line, I meet a man named Leonardo, from LA.  He turns out to know my buddy Lisa, who is part of our training collective Alliance of Community Trainers.  Lisa is slight and blonde and always charged with energy—after ten minutes of acquaintance, Lena calls her “A soldier of the movement.”  She’s biked down here and is holding a place for us.

Leonardo tells us how he’s organized his community in East L.A.  They’ve managed to get a whole progressive contingent elected in the neighboring town of  Maywood,    and they threw the whole police department out.  The cops were corrupt and abusive, harassing the Latino community, setting up checkpoints for cars and confiscating them from illegal immigrants.  So, they simply fired them all.  Every one.  Now they will create a police department—if only so the city can get insurance—but it will be under the direction of a civilian police commissioner, not a chief of police.

So, I’m already inspired by the time I get my registration armband.   Then I meet up with Bill Aal from Tools for Change—with whom I’ll be teaching the Earth Activist Training in Bellingham with a focus on social permaculture, and Carlos, from New York, who does popular education and is part of a men’s healing group.  We all go to lunch at the Avalon Bakery, a small bakery started by two women, Anne and Jackie, to bring a thriving business alive in one of the city’s dead zones.  Now it’s the anchor of a street of cafes and shops.

Then Bill, Carlos and I go on to the march, while Lena and Jasmine go back to rest up.  The march is quite wonderful—colorful, lively, not painfully loud, but mostly what’s wonderful is the incredible diversity of people.  The organizers of this event have really done it—they’ve brought together a truly diverse crowd.  As Lena puts it—“It’s not only every type of person, but every shade and variety of every type.”  Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, every race, age, style of dress and political persuasion seems represented.  There are environmentalists carrying sunflowers and a contingent of domestic workers in magic T-shirts.  There are a couple of anarchists with black flags and Revolutionary workers selling newspapers and big puppets of Martin Luther King with recordings of his speeches playing.  A brass band plays and four young people in pink T-shirts dance.  Two clowns walk by on stilts, and drummers play a samba beat.

The march is a beautiful vision of what a real social movement could be.  Ironically, we march through downtown Detroit, an area blasted and blighted by the city’s economic losses.   Vast areas are simply empty—full of weeds, with here and there a burned-out carcass of a house.  Beautiful stone churches, relics of a time when there was money and jobs, loom over vacant lots.  The old Detroit Free Press building, a dignified stone castle, is now boarded over with a sign offering free rents to any enterprise that would venture to locate there.  Faded signs grace the tattered marquis’ of boarded over department stores.  London had more signs of life after the blitz.  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any enemy nation inflicting more damage on a city than has been done here by capitalism at its most irresponsible and brutal.

Through the devastation winds this lively and beautiful march, a sign of hope and resilience.  If there’s any hope for our poor country and our battered world, any chance we can turn our direction around toward real justice and balance, it lies in the people here, this beautiful coming together across all the divides.

Now we’re resting.  Maybe we’ll go out to a party tonight, maybe we won’t.  But I’m so glad to be here.

Bill and Carlos on the march.

I’ll be here for six days—and I’ll do my best to blog each day.   Stay tuned.

A brass band always livens up a march!

A brass band always livens up a march!

The opening march for the US Social Forum.

6 comments to US Social Forum–We’re Here!

  • wow. i love seeing detroit described by someone who is visiting. your insights are keen and enlightened. i hope you have a nice time here. i admit to loving this city in all its decay, yet pining for it to be different for the 42 years i have called it home. and i live just north. on the border. detroit is mine too and i am. inclined to be a part of its rebirth.

    • Well, there are some great people here, and lots of creativity and commitment. And lots of beautiful places. I can see why you love it. I hope the Forum can bring some good energy to the forces of resilience.

  • I grew up in Michigan, now I live in the Pacific Northwest. As a young adult looking back on life in the Midwest made me angry. All those passive aggressive people (of course it was them, not me!:) Only just now at 35 am I beginning to understand/appreciate the gifts I got there. Thanks for this post!

  • I’m sorry, as Brit I’m rather awkward with seeming to correct someone I admire, but did you mean

    “London had more signs of life after the BLITZ”?


  • Matt

    Welcome to Detroit!

    One of the interesting ironies is that the force that made our city so interesting demographically is also the force that left us open to economic collapse: The American auto industry. People moved here for manufacturing jobs, and the money generated by the auto companies (who once numbered more than three! But who today remembers Packard, or any of the other companies that brought wealth and people to this region?) built the culture and the infrastructure of the city. Check out the Diego Rivera murals in the Detroit Art Institute if you get a chance, if you want a visceral representation of how integral manufacturing is to the city. When the auto industry faltered, the city of Detroit was injured deep to it’s core. Now, we have to think about what life looks like for us in a city that can no longer rely on a single, massive source of revenue from an industry that can be temperamental at best and unsustainable at worst. (Not to overly simplify–there are many other factors in Detroit’s rise and fall, of course. But the Big Three have been in the news so much lately, I tend to think it’s important to remember their role, good and bad.)

    But those of us who live here remember our city motto: “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.” I think that’s a good place to start any social movement. And so mote it be.

  • Gigi Wickwire

    Dear Starhawk,

    Thank you for beginning to share your stories of your time/loving/living/experiencing at the US Social Forum! I had considered coming and although it did not work out… I am so grateful to checkin here to listen. And… I feel excited about my people/friends who are there and the stories they will bring back!

    I am going to send your blog along to friends tonight.

    Great respect and wild blessings,

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