Detroit's Social Forum: Hope in a Crisis
"Welcome to the D," said Kwamena Mensah in a resounding baritone on Tuesday morning. It was the first day of the 2010 US Social Forum and Mensah, president of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, was standing before a circle of about sixty-five activists to open a workshop on the thriving local urban agriculture movement. Mensa's group and Earthworks, a predominantly white urban farming group, combined what had originally been scheduled as two separate workshops so they could discuss their efforts to navigate complex and often painful racial dynamics in order to work together.
It was a near-perfect model of the sort of dynamic and intensely practical networking that the gathering was organized to foster: creative forms of activism linking up and bridging the divides that too often cripple movement-building efforts on the left. Mensa's group had gone from tilling a quarter-acre lot four years ago to inking a ten-year deal with the city to rent two acres of parkland for a dollar a year. Another local group, the Greening of Detroit, went from supplying seeds and transplants to eighty gardens in 2003 to providing for 1,300 gardens this year. Urban agriculture, the Greening of Detroit's Ashley Atkinson told me, "is just really blowing up in Detroit. We're really finding synergy."
Out in the world, things are bad, bad, bad—oil companies and banks destroying just about everything in a more literal fashion than ever, a rising right-wing racist movement beloved by the media, two wars chugging unhappily along, a president elected under the banner of progressivism who has again and again bent his knees to militarism and the moneyed elites—but within the glass walls of downtown Detroit's Cobo Center convention hall, activists who are embattled all year long could for a few days be happy for one another's company and inspired by one another's ideas. According to conference organizers, 20,000 people registered for the Social Forum, which is the second to be held in this country as a domestic extension of the World Social Forum. They're a far more diverse bunch than can be found at most left gatherings. The marchers in Tuesday afternoon's opening rally were black, Latino, Asian and white; old and young; gay, straight and transgendered; walking and in wheelchairs. "You're beautiful!" one man shouted from the convention center steps as the marchers danced past. "You're beautiful!"
Behind the excitement, though, crisis and devastation are never all that far. Even in Mensah's workshop: growing your own produce doesn't mean quite the same thing in Detroit as it might in Park Slope. No one in the room was talking about heirloom varietals or the joys of slow food. The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network was formed, Mensa explained "to address the food insecurity in Detroit's black community." Put simply, people needed to eat.
The Detroit mayor's office recently estimated that as much as 44 percent of the city's population is jobless. (The official unemployment rate is 24 percent.) Even if people have the money to eat well, there is no longer a single major grocery store within the bounds of metropolitan Detroit, and only about a fifth of Detroiters have access to a car that might carry them to a suburban Trader Joes'. What they do have is land. A rapidly shrinking population has left Detroit with, according to Atkinson, 50,000 publicly owned empty lots, perhaps twice that many if you count abandoned lots still in private hands, and still more on the way when the current wave of foreclosures is done. Sprawling lots waist-high with weeds have rendered some parts of the city—like the Eastside, where the DBCFSN sowed their first harvest—almost pastoral in a post-nuclear sort of way.
"Don't look at us and say, 'Poor Detroit, no grocery stores,'" said Monica White, a BDCFSN boardmember who helped run the workshop with Mensah, "People here are coming up with their own solutions to social problems." Her enthusiasm was at once contagious and painful—it was hard to miss the irony that the grandparents of many of Detroit's current residents moved north in search of a kind of working dignity that explicitly did not include toiling in the fields.
But Detroit's symbolic power was was one of the reasons the city was chosen as the Social Forum's site. Detroit has a deep history of social movements, of defiantly making do in the absence of even the most basic institutional support. And its postindustrial abandonment stands as a powerful symbol of the wreckage neoliberalism leaves in its tracks and of what—if all of us inside and outside the Social Forum doors don't get busy fast—the future might look like for the rest of the country.