Amid the austere architecture of collapse that describes most of this city’s East Side, one block of Heidelberg Street stands out. Brightly colored polka dots adorn the houses. Shopping carts and crucified teddy bears climb the trunk of a limbless tree. Faces with multiple rows of teeth grin forth from sheets of plywood, some of them inscribed with the cryptic words "God," "War," "Police" and "1967"—the year of the uprising of discontent (riot, if you prefer) that left forty-three people dead and more than 1,000 injured.
The Heidelberg Project, as it is called, is the creation of one Tyree Guyton, who with help from his family and later from other local artists gathered cast-off junk in a cast-off city and turned it into something at once painful and beautiful. At its best, the US Social Forum, the gathering of activists and organizers convened three miles away in downtown, felt a bit like Guyton’s polka-dotted vision: some scarred, slender hope emerging from the ashes, anomie and oil-slicked debris of American political life.
From the June 22 march that kicked off the Forum—at which a diverse crowd of several thousand drummed and danced their way through Detroit’s empty streets—to the more than 1,000 workshops spread around town, the mood was relentlessly cheerful. For five packed days, activists who are embattled all year long could be happy for one another’s company. Their high spirits, though, were everywhere shadowed by a multitude of crises that extend far beyond mass unemployment and foreclosures. Outside the glass walls of the riverside Cobo convention center were two wars, a rising know-nothing movement, politicians who respond to growing poverty by cutting assistance to the poor, a virulent racism spreading north from the Southern border, an entire coastline laid waste by corporate plunder and a putatively progressive president who misses few opportunities to kneel before the wealthy.
Detroit’s was the second US Social Forum. The first was held in Atlanta in 2007 as an extension of the World Social Forum, the convening of the global left held annually since 2001, most often in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The idea was to provide a space where organizers and activists on the grassroots left could exchange ideas and tactics and collaborate to craft a broader strategy. "The movement in the US is at such a low level," says Jerome Scott, one of the key organizers of the 2007 conference, "that we can’t afford to pull together all this effort and not have it be about movement building."
The various national crises appear to be helping out. About 18,000 people showed up in Detroit, 7,000 more than turned out in Atlanta. This despite a near-complete media blackout; Venezuela’s TeleSur and Al Jazeera English were the only major news organizations in attendance. Political bents ranged from progressive Democrat to Trotskyite. Unions and major liberal nonprofits—the media face of what gets called the American left—were largely absent, which meant that attendees were that much less likely to be white or even middle-class. Detroit’s crowd was by all accounts far younger than Atlanta’s—surely a good sign. Together, the Forum-goers formed a snapshot of the state of grassroots activism in the age of Obama, and of the full-spectrum emergency to which activists have been forced to respond.
Detroit was selected for the Forum as much for its symbolic value as for its deep history of social movements, of defiantly making do in the absence of even the most basic institutional support. "Detroit has always been a city of resistance, and we need to support that," says Jerome Scott, who as a member of the League of Black Revolutionary Workers helped lead a historic wildcat strike at Chrysler’s Forge plant in 1973. "But we have to let people realize," he adds, "that you can see the future in Detroit unless we build a movement to prevent it."
That future is mighty bleak. The city that once symbolized the affluence and strength of the American working class now stands more than half abandoned. Detroit’s population has shriveled from a midcentury high of nearly 2 million to under 800,000. The mayor’s office estimates that as much as 44 percent of the population is unemployed. (The official jobless rate is 24 percent.) Some neighborhoods have been so thoroughly devastated by abandonment and neglect that they resemble the post-Katrina Lower Ninth Ward. But no storm surge passed over Detroit, just the everyday logic of late twentieth-century capitalism: profits chasing profits, industry on the run in search of ever cheaper labor, public functions privatized when they’re not summarily killed.
Detroit is facing the same crisis-induced austerities as most American cities and towns—the city is planning to shutter forty-five public schools and just narrowly averted closing seventy-seven parks—but hard times hit harder here. At Forum workshops, local activists talked about issues not usually associated with cities in North America: food security and access to potable water. One of the opening events was a rally in front of the Detroit Edison building to demand an end to utility shut-offs. Eleven people died in house fires here last winter, trying to stay warm after their gas and electricity had been turned off.
At one workshop on urban agriculture—a movement for which Detroit has lately won national renown—members of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) and a predominantly white urban farming group called Earthworks discussed their efforts to navigate complex and often painful racial relations in order to work together. It was a near-perfect model of the sort of dynamic and intensely practical networking that the US Social Forum was organized to foster. The DBCFSN has 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, has gone from supplying seeds and transplants to eighty gardens in 2003 to 1,300 gardens this year. Urban agriculture, Ashley Atkinson of the Greening of Detroit says, "is just really blowing up in Detroit. We’re really finding synergy."
But growing your own produce doesn’t mean 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 DBCFSN was formed, board president Kwamena Mensah explains, "to address the food insecurity in Detroit’s black community." Put simply, people needed to eat. Even for the shrinking number of Detroiters who have the money to eat well, there is no longer a single major grocery store within the city limits. A fifth of Detroit residents do not have access to a car that might carry them to a suburban Trader Joe’s. What they do have is land. The shrinking population, according to Atkinson, has left Detroit with 50,000 publicly owned empty lots, perhaps twice that many if you count abandoned land in private hands, and still more on the way after the current wave of foreclosures is done. Sprawling lots with waist-high weeds have rendered parts of the city almost pastoral.
Detroit has a history of urban agriculture dating back to the depression of the 1890s, when Mayor Hazen Pingree staved off famine by persuading private landowners to allow the poor to cultivate vegetables on their unused lots. As bad times took hold again in the mid-1970s, Mayor Coleman Young instituted a Farm-A-Lot program, through which the city distributed tools and seedlings to residents. It met the same fate as many other public programs. In the early summer of 2002, Atkinson says, she began to hear from residents panicking because the city would not return their calls. "It was already late in the season, and they had nothing."
The movement thus developed, if you’ll excuse the pun, from the ground up. This time it was residents organizing themselves and imposing their priorities on government—a rare occurrence in the current democratic order. In 2008 the DBCFSN pushed officials to adopt a citywide food security policy and establish a standing Food Policy Council within the municipal bureaucracy. "Don’t look at us and say, Poor Detroit, no grocery stores," says Monica White, a DBCFSN board member who helped run the urban agriculture workshop with Mensah. "People here are coming up with their own solutions to social problems."
White’s enthusiasm was at once contagious and painful. The DBCFSN’s efforts are about more than keeping Detroiters in tomatoes and kale—they’re about self-determination, about establishing control over basic resources. It was hard to miss the irony, though, that in a city where workers once demanded control over the means of production of one of the largest industries in the world, residents are now fighting for the right to grow their own food.
In the hallways and in workshops, activists discussed transgender rights and media strategy, grassroots responses to climate change, police brutality, the BP disaster. There was a depressing near-silence, though, on America’s ongoing wars. Far more workshops were devoted to Palestine and Haiti than to Afghanistan and Iraq. It was a curious omission, given that the last large US social movement coalesced around opposition to the Vietnam War.
The evolution of one local group may help explain the silence. In 2002 Abayomi Azikiwe was one of the founding members of the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War and Injustice (MECAWI), which came together during the buildup to the war in Iraq. "We realized," Azikiwe says, "that the war was tied into declining social conditions in cities like Detroit." One of the group’s slogans was "Money for our cities, not for war."
In 2007, though, the mortgage crisis began to crash over Detroit, and MECAWI began calling for a statewide moratorium on foreclosures. It soon morphed into a new coalition called Moratorium NOW! It fought in the courts to prevent individual foreclosures and evictions, picketed mortgage lenders that were refusing to modify loans and lobbied state legislators. When the auto industry began laying off thousands, Azikiwe says, "we moved to advocating for full employment, because you see the connection between foreclosures and unemployment." Then came the announcements of school closings and teacher layoffs, and the group added saving public education to an already full agenda. The war, says Azikiwe, has been overshadowed "because the economic crisis is so live right now." Of the eight workshops that MECAWI/Moratorium NOW! sponsored at the Forum, only one dealt explicitly with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
If many at the Social Forum were talking about community self-determination, others were fighting for still more basic forms of survival. For activists from Arizona, the connection between militarism abroad and deepening troubles at home was not at all abstract. Octavio Fuentes came from Tucson with a contingent of young immigrants’ rights activists and a story to tell.
In early 2006, planning to stay for a single year to pay off some family debts, Fuentes took a job with KBR. He ended up working for the company for four years, stationed mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan. On trips home, he says, he began to notice disturbing confluences between the state in which he had grown up and occupied Iraq. Driving south to Sonora to see his mother’s family, he spotted the same white "eye in the sky" surveillance blimps he was used to seeing hovering above Baghdad, and heard the familiar buzz of low-flying unmanned drones. Homeland Security agents drove the same Humvees and carried the same military weaponry he was accustomed to seeing in war zones abroad, and, except for the different uniforms, ICE checkpoints on southern Arizona highways felt no different from the ones he had to pass through to enter forward operating bases in Iraq.
In late 2009, as Fuentes put it, "I decided to either go home to do what I really wanted to do, or I was going to go crazy and/or die." KBR, he says, tried to keep him on, and offered him a position at home. He could even stay in Arizona—KBR was bidding to build "new internment facilities" in the Southwest. "As I was leaving," Fuentes says, "this war machine was offering me work in the war against immigrants."
Instead, he began working with the Tucson-based Coalición de Derechos Humanos and shooting video for the documentary collective Pan Left Productions, which screened several short films at the Forum. Well before the April passage of Arizona’s SB 1070, which requires police to demand proof of citizenship from anyone they suspect might be undocumented, activists in that state had their hands full. Border militarization has accelerated under Obama, who in March ordered another 1,200 National Guard troops to the border. Nationwide, deportations have risen to 1,000 a day. In much of Arizona, SB 1070 will only formalize prevalent law enforcement practices. Although the law takes effect July 29, undocumented migrants, says Fuentes, were afraid to leave their homes even to buy groceries or attend mass before that date. "These are people who were living in the shadows already and have gone even deeper."
Almost no one at the Forum had any expectations of Barack Obama, our most celebrated community activist. The president’s name was rarely mentioned. But Fuentes, 35, was heartened by the growing youth movement in Arizona, where thousands have repeatedly walked out of school and filled the streets to protest SB 1070 and a more recent bill that bans the teaching of ethnic studies in the public schools. When he was arrested in an impromptu May occupation of the state education offices in Tucson, four of the fifteen arrested with him were under 18. Arizona activists plan larger actions for July 29 and ask people from all over the country to join them in the streets of Phoenix—leaving all identifying documents behind. "We want to overwhelm the system," says Lynda Cruz of Derechos Humanos.
When I ask Fuentes if, given his experience, he isn’t discouraged by the enormity of the military, financial and bureaucratic forces aligned against a largely impoverished and disenfranchised immigrant population, he answers obliquely. "The only thing we have left," he says, "is our desire to live with dignity."
Asked about his long-term vision, even Fuentes—whose battle couldn’t be fought without directly confronting the state and the vast nexus of corporate players—begins talking about urban gardening and community self-determination, about "trying to develop an alternative world within the world we live in." This same tension played itself out in various ways all over the Social Forum: a left driven to build a movement capable of challenging the twin immensities of global capital and the security state, and at the same time to retreat from the whole crumbling mess into communities capable of sustaining themselves.
They are on one level the same battle. The old models of organizing that once made Detroit strong have been steadily losing ground since the 1970s, which is, not coincidentally, when Detroit’s decline took hold and when neoliberal economic policies began to reshape the world. When the workplace becomes an agglomeration of transitory, competing independent contractors and suburban nomadism replaces neighborhood bonds, where do you begin to forge alliances?
Beholden only to dues-paying members and to the continued profits of the industries they organize, traditional labor unions lost interest in these questions long ago. In the absence of a draft, the war didn’t spur a movement either; war just became the norm. And the economic crises have largely pushed people deeper into their lonely, vigilantly guarded corners—the Tea Party’s fellowship of the individually aggrieved. So it makes sense that for all their variety, many of the efforts at the Social Forum actually share a single goal. Whether they were organizing workers’ centers for the unemployed in Rust Belt Indiana or establishing urban gardens and immigrant mutual aid groups in Oakland, most activists were also consciously fighting to rebuild relationships that might form the basis for any kind of broader solidarity. "That’s what needs to be built back up, and a community-based movement is capable of building it," says Elena Herreda, founder of Detroit’s Centro Obrero, one of the five local "anchor groups" that organized the Social Forum.
It would be easy to get discouraged by such admissions. Not only do we need to build a social movement powerful enough to shift the status quo; we need to reconstruct the basic human relationships from which a social movement might grow—and in a hurry. But almost anything is better than sitting at home watching streaming video of oil flowing into the gulf while waiting for your last unemployment check, for sheriff’s deputies to bang on the door with eviction papers, for ICE to barge in with shackles and cuffs, for the power company to finally cut the electricity so you can’t even watch the oil keep on spilling. So take your cues from the Motor City and be encouraged despite it all. Be unabashedly earnest if you are able. Just get out there and fight.