Fidel & The Cuban Revolution: A Black Perspective

By Baba Charles Simmons

Cuban Premier Fidel Castro Ruz, who joined the ancestors on November 25, 2016, stands on the shoulders of centuries of great revolutionary leaders and people’s movements for justice and dignity throughout our American hemisphere since the time of Columbus. A lawyer by training, Fidel spent his adult life in the fight to break the chains of U.S. and Western colonialism for millions of embattled families whose only crime was that they dared to dream of a better world.

Whenever he spoke with his fiery tongue, jabbing his finger toward the heavens, his words were of justice and dignity for everyone: a home for a healthy family, food and medicine. Fidel, as he was called by comrades and citizens, called on the spirits of our heroic ancestors such as the great Black Cuban general, Antonio Maceo, whose entire family gave their lives in the wars against Spanish rape and pillage. In a moment of historic oppression, Antonio’s parents called their sons and daughters together and they all promised in prayer to serve the cause of justice with their last drop of blood. All the sons would die in battle, as the daughters led the nurses in healing the wounded. His mother commanded healers and warriors in the jungle hospitals deep in the Sierra Maestras. On horseback, that defiant Antonio would lead poor farmers and escaped slaves into battle with only a few rifles and bullets and an assortment of machetes. On their journey through jungles and swamps full of alligators and cougars, across the Sierra Maestras, they marched daily, with a meal and a nap now and then, in search of liberty for the little people. Antonio suffered over 20 gunshot wounds during the course of two wars, but in each instance he kept fighting.

As he demanded free education for all Cubans, Fidel would summon the spirit and memory of Jose Marti, the humble philosopher and poet.  Marti crossed the continent in the footsteps of the Liberator, Simon Bolivar, who rescued entire nations from the clutches of the Spanish Empire, which had trampled the poor into the dust with the cross and sword. In Santiago, Fidel called for volunteers to educate the illiterate and exploited rural masses who were the majority of the population. A quarter of a million Cubans answered the call, half of them youth. In several years the country was transformed from illiteracy.  There were thousands of proud, avid readers, as well as a new and positive relationship between Cubans in urban and rural communities.

In earlier times, we would know the spirit of Fidel as Harriett Tubman, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, or John Brown, and the leaders of thousands of slave revolts by our captive ancestors. We find that indomitable spirit in our heroic Native American warriors, Sitting Bull and Tecumseh.  In Haiti, the spirit was strong in Toussaint, who led the enslaved Blacks –with machetes and a few muskets — to smash the Napoleon’s armies. The warrior spirit was also expressed by the maroons of the forests and mountains throughout the Americas.  

Fidel’s contemporaries to the North were the great freedom fighters in the United States.  He knew many of them well, from Harlem to Havana: Malcolm X, the Robert and Mable Williams family, Assata Shakur, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

Throughout the Americas – Guatemala, Grenada, Puerto Rico, ancestral spirits led the way.  In Nicaragua, it was Sandino, and in Mexico, the revolutionaries, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.  In the 1970s, the Comandante sent tens of thousands of troops with heavy artillery and fighter planes, teachers and doctors, to tackle the racist white settler governments and wrestle victory on the side of the African liberation fighters of Angola, South Africa, Rhodesia, Namibia. The giant, rich imperialists trembled at the sound of African drums and warriors returning home after centuries of captivity. On each continent the goal was the same: equality and dignity for our indigenous, our enslaved, our women and our children.

To call the names of these giants, sons and daughters of truth, who fought for the poor and oppressed, it is not enough to read false corporate news on dead trees or witness the march of live propaganda on the Internet. One must stand upon the highest peak of the Sierra Maestras, or soar with eagles across the ferocious sun. As Marti would ask about the urgency of liberty: “Why live if one cannot move across the Earth like a comet moves across the heavens?

Fidel, a rugged son of Cuba, was known as “the Horse” because he worked so hard and for such long hours. Comandante Fidel could be seen surrounded by villagers on the ground fixing a refrigerator, or cutting tall sugar cane with his machete. On the other side of the island, he might be found talking to college students or factory workers. In the mountains, he was blazing paths for new homes and collective farms for peasants. He made mistakes for sure – and he announced his mistakes and those of his government for all to hear during the July 26 commemorations. On one of those occasions, a farmer argued with Comandante Fidel that the project involving importing cows to improve the quality of the local herd had not been successful. Fidel stopped his speech, turned to the farmer, conversed with him until the problem was understood and an alternative plan was conceived.  Then he returned to the audience and his speech — until there was another interruption.  

The U.S. government attack on the people of Cuba has continued since the War of 1898, in which the U.S. seized from Spain the colonies of Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. By its own admission, the CIA hired pilots to drop poison on Cuban crops, attempted to assassinate Fidel over 600 times, blew up bridges and infrastructure, burned sugar cane fields, bombed harbors, interrupted communication signals and pushed their own U.S. propaganda. The CIA recruited other Cubans, mostly White, to a privileged lifestyle in Florida, with special immigration status, in exchange for participating in the ongoing plot to overthrow the revolutionary government and re-establish U.S. colonialism. And most important, Washington established a military-economic blockade against the socialist island, whose main income has been sugar cane and tourism. Other nations were prohibited from trading with Cuba or they would be punished by “Massa in the White House.”  Spare parts for vehicles and machinery, new equipment and commercial and consumer goods were banned. Medicine, medical equipment, and even baby’s milk were banned.  U.S. tourists, journalists, scholars, and families were prohibited from travel without State Department permission. This blockade of 54 years has contributed to the overall stagnation of the Cuban economy, prevented the country from industrializing, and prevented it from becoming the best that it can be among agricultural nations. However, these crucial facts are seldom mentioned in context or depth by the U.S. government or corporate media when reporting on Cuba or its leaders. The lies of U.S. government and the media have persisted since Cuba won independence in 1959 and continue to this day.

In spite of all of Washington’s criminal assaults, the Cuban people continue to outsmart the gentlemen of Wall Street and the State Department. Even after the crash of the USSR, which was a major trading partner until 1989, the Cubans continue to lead the world in health care and education. Cuba has responded with overwhelming generosity to offer medical service in many of the world’s health crises in Africa, Asia and South America. Cuban doctors, mostly women, will be found in the most remote places on Earth, the most distant jungle, desert or mountain, where many doctors of the host nation will not go. The Cuban government sponsors a full scholarship program for people of color in the U.S. to study medicine and language in Cuba with the stipulation that they return to the U.S. upon graduation and serve poor communities. When we suffered the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, there were 1500 Cuban medics sitting in the airport in Cuba, fully packed, ready to come to New Orleans, but the U.S. President would not allow them to come here because Cubans are “communists.” The Cubans also offered to assist first responders in New York following the bombing on 9/11, but were rebuffed by the U.S. President.

In the many places where Cuban military barracks stood before the revolution, there are now residences for scholarship youth from the remote rural areas of the country. An entire Island, the Isle of Pines, formerly a prison during the time of the U.S.-backed dictator, Batista, is now called the Isle of Youth, focused on education and development for the population.

Immediately after the revolution of 1959, most of the medical professionals fled the island, leaving the new government to start from the beginning. Today, instead of catering exclusively to the rich, most Cuban medical schools are filled with the sons and daughters of workers, trade unionists, sugar cane and hog farmers, soldiers, sailors and teachers, most of whom had only minimal access to any type of medical treatment prior to the revolution.

Despite the Herculean efforts of the most powerful imperialist nation in the world to undermine the Cuban revolution, from this tiny island in the Caribbean, the spirit of Fidel continues to inspire current and future movements to build new men and new women for a better world. The Cuban revolution’s support for peoples’ liberation throughout the Americas, and its boots-on-the-ground solidarity with Mother Africa in the long battles against apartheid and colonialism, continue to be heralded wherever there are defiant whispers or bold shouts for justice.

 

Prof. Charles E. Simmons is Co-Director with his wife, Rev. Sandra Simmons, at the Hush House Black Community Museum and Leadership Training Institute for Human Rights and the Simmons Center for Peace and Justice Studies.  His book, Detroit Black Youth Confront the Cuban Revolution, will be published in Spring 2017. 

Sacred Sites: Remembering the 1967 Rebellion

Sites chosen by Jamon Jordan

Photos by Piper Carter

Commentary by Peggy Gwi-Seok Hong

 

Each of these locations bears the marks of the Rebellion. In some cases, all historic identifiers have been permanently erased, and without the sharing of stories, will be forgotten. In a few cases, you can still see and feel what it was like in ’67. Consider visiting each site, to honor the stories and lives that were shaped there, or lost.

 

Shrine of the Black Madonna

7625 Linwood Avenue

Black Arts Convention, June 29- July 2, 1967

 

Black Power leaders gather in Detroit a few weeks before the uprising at the church on 12th and Linwood, the heart of the conflict to come. Earlier that year, at Easter, the stained glass window of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock had been replaced with Glanton Dowdell’s painting, “Black Madonna and Child.” Reverend Albert Cleage would, in 1970, change his name to Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman (Swahili for “Liberator of the People”).

 

dip your fingers into the black soil

of the church gardens.

touch your fingers to your forehead, your heart

and each shoulder.

vow to stay in the struggle.

ask the earth to hold you,

ask the sky to protect you,

ask the wind to cleanse you.

 

 

 

####

 

1756 Euclid Avenue

July 26, 1967, 12:30 a.m.

 

On the second floor, a man lights a cigarette. Sergeant Mortimer LeBlanc in the National Guard tank stationed in front of the apartment building mistakes the flick of light for a muzzle flash, and begins blasting. A bullet from his machine gun tears through the heart of four-year-old Tanya Blanding.

 

siri says we have arrived.

imagine the building between the snow banks

of the empty parking lot

and the tank where we are now.

born in 1963,

tanya would be my age now.

kneel between the snow banks,

open fire to a sage stick.

let the smoke send up your prayers.

 

####

 

United Community League for Civic Action/Economy Print Shop, 12th and Clairmount.

July 23, 1967, 3:00 a.m.

 

The police come and raid this after-hours spot all the time. This night, it’s a crowded welcome home party for two Vietnam vets, and the cops decide to arrest all 85 in attendance. The fed-up crowd starts busting the windows of the police cars with bricks and bottles. By the time the last car leaves, a crowd of hundreds has gathered. As the police, eager to leave the angry mob, drive off, the crowd, releasing years of pent-up rage, starts busting store windows. The Rebellion begins.

 

sit among the bare winter trees.

imagine the wall-to-wall businesses

before 12th was renamed Rosa Parks.

pick up a pebble

and put it at the foot of the sculpture,

“Detroit 1967.”

trace with your finger on the cold steel

the names of the victims of police brutality.

meditate on how to turn rebellion

into revolution.

 

 

 

####

 

Algiers Motel

8301 Woodward Avenue

July 26, 1967

 

A starter’s pistol, shooting blanks, pierces the night. National Guardsmen 200 feet away, suspecting the presence of a nearby sniper, panic and call the Detroit Police Department (DPD). Just hours before, a cop had been killed (the only officer killed during the uprising). Detroit police raid the motel annex, interrogate and torture twelve people, and kill, point blank, three unarmed black teenagers. No snipers, just three innocent young men.

 

circle the park three times,

once for each life lost.

Carl Cooper, age 17,

Aubrey Pollard, 19,

Fred Temple, 18.

pause at the “no loitering” sign

to do something the teenagers were unable to:

call your mother

wherever she may be,

tell her you’re on your way home.

 

 

 

####

 

Sacred Heart Major Seminary

July 24, 1967

 

The day after the uprising began, a Black housepainter paints black the face, hands, and feet of the statue of Jesus. Soon after, the statue is repainted white; but the Rector, Monsignor Francis X. Canfield, orders that it be painted black again, and the seminary pledges that it will remain so. Now iconic, the Black Jesus is viewed by the seminary as representing Christ’s love for all, and the statue serves as a point of pride for the neighborhood.

 

black jesus behind bars,

head bowed and arms outstretched,

spread-eagle.

“no photos allowed,” they warn us.

stand at the fence and face the statue,

inhaling, spread your arms

and remember a time when you were broken.

exhaling, put your hands together

and remember a time when you were whole.

tuck both your broken self and your whole self

under your breastbone

and carry on.

 

####

 

Vaughn’s Bookstore

12123 Dexter

July 26, 1967

 

Unable to find the books he wanted in local stores, Ed Vaughn orders them himself, and sells them out of the trunk of his car. He opens the store in 1962, specializing in Black Power books, and it becomes a gathering place for revolutionaries. During the Rebellion, the store is untouched, except for graffiti reading, “Long live the Black Revolution.” But later, the Detroit Police come in, destroying the pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and firebombing the building. The next night they come back, flood the building, and waterlog all the books. The police admit to doing this under the guise of looking for weapons.

 

stand at the threshold

and pour a libation

for the waterlogged books.

pour it for the water wars now.

pour it for the writers, poets, teachers

speaking truth to power.

pour a libation

for the lost knowledge

we must vow to regain.

 

Peggy Gwi-Seok Hong is a mother, poet, healer, and organizer. Gwi-Seok helps run Iyengar Yoga Detroit Collective, a cooperatively-owned and community-run healing center. She can be found at yoganun.weebly.com.

‘It Used To Be Here’ : Book Review of ‘The Turner House’

 by Shea Howell

Set in 2008, The Turner House is a familiar story to many Detroiters: A family came to Detroit in the 1940’s, bought a house on the East Side, and raised their children. Now, the house and the family are showing the signs of wear. The decades have taken their toll. The house is facing foreclosure and the children, scattered, with lives of their own, must decide the future.

This is a loving tale of family and forgiveness. It is also a tale of how we are shaped by the stories we are told and the secrets they often hide. Much of the story unfolds through the eyes of Cha-Cha, the eldest of 13 children.  He was a young boy during the Detroit uprising, and now, in the mature years of his life, finds himself rethinking who he is and who he wants to be. Reflections on the responsibilities of family, the past, and what is real and unreal swirl through his mind. His relationships with his father, ailing mother, faithful wife, and large, growing family weigh him down as he struggles to determine how to resolve compounding crises — from foreclosure to addiction and faith. And he is haunted by a haint.

This fall, I had a chance to meet the author, Angela Flournoy, at Kalamazoo College. The Turner House was selected as the shared summer reading book for all incoming freshmen, so there were campus-wide conversations about the book. Flournoy grew up on the West Coast and had only lived in Detroit for a short period while working on the book.  In a public session, she talked about how nervous she had been to write about Detroit as an outsider; but she felt Detroit posed a unique question.  

Flournoy’s father, of Cha-Cha’s generation, grew up in Detroit. He would frequently bring her to visit Detroit and the family left behind. Her memories of those visits include images of riding around the city with her father to see “what used to be.”  He would drive pass open spaces and say, “That used to be my high school. That used to be where we played basketball. That used to be where we lived. That used to be where we bought ice cream.”

It was this sense of memory having no physical structures to anchor it that intrigued her.  While this experience is common among many Detroiters, she thinks it is unique for most people.  What does it mean to us that memory is not held in place? How does this affect us? How does it change who we think we are and how we think of our past and future?

The Turner House invites us to consider relationships among parents, children, brothers, and sisters who share a complicated and complex history, moving with the tides of a changing city. It moves through time and space, following the decades as children grow, parents age, people die, and time brings new questions. It is a book to be shared across generations.

 

Shea Howell is a community-based activist in Detroit where she has lived for more than four decades. She works with the Boggs Center To Nurture Community Leadership, Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management and the Detroit Independent Freedom School Movement. She writes a weekly column, Thinking For Ourselves, and is a professor of communication.

Standing Rock Reflections

By Antonio Rafael

Lisa Nemikigokwe, Soufy, and Supreme Flows were the first of our crew to drive out to Standing Rock. Lisa drove down to take supplies, representing her work as Four Directions Wellness, and her reservation, Lac Vieux Desert, an Ojibwe reservation near the border of Michigan’s upper peninsula and Wisconsin. The crew was welcomed by LaDonna Bravebull Allard, a tribal historian at Standing Rock, and the owner of land adjacent to the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) Missouri River crossing. LaDonna called for people to come fight the pipeline, urging, “As we speak, they are violating our ancestors!” She began Sacred Stone Camp in April 2016. Lisa supported the water at Standing Rock, Flint and Detroit. Indeed, women are the keepers of the water. We must follow their lead.

The report they gave when they returned inspired many of us here. They said we were invited back on Thanksgiving weekend to perform at the MniWiconi concert. MniWiconi is Lakota for “water is life.”  As an organization, the Raiz Up has been opposing Columbus Day and Thanksgiving for the past five years through various events and teachings (Columbus Axe). This year we decided to take a road trip to the largest gathering of indigenous peoples in this century, to help in the fight against the black snake.

En route we saw the beginnings of the police cracking down on those taking supplies out to Standing Rock. They would later ban the support all together, issuing tickets of over $1000.  We saw multiple box trucks and step vans pulled over as we neared the encampment. The hills of the great plains rolled on, capturing our imagination, a beige-brown, treeless autumnal color as far as the eye could see. We wondered if any of those hills might be native mounds of the great Sioux nation. We have some mounds in a polluted area in what is called Delray in #SouthwestDetroit. On the advice of some friends, we took a less traveled route into Standing Rock to protect ourselves and our offerings.

The encampment is located where the Cannonball River meets the Missouri River, just north of a smaller tributary. This is where Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) planned to take the DAPL across the Missouri River. This is where they had been staging their drilling equipment. At the time of our arrival, that tributary north of the Cannonball River had become the perimeter, the frontline. The bridge across the tributary on highway 1806 had been blocked off, with burnt cars standing on the road as relics of resistance. Just as you arrive, driving north on 1806, you can see both the now infamous bridge/military-like-blockade and the barbwired “turtle island” peninsula as you enter the Oceti Sakowin camp.  Sacred lands live where these waters meet. According to Ladonna, “Of the 380 archeological sites that face desecration along the entire pipeline route, from North Dakota to Illinois, 26 of them are right here at the confluence of these two rivers.” This #NODAPL movement is not only environmental work, but spiritual, decolonization work. Colonialism has never stopped.

There is a continuous stream of vehicles entering and exiting the camp. We were told the line of cars on Labor Day weekend stretched farther than one could see as nearly 10,000 flooded into the camp. As you drive up, the first things you notice are the flags of the indigenous nations represented from all over the Americas and beyond. I even saw a Palestinian flag. Our host Jenna told us about the background of the camp, which had evolved from the first camp, Sacred Stone. Oceti Sakowin was the largest camp on the North side of the tributary. The name means “the great Sioux nation,” represented by the seven sacred council fires. This was the first time the seven Lakota nations had come together since they defeated Custer 140 years ago. Today there are over 400 indigenous nations represented at Standing Rock. Jenna spoke of the roar of excitement that hit the Lakota when the Cree, a historic enemy of Lakota peoples, came to this movement.

The militarization of America’s police forces is a serious issue everywhere — from Ferguson to Palestine, Detroit to Standing Rock. We arrived just days after the November 20 action in which a protector, Sophia Wilansky, nearly lost her arm, and Vanessa “Sioux Z” Dundon nearly lost her eye. Around 300 people were injured. Dozens were shot. One elder went into cardiac arrest after the police used water cannons during freezing weather on hundreds of water protectors. Jenna communicated a sense of posttraumatic stress, as she led us around the camp. “I’m part of the Standing Rock Emergency Task Force. When we get told, ‘We’re gonna have some injured people,’ we come down with EMT’s and emergency services.” Jenna described the barbarity of the DAPL and police forces, who specifically target the heads and groins of protesters.  A few protectors proudly displayed large, brown, purple and red bruises on their legs, hips, and arms.

Adding to the atmosphere of surveillance, there was the constant noise of helicopters and airplanes circling above. We heard hundreds of eyewitness accounts of chemical crop dusting on the campers. The corporate-state, ETP and Morton County sheriffs also employed floodlights along the northern frontline to make it difficult to sleep and work at night. The security has abusively used dogs, LRAD (noise radar8*), tear gas, pepper balls, mace, barbed wire and electronic spy equipment against the camp.  “I’ve never been to war; but I feel like I was at war,” Jenna said, confiding that she almost breaks down when she goes home and reflects on her experience.

Before the snows came, the camp was a combination of built structures, vehicles, mini camps, tents, teepees and a geodesic dome. During our limited time there, it was well organized.  Located at central points near the sacred fire, there were corkboards with notices of various meetings and workshops that campers could attend. There was a lot of work to do and seemingly many able hands. There were orientation meetings for newcomers, decolonial meetings, and strategy meetings. The Indigenous Environmental Network had strict media policies for anyone with a camera. No photography or video of ceremonies or prayer was permitted.

For those considering supporting the movement in person, the Michigan camp in Oceti Sakowin is still open. Even to strangers, many of the protectors were extremely friendly and hospitable. There were multiple spots where anyone could walk up and grab winter gear — hats, jackets, sweaters — as they needed. There was a Medic and Healer camp. As we walked around, we were invited to come inside, warm up, and speak with people from all over. In the mornings, there would be a water blessing and prayer. There was drumming and food throughout the day.

We didn’t spend nearly as much time at the camp on the second trip. We performed, attended the forum, and met a tribal council.  It was a powerful atmosphere of indigenous-led struggle! Soufy, Nemiki, Supreme Flows and Reyes had been invited to perform. The Mni Wiconi Concert schedule kept us moving. We arrived and received a cultural presentation and introduction from the Tribal Council. Reyes of We Are Culture Creators and Supreme Flows of Awkward Theory performed at the Standing Rock High School with Supaman, Taul Paul, and Hell n Back, Renee Gardner and others. The following day at the Standing Rock Casino, Soufy and Nemiki performed with Nataanii Means, Lyla June, Frank Waln, Tabo of the Black Eyed Peas, and others. Emcees Supreme Flows and Soufy Anishnabe represented for #SWDetroit. Anishinaabe emcees had a chance to network with their native hiphop peers. I had a chance to meet some activist heroes like Dallas Goldtooth, Tara Houska, and Madeeha Benjamin.

I would love to have done some graff out there. I was able to share my hotel room with a group of protectors including a friend from Michigan, Samantha Magdaleno of One Michigan. Her partner BJ Nastacio is currently facing charges of “terrorizing” a DAPL worker for an incident in which BJ disarmed an overly aggressive guard who was pointing his gun at protectors. It was nice seeing our neighborhood and community shine at Standing Rock.

While we were in Standing Rock, the announcement was made that the camp would be evicted by December 5th.  According to a few friends involved with security, there was tension between Standing Rock Tribal Chief Dave Archambault, a liberal, and more radical folks concerning strategy and tactics.  Archambault stated that his aims were to get an environmental impact study and ensure that the black snake would be rerouted out of his tribal territory. However, many of those on the ground, including the Red Warrior Camp, who are consistently more radical in their aims, are seeking to “kill the black snake,” stop this pipeline from being built, period.

After we left, the first snow hit the camp and a large contingency of veterans joined the struggle. The camp population again swelled to nearly 10,000 people as the eviction day approached. In those tense moments, the Obama administration finally made an announcement that the Army Corps of engineers would suspend the easement that would allow the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross the Missouri River. The tribal leadership and many in the media declared victory. Dave Archambault went so far as to ask the campers to go home.  According to him, “the fight was over.”

But no company will leave a multi-billion dollar pipeline unfinished. Many are very skeptical of the staying power of the Obama executive action. The Red Warrior Camp released a letter that spoke to this concern and decided to take their movement to the rest of the country. A mass exodus of visitors staying at the camp followed soon after. The population is down now to roughly 1000 committed, well fortified, and supplied folks, who are hunkered down for the winter. These water warriors know that this struggle isn’t over.

There are many reasons to believe that President Trump will force the Army Corps of Engineers to allow the project to cross the Missouri, without changing route. Trump himself is financially invested in the ETP. His appointee to Energy Secretary, Texas Governor Rick Perry, sits on the board of Energy Transfer Partners. At this moment, it is a waiting game. Maybe Standing Rock will make a call for more protectors to help resist when Trump comes into office this winter. I’d love to go back, yet it’s important to think locally too.

Back at home, I longed to be in the Dakotas. In Standing Rock, there was an incredible concentration of people I respect and admire. I was with indigenous activists and artists. Then it was back to the struggle, the mundane: checking in with my probation officer, paying bills, running errands, cleaning “my house.” Our lives are so individualized. That works well for capitalism. With everyone owning their own home, everyone is required to fill that home with cheap goods. I was decompressing and feeling low for a day or two. Others have communicated similar feelings. I regretted leaving Standing Rock. I had a bad case of FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out. It was right in that moment that a Homrich demolition truck pulled up next to me at the traffic light. He was dragging a large compressor with the equipment to perform residential water shutoffs. In Detroit our water system is partially privatized and shutoff duties have been sold to Homrich demolition. I honked my horn at him, and I thought to myself:  Our water is under threat here. I’m exactly where I need to be right now.

We need to add to the formidable Standing Rock mass movement a decentralized movement based on local issues. The Raiz Up is part of the People’s Water Board Coalition. We collaborate with We the People, Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, Detroit Eviction Defense, the Coalition Against Tar Sands and other organizations resisting the extraction of our resources, the privatization of our public spaces, the taking of our homes and lands right here in Detroit. The City doesn’t have a reservation in close proximity, but we consider Detroit as an internal colony surrounded by contemptuous anti-black suburbs in a hyper-segregated metropolitan area. This area also has the highest concentration of indigenous populations in Michigan.

The Wendat and Anishnabe have lived in the Detroit area for well over 5000 years, with their respective names for this land being Oppenago, “where the waters meet,” and Zagajibiising, “where the waters go round.” Our connection to this place has everything to do with protecting our water, and our air — not for us, but for the next seven generations.

Environmental racism is another byproduct of our existing capitalist society. Pipelines lead to processing facilities, black snakes take crude from Canada to places like 48217 in Southwest Detroit, a historically segregated black working class community with some of the highest cancer rates in the country, a direct result of pollution by companies like Marathon and US Steel. Marathon is finishing up a 10 billion dollar expansion of its facility to process tar sands. Michigan also has the 63-year-old Enbridge Line 5 pipeline running under the Mackinac Bridge, right past the historic sacred Anishnabe lands of Mitchimakinak, carrying Canadian crude to Aamjiwnaang, an indigenous reservation across the straits in unceded Anishinabe territory near what is now called Sarnia, Canada.

We in Raiz Up feel called to connect the struggles of black Detroit folks in 48217 and our Anishnabe family resisting in Aamjiwnaang. Indigenous and Afrikan solidarity will be key in protecting our communities from monsters like Trump and Trudeau. 

               We are engaged in the struggle on multiple fronts. My homey Soufy wrote a dope song called “Pay to Be Poisoned” about the Flint water crisis, and we’ve supported the work of Flint water warriors, Water We Fighting For and Flint Rising. We have organized conferences, spoken on panels, facilitated workshops and engaged in popular education circles around these and other issues facing our gente. Our comrade Lucka and I just beat 12 felony charges for resistance graffiti, tagging “Free the Water” on a water tower in Highland Park. We are steeped in the struggle to protect water. We have resisted the shutoffs, turned water back on and supported folks like the Homrich 9 in stopping the Homrich demolition shutoff trucks. We will continue to use our art to build on a culture of education and resistance to these systems of oppression. MniWiconi!  Water is Life!

 

Antonio Rafael is a Xicano Boricua organizer, farmer, artist and entrepreneur from #SWDetroit He co-founded #RaizUp collective hiphop for decolonial education and supporting movement. More than just resisting the abuse of land, water and people, Antonio started #SWGrows urban farm and ecological design cooperative to expand art, agriculture and green development in his neighborhood.

The J-O-B System

By Frank Joyce

It’s one thing to theorize about new and better ways to organize work; but the idea of new work/new culture, as articulated by Frithjof Bergmann of the Center for New Work in Flint, Michigan, is to combine thinking and doing. Bergmann describes “new work” as “the transformation from industrial to community production.” The Brightmoor Makerspace watercycle project is a terrific example.  

The youngsters at Detroit Community High have created a “makerspace,” where the idea of work is being redefined to address the immediate needs of communities.  Their project is a model of many efforts to reimagine work that are taking place not only in Detroit but throughout the world.  It reflects a critique of the J-O-B system of organizing work, which was examined at the New Work/New Culture conferences held in Detroit in 2011 and 2014.  The J-O-B system organizes the work of the world in the following ways:

 

  • It offers too much to some and little or none to others.
  • It depends on production for the sake of production and consumption for the sake of consumption.
  • It compels unequal relationships between employers and the employed.
  • It is cruel to the unemployed.
  • It pressures even its managers to be frightened, overworked, and exhausted.
  • It drives the insatiable destruction of precious natural resources.
  • It is hostile to the creation of community.
  • It is inherently stressful to individuals, families and society.
  • It deforms the entire process of education.
  • It politically empowers some to the unnecessary disadvantage of others.
  • It reproduces entrenched racial and global disparities.
  • It promotes conflict rather than cooperation.
  • It requires dishonesty and deceit at every turn, especially in the marketing of everything.

        

As currently structured, the global J-O-B system is not only failing, it is a menace to life on the planet. It is a system whose time has passed.  The Brightmoor Makerspace watercycle project invites us to open our minds to more holistic definitions of work. We can find remedies for the grand issues of sustainability  — access to clean water, viable transportation and alternative energy sources. In a community-based work environment, the people who become problem-solvers are people who know best what the real problems are. As such, they are in the best position to solve them.  For more information: www.newworknewculture.org

 

Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit-based writer and activist. He is co-editor with Karen Aguilar-San Juan of ‘The People Make the Peace- Lessons From the Vietnam Antiwar Movement‘.

H20 Emergency Response Bike: These Trikes Are Not For Toddlers

 By Tawana ‘”Honeycomb” Petty

article originally published by ‘Eclectablog.com’

There is something to be said about youth who manage to survive harsh realities imposed upon them by inhumane systems, by imagining a way forward, a more beloved community — those children who go without water, who don’t have enough to eat, who move between homes or schools many times before they leave their adolescence, yet somehow find enough humanity in their souls to keep creating.

I can recall the day I made a working lamp for my bedroom out of a dish liquid soap bottle. I was in elementary school. I couldn’t begin to recount the formula I used to create my concoction, but I do recall that at that time in my development, I had no knowledge of the impossible. I believed that whatever I wanted to do could be done. Whatever I wanted to create could be created. My imagination was powerful. It was the one space where I could escape any curveball life threw at me.

Growing up in poverty, although it was very tough, afforded me an opportunity to see beyond what was present before me. By middle school I had made napkin holders, key chains and dollhouses, with popsicle sticks and lots of other cool items, that I would actually use at home. I was lucky enough to have teachers who nurtured a space that allowed me and the other learners in my classes to innovate — a space that allowed us to discover our talents and imagine our solutions. I have been an artist for as long as I can think back, so I didn’t always appreciate the academic component of school. I’ve always valued the skills I learned in my woodshop, home economics, and newspaper classes. They helped me to build character and taught me life skills that I use today. It’s unfortunate that this creative energy is not a priority in every academic institution. It has been proven that the cookie-cutter testing model has failed so many of our children. So no matter what we feel about an institution, we must focus on the children.

A couple of years ago, I was invited by teacher Bart Eddy to visit the Brightmoor Maker Space at Detroit Community High School (DCH). When I arrived I was immediately nostalgic. I witnessed Black children building rain barrels, making wooden signs for their neighbors, rehabbing and turning trikes into fruit and vegetable delivery vehicles, and designing and printing their own t-shirts. The young people showed so much pride in what they were doing and were very knowledgeable about the importance of their new skillsets.

I was so impressed that I invited the students to showcase their work at the New Work New Culture Conference that I co-organized in Detroit with the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership and other community partners in 2014. The students designed a custom trike as well as t-shirts for the Conference, and taught young people and adults who visited their station some of their skills. It was wonderful to watch their interactions.

In early 2015, I received a call from Bart telling me that the young people felt compelled to do something about the water crises in Detroit and Flint. They had been donated some industrial trikes by the UAW and wanted to use them to help support people without water. Bart invited me to speak to the students about the water crises.  I spent a half-day with the students and instructors, and by the time I left, they were well on their way to designing a water filtration trike. Brightmoor Makerspace agreed to donate the first trike beyond their prototype to We the People of Detroit, an organization that has done tremendous work supporting the efforts of residents in Detroit, Flint and other cities across the globe who are struggling with a water crisis. They recently produced the book, Mapping the Water Crisis: The Dismantling of African American Neighborhoods in Detroit, through the We the People of Detroit Research Collective.

I was ecstatic about the possibilities of the water filtration trike when I left the Brightmoor Makerspace that day, but had no idea what the trike would become.

A few months ago, I received an email update from Bart and I could sense the joy in his print.

“The great thing about this project is that it has been a truly collective and imaginative effort on the part of students and instructors to connect with a real community need with global implications, i.e. climate change. It also addresses the more immediate needs of residential water shut-offs in Detroit and the lead water crisis in Flint…. There is much more that can be said, but I will leave that for a further letter.”

The intergenerational team who call themselves the ‘Water Cyclers’ have since completed their prototype and have donated it to We the People of Detroit.

Through this project, the students of DCH have been able to collaborate with the Stamps School of Art Design at University of Michigan, Ross School of Business, community activists and many others who have invested in helping them to see their vision realized.

The water tricycle developed by the Brightmoor Maker Space incorporates:

  • A battery operated electronic assist
  • Solar recharge capability
  • A dual water purification system with a battery-powered pump
  • The ability to connect to rain barrel collection systems

By developing a ‘trike’ that can travel up to 30 miles per hour on battery power, these students are attempting to address the issue of clean water, while also tackling the issue of immobility that, ironically, plagues the “Motor City.

Of course, this is just the beginning for this dynamic team. Be on the look-out for more from these brilliant young minds, as they teach us that no idea is too large when you have a big enough imagination and a village that supports you.

 

Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty is a mother, social justice organizer, youth advocate, poet and author. She was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan and is intricately involved in water rights, digital justice and visionary organizing work. You can learn more about Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty by visiting honeycombthepoet.com.

Blackface in High Places: The Neoliberal Politics of Race

 By Scott Kurashige

As President Obama’s eight years in office come to an end, we are faced with a paradox. On an individual basis, African Americans and other historically marginalized persons have more opportunities to rise to the top political and economic levels of society than ever before. These kinds of opportunities were largely unimaginable fifty years ago. On a structural basis, however, we see the persistence and hardening of racial oppression and white supremacy. Poverty, unemployment, police brutality, foreclosures, and school closures devastate poor communities, especially those where people of color are the majority. We remain haunted by the underlying conditions of the urban rebellions of the 1960s.

This contradiction lies at the heart of neoliberalism, which has sought to dismantle the social contract and elevate the individualistic pursuit of private property and wealth acquisition. In place of community empowerment and solidarity, neoliberalism reduces the concept of racial progress to the upward mobility of individuals, who are almost always designated the token faces of “diversity,” and regarded as “native” guides to the management and exploitation of minority communities and consumer markets.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s top-down implementation of Detroit’s bankruptcy and emergency management regime provides a sad but telling example of the cynical manipulation of race under neoliberalism. The Obama administration provided no alternative to Detroit, and the civil rights and labor movements could not muster the political leverage to provide one. Snyder and the GOP were thus able to have their way with municipal, democratic institutions. Yet, they remained committed to the farcical assertion that they were being racially sensitive by choosing an African American emergency manager, Kevyn Orr. (We see how that worked out in Flint.)

Snyder’s publicity team made endless attempts to present Orr as a product of the Black community. Orr, we were told, was a child of the Southern civil rights movement whose father was an African Methodist Episcopal preacher.  Returning the favor, Orr stated that Snyder’s actions to push for Detroit’s bankruptcy demonstrated “political courage on par with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s D-Day Invasion and the Rev. Martin Luther King’s civil rights crusade.” (MLive.com)   In fact, we know now that Snyder and others, including his key strategist behind the bankruptcy, Kenneth Buckfire, did meet and insist that this group of white conservative men would need a black emergency manager to do their bidding. They found Orr in the behemoth corporate law firm, Jones Day.

Orr’s racial performance was most outlandish but also most successful before predominantly white audiences. In November 2013, Orr spoke about the Detroit emergency management regime at his alma mater, the University of Michigan Law School. The Ann Arbor school of law, it seems, was the glue binding together many members of the neoliberal fraternity. Snyder was reported to have met Orr during a snowball fight in the law quadrangle, when both attended in the early 1980s. Overlapping in attendance with both was Michael McGee, the CEO of Miller Canfield, which received the fifth highest bankruptcy payout at nearly $7 million in fees. According to the law firm’s website, McGee also “played a major role in the drafting of Michigan’s emergency management law.” Bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes (now emergency manager of DPS) and Detroit mayor Mike Duggan were also Michigan Law alumni, as were many of the assistants and contractors hired to carry out the bankruptcy.

If the bankruptcy was an extended family affair, Orr’s visit to Ann Arbor was the homecoming.  The law students listened intently as Orr explained his corporate restructuring strategies, but they cheered loudest when Orr interrupted his prepared remarks to share personal reflections on his professional journey. The stunning recording of Orr’s address has to be seen and heard to truly appreciate why it fits the description of a blackface performance. Presenting himself as a model of public service, Orr insisted he sacrificed a “pretty clean cut and affluent career” as a corporate lawyer to take the emergency manager job. “I was living thick,” he declared. “Livin’ large, okay?” Claiming he was set to lead the Jones Day office in Miami, Orr stated he had plans to buy a sports car and a beach home. “Hadn’t told my wife about the hot blonde,” he added.

Orr then spun a fanciful tale of his political conversion from angry radical college student to corporate lawyer. He claimed to have “started life as a socialist” who wanted “revolution” and was “dedicated to bringing down the Man.” He clowned, “We’re going to bring this corrupt, running-dog system down for the savage beast, who has his jack-footed boot on the neck of the people. It’s an outrage, damn it! And I’m gonna get to it! I’m gonna bring that Man down, damn it! I’m gonna make this place safe for all the working men of the world. That’s what you’ve gotta do! This capitalist running dog pig? Brother, burn it down!”

The conclusion to Orr’s act produced scores of laughter. “I said, ‘I want to get to the Man!’ Now I am the Man. Go figure. The arc of your life will change.” Orr’s vocal affectations resembled a white teenager doing a bad imitation of Mr. T.

Orr’s offensive routine was no more likely to gain trust among Black Detroiters than Donald Trump trolling for votes in African American churches by calling Black communities inner-city hellholes. However, there was a common logic behind both. In effect, they present racist, stereotypical images of Black America in order to make whites feel comfortable in their complicity with structures of oppression.

Orr’s contrived performance seemed sadly pitch perfect for the audience of aspiring lawyers. His professed ability to give up lusting after “the hot blonde” was somehow proof of his sincere dedication to help Detroit. His journey from Black militancy was somehow proof of his having acquired rational thinking and an even temperament. Orr played up these crude stereotypes of black masculinity to offer them as stand-ins for black politicians, workers, and voters in Detroit. His trajectory toward becoming a fiscally responsible and morally upright public servant was presented as an analogy for his quest to correct what he and his audience understood to be Detroit’s fiscal and moral failings. Orr later stated in a serious note that his “number one concern” when taking the emergency manager post was “civil unrest.” It was yet another way to identify with the suburban mindset still guided by fear five decades after the 1967 rebellion.

That we are still dealing with such nonsense in 2017 demonstrates how much difficult work lies ahead of us. We’ve already seen Trump’s team forced to retract the claim that Ben Carson was raised in public housing, but one can only imagine what a disaster he would be as the Secretary of HUD—the federal agency most responsible for urban policy. As bad as Orr’s politics were, there is no doubt that Carson will prove to be far more reactionary and incompetent. The tragic lessons being learned by Detroiters and the forms of resistance they are evolving will need to spread wide and far throughout the world.

For the video recording of Orr’s lecture, go to http://web.law.umich.edu/flashmedia/public/Default.aspx?mediaid=3714

 

Scott Kurashige is author of ‘The Fifty Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit’ (coming in Spring 2017) and co-author with Grace Lee Boggs of ‘The Next American Revolution’. He is a member of the Boggs Center board and professor at the University of Washington Bothell.

Police Brutality: A Long-Standing Challenge to Create Peaceful Communities

By Kenneth Reed

This is an interesting time to be alive and politically active. Last year, we saw a bizarre presidential election in which racism, classism, victimization, anti-intellectualism, and misogyny seemed to triumph. We also saw business as usual when it came to police violence against people of color. From the jury’s decision not to convict Charleston police officer Michael Slager, who fatally shot citizen Walter Scott in the back, to egregious examples of police brutality at the historic Standing Rock protests, we have seen that police violence against citizens continues to go largely unpunished.

That is tragically true in Detroit as well. Just before Christmas, the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality criticized Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy for her failure to charge two Dearborn police officers in the fatal shootings of two African Americans: Kevin Matthews and Janet Wilson.

This police violence against citizens is part of a pattern of institutional violence designed to maintain the status quo so that people with money and power keep their positions intact. It is not a “new thing.” From the violence done to people of faith who challenged a corrupt Roman government more than 2000 years ago, to violence done to those who challenged powerful religious institutions, to the violent stealing of African people whose exploitation laid the basis of today’s multi-trillion dollar economies, to the prison-industrial complex that uses violence and suppression to keep poor people and people of color ‘chained’ to provide free labor to large corporations, institutional violence remains one of our largest challenges. It perpetuates urban warfare, pitting families and neighbors against each other.

The Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality was founded by educator/activist Dr. Gloria House and Marge Parsons in 1996. Ron Scott, a widely respected activist and one of the founders of the Black Panther Party in Detroit, was the fearless spokesperson of the Coalition until he passed away in November 2015.

Yet, the tragic incident which launched the Coalition—the killing of Detroit citizen Malice Green by Detroit police officers Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn—is just one in a long line of such cases in which people of color, and African Americans especially, were criminalized, targeted, injured, jailed, and killed to prop up a corrupt system. Police violence was front-and-center in the Ossian Sweet case of 1926, when Detroit policemen assisted the Ku Klux Klan and other white Detroit residents in attempting to make African American Dr. Ossian Sweet and his family leave their just-purchased home on Detroit’s east side. It was front-and-center in the 1940s, when the so-called “Big Four” (four police officers who rode around wreaking terror on the Black community) arbitrarily selected young Black men to brutalize and murder.  Police violence sparked the Detroit Rebellion of 1967 and ultimately led to the historic election of Detroit’s first Black mayor, Coleman A. Young.  It continued in the 1970s with the emergence of the infamous  S.T.R.E.S.S. units (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets), which many longtime Detroiters remember as another terror organization.

We are proud that our organization was the driving force behind the two Federal consent decrees by the U.S. Justice Department against the Detroit Police Department in 2003. These were sparked by our advocacy in the shooting death of Detroit resident Lamar Grable by Detroit police officers Eugene Brown and Vicki Yost. Since that time, the Coalition has been in the forefront of virtually every major case of police brutality in the Detroit area. We offer support to families, issue statements, attend Detroit Police Commission meetings, hold demonstrations, form coalitions with like-minded organizations, and bring these issues to the attention of the public as well as elected officials.

What, then, gives us reason to hope? It is precisely these egregious patterns of institutional violence that have served to mobilize and animate conscious citizens to work to change and transform this system and our relationships. These incidents have ignited calls to action locally and nationally, and we have reason to hope because many are answering that call.

Our current President Sandra Hines worked with Ron Scott for many years to develop a creative program for addressing institutional violence. In our program, Peace Zones for Life, we can reduce the need for law enforcement intervention and cut down on police-on-citizen brutality. In line with this effort, we run a summer program, teaching conflict resolution, mediation, and restorative justice practices to young people. We know that in an atmosphere characterized by casual and deadly violence, we have to find ways to transform ourselves and the institutions that surround us.  That is why we are calling for transforming war zones into peace zones, where we take charge of our own safety, security and relationships. Only by acknowledging the violence within our community can we move toward creating real peace.

The Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality invites Riverwise readers to join with us! Please contact us via e-mail, detcoalition@gmail.com, and let’s work together to end institutional violence locally, nationally and internationally.

 

Kenneth D. Reed, Spokesman for the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, is a lifelong activist, educator and political consultant. He teaches social studies at Fitzgerald Public Schools, and serves as Director for Research Planning & Development for The Institute for Public Policy & Educational Affairs (IPPEA). He holds Bachelors and Masters Degrees from Wayne State University.

The Spaces Between Us

By Eric Thomas Campbell

In an attempt to understand Detroit neighborhoods as the frontier for movement activists, the idea of community is central. The most common usages of the word community refer to place, or groups of various sizes who are entrenched for a period of time with a common objective. But it wasn’t until I hung out with Howard King that I was able to appreciate the effort needed to build a sense of community, and the work required to maintain it.

Like most folks dutifully active in supporting their community, King is not spending valuable time battling with the interpretation of the word. He is simply living it, through the roles he plays, through a lifetime spent in his neighborhood, and most importantly, through the quality of engagement he seeks with others. He’s at once building community by providing the space for it to flourish and by closing the distance between himself and the people around him.

The neighborhood into which Howard King was born in 1950 has a very different identity now. National Street is now Cochrane Street, Myrtle is MLK Boulevard. The district formerly known as Briggs has been rebranded as North Corktown. Many of the changes are not as easily read as streets on a map. King has seen these, too, and played a part in making many of them happen.

As one of the first Black families to move into the neighborhood in 1948, the Kings were often victims of their neighbors’ vehement reactions. Howard still remembers his mother, Mary King, having to take the family around the corner to his uncle Henry Jackson’s house when he was a baby, because White folks had broken out the windows of their home.   

“He was a warrior around here– he set the tone for our families to stay,” Howard recalls. “Cause White folks was sayin’, ‘niggers, go home, go home.’  They was tryin’ to run my people back to the South. But it wasn’t happenin.”

The perseverance of Black families like the Kings ensured their permanent residence in the neighborhood; but the effects of daily racism and socio-economic inequality made it difficult to describe that residence as home.

Howard and his friends learned at an early age about economic inequality and responded with imagination and raw resourcefulness. They learned to “make a way out of no way.” As one example, they built wooden carts by taking the wheels off the buggies at markets.  “We didn’t know it, but we’d built our own go-carts,” Howard says. “And what made me such a good athlete — see I always wanted to win the race. So I’d be the motor– I’d push the go-cart. “

North Corktown is now a residential outpost with new construction popping up among older buildings that once held the hustle and bustle of neighborhood stores.  King is able to point out several older structures that used to be viable businesses when he was coming up. A brick house on Rosa Parks was an ice cream shop. A hostel now catering to curious travelers was a shoe store where his father bought him Buster Brown shoes.

What is now the Spirit of Hope Church on Trumbull and MLK is where a young King and his friends would gaze upon the menacing gargoyles that were strategically placed around the exterior. They wondered whom these figures were meant to intimidate. Today, Howard questions blind worship and Biblical doctrine. He looks a little closer to home for divine inspiration and examples of spiritual transformation.

“Why are all these demons on this church?,” King remembers asking. “Pastor said, ‘To keep the wicked spirits out’. Well, I don’t believe you can put statues up to keep spirits out.”

During the late ’60s, King wasn’t directly involved in Black liberation politics, although he was aware of the neighborhood chapter of the Black Panther Party and the vital influence of the Black Power movement. Like most young Black men, education in political activism came primarily from persistent oppression by law enforcement and structural economic inequality. In other words — the streets.

King had several violent encounters with the police coming up in Briggs, one of which became widely publicized in the months preceding the ’67 rebellion. That incident, which involved King’s mother helping to fight off police aggressors, earned King the support of prominent political activists such as Ken Cockrel Sr. and Justin Ravitz.

King says his activism was tempered during the week of the 1967 rebellion. He tried to travel between work and home only, as was required by the 24-hour curfew. He recalls the ubiquitous checkpoints bolstered by menacing National Guard tanks that rolled through Detroit streets.  “I ain’t never in my life been in the service, but they had tanks so big, and rollin down the street, it just scare you to look at all them tanks.”

In mainstream culture, stories are often told about the violent and seemingly counterproductive actions taken by citizens during the rebellion. These same terms are not generally applied to the unreserved violent response by law enforcement. But when you factor in the testimony of folks like King, who were there, it becomes evident that the whole story has yet to be told.

“During the ’67 riot, you know, the owners, they burned all this down themselves,” King says. “Because they seen there was a chance for them to get that insurance money, and they said, it’s time for us to get out of here. It was a lot of Blacks that burnt down their own neighborhoods, true. But a lot of the [White] owners burnt they own business down.”

In the post-rebellion era, the police patrols escalated. Teens especially were subject to overzealous curfew enforcement. Many were stopped, ID’d, frisked, questioned and generally harassed. To say the least, the antagonistic relationship between police and citizens continued to intensify. Many youth, including King, were targeted.

And so in 1969, King was entangled in a devastating tragedy that would radically alter his life’s path. He was falsely identified by police, charged and convicted for a murder he did not commit. The police’s “star witness” in the case was a known drug addict who admitted in court that she received drugs for her testimony.

His initial trial ended in a hung jury. During the second trial King’s state-appointed defender collaborated with the prosecution during the appeal by neglecting to call the female addict witness, who had presented weak and conflicting testimony in the initial trial, according to King. He received a sentence of 20-30 years.

King says he stayed alive by saying every day that he wouldn’t be forced to do the entire sentence — that the truth would eventually triumph over all else. He looked inward for the strength to maintain his identity and his spirit.

King had served eleven years, most of them at Jackson Prison, when a parole officer admitted to him that he never fit the description of the perpetrator. He was released that very day in 1981.

As part of the parole process, King was asked what he thought he could contribute to his community after eleven years in state prison — time served for a crime those same parole officers ultimately admitted he did not commit.

And so, with very little preparation for reentry, King was forced into a period of self-evaluation. His prior aspirations had to be altered to accommodate new circumstances. He had to envision a new life.

“After all the trials and tribulations that I had been through, I said I want to save young kids,” King says now. “I don’t care what color they are, I want to save lives. I want to put knowledge in they head. That’s what made me come back here.”

King’s first job upon his release was working at a food pantry on the corner of Trumbull and Seldon. A woman reacted favorably to his personal interactions with people there and offered him a job as athletic director of the youth program, FOCUS. His experience in the legal system brought a capacity for empathy to his interactions with youth — interactions that proved successful in the eyes of program directors.

“Prison is not a place for young men,” King would relate. “Because they want to get rid of us as it is, so your best choice is to not go.”

King’s success with youth previously thought unreachable continued during a year-long youth counselor training program in California. He returned to Detroit with a renewed sense that  experiencing a personal transformation can bring forth the understanding needed to evoke change in others.        

Back in the old neighborhood, King found work at the Barnabas Youth Center in Woodbridge, where he taught kids the art of woodworking. ‘The Barnabas Youth Center’ sign, a lasting testament to King’s skill with the chisel, still hangs today.

These days King spends time with his fellow elders. He keeps active by distributing food at Brother’s Keeper Church on Trumbull and Brainard, next door to Barnabas. On Wednesdays he purchases food from Gleaners and distributes it there and at a church at Southfield and Grand River. On Thursdays you may find him at the flea market on Grand River and Livernois, supporting  elder neighbors who congregate there.

“I patronize my seniors, I play with ’em, I love ’em,” says King. “That’s what makes me go, that’s what makes me look forward to the next day. They say live one day at a time, but you live the moment.”

King believes firmly that the ability to uphold the tenets of civic duty lies in one’s own conviction that change should and can be enacted. His community activity, revealed even in the simplest of tasks, is a testament to just that. And the reward becomes the action itself. Various types of visionary activism are emerging in Detroit neighborhoods and building community relationships is the foundation.

“We’ve got to be more connected to one another than what we are,” King is fond of saying. “My surrounding is just as powerful as another’s surrounding if we come together and work together.”

In 1983, Mary King moved with other family members to a brick, duplex walk-up only a block from where Howard was born.  It’s where Howard lives now. The adjacent empty lot provided the opportunity to transform the land. Years before the current trend in urban agriculture took hold, elder Blacks latched onto Mayor Coleman Young’s Farm-A-Lot program. The ability to grow your own food, including raising chickens, emigrated with many Black folks from the rural South. It was also a security measure enacted as a response to hostile surroundings and a distrust of local market offerings.

“We started off with a little plot, we started off with a shovel and then my mother had a friend of hers start using a tiller, and he broke his blade,” King recollects. “So I said, you know what, no one should be doin’ this here. I said I have good credit at Sears. So I went to Sears and I bought my own tiller.”

King and a neighbor built the chicken coop that was a prominent fixture on Butternut near Cochrane for years. The chickens were a source of pride, solace — and protein — for Mary King.

For over thirty years, King’s farm has been part of his conscious effort to transform himself and the neighborhood where he was born. It’s a place for healing, a place to reflect and marvel at the unseen connections we have with all forms of life. For the people around him, it’s also a place to connect with each other.

“I basically do the plantin’ cause that’s my therapy,” King says. “It becomes therapy — you feel good about what you can do and accomplish. That’s why I stay so active– that’s why I don’t have time for myself. That’s why I be tired at the end of the day because I’m always out here.”

Currently, King splits the community garden with the Korean family who own and operate Knox Cleaners around the corner on Trumbull. Their crop consists mostly of green beans native to Korea, while King plants cabbage, squash, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and collard greens.  

When I visited Howard King in late autumn, he was lamenting the condition of this year’s crop of collards, but he knew it was too early in the season to give up on them.  Collards have a way of offering their best late in the season.

“A lot of the old southerners, who know about collard greens, they don’t even want ’em ’til the frost hit ’em. When the frost hit ’em, they tender and have a sweet taste. There’s a big difference from when you pull ’em up and it’s hot. When Jack Frost hit ’em, they good to go.”

Mary King joined the ancestors five years ago, but not without passing on a lifetime of knowledge from the security that comes from growing and tending one’s own food. She told her son that after seven years, he would have to move his garden and let the soil rest and regenerate.

“Just like a body, you know,” King says, continuing the hand-off of knowledge. “It’s amazing how God’s creation is, that the dirt need rest, just like we goin’ to need rest.”

He recognizes the vitality of his soil and what needs to be done to keep it healthy.  He’s now surveying other lots on the block to till, so the one he’s been tilling for 33 years can finally rest.

“The ground is overworked– you can overwork soil and it’ll start looking gray — it don’t look like rich, black dirt. That’s why, throughout the years, you have to rotate the rows.”

It seems now that all of King’s endeavors, separate or together, create opportunities for better relationships with his neighbors and anyone who is around him. His work in the garden has evolved from a source of fresh food to a space to build community. He named his landscaping business, “BlackMan Landscape,” to encourage discussion about who we are and allow identity-consciousness to be a part of the process of our transformation.

In gardens and similar community spaces in Detroit, other activists understand “community” as something that can heal — not just a neighborhood, but a whole society mired in moral contradiction and confusion. They’re expanding community to tie together people and place, where we make choices on behalf of one another, no matter where we are.

 

Raised on Detroit’s northwest side, Eric Thomas Campbell is the co-ordinator of Riverwise magazine and a member of the editorial staff. Eric worked as a staff writer for the Michigan Citizen Newspaper from 2007-2012, covering a wide range of issues affecting Detroit’s grassroots community. He has frequently written press releases for the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center.