(Book Review) Detroit’s Story: The Layered Meanings of Place

by Tom Stephens

Book Review
Where the Water Goes Around,
by Bill Wylie-Kellermann
(Cascade Books, 2017)

In her majestic history of abolition, The Slave’s Cause, Manisha Sinha begins with a telling insight: “The conflict over the contours and nature of American democracy has often centered on debates over black freedom and rights.”  She ends that same paragraph with a reference to the  “entrenched problems of disfranchisement in a liberal democracy.” 

Her profound thoughts about disfranchisement apply instructively to recent events in Detroit.  Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s unprecedented “emergency management” state powers enabled corporate piracy in the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, and ruthlessly usurped democracy in Detroit.

To understand all this, one could not find better reading than this incredibly powerful book by close observer-participant of Detroit’s grassroots community, Reverend Bill Wylie-Kellerman.

Full disclosure: This reviewer cannot possibly be objective.  Bill Wylie-Kellermann has been a personal friend and spiritual/political inspiration to me for decades.  Our eldest children were in the same elementary school class together. I can no more separate myself from his brave and principled work than I could get out of the way of the federal marshal

who stepped on my toes as she reached over me to haul Bill out of bankruptcy court in an incident recounted on pages 96-7 of this book. In that moment, Rev. Bill stood up during open court proceedings, spoke eloquent truth to power and temporarily chased Judge Steven Rhodes off the bench like a frightened rabbit! Having collaborated with Bill as communications coordinators of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM), I am honored to have our work cited in this important book.  

Anyone who wants to really understand how Snyder and the giant Jones Day corporate law firm ripped off Detroit, and the effects of this travesty on the “contours of democracy, African-American freedom and rights,” should explore the reframing and deep systems analysis offered here by Rev. Wylie-Kellermann. Anybody who tries to analyze what the Detroit bankruptcy wrought – or what to do about it – without reference to the baseline understandings established here, in my opinion can’t really know the essential terrain they’re trying to talk about.   

Weaving together discussions of emergency-managed-assaults on public education and massive water shutoffs, Bill connects his own moving story of decades of personal activism with the racial, political, economic and social dynamics shaping Detroit.  He explains: “That’s the deal.  You have to know the story, the layered meanings of a place.”  That knowledge, rootedness in this place, is one of the finest offerings of this book. In addition, as our dear friend, comrade and mentor Gloria House writes in her lovely introduction to Where the Water Goes Around, the book is full of crucial, hard-earned lessons that have value for present and future community social justice activists. 

From the standpoint of his place-based vocation for intervening against oppression, Bill calls out the evil principalities responsible for the world’s suffering.  He recalls his involvement in civil disobedience actions undertaken to raise political consciousness and engender actions for positive change.

There are many theoretical and practical debates running through this book, providing indispensable aids to clear, radical (understanding the roots of things) knowledge and judgment about important issues. These ideas reflect the essence of Detroit’s struggle.  They raise the level of analysis, from self-fulfilling “there is no alternative” corporate bromides, to accessible, deeply knowledgeable, and passionate arguments grounded in rich understandings of liberation theology, history, political economy, community, power and theories of social change.  All that and love for the terrain and people of the city.  

As the late heroic grassroots activist, Charity Hicks, used to urge:  Wage love!  



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