Green Chairs Not Green Lights: Keeping Perspective During Covid-19

By Isabelle Brogna, Fellow at Detroit Community Technology Project

In 2019, Detroit Community Technology Project (DCTP) partnered with coalition members, the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership (Boggs Center), Green Light Black Futures Coalition, Feedom Freedom Growers (FFG), and others to push back against the conflation between surveillance and safety. Part of that work included launching a campaign called ‘Green Chairs, Not Green Lights’ (GCNGL).

Since that time, DCTP has facilitated workshops, panel discussions, town halls and regularly participated in Board of Police Commissioner meetings (civilian oversight body of police) to drive home the notion that surveillance is not safety. We have also coordinated discotech (discovering technology) fairs in various Detroit neighborhoods to raise awareness about the work. 

Although a lot of our plans came to a halt during COVID-19, we continued to find creative ways to engage in the dialogue. I spoke with Myrtle Thompson-Curtis, Program Director of FFG. Our conversation began as I looked for an update on their contributions to the GCNGL campaign. The campaign was organized in opposition to Detroit’s Project Green Light (PGL) real-time surveillance program.

It was impossible to talk about the future plans for the movement though, without discussing the impacts of COVID-19. The pandemic has interrupted short-term developments of the green chairs for the campaign, but Myrtle hopes that the actions people have taken to care for and support one another during this time will create lasting community bonds that will help the cause and Detroit communities.

FFG adopted the green chair’s concept last summer as a symbol for a new vision to increase community safety. The idea is simple: offer green chairs to community members who are seeking to look out for other members in their community. As Myrtle wrote in the Summer 2019 issue of Riverwise, “With the green chair action, the chair is not just a seat— it is the frame of mind of the individual in the chair that makes a difference in each community.” 

The person sitting in the green chair takes on responsibility for themselves, their families, and their community, and becomes accountable to them. Myrtle continues, again in Riverwise, “Let us sit on the porches in our green chairs and look out for one another.”

Through the campaign, the community becomes a healing space with a goal of crime prevention by strengthening community ties. Under this framing, Myrtle says, “Crime is not inevitable, police presence is not inevitable… we can have peaceful conflict resolution and de-escalation, where not every incident needs police intervention.” Project Green Light cameras take the opposite stance: communities cannot heal, and so crime is a fact, therefore police presence and constant surveillance is necessary. This, despite the fact that there is no evidence to show that the surveillance cameras at the heart of PGL have actually prevented crime. Strengthening the community, on the other hand, does.

Myrtle presented on the idea and distributed green chairs at two community events in the Morningside and Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhoods last summer. Since then she has spoken to activists across the state about green chairs, and she has weekly conversations with activists looking to improve their communities in Chicago, Boston, and Baton Rouge. FFG and the Boggs Center are planning a program to design and build chairs of their own to reach more communities in Detroit. These chairs will have a responsibility pledge inscribed on them, committing the recipient of the chair to looking out for their community. 

While under quarantine and staying in as much as she can, Myrtle is doing more internal work around the campaign: she continues to connect with other activists, refine her message, and make or adjust plans for the future.

The emotional toll of personal loss is by far the greatest burden of COVID-19 on grassroots activism in Detroit. It seems that everyone in Detroit knows someone who has died from COVID-19, and that is especially the case for black Detroiters. Myrtle emphasized that many Detroit community leaders have been lost, especially in the black community, which can potentially destabilize communities and disrupt momentum in activist movements on top of the emotional pain already experienced.

Most everything has slowed down, but Myrtle says, “if there’s one thing that’s ramped up, it’s the conversation around, ‘What’s it mean to be safe? What does a healthy community look like? What does it mean to take care of one another?’” We are strengthening our communities because of the threat that coronavirus poses. All across Detroit, people are stepping up in new ways, like bringing groceries to vulnerable neighbors and cheering on essential workers who cannot stay home during quarantine. In a way, community ties are stronger now than they were before, despite the physical separation we experience because we are intentionally caring for each other in ways we had not before.

It is Myrtle’s hope that the responsibility people feel towards each other now will continue even after quarantine, and that this will contribute to the cultural transformation coalition members are trying to spark with the Green Chairs, Not Green Lights program. After all, caring for each other is suddenly a viable solution to societal problems in a way that seemed far-fetched to most people just a couple of months ago. Why can’t caring for each other be an alternative to surveillance and Project Green Light, too? Is that as radical a suggestion as it was when Myrtle made her first presentations last year, months before COVID-19 and the global uprisings to police violence made us deepen our humanity? 

During COVID-19 we have seen how much stronger our communities can be when we care about and for each other; maybe we will start to care even more as we see the benefits of our efforts so far. Maybe then it will not be as difficult to imagine a future of, as Myrtle would say, “Green Chairs, not Green Lights.” In the meantime, Myrtle Thompson-Curtis will continue her work, preparing for the day when Feedom Freedom Growers can build and distribute their own green chairs. 

Learn more about other coalition members and the work of the campaign at greenchairsnotgreenlights.org.