By Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty
Crisis brings opportunity. Detroiters know this reality all too well. We have spent decades maneuvering between the two.
There was a time when the Black community was the safest community to visit or live in. No matter your race, you could reasonably expect to enter a Black community and leave with your life. At the same time, this was not the case in racist White communities where, in the words of Jimmy Boggs, “White folks were ladies and gentlemen by day and Ku Klux Klan by night.”
The vibrancy of urban Black neighborhoods is a reality that endures despite continued assaults: Drug infiltration, followed by the war on drugs; mass incarceration, massive school closings, leveling of neighborhoods for freeways; race riots targeting Black people and businesses; predatory mortgage lending, disparaging propaganda, and the extraction of resources. All these factors contributed to the dismantling the culture of resistance, pride and community that once characterized the Black community. This is not to say that this culture has been erased, as it does still exist in pockets. However, this is an acknowledgment of the struggles and uphill battle we currently face.
At a time of hopelessness in Detroit, a time when many in the world were convinced that Detroit had nothing to offer but crime and drugs, a time when my childhood experiences would have me praying to grow up and get out of the city, Jimmy Boggs was projecting the sort of challenge and vision for Black Detroiters that some three decades later we are still struggling to attain. On July 31, 1985, Jimmy said:
“African Americans cannot rise above the level of a special interest group as long as we are only struggling for a bigger piece of the American economic or political pie. It is because we have always raised the most fundamental questions of human dignity and social justice that we have spearheaded progressive struggles in the United States.”
When Jimmy gave this speech in July 1985, I was just eight years old. I would turn nine one month later and my dad would die of AIDS shortly after that. I remember calling my Dad on the evening before his death to tell him I had a nightmare that he died. In his effort to protect me, he lied and told me that he was on the road to recovery and would see me soon. I woke the next morning to learn he had died in his sleep. I don’t know how my father contracted AIDS, but what I do know is that because of the lack of information around the disease, he died a lonely and isolated death. I wouldn’t be told the true cause of his death until many years later.
The 1980s was a scary time for me growing up in Detroit. Crack cocaine was at epidemic proportions and I can recall being taught to watch where I was walking in order to avoid stepping on drug needles when we left the house. Our house was also shot up during a drug war between our neighbors. Luckily my mother ran into my bedroom in time and pushed my sister and me to the floor. I still have memories of the bullet entering my bedroom wall. This was a defining moment for my family. My mother, and later my sister, would go on to become police officers. I would become a poet and later a social justice organizer. Each of us doing what we believed would make a difference for our city and the world, whether we agree on the methods or not.
When I was introduced to Jimmy’s speech some 20 years after it was given, I was profoundly struck by his words. They not only challenged the Black community to rise above a harsh reality still prevalent for many, but these words provided an assessment of a community that had not been living up to its fullest potential. Jimmy was challenging the Black community to find the opportunity within the many crises that we faced then and still face today.
On April 4, 2017, we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s A Time to Break Silence speech in which he called on humanity to undergo a radical revolution of values. He also challenged us to move beyond simply responding to crises, into challenging the structures that create the crises to begin with.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Jimmy’s speech pushed the Black community to go beyond even where Dr. King’s most profound vision had taken him. Unfortunately, Dr. King would be murdered just one year following his speech, so it is difficult to predict just how far his thinking would have evolved.
Dr. King had endured a lifetime of racism, but he had not lived to see the aftermath of the rebellions of the late 60s. He had not lived to see the massive Black fratricide in the 70s and 80s, the infiltration of crack and the AIDS epidemic in the Black communities in the 80s, or the impact of the fleeing of over nine million middle and upper class Blacks from the cities to the suburbs. It has been argued that Black flight caused just as much harm — or even greater harm — to the Black community than White flight did. Black Americans pursuit of the American Dream in the suburbs, despite America’s insistence that Black people not benefit from it, helped deal a deathblow to urban communities.
In 1985, Jimmy Boggs tasked Black Detroiters with an incredible opportunity to not only reimagine revolution, but to think beyond restructuring systems in pursuit of the American Dream, and to take responsibility for their own dignity and humanity.
“For the next stage of struggle we have to go far beyond where Martin and Malcolm brought us. The task is awesome, but it was also awesome when they began. In the course of the struggle, they came to the recognition that to get rid of racism, African Americans must make a revolution against the total dehumanization of the capitalist system.”
Though Dr. King had long called on Blacks and all of humanity to struggle against the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism,” masses of Detroiters were not yet ready to have discussions on alternatives around water, lighting and housing in 1985, or even as late as 2016. The argument, “pay your bills,” and the culture of shaming and blaming has dominated much of the conversations around water shutoffs, utility shutoffs and tax foreclosures for many decades. The predominately Black women-led households of Detroit are still plagued with the “welfare queen” stigma of the 1970s.
In recent months Detroiters have experienced several crises. Detroiters are no longer able to look at Flint from a distance and think, this can’t happen to us. Detroiters are no longer able to dismiss the possibility of poisoned water infiltrating households and making their children and elders deathly ill. As boil water advisories swept across the city leaving residents frightened for nearly a week, discussions around innovative water strategies became commonplace.
Detroiters are no longer able to evade the much needed conversations around alternative energies as they recover from massive blackouts in the hundreds of thousands that left many struggling to survive for a week in households with zero degree temperatures.
Detroiters are no longer able to dismiss cooperative housing options as a viable possibility, as they struggle to keep residents in the tens of thousands in their homes. Many of these residents had stayed and fought for Detroit for many decades when investment in the city was at its lowest. Many more Detroiters are ready now to have deeper conversations around grassroots solutions for their neighborhoods.
Though it may seem that we are rapidly moving backwards under the current Trump administration, we have also made tremendous strides towards more humane technologies since Jimmy’s speech in 1985.
During Detroit’s most recent blackout that left entire neighborhoods in total darkness, the Boggs Center, through the innovation of Ryter Cooperative Industries, was able to maintain light on the exterior of the Center with solar technology. The lights glowing from the Center are part of larger efforts across the city to provide sustainable solar lighting. Ryter Cooperative’s Alley Lighting Project has provided much needed light in alleyways all over the city of Detroit. Neighborhood groups are organizing to set up solar lights in ways to generate electricity for their communities. Carlos Neilback of CANArts Handworks is constructing a windmill in Eastern Market to provide electricity and a unique public charging station.
Because of the innovation and forward thinking of We the People of Detroit (WTP), an organization that has responded consistently to the water shutoff crisis in Detroit, many residents were able to access clean water during the boil water advisory that left most of Detroit without water. In 2014, during the height of the water crisis, WTP set up water stations and began door-to-door campaigns to assess the needs of Detroiters. They also started an emergency phone line in order to provide rapid response support to disabled and elderly residents, advocated at City Council meetings and elsewhere for the Water Affordability Plan first proposed by the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and the People’s Water Board Coalition many years ago. We the People Research Collective has published Mapping the Water Crisis, a book which documents the targeting of Black neighborhoods with the conflated assaults of water shut-offs and home foreclosures. The book is a powerful asset in the struggle for water as a human right.
Many residents in Detroit have started housing cooperatives and shared rental agreements in order to care for one another during this period of heightened gentrification and wide-scale displacement. Neighbors like those on Manistique Street, with the support of Detroit Eviction Defense and the art and activism of Feedom Freedom Growers, stood together to resist evictions. Other groups like Detroit People’s Platform have worked towards preventing foreclosures and securing community land-trusts in order to ensure retention of properties that have been rescued from foreclosure.
Detroiters are not responding to the massive school closures in Detroit with their hands tied behind their backs. They are educating children in recreation centers, in living rooms, in churches and museums. People are holding town hall meetings and public demonstrations to strategize how we can truly educate our children so that they can become thoughtful, creative people. The Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement has organized sites around the city where volunteer teachers gather with students to learn together. One group meets on Saturdays at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
The days of capitalistic individualism are coming to an end. Neighbors are beginning to turn to one another again, instead of turning away from one another.
Thirty-two years ago at the height of many crises, Jimmy Boggs espoused the notion that we “must project a vision grand enough to inspire the dispossessed and the disinherited of all ethnic groups to change our total society.”
I think that he would say we are finally on the right track.