Challenging Systems Designed To Disable

Riverwise Editorial Board

It’s no accident that there are ‘two Detroits’. It requires violence to maintain this inequity. Neighborhoods are neglected by city government. Police are rarely seen as protectors. The daily experience of many of our young people, from schools to the streets, is to be controlled and contained. The laws of the state fall most heavily on the young and the people deemed disposable by a society that no longer needs their labor and lacks the humanity to understand their creativity.


Yet it is precisely in many of these same neighborhoods where we find the most sustainable and community-focused efforts emerging from the deepest desires of people to contribute to building a better life for themselves, their families and their communities. For example, neighborhood collectives on Detroit’s east-side have expanded the traditional urban farm with conscious efforts to create new economic relationships,  that celebrate people before profit. Cooperative economics enables people to experiment with new ways to make good housing affordable, education initiatives strengthen intergenerational ties and stretch the imaginations of young and old, and new methods of living more consciously with our natural world. Water catchment systems are springing up alongside rows of organic vegetables. It is here, in neighborhoods, as people come together to talk the texture of daily life, to share their plans and assume responsibilities for them that a more democratic and equitable society is emerging.


It is this potential to embrace and enact radically different values of care, concern and compassion that is most threatening to the power structure.  In this edition of Riverwise it is with great pride and humility that we decided to feature local organizing efforts challenging the most oppressive structures in our city. Police power, criminalization of young people, abuse of law and courts, and mass prisons have no place in our future. Throughout the country and the city, people are coming together to challenge this violence.


In Detroit, we have quickly seen the interconnectedness of the struggles for a just future. In the struggle to resist water shut-offs we witnessed the complete disregard for people with disabilities. Increasingly we are learning what it means to create a society where all people are valued, where lives are respected and where people’s creativity and contributions are encouraged, not controlled and disregarded.

Challenging the prison system and the ableism in our society opens profound questions for us to consider about our relationships to one another and about who we value. When we seriously ask how do we move beyond a system of state violence to solve problems, how do we restore those who have been taken from our communities, how do we create a society where jails are obsolete, we are opening ourselves to new understandings of our mutual obligations to one another. As we come to understand that, just as many of us are locked away in prison cells, others of us are locked out of full community life by a culture that regards people with disabilities as disposable, that makes little effort to include them in public, productive life. We thank this issue’s authors and contributors who help us ask more of ourselves as we think about the kind of just future we are creating together.


As this Summer/Fall 2018 issue is being released, a national prisoner strike will have just ended. One of the ten demands of the national prisoner’s strike is, “An immediate end to all prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.” This demand addresses the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which allows prisons to profit from the labor of incarcerated individuals. It remains the legal foundation buttressing a system that has become a massive profit center for private companies who pay pennies per hour for the labor of people forced to work behind bars.


This nationwide action was, in part, a direct response to an April ‘prison riot’ at Lee Correctional Institute in South Carolina. But the protest is more generally about ongoing inhumane living conditions that plague American prisons, The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world at approximately 2.3 million inhabitants.  We welcome the coalition of prison abolition groups fighting to overturn the current prison system to the benefit of society as a whole.


Locally, a grassroots coalition is emerging to address these same issues through community rallies and in the courts. While the state is attempting to spend taxpayer money on a new jail complex— money that should be earmarked for reopening the dozens of public schools closed during the last 15 years— the newly formed Detroit Justice Center (DJC) is making the case that the public has, once again, been left out of the process. The land swap between Wayne County and Dan Gilbert that made the deal possible may be complete, but the public must be notified before construction bonds are  released paving the way for the new jail complex near I-75 and Warren. That is the basis of a federal lawsuit the DJC has filed in US Eastern District Court.


The suit says that Wayne County officials failed to provide proper notice to Detroit citizens when the construction bonds were issued, taking away our right to challenge the new jail’s construction through a voter referendum. The DJC wants Wayne County officials to adhere to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Michigan and reissue the notice.


The work of the DJC sheds more light on the broader movement to end criminalization of poverty and, furthermore, to abolish our system of incarceration. The DJC is part of a growing number of activists who understand that if we are serious about transforming the world, we need to embrace the idea of ‘abolition’ and the work it will take to achieve it.


Speaking in abolitionist terms forces us to address the idea that a truly corrupt and unjust system that is damaging to society as a whole cannot be reformed. It must be dismantled entirely. We must then imagine and adopt new ways of living together.

It’s only when we reach towards abolition that we begin to address what our prison system is: a form of modern-day slavery, whittling away the humanity of our incarcerated citizens and the society that maintains it. Abolition forces us to imagine a world in which prisons don’t exist; a place where the justice system is based on practices considered restorative and transformative instead of punitive. We can then address the causes of so-called crimes, and begin to restructure our economic institutions accordingly.


In his recent article on the movement’s foundation, “What Is Prison Abolition?,” John Washington writes that, “Abolitionists…share an idea—a vision—more than a structure: a future in which vital needs like housing, education, and health care are met, allowing people to live safe and fulfilled lives—without the need for prisons.”


In Michigan we vividly see how our humanity is distorted; we are reminded how automatically callous and malevolent the criminal system is, especially when it comes to black folks.  Take the case of Siwatu-Salama Ra, the young Detroit activist. She was five months pregnant when she was convicted for offenses stemming from the defense of her family from imminent assault.  Despite doctor’s warnings of serious health risks, she was forced to give birth in prison. She, like many other female inmates had her baby taken from her after 48 hours. This is the type of violence inflicted upon incarcerated people every hour of every day. It is a violence that perpetuates and increases the cycle of alienation and separation from society. With our relative freedom comes the responsibility to repair those injuries. With our creativity comes the obligation to imagine a world where these injurious relationships are less likely to develop.


As a start, the agreement between Dan Gilbert and Wayne County is toxic. It continues to entangle public and private ventures, with the public playing the role of financier for private profits. On top of it all, the debilitating effects of a nationwide carceral system remain absent from mainstream media commentary.

But to observers like Matthew Irwin (page 6) the subtext and contradictions of the Wayne County/Dan Gilbert land swap couldn’t be more clear: Gilbert seeks to expand his real estate empire and security apparatus with public tax monies.


The way that the criminal justice system injures families and community indicates the historical role that American society plays in disabling persons. The police disable people when they use violent measures in apprehending suspected transgressors. But we also disable people when we ignore the resources that some people require just to get from place to place or to obtain the things they need to live. Disability, or capability, becomes a collective responsibility; it’s a spectrum that we all exist on and can all work to improve.


Disability justice advocates (pages 18 and 20) use language to help us alter our perspective on how disabilities are a function of external perceptions more than physical or mental limitations. Baxter Jones’ story and his activism help us realize the part we play, and the part oppressive institutions play, in perpetuating the ‘disableing.’ As with mass incarceration, embracing our interconnectedness is a necessity to understand that “nobody, by nature, is disabled.”


We must begin to value everyone for their potential to be a contributing member of a new society. We must find ways to consciously become more human, human beings. As we begin to value new ideas and relationships, we are moving closer to just, equitable and sustainable lives.


The New Jail: Profit and Social Control

Matthew Irwin

Dan Gilbert’s deal to build a new detention center for Wayne County in exchange for prime real estate is not merely his latest attempt to conceal his downtown annexation project under the pall of benevolent progress. Rather, the project, which falls under Gilbert’s Rock Ventures banner, signals a material and rhetorical expansion of racialized redevelopment in Detroit. In the words of prison studies literature, the recent land swap articulates a “carceral space” in which public and private agencies surveil, police, criminalize, imprison, penalize, and otherwise exclude people of color in order to protect white property. Not merely white property as taxable enclosures owned exclusively by wealthy white people, but as prior/proper white possession of, and right to control, city spaces.


Here’s what the deal looks like: Rock Ventures will relocate the development site for the new Wayne County jail from downtown to the I-75 service road at East Warren Ave. For an estimated cost of $533 million, Rock will build a four-building criminal justice center to house a 2,380-bed jail and administrative offices. The county will cover $380 million and Rock Ventures will cover the rest. Rock Ventures will also take $30 million in parking fees from nearby parking spots before the county takes them over, and it has pledged $500,000 to Wayne County parks and $250,000 to career and technical training for previously incarcerated individuals. In return, the county will turn over its “fail jail” site at Gratiot Ave. and St. Antoine St. for Gilbert to build a $1 billion mixed-use development in the heart of downtown.


Gilbert has referred to the swap as a “smart” partnership of public and private sectors and the new jail is generally explained by local officials and local press as a much-needed replacement for deplorable conditions in the county’s existing facilities. However, in contrast to this common sense, neoliberal reformist explanation, the jail inflates Gilbert’s investment portfolio and his influence in Detroit at the same time that it expands imprisonment itself as a mode of social control beyond the jail’s new walls.


Gilbert’s Bedrock Detroit real estate company revealed the organizing logic of this new social order when it invited tech firms and tech labor to envision a “Detroit 2.0” free of Black people. Sure, Gilbert apologized for Bedrock’s “See Detroit As We Do” ad, featuring a city occupied exclusively by white people, but the preemptive logic of Gilbert’s redevelopment narrative remains. When he said in a statement that the jail deal “fixes significant mistakes of the past,” he was not-so-covertly suggesting that prior/proper white possession of Detroit is the “solution” to Black mismanagement of the city leading up to the crash. He’s used a version of the phrase “mistakes of the past” since implementation of emergency management in 2013. Now, with the deleterious effects of emergency management all but finished, the white possessive logics cemented into Gilbert’s redevelopment regime have been built into the physical structure of downtown — the new jail acts as a kind of an assurance that it will stay that way.


In the words of Linda Evans and Eve Goldberg, the prison-industrial complex (or “prison regime”) is “an interweaving of private business and government interests,” using the threat of crime to extract profit and establish a social order. Thus, the public/private partnership that Gilbert celebrates is a further privatization of criminal justice that extracts the cost of growth and development from the poor, unemployed, unemployable, and unprotected—a form of what Jackie Wang calls “carceral capitalism.” For example, the $30 million in parking fees that Rock Ventures plans to withdraw from the criminal justice center act as “offender-funded criminal justice services” that fill municipal budgets and inflate corporate ledgers by taxing the very people Gilbert’s redevelopment regime intends to contain and exclude. The new jail site physically removes racialized, criminalized populations from the center of redevelopment (indeed, from progress) while Gilbert’s surveillance cameras throughout downtown set, as Simone Browne writes, “boundaries, borders, and bodies along racial lines.” In other words, the surveillance program extends, but also renders invisible, a carceral space that marks racialized bodies as unwanted and unwelcome, and the jail suggests where they can go if they don’t mind those borders.


Sources: Curbed Detroit, Motor City Muckraker, Michigan Radio, Riverwise, Dark Matter: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne, Carceral Capitalism by Jackie Wang, Linda Evans and Eve Goldberg, quoted in Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime by Dylan Rodriguez.


Matthew Irwin is a PhD student in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Also a widely published art critic, he is a two-time NEA arts journalism fellow and a two-time finalist for the Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant. Matthew’s dissertation, in progress, looks at discourses on citizenship and belonging along Woodward Ave.


What Can We Build Instead of Jails?

Amanda Alexander

In July, bulldozers began tearing down the partially-built “fail jail” that has stood in downtown Detroit for years. There’s video footage of the demolition online, and it’s captivating. It shows just how easy it is to tear down a jail. For anyone with a family member behind bars who has projected their love through concrete walls, down usurious phone lines, through visiting room glass: if you felt your love was stronger, more enduring than these walls, you were right. These are flimsy steel skeletons. They can come to dust in days.

Now that the “fail jail” is gone, the question is: what will Detroit build next? In recent years we’ve learned—more acutely than ever—what jails do to individuals, families, local economies, and communities. We’ve learned how adept cages are at breaking bodies and spirits, how they steal breath and the will to live, how they conceal sexual assault and perpetuate misery. In 2018, we could learn from the mistakes of our past, or we could continue down the failed path of mass incarceration. As of now, Wayne County and Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures are intent on building a $533-million “Criminal Justice Complex” that includes a new 2280-bed adult jail and 160-bed youth jail. The complex threatens to expand, rather than reduce, Detroit’s incarcerated population; Wayne County’s current jail population is between only 1,600 and 1,700 people, and that number has been decreasing over the past 12 years.

Detroiters know building a new jail isn’t in the city’s best interests, and we asked them to share their alternative visions as part of a Juneteenth celebration this summer called, “Nothing To Lose But Our Chains.” The event, held at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was hosted by several organizations that are part of a growing coalition to halt new jail construction. In a video produced by Complex Movements, community members shared their ideas for what Detroit could build instead of a new jail:

Instead of building a new jail, we need to fund teacher professional development around restorative practices.

Instead of a new jail, we should build fully funded daycare centers.

Instead of new jails, we need housing and no homelessness.

Instead of a new jail in Detroit we should fund bringing back conflict resolution in Detroit schools.

Instead of a new jail, we need community healing spaces for physical and mental and spiritual health where people aren’t stigmatized for what they’re carrying.

Instead of a new jail, we need public transportation that is quick, reliable, and spans the whole community and the city.

When asked what we could build that would make them feel safe and valued, Detroiters are full of ideas. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change course. What could Detroit build instead of a new jail? We’re limited only by our imaginations.


Amanda Alexander, founding Executive Director of the Detroit Justice Center, is a racial justice lawyer who works alongside community-based movements to end mass incarceration and build thriving and inclusive cities. Amanda launched the Prison & Family Justice Project at University of Michigan Law School to provide legal representation to incarcerated parents, and advocate for families divided by the prison and foster care systems.    

Free Siwatu Update

Riverwise Editorial Staff

Detroit community activist Siwatu-Salama Ra was unjustly convicted of felonious assault and felony firearm possession,  and imprisoned earlier this year. This was the result of Siwatu’s attempting to defend her family from an attack by a neighbor who rammed her car into Siwatu’s car,  where her two year-old daughter was in the front seat. The attacker then came dangerously close to running over Siwatu’s mother.

After several verbal requests for the driver to leave, Siwatu feared for her mother’s life and held up her unloaded and registered firearm. Despite her defensive posture throughout the ordeal, Siwatu was convicted in a jury trial and sentenced to a two-year prison term. Mandatory sentencing laws prevented the judge from any discretion in sentencing. The jury had not been instructed on how the mandatory sentencing laws would affect Siwatu’s case. Siwatu was six months pregnant at the time of the conviction.

Despite strong legal and medical arguments that Siwatu should be granted a temporary release to give birth to her son, those requests were denied. Siwatu gave birth to her son Zakai on May 21st while incarcerated. Zakai was removed from his mother’s arms 48 hours later and is now in the care of Siwatu’s husband and family. During limited visitations Siwatu has been denied the right to breastfeed her newborn child.

Since Siwatu’s unjust incarceration, the effort to bring attention to her case has manifested in several fundraisers and community events. The focus of these support efforts has been the writings of Siwatu and her unit mates, who have been raising awareness around prison conditions endured by incarcerated pregnant and postpartum women.

On August 18th poets convened at the Detroit Street Filling Station in Ann Arbor to feature poetry written by Siwatu and some of the 20 other pregnant and postpartum women at the Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Facility. Siwatu’s advocacy was also uplifted at this summer’s Detroit Kite Festival. Members of the Siwatu Freedom Team collaborated with her on a “Kites on Kites” project and flew kites featuring messages collected from inside Siwatu’s unit. Those dispatches expressed the hopes and struggles for imprisoned parenting rights and recognized the children whose physical and emotional well-being has been compromised in the process.

Siwatu’s legal team has filed an appeal brief and is preparing for an upcoming bond hearing. Riverwise is honored to present poetry from Siwatu and two of her unit mates in support of their continuing struggle to bring dignity and humanity to pregnant and postpartum women and parents who remain incarcerated.



I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night

in the violence of a summer stream,

in the chill of a wintry light,

in the bitter dance of loneliness fading in space.

in the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face,

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea.

Sometimes I turn and there’s someone there,

other times its only me.

I am hanging in the balance of reality of man

like every sparrow fallen,

like every grain of sand.

by Candice


Looking forward

The hours are cruel

the minutes so punishing

trapped in this cell

stuck with my mind wondering

there is only so much you can think in a day

there is only so much words to put on paper to say

hoping to hear your name when the officer passes by,

when she walks right on by,

a little piece of your happiness dies.

No words today, maybe tomorrow sitting feeling lonely

time is all you can borrow.

Keep hope alive is my daily mantra

won’t go back to the old life, look where that’s gotcha.

One day at a time, keep moving forward,

be humble and kind, freedom to be adored.

by Jessica Ayeres


I had a dream that I was hugging Kalief

I started crying, heart tired and soul aching.

I told him I couldn’t do much longer, he held me

tighter and said that my pain was a blessing and

not to be confused.

He said Michael Brown said hold on because relief

was coming, just the other day Tamir was standing tall

and Eric was taking deep breaths of peace and that they

remembered their promises before birth.

So be EMPOWERED and do not feel defeated. Injustices

have always been used to awaken the powerful, how do

you think Trayvon found his throne?

Let the pain guide you and be grateful that you received

the wrongdoing and not the one who gave it.

Tell everyone to remember their promises before birth

that they can remember them in silence and through

their actions of kindness.

Be excited that our time is now.

by Siwatu-Salama Ra

For more frequent updates, or to donate or otherwise support the ‘Free Siwatu’ campaign, please visit



Farm Collectives Show The Future In Progress

Eric Thomas Campbell |  Photo Alexandre DaVeiga

In recent years, we’ve seen many cases where community gardens have transformed Detroit neighborhoods  into full-scale models for self-determination. These achievements have taken us beyond growing food for sustenance, as vital as that aspect is. We are now looking for ways to distribute the harvest or, in the words of Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) executive director Malik Yakini, “sufficiently develop the infrastructure necessary to allow local growers to participate, in a more robust way, in the local food economy.”


Today, many neighborhood collectives that emerged out of community gardening  are providing creative solutions to even greater economic necessities, including housing, youth centers, community kitchens, and local trading.


On August 1 Keep Growing Detroit’s (KGD) Annual Garden and Farm tour showcased some of the dozens of Detroit urban agriculture developments that are transforming the people who work in and around them. The urban agriculture movement has always been on the forefront of the larger movement for liberation— food sovereignty being the foundation of any self-reliant community. Now they are asking how to expand their efforts to address issues of water shut offs, school closures, and home foreclosures.


The KGD Tour allowed the 300 or so participants, traveling to different corners of the city by bus or by bike, to observe and reflect on the ways agriculture programs have opened our thinking to issues outside of food production. Food sovereignty  links the work of community farmers to a myriad of activities including local enterprises and neighborhood gatherings such as those hosted by the Georgia Street Community Collective. The Ohana Family Garden, in addition to year-round cultivation of vegetables, flowers and bees, renovates apartments that provide sanctuary for young mothers. The Nurturing Our Seeds garden gives special attention to native plant species that most of us tend to look past every day.


Through the network developing around these evolving communities, we are addressing and solving the issues that local and federal government have not. Instead of shutting off water, closing schools and building jails, we are renovating homes, revitalizing the soil, educating ourselves and creating new and sustainable institutions rooted in more democratic principles.

Questions on Democracy, Organizing and Power

Tom Stephens | Photo Leah Duncan

I have a lot of questions about the demise of democracy in the Trump administration and the crises we are facing in many arenas of our national life: climate and environmental catastrophe; the “Flint water scandal” and other instances of social austerity policies gone awry; exploding poverty and inequality; leadership deficits rooted in systemic corruption; raging plagues of violence—gun violence in schools, domestic violence, international violence and police violence against innocents; the outrageous human rights violations involved in separating children of immigrants and asylum seekers from their parents at the US border. Such conditions and the related governmental policies take one’s breath away in their scope and viciousness. They are profound, life-threatening dangers, cumulatively amounting to a disastrous collapse of what’s commonly considered civilization.


What are we doing about all this? What do we even think we’re trying to do? The challenges and potential catastrophes posed by these problems are enormous. Are our networks, theories, actions and movements stepping up to these challenges at the right scale and pitch? I see a gaping (and fast-growing!) chasm between where we are and where we really need to be in our understanding of and response to underlying issues of democracy and power.


That’s where education and organizing come in. There’s no shortage of enlightening material. For example, the findings of United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, compiled during his fact-finding mission to the United States of America in December 2017.


His two-week visit coincided with what he called, a “dramatic change of direction in United States policies relating to inequality and extreme poverty.” In his subsequent report, released May 4, 2018, he stated that these governmental policies increasingly:


  • Provide unprecedented high tax breaks and financial windfalls to the very wealthy and the largest corporations;


  • Pay for these tax breaks by reducing welfare benefits for the poor;


  • Undertake a radical program of financial, environmental, health and safety deregulation that eliminates protections mainly benefiting the middle classes and the poor;


  • Seek to add over 20 million poor and middle class persons to the ranks of those without health insurance;


  • Restrict eligibility for many welfare benefits while increasing the obstacles required to be overcome by those eligible;


  • Dramatically increase spending on defense, while rejecting requested improvements in key veterans’ benefits;


  • Do not provide adequate additional funding to address an opioid crisis that is decimating parts of the country; and


  • Make no effort to tackle the structural racism that keeps a large percentage of non-whites in poverty and near poverty.


The U.S. white supremacist, corporate, patriarchal policies identified by the Special Rapporteur are being carried out feverishly, with a ruthless disregard for the survival necessities of the poor and people of color. Under these circumstances, fundamental questions about democracy and resistance to injustice have a greater sense of urgency.


What does “democracy” even mean in today’s world? Threatened perhaps like never before, the idea of “democracy” hardly calls people to participate or even think about whether our political system can somehow be made viable.


A recent essay by renowned international law expert Richard Falk considered questions about the devaluation of democracy in the face of the rising global prestige of fascism. Alarmed by the threatened status of democratic tendencies in today’s crisis-ridden world, Prof. Falk notes that there are definite pre-fascist aspects in today’s majoritarian democracies. However, he argues forcefully that sophisticated, righteous educational campaigns about what grassroots democracy should really mean in terms of popular agency are nevertheless absolutely necessary: “[A] mandate for democracy as flowing upwards from the people… is precarious and must be safeguarded and periodically revitalized.” How sad it is that we hardly ever talk or even think about the potential of community-controlled, democratic political processes that could be so vital to our families and our communities. Such efforts at democracy would indeed be “precarious,” and in desperate need of protection and revitalization. Yes, the real work involves creating movement momentum for democracy and power “flowing upwards” from the people. We have to be tenacious in building sustainability into our fights and engaging ever-larger groups of people in the struggle.


In Detroit, our community’s political base used to be dominated by two major institutions: the black church and the unions, both of which used to have serious grassroots connections and credibility. Today, not so much. I suspect Detroit is just one bright example of many communities and collective histories that share this decline in grassroots movement strength. The absence of a powerful, institutionalized “Left” in America only compounds the problem. Sure, there are lots of us writing on blogs and in magazines like this one, volunteering in countless grassroots organizations and campaigns, but are we a “Left” in the sense of a movement that exercises power in meaningful ways? I don’t see it.


So what must be done? According to DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) theorist Sophia Burns, we have to undertake the “slow and patient” work of base building. Our organizing efforts should be infused with the bedrock principles of self-determination, agency, collective self-defense, anti-oppression, class rebellion, community control and radical participatory democracy.


Political theorist Kim Scipes outlines the work of organizing in this way:


“The primary goal is to transfer power from the elite to the majority, from the 1 percent to the 99 percent. Individual campaigns matter in themselves, but they are primarily a mechanism for bringing new people into the change process and keeping them involved. The organizing approach relies on mass negotiations to win, rather than closed-door deal making typical of both advocacy and mobilizing. Ordinary people help make the power analysis, design the strategy, and achieve the outcome. They are essential and they know it.


Putting these ideas into action is really hard for many reasons. In particular, our organizing often seems to be mundane daily interactions with others, easily dismissed in light of the crisis conditions oppressing millions around the world: people barely surviving under conditions of imperialism and war; racist mass imprisonment via school-to-prison pipelines; and ecological catastrophes. While state and corporate powers unleash massive death and destruction against vulnerable communities around the planet, we wake up in the morning or for the night shift, facing yet another humdrum day of our isolated existence, in a society full of lies and manufactured illusions.


Building and crossing a bridge, from today’s racist corporate barbarism to a future worth surviving for, is testing our deepest resources in organizing, education and movement building. The vision for this struggle can only be created by diving into it. As the late, great Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs wrote:


“A Movement is not just for the purpose of correcting particular injustices or inequities.   A Movement advances Humanity to a new plateau of consciousness, self-consciousness, creativity and political and social responsibility.  It creates a new dream, a new sense or vision of what it means to be a human being, a new basis of unity between different groups.  A Movement does not necessarily begin with this new vision, but in the course of struggle the vision has to become increasingly clear to the participants and be made increasingly clear to the rest of society both in actions and words.


On the threshold of yet another major, historic constitutional crisis at home around presidential authority testing the rule of law, and under the looming threat of even more destructive wars abroad, our choices and our work for a better world are more crucial now than ever.


Another late Detroit revolutionary theorist, Fredy Perlman of Black & Red Press, spells out the exact steps we need to take, as soon as possible and persisting one day longer than necessary:

“We need to come to grips with our historic function. Our contribution to the general popular movement is that (1) we name the system; (2) we explain why the capitalist system needs wars of intervention to survive; (3) we point to the necessity of a revolutionary transfer of power in all capitalist institutions; (4) we discuss openly the road to power, including the shape of the alternative society we wish to build, (5) we build our independent forms of organization which can present our views.”


What are we waiting for?


Longtime Detroiter Thomas Stephens currently does organizing and legal work for Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management. He has served as policy analyst for the Detroit City Council Research and Analysis Division. He previously worked as a trial lawyer, litigating cases related to environmental justice and civil rights.

Noble School Students: Seeing Through Their Own Lenses

Audra Carson | Photo Takara Williams

What happens when middle schoolers are given cameras with the goal of going much deeper than taking pictures? Community Lens, which is an initiative that fosters leadership, community engagement, and place-based education endeavored to find out. Kim Sherobbi, a community practitioner and former DPS teacher, is the director of the initiative that is currently in its second year. Learning takes place inside and outside of the classroom. Community Lens operates from Birwood Houses I & II, community houses located on Detroit’s westside, and neighboring Noble Middle School. It is an excellent example of place-based education and it is experiencing some wonderful results.

Participating students at Noble Middle School have discovered that they possess gifts and talents that have impressed their community educators, each other, and, most importantly, themselves.

In early 2018, by recommendation of Educator and Student Advocate Ms. Rosalind Furlow, the students decided to spend two lunch periods per week learning photography.  Upon assignment of digital cameras, the youth were provided instruction on their use, as well as the rules and expectations of classroom behavior. The students were totally unaware of how their focus would be adjusted and special character traits highlighted by learning to become photographers.

Classroom time was led by Ms. Sherobbi and assisted by renowned photographer, activist, and entrepreneur Piper Carter, and myself, a community leader and entrepreneur. Ms. Carter provided careful instruction on the foundational elements and techniques required for a great photograph. Short how–to videos were shared in the classroom along with hands-on learning assignments.  The students learned composition and techniques such as framing, pattern, and depth of field. While looking at photos from prominent magazines, they learned that often, if the subject is a celebrity, technique is secondary, or non–existent.

Students were provided a relaxed atmosphere at Birwood House II, where during their winter and spring breaks they attended ‘learnshops’ led by community leaders like Ray Solomon, who is a Detroit City Manager for District 7, youth-organizer Julia Cuneo, and Denija Hodge, who is a former Community Lens student. Open dialogue occurred regarding conflict resolution and leadership during which time the educators in Community Lens began to see the emergence of leadership traits in their students. The youth walked the neighborhood on photography excursions that encouraged honest conversation regarding the aesthetic and physical conditions of their community. The photography techniques discussed in the classroom over the months were used in the streets where they lived and attended school.  

The students toured Studio D,  a professional photography and recording studio located close to their school. The visit prompted thoughtful questions and deep engagement as the students learned about lighting techniques, career pathways and enriching life lessons. Visits to the Boggs Center, Michigan Roundtable Annual Youth Leadership Conference and Eastern Michigan University were phenomenal experiences for the students which broadened their scope regarding community engagement and leadership.  Additionally, a program-ending exhibit at Adams Butzel Recreation Complex showcased the student’s work for guests that included Noble School staff, family and community members.

Photography skills were developed, creativity emerged, and some charming and dynamic youth from Noble Middle School found out that their “eye” and their voices matter— with those, they have the potential to change their community.


Audra D. Carson is a lifelong Detroiter and proud alumnus from Cass Technical High School and Olivet College, in Olivet, Michigan. Currently she leads two social enterprises: De-tread that addresses the global issue of post consumer tire waste and Izzie LLC, a Strategic Beautification company. Additionally, she volunteers with Community Lens as a student engagement assistant.



Sacred Sites Detroit: Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

Riverwise Editorial Staff | Photo Alexandre DaVeiga 

With its massive, circular architecture and other representative emblems of African design and philosophy throughout, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History serves as a sacred place for remembering the contributions of ancestral heroes and community builders.  The tiles that pave the floor of the grand atrium bear their names. Voices echo in the expanse of the rotunda with its very high, vaulted glass ceiling. Here beloved leaders have lain in state, honored by admirers from near and far – the Honorable Coleman A. Young, the Honorable Erma Henderson, Mrs. Rosa Parks, and just weeks ago, Ms. Aretha Franklin.

Soft foot falls, the click of heels. People moving in silence, offering last respects for those whose courage and creativity challenged and changed our city, our country, and the world.

Explosive rhythms of African drums, master artists bringing ancient sounds to life, entrusting them to young hands.

Echoes of the Duke, Count, and the Queen of Soul, mixed with Miles and Motown, punctuated with the beats of hip-hop and the voices of poets.

Words of scholars, artists, actors and activists weaving new ideas, remembering old promises and passions.

Laughter, as children delight in learning.

Images of our past — who we used to be.  

Visions of who we can yet become.


For this issue of Riverwise, we recognize the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History for our ‘sacred sites’ feature. The museum’s ground-breaking mission was to give greater visibility to the historic strivings and achievements of Africans in the United States, and to ensure that our children’s self-esteem could grow, firmly rooted in the knowledge of our ancestral heritage. Since its founding by Dr. Charles H. Wright in 1965, the Museum has been a community centerpiece, a symbol of our collective strength and resilience. There were setbacks in the early development of the Museum– given it was the first of its kind. Finding appropriate staff and leadership posed a problem, as there were very few African-American professionals in the field. In addition, early directors struggled to find their footing in the Detroit community, often failing to recognize the historical assets and sophistication of the community they had been called to serve.


Over the last decade, such problems have been solved. The exhibits, concerts, lectures and other programs have achieved a level of excellence that has won the community’s enthusiastic support. We have been reminded of the significant contributions of our heroes— Mandela, Walter Rodney, Vincent Harding, for example,  —as we celebrated their birthdays; we have savored lectures from brilliant scholars in the fields of political economics and medical research; we have been restored by Detroit’s world-class musicians; we have been inspired by our most highly esteemed literary artists. Some programs reminded us of the beauty and profundity of our culture; others urged us to deeper analysis of contemporary political developments, both positive and negative, that impact our lives as African Americans.  


Moreover, the Museum is now firmly rooted in the community. It serves as gathering base for numerous organizations and educational efforts, such as the General Baker Institute and Detroit Independent Freedom Schools; offers internships to advance the development of young leaders; reaches out to young men in prison to help them find their way; and sponsors the exuberant events of African Liberation Day and the African World Festival, to which thousands look forward each year. By all assessments, the Museum is exemplary for its realization of “best practices” in the field.


However, given the abrupt departure of the former CEO and President, there is community concern about the direction the Museum Board will take. A group of  twenty community organizations have already collected over 15,000 signatures on social media outlets to oppose an exhibit on Thomas Jefferson that the interim COO, Mr. George Hamilton, plans to bring to the Museum.  Many African Americans are aware that Jefferson made an enslaved child his mistress and bearer of his children. To assume that such an exhibit would be well received by African Americans in 2018, when we are daily mourning the police murders of our young people, reveals a shocking degree of racial insensitivity as well as professional incompetence.  


So what will become of our beloved Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History? Who has called for the recent uprooting of the successful leadership of the last 12 years? What does the Board propose to do, and in whose interest are they making plans? Let’s remain watchful!


Emergent Bravery: Who Wants to Talk about Disability?

pau | Photo Kate Levy 

State Terror Disables the People

Baba Baxter Jones was roughly removed from the site of a civil disobedience in front of the Homrich Wrecking facility on Detroit’s west side. He was jammed into a police van and taken for what is known commonly as a “rough ride,” in his wheelchair on which he relies daily. He sustained lasting injuries. He was not only subjected to violence at the hands of a racist, capitalist system of violence, but an ableist system— a system with no capacity for compassion to consider his particular abilities. The physical force used to intimidate Baba Baxter Jones adversely altered his abilities going forward. But Baba Baxter is not disabled. The Detroit Police Department disables (and the system that it serves and protects continues to disable) Baba Baxter and possibly everyone in our beloved city, every day.

Similarly, when police in Baltimore harassed, arrested, maimed, and ultimately murdered Freddie Gray, their vicious, brutalizing force disabled him. Videos taken at the scene of Freddie Gray’s kidnapping show him pleading for mercy, screaming that he could not feel his legs, that the merciless mercenaries of Baltimore PD were disabling him. When Eric Garner was dragged to the ground by members of the New York Police Department, their aggression stemmed from a total disregard for his physical abilities, his health, his level of emotional distress, and his need for calm and care. Now infamously, Garner’s cry—“I can’t breathe”—stands as a clear example of police establishing domineering control over their subjects, by actively and willfully disabling all of us.  


Garner’s murderers and their co-conspirators attempted to justify killing Eric Garner by citing his weight and his health, not as things they should have considered when they engaged this harmless grandfather, but as reasons why he deserved to die, or at least why his death was of little consequence in the eyes of the law. Such attempts to body-shame a victim of fatal brutality (then only hours deceased) reveal the depths of the normalized hatred for people with diverse and uncelebrated abilities in an ableist society.


Despite attempts to attribute lesser worth to Eric Garner because of his physical makeup, Mr. Garner was not himself disabled; Garner’s legacy as a more than capable father, grandfather, husband, and friend is now a matter of public record. Yet the New York Police Department disabled Eric Garner, to the point of death. Though he could not walk at the point of his arrest, Freddie Gray was not disabled, but the Baltimore Police Department disabled Freddie Gray.


While we empathize easily with the plight of Freddie Gray and Eric Garner as Black people dying at the hands of police, viewing their arrests alongside the arrest of Baba Baxter Jones demonstrates how disabling people is a tool of state terror more generally; thus, disability justice and social justice must be joint projects and responsibilities for all of us.  

Through a lens that celebrates instead of stigmatizing diverse abilities, we make a radical claim: no one—not even someone born with outstanding physical or mental challenges—is by their nature disabled. Instead, when society does not value, accommodate, care about, and celebrate diverse abilities and individuality in our personal challenges, society disables people, throws them away, and disposes of them, even to the point of death.


Disability, Diverse-ability, Capability: Understanding Disability in Oppressive Systems


Ableism is a system of domination, interlinked with all other structures of elitist exploitation and domination; it establishes a class of people who are deemed superior according to perceived relative physical, mental, or emotional capability and thus establishes a class of people deemed inferior because of relative physical, mental, or emotional challenges. Ultimately, an ableist society structures all aspects of life to accommodate those abilities which are privileged and to exclude those people with different abilities. Society uses stigma to transform people with different abilities into people with disabilities, putting people with especially stigmatized physical, mental, or emotional experiences and abilities at the margins behind a mountain of built-in barriers. People are not disabled; society disables the people it doesn’t value. And though many do not identify with disability, or fail to recognize their own experience of being disabled (the way some don’t “see race”), a society designed to marginalize people ultimately disables people as a mechanism of control, even in unnoticeable but significant ways.


Fundamentally linked to racism, sexism, capitalism and other structures of elitist exploitation, ableism positions and asserts itself from the foundation of a false notion of capability and disability that is measured by one’s useability in systems of labor production, cultural compliance, and sexual subordination. If it is perceived that you are unable to work in ways that produce profit for the elites who own the economies of commodity, pleasure, respectability, you are disposable. Such concepts of productivity rest upon a perceived work-ethic, with implications about who is considered industrious and who is indigent, who is a hard worker and who, by nature, is lazy. Such concepts of productivity rely on an indifference to difference, to suffering, to personal struggle, to the various individual ways our bodies, our minds, the ways in which we work, not only to produce, but to function as whole persons.


Ableist society tries to use stigma and shame to convince us that “disability” is innate, something that exists within a person, such that a person is disabled. And yet, we know that structures of elitism are not responses to truly embodied inequality. Rather systems of domination and exploitation impose unequal conditions upon people through structurally unequal treatment, through violence and systemic harm. All of these systems rely on ableism and disabling the exploited classes of people to maintain elitist power structure.

The horrifying images of the massacre in Gaza this summer tell of both tragedy and trade-secret. Doctors reported from hospitals in surrounding areas that patient after patient rushed into the hospital with irreparable leg wounds forcing amputations. Such repeated sights convinced doctors that the Israeli Defense Force  was “aiming to cripple [sic] a generation.” Note the special intention with which armed Israeli forces aim not only to kill, but to disable Palestinians who protest.


Within elitist systems, in which people are deemed valuable only according to their ability to serve the elites, all people are disposable, especially if they challenge power. Any moral reckoning with consciousness and conscience is met by structures of exploitation with unthinkable brutality. State violence will destroy us to preserve the established order of elites exploiting the masses. Systems of elitism threaten to disable us all, physically, psychologically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  


Our Bodies Politic: The Revolutions of a More Whole Organism


Even our communities are complicit in disabling the people; every day, community spaces, government institutions and corporate enterprises in Detroit, and everywhere, disable people by refusing to consider and accommodate people’s particular needs in the way society broadly accommodates people with less stigmatized abilities.


Yet, it is nowhere written that only people who walk on their two-legs should have access to community meetings. Nowhere is it prescribed that only people who wake up feeling automatically motivated, free from depression or chronic fatigue, should have a decent income and that people who survive mental hardship should also be doomed to a life of financial hardship; nowhere is it predetermined that only those who feel aligned with their at-birth sex assignment should easily find housing while trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people should be left to the elements of unforgiving streets. We impose such false realities on the world around us, when we only celebrate what society tells us to celebrate, at the expense of our own innate goodness. The emergence of a distinct movement for disability rights (most notably the fight that resulted in the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990—known as the ADA—led by groups like ADAPT), and the re-emergence of a politics of liberation from ableist society, led by those like Baba Baxter Jones, founding the advocacy group “Advocates for Baba Baxter” here in Detroit, help us see that systems like racism, sexism, and capitalism fundamentally degrade bodies, reducing us all to a “worth” measured only in profitable productivity and exploitability by elites, by disabling the people.

Battles over maternity leave, struggles for decent wages centering on whose work is valuable and whose is not, fights for equal treatment regardless of someone’s language, culture, or gender identity reveal a political culture that devalues “different”. The shape of society is not a given, but is the product of flawed thinking, which holds some people as disposable.


That a ramp, or a wheelchair lift, or braille, or dual-language postings, or that any accessible infrastructure, the idea that such things are extra work is fundamentally ableist because we choose to structure not only spaces with barriers to those we don’t deem important in the first place. Any structure with stairs, could have easily had a ramp, all along. Any curb could be designed with a cut in the first place. All spaces reflect how much we do or do not value everyone.


Any community that cannot outgrow its own biases is itself “disabled” and through that disability limits itself and those in and around it. Those who scoff at the idea of building accessible spaces have a lacking ability of consideration and care. Communities who enjoy the insulation of racial privilege and apartheid lack the capacity for self-reflection. Those who see public safety and justice as products of systemic harm and police brutality and not healing, lack the ability of critical thought. In the end, when we lock each other out of beloved community, our community is the one that loses out on the additive, indispensable total of our collective brilliance. In that way, when Baba Baxter Jones and those who fight with him work to build a movement that realizes societal justice through the realization of disability justice, they fight for the good of all. A society that considers everyone is good for everyone.


The simple revelation of the inherent value of all people is one which places us beyond the capitalist workcamp of a world where our personal value is falsely equated to our ability to function, work, and produce in the ways that society’s elites deem valuable. Such a liberating revelation—of our intrinsic and collective power—emerges out of the bravery of visionary fighters and lifts us all from the dire place of disposability at the hands of exploitative systems.


In this, we know now one ultimate baseline in the harmony of truth(s): we are all the most free when we are freed by partaking in a movement for the freedom of all.

Uprooting Ableism Among Ourselves

Dear Activist Comrades:

Over the past year or so, I have been Baba Baxter Jones’s live-in caregiver, and have also had the privilege of being present as his friend, engaging in many in-depth conversations about activism, ableism, and much more. I’m writing this letter to share some of what I have learned, and hope it can be useful to you.


I was born in 1963 and have been an activist and organizer since the 1980s, working on campaigns to end wars, support women, dismantle racism, and much more. I moved to Detroit in 2013 from Milwaukee, largely to be near Mama Grace Lee Boggs, and to join her caregiving team.


However, not until this past year did I really begin to understand and confront the depth of my ableism (bias against people who are differently-abled). Similar to my feminist and racial awakenings in my 20s and 30s, recognizing my inner ableist has been extremely uncomfortable and disconcerting, and, to be honest, I have fought it every step of the way. The very same way a racist person clings tightly to their prejudices, I clung tightly to my ableist way of seeing things.


It took six months of living day in and day out with Baba Baxter for me to begin recognizing how much I was imposing my ableist standards on him. For these first months, I constantly argued with him about why he did things the way he did. After all, I had raised three kids, and had run households as well as organizations. I knew how to do things. Why did he want things done differently? Why couldn’t he see the logic and efficiency of my methods, and comply?


What I failed to do was fully understand his experience as an African-American man living with severe disabilities.


It took me months to understand the depth of his vulnerabilities and disabilities. Baba Baxter comes across as a robust, outspoken social justice warrior. He IS that person, but there is another side to him that he doesn’t indulge frequently, publicly nor privately, as a person surviving with disabilities (PSWD).


Baba lives with chronic pain, resulting from a 2005 car accident and subsequent injuries. He doesn’t like to talk about his pain because he says focusing on it makes it worse. However, since I have been caring for him, I have been insisting that he tell me, so that I can take measures to help him alleviate the pain. Sometimes the pain is so bad he cannot get out of bed. He avoids taking pain meds because he hates the side effects, but is occasionally forced to. The chronic pain, which includes frequent headaches, prevents Baba from being as active as he would like to be, and can be preoccupying to the point that he cannot check anything off his to-do list. “Simple” things like returning phone calls sometimes cannot be completed. Disabilities can range from mental to physical, temporary or permanent, severe or mild. Like others with chronic pain, Baba has good days and bad days, cannot predict what his condition will be, and must adjust daily.


Baba Baxter also is a survivor of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Even though he seems cognitively capable in many ways, there are gaps that show up regularly. He has been diagnosed with early onset dementia, and he has short-term memory issues. He also can become quite frustrated, irritable, and confused, and has lost some of the coping skills he used to have before his injuries.


For these reasons, expecting Baba Baxter to do what able-bodied folks take for granted, like keep track of several calendars, keep up with emails and texts, return phone calls, meet deadlines, and other organizing tasks, without assistance, is unrealistic. Baba’s point of view as a disabled person is invaluable and absolutely necessary to the community, but to expect him to function independently instead of INTERdependently is ableist and unreasonable.


In this day and age, we are rightly expected to ask for what we need. Baba Baxter is very experienced at asking for accommodations, but it becomes extremely tiresome, and sometimes he simply does not have the energy. It’s similar to the way people of color get fed up trying to educate white people. Baba gets tired of painting himself as a “victim” and talking about what he has difficulty doing and what he needs, only to experience the same responses over and over. He gets frustrated because people apply ableist standards about how and when things should get done, and fail to adapt plans to make accessibility a priority.


Furthermore, there are ways in which we consciously or unconsciously attack people with disabilities, even in our movement spaces. Nazis in early 20th century Germany found people with disabilities threatening to their society, and similarly we may feel irritated by the presence, participation, and inclusion of such persons. The accommodations they need are cumbersome, and their struggles come across as shortcomings that resemble incompetence, weakness, inferiority, selfishness, or laziness. We have been trained in the culture and language of “equal rights” without necessarily being steeped in building equity. We don’t want to give someone extra help, and actually we could use some ourselves. In a culture that emphasizes INdependence instead of healthy INTERdependence, it makes us wriggle to see someone who is “needy.”


Sometimes we regard Baba Baxter as a thorn in our sides because he’s always challenging us to do better, to be more inclusive, accommodating, and accessible. It’s human to react with defensiveness when we’re asked to go beyond what we perceive as reasonable, or what we’re used to. Sometimes in such situations, Baba Baxter ends up being a target of conscious or unconscious antagonism and hostility. When we antagonize individuals with disabilities, we deflect attention from the fact that there is a lack of appropriate accommodations. Instead of taking responsibility for adapting conditions to facilitate greater accessibility, we may lapse into blaming persons with disabilities, accusing them of creating their own difficulties.


I ask everyone reading this letter to receive these concerns with an open mind and heart to uncover your inner ableist (no one in the world is exempt, including people with disabilities themselves), to be utterly honest about the range of feelings you experience in the presence of people with disabilities, and to consider how your actions are shaped by these feelings. This is NOT to shame or blame, but to help us understand how ableism works, so that we can dismantle it together.


I am aware that in Detroit we have heard some of Baba Baxter’s requests many, many times, and some of us have become inured to them. Sometimes Baba Baxter’s requests are regarded as bothersome, or too much to ask, too difficult to fulfill. I understand this completely, and often feel overwhelmed myself. Yet, I have come to realize that Baba’s requests are not unreasonable; it’s the way our society and systems are set up that are unreasonable. For instance, it’s not at all unreasonable to request accessible transportation. Yet, the ableist society we live in makes it extremely difficult and costly to arrange this. Why do we allow bus and van companies to charge more money for accessible vehicles? If demand continually exceeds supply, shouldn’t transportation companies purchase more accessible vans? Shouldn’t we oppose ableist policies? As activists, we must be the change we wish to see in the world. If we do not demand transportation for all, who will?


Creating an anti-ableist society requires creating a new culture of inclusion. To wait for people with disabilities to come forward and demand accommodations before we take the trouble to arrange them, is an ableist practice. That’s like a university saying, “We will create a Black Studies Department only when we have enough Black students who are interested.” No, the university should create the Black Studies Department because it’s the right thing to do, and very likely, will eventually attract the Black students to support it. Instead of saying, “We will have American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters if hearing-impaired attenders pre-register,” we should have ASL regardless, because it’s the right thing to do in creating a culture of inclusion.


If our organizations provide accommodations, it sends the signal to individuals with disabilities that they are welcome. Why do so few people in wheelchairs show up at rallies, demonstrations, and direct actions? It’s not because they are disinterested. It’s because they don’t feel welcome, supported, or included. It may not have even occurred to them that they could come. Baba Baxter keeps showing up only because he is a born fighter, too stubborn to be deterred.


All of this is to say that I believe ableism is the deepest and most difficult to uproot of the “isms,” because it addresses our most basic issues of survival and dependency regarding life and death. Being with Baba Baxter means confronting our own fears of dependency, pain, and disability. If we are lucky enough to live long lives, we will all face some level of disability. Officially 20% of us in the USA are disabled, but I believe this is a low estimate, due to our ableist shame that prevents us from admitting we have a disability — which could include mental illness, chronic illness, and more. If we can come to terms with our own disabilities, we can begin to dismantle the inner ableist, become more welcoming of others with disabilities, and demand the accommodations that we each need and deserve.


I hope this gives you some food for thought. Ultimately, this letter is not about Baba Baxter, but about making our movements stronger for all. I offer this in love and struggle,


(Peggy Kwisuk Hong)


  1. If you feel compelled to join our team in supporting Baba Baxter and working for Disability Justice, contact There is always much to do, from day-to-day caregiving, to legal and medical advocacy, and DIY sustainability projects.


Here are some excellent resources for recognizing and dismantling ableism:


Peggy Gwi-Seok Hong is a mother, grandmother, poet, healer, organizer, and caregiver for activist Baba Baxter Jones. Gwi-Seok helps run Iyengar Yoga Detroit Collective, a cooperatively owned and community-run healing center. She can be found at