Hope for Detroit

By: Larry Gabriel

[This article was featured in the MetroTimes, Detroit's free weekly alternative, on 3/26/08. Grace Lee Boggs and Ron Scott, both members of the Detroit City of Hope campaign, take an alternative position on the resolution of the Detroit's mayoral scandal.]

May you live in interesting times. Things are so interesting in Detroit right now I’m wondering if someone with cosmic pull has laid the oft-quoted Chinese curse on Detroit. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his former chief of staff Christine Beatty have been indicted on a combined 12 felony counts of conspiracy, misconduct, obstruction and perjury.

County Prosecutor Kym Worthy hinted that more indictments will be coming down for others involved in the whistleblower suits.

It will probably be more than a year before this is settled. In the meantime the city and its inhabitants need to move beyond this crisis. There are a plethora of long-term problems plaguing the city and the region — the economy, the mortgage crisis, crime, bad schools — to name a few. Detroit even came in at the ugly end of a recently released list of the country’s dirtiest cities. Not that it’s earth-shaking news, but the ranking does follow a trend of distinctions embarrassing to the city.

And when all this Kwame crap is over, those other ills will still be there gnawing on our bones. Detroiters, and that includes people who live in the suburbs, will be left eyeing each other suspiciously as usual. Everything we’ve seen from Kilpatrick in the past says he will use every divisive ploy he can in the effort to save himself from going to jail. He’ll pit city against suburb, the administration against the City Council, supporters against haters. There will be factions and power-grabbers. Once it’s all over, our psyches will be bruised and battered, unable to ignore what we’ve just been through.

We’re wounded. The lost promise of one Kwame Kilpatrick, a young man so many of us had so much hope in just a few years ago, will aggravate our long-standing pains. Picking up the pieces will be that much harder than it was before all the ugly revelations.

We need transformation. We need trust. We need to change our discourse, dynamics and destiny. We need truth and reconciliation.

I must admit that I was in the mob with torches and pitchforks ready to descend on Manoogian Mansion. I’m not recanting my last few columns, but a friend who is active in the Detroit City of Hope campaign changed the course of my thinking. He asked me to think about how the Kilpatrick scandal presented opportunities for reconciliation in Detroit. City of Hope endorsers, community organizations that share the vision of hope, look at the bigger picture of community healing rather than just throwing the rascal out.

“No matter which way the legal process goes, that is a process that has to happen. It’s too bad that couldn’t have happened a lot earlier,” says activist Ron Scott, spokesperson for the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality and producer for the public access television program For My People. “You have to start in on a community level and have the support of a number of disparate factions. People who have worked with the mayor need to go to him and various factions. It has to be a combination of people who come together and have an honest dialogue about what they want their community to be. If it doesn’t transform the community then it misses its mark.”

The concept is rooted in the truth and reconciliation process that Bishop Desmond Tutu led in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. Also used in Rwanda and other countries, it involves bringing together the perpetrator and the perpetrated upon outside of the justice system to speak about the effect wrongdoing had on each of them. It’s about understanding what happened, why it happened and the thoughts of those involved in order to come to terms with past events.

That process was repeated from 2004 to 2006 when the Greensboro (N.C.) Truth and Reconciliation Commission held hearings surrounding events on Nov. 3, 1979, when five demonstrators were killed by Ku Klux Klan members as they prepared for an anti-Klan rally. The process impressed Grace Lee Boggs, an author and progressive activist who runs the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center, to Nurture Community Leadership from her east side Detroit home.

“I began to see the potential for truth and reconciliation in the city, creating a means by which we go beyond punitive justice,” says Boggs. “If Kilpatrick could see himself going through the truth and reconciliation process, it would allow him to examine himself. It goes beyond the leadership he thinks he has brought to the city. As long as he does not examine the arrogance which allowed him to behave the way he did, he cannot become the leader he wants to be. He could help a generation of blacks swept up in the opposing sides. He could help Detroit’s development enormously. It would unite people in the city.”

It’s about restorative justice, not punishment. That’s a stretch to go beyond laying the hammer on someone who you believe has done some wrong. What it really does is take a giant step in social evolution. Truth and reconciliation does not throw away people who have erred, but looks for ways to bring them back into the community and find the good in them that they can contribute. Much of the effort focuses on juvenile offenders, but proponents see needs around the Kilpatrick situation.

“Kwame needs to be brought before the public and talk about what he has done to aggrieve others,” says Scott, although there has been no official activity in that direction. “There has been no coming together around the issue. It’s been factionalized. We try to desensationalize and find a place where people can come together. Kwame is a very interesting person. Everything about anyone is not all bad. There are situations where Kwame has really done some things that have reached out in a number of unique ways, like when he started recruiting African-American males to work with young men. That was significant and very unique.”

The entire situation is significant and unique. Why not create a unique response to it? Restorative justice would do us all well — if not now, when the trial is over. It would necessitate discussions among members of community groups, churches and even between the city and suburbs. One part of this has already brought us together. It’s hard to find someone who didn’t tune in to hear Worthy’s press conference to announce the indictments. We need to do something positive with all that focus.

It would be amazing if this negative situation were the catalyst that led to a dialogue that transformed southeast Michigan. Sure, it sounds a little pie in the sky, but we can always have hope.

Talk about transformation: How about Barack Obama’s speech last week in response to his membership in the church led by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose controversial statements about America and race raised a firestorm in Obama’s primary campaign. Rather than merely denounce the minister, as is usual in political backside covering, Obama rose above it all. He discussed American racial politics with understanding and sympathy for all sides. His attempt to uplift the discussion of race was a breath of fresh air. Obama called on us to transform our way of thinking. Just like the situation in Detroit, it’s up to us to rise up and make a difference.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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