Grace Lee Boggs, “I Must Love the Questions Themselves” 1985
Loving your people and loving questions are, I believe, the two most important qualities that an individual needs today to help create the new kind of politics we need to bring about fundamental social change in our country. Even if the people of our respective communities or of our country are acting in ways that we believe are unworthy of human beings, we must still care enough for them so that their lives and ours, their questions and ours, become inseparable. At the same time we must love the questions themselves, first, because every time we act on our convictions, we create new contradictions or new questions; and secondly, because we have no models for revolutionary social change in a country as technologically advanced and politically backwards as ours.
December 19th, 2017
With each day we are reminded of the legacy of James and Grace Lee Boggs as we see the seeds of their work across Detroit, our nation and the globe, and in the work that you are doing to bring to life beloved communities.
This year we are thinking about centuries as we commemorated the 98th birthday of James Boggs in May and Grace’s 102nd birthday in June. Where will we be in 2117? What do we long for our world to become?
These questions are at the root of the work of resisting the dehumanization of this present moment and our efforts to accelerate
visionary organizing throughout the country.
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Thinking for Ourselves
Business and Democracy
The undermining of democracy is accelerating in Michigan. A new frame is emerging from our business owners and their publicists. They are claiming business, supported by public money, is better for people than political decision-making.
The efforts by Dan Gilbert and Bedrock to use public money for their latest projects illustrate this dangerous shift. Major news media is celebrating Gilbert’s plans for the former Hudson’s Department Store. Gilbert is promising a million square foot development that will include 400 apartment units, the tallest building in Michigan, and a large complex of with retail markets and exhibition spaces. laiming it will be a “city within a city” the space will offer a maker’s space for children, a market hall for encouraging new ideas, art, music, dance, and Ted Talks.
Behind all of this media hype are some troubling realities. First, an initial $250 million in tax money, collectable by Gilbert, thanks to the Michigan Legislature, supports the project. The right wing legislature has put into place a legal framework to allow corporations to collect income and property taxes in designated redevelopment areas. This initial public support for Gilbert’s projects is expected to balloon to $618 million over the next few years, including money that should go to public schools.
The developments, part of more than a dozen scheduled over the next year, are not governed by any substantial community benefit agreements. In fact the community is being told to be quiet, stop interrupting progress, and be glad you are getting some jobs, maybe.
The Detroit Free Press columnist John Gallagher, who considers himself liberal, uncritically embraces the development. He notes in passing that it will have a “big public assembly space.” What kind of “public space” exactly is he envisioning? Gilbert, who has both a large private security force and state of the art surveillance technologies positioned throughout his emerging fortressed area, has not exactly encouraged robust public discussion. Gallagher’s thinking about democracy appears to extend to offering suggestions of names for the new building. The point of his short article is to invite readers to send suggestions to him so he can pass them along to Gilbert.
Gallagher does say we “need to figure out what to do to ensure that Detroit’s recovery creates opportunity for all.” Opportunity, of course, is not the same thing as justice, and is a long way from sustainable, equitable development. His solution for opportunity is to give more tax breaks, this time for historic preservation.
A much more meaningful solution would be a real community benefits agreement. Last year Gilbert and his pals did every thing they could to sabotage a community led initiative. Many of those who fought for this substantial agreement gathered outside the fake ground breaking event to challenge this use of public money for private gain.
Predictably, instead of engaging seriously with the questions being raised by the group, Gilbert’s media mouthpieces resorted to name calling in an effort to delegitimize thoughtful discussion.
On the other side of the spectrum the Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes offered the view that business is better than democracy. Howes argued that Detroiters need to “embrace” business, because “commerce is often more likely to improve lives and build communities—not politics.”
This kind of framing is dangerous to all who care about democracy and justice. The idea that business interests, not public values, should be our only consideration has justified the genocide of indigenous people, the enslavement of millions of Africans for generations, and the continued assault on land and people everywhere.
Gilbert responded to the demonstrators saying, “I don’t think they understand” and “I think they should do their homework.” It is Gilbert and his cronies who don’t understand history and who should do some homework. If the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, they are on the wrong side, and playing a disastrous game.
Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty
If you are a black person or another person of color, I am asking you to participate in ushering in a new narrative. I am asking you to relinquish your pursuit of white people as privileged beings. If you are a white person, I am asking you to relinquish the narrative that you live a privileged existence.
For those of you who made it through that first paragraph, we are well on our way towards visioning a more humane society. A society that allows everyone to show up in the conversation with their full humanity.
Discarding the narrative of privilege is not an invitation to ignore the brutality that black people and other people of color endure under the system of white supremacy. It’s an invitation to contribute to a dialogue that moves us beyond the false dichotomy of hierarchy we have been unintentionally fostering through our anti-racism organizing. It is an invitation to recognize the more connected to our humanity we become, the less we will tolerate the dehumanization of others.
I have participated in dozens of mixed-race discussions around racism that left me feeling even more dehumanized than I felt before the discussion began. I have witnessed testimony after testimony from white allies giving their white privilege testament under the auspice of acceptance by black people and other people of color into the anti-racism organizing circle. Not only did I leave feeling dehumanized, but I felt dehumanized for the white people who I believed came to the events either seeking their humanity, or in pursuit of some measure of transformation.
It’s complicated, I know. But, what has capitulating to the shrinking of blacks and other people of color as the underprivileged and white people as privileged actually done for the struggle against racism, or the dismantling of the system of white supremacy? I am personally exhausted by what has begun to feel like scripted performances by all parties.
At one of the recent gatherings I spoke at, a woman who identified herself as white stood up to counter my challenge towards the white privilege narrative. She described the ability to let her son walk “safely” two doors down from their home as a privilege. I was grateful that she provided her analysis of privilege, as it provided an opportunity for a deeper dialogue. A dialogue that moves beyond the misconception that there is some sort of magic bubble that protects you from the suffering in society if you just move far enough into the suburbs. One that removes the misconception that there is no suffering in the suburbs. A dialogue that challenges white people to take a deeper look at the impact racism and living up to the backwards standards of white supremacy, has on them. A dialogue that interrogates the sort of survival that encourages you to disconnect from the “others” of the world in order to have the perception you are moving up in it.
My assessment is that the ways in which we have been identifying privilege are very limited in scope. The privilege narrative does not take into consideration the rich history and culture that has been historically and actively practiced in black, brown and indigenous communities. A culture that is consistently borrowed by the mainstream while the people whose culture it belongs to are hated by that very same mainstream. The privilege narrative negates the perseverance and stick-to-itiveness that black people and other people of color have demonstrated to the world through some of the most inhumane conditions inflicted upon us. The privilege narrative invisibilizes the ingenuity, artistry, creativity and “make a way out of no way,” resilience that blacks and other people of color have employed in order to survive in a society that till this day has failed to recognize us as fully human. But, even with all the social ills inflicted upon us, we are not underprivileged. I’m not claiming that existence any longer.
That fact that black, brown and indigenous humanity has been subjected to the interpretation of a society that suffers from the detriment of white supremacy is an even greater reason not to succumb to that analysis. Enough is enough. We have known the brilliance of black people and other people of color for long enough. There is no reason to keep pleading with anyone to recognize us as human.
What is imperative now is that we stand together in our power to shift the language and the narrative, and encourage those co-liberators who are serious about struggling against racism and dismantling the system of white supremacy, to shift their language and analysis as well.
We will not rid the world of all the ‘isms that plague us by shrinking to them. None of us will.
I’ll end with a quote from a powerful Ancestor, Fred Hampton.
Black people need some peace. White people need some peace and we’re gonna have to struggle religiously to bring about some peace because the people we’re asking for peace, they are a bunch of meglamaniac war mongers! And we got to struggle with them to make ’em understand what peace means!
It’s time we moved onward and upward, together!
What We’re Watching
For more than 30 years, Judith Heumann has been involved on the international front working with disabled people’s organizations and governments around the world to advance the human rights of disabled people.