Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
Week seven of the occupation
May 7, 2013
Sometimes the earth slows you down. It is planting time in Detroit. There is a rhythm and focus brought by the turning of the seasons. At long last the weariness of winter is falling away. Soil must be prepared. Soon seedlings will find their way into the thousands of urban garden and small backyard plots that have made Detroit a global leader in urban agriculture.
Such moments of slowing down and finding focus are much needed in the whirlwind of changes sweeping through our city.
Outrageous assaults, double-dealing, and double speaking have become ordinary. They are having a cumulative effect. It seems we are living in an upside down reality. The man charged with saving the city is selling it off. He sees nothing wrong with $10 million contracts for out of town consults while laying off city workers. Yet another Emergency Manager of the schools is looking for the door, having closed schools, created chaos, and claimed hollow victories while leveraging a loan for the state created district that was to show us how education should be efficiently run. Formerly progressive leaders tell us democracy is over rated. We should be happy with street lights. Detroit’s version of the 1% are buying up large pieces of downtown and staging wholesale evictions. And regional authorities give more money for buses to the wealthy suburbs and less to Detroit. Virtually every arena of common life is under assault.
In the midst of this, it is important that we slow down and focus on the depth of the changes we are facing. The privatization of public life, the turning of every basic need into a profit center, and the grab to control land, water, and people are global trends. These are the desperate efforts of the dying industrial order to protect the power and privileges wrenched from the last 5 centuries of empire building. And they are coming to and end. As surely as the seasons change, the ways of life defined by industrial might and military force are ending.
We are in the midst of a global shift from industrialism to a yet undefined future. This shift is as great as that from hunting and gathering to agriculture, or from agriculture to industrial life. Such transformations happen rarely in the human experience, giving us little guidance from previous generations.
That is one of the reasons why Detroit matters so much. Because we were central to industrial development, its collapse was too painful to ignore. We were forced to rethink what our city could become. If not a home for people who work in factories, what will we be? What is the purpose of a city? How do we do the work that needs to be done, when the jobs have disappeared?
We are fortunate to be faced with these questions in a city defined by the African American experience. It is this experience that serves as the touchstone for how we have respond to these changes and challenges. Our elders saw vacant lots not only as abandonment, but as possibility. They remembered communities, often in the south, that survived and thrived through difficult economic times by raising their own food, sharing what they had, and making a way out of no way. They called on the deepest values of collective care to fashion new ways of living that are rekindling our ties to the earth, to one another, and to the possibility of a new kind of city based on cooperation, local production, and care for one another.
The future of Detroit is unfolding, but not in the corridors of a dying power structure. It is emerging slowly, sometimes painfully, as people come together to make lives of meaning. This transformation has deep roots that endure through the changing seasons.