December 18, 2015

A statement was recently posted on line by the “Detroit Journalism Collaborative” (DJC), regarding lessons to be learned from the experiences of their abortive public forum on December 9, 2015, attempting to discuss Detroit one year post-bankruptcy.

People attending the event at Wayne State University, whose voices and concerns have been continuously and systematically excluded from any meaningful discussions of the key issues in our communities, began to vocally object.  Eventually “things were growing progressively less civil” notes the DJC, and the event was therefore shut down.

Questions about decorum, disruption, confrontation and civility in social movements have often been discussed.  Leading researchers and activists, such as Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, have demonstrated how the inherent power dynamics confronting such movements rarely, if ever, can be overcome without disruption, polarization, and pressure for change.  To achieve their goals, usually by increasing the costs of their powerful adversaries’ conduct, poor peoples’ movements frequently must employ tactics that entail civil disorder and discomfort well beyond the accepted bounds of “civility”.

Perhaps the most eloquent statement of this basic political reality was made by Dr. King in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail of August 1963.  He noted that southern moderates who opposed civil rights demonstrations failed to express concerns about the underlying “conditions that brought the demonstrations into being”.  Dr. King lamented that “There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation.”

Proportionately there have been more public schools closed in Detroit than in any other city in this nation.  There have been more residential water shut offs in Detroit than in any other city in this nation.  There have been more foreclosures of family homes in Detroit than in any other city in this nation.  There have been more insider-rigged funds invested in downtown corporate development for white people, compared to funds for people of color living in neighborhoods in Detroit.  There have been more attacks, takeovers and exploitation of local democratic governance, social capital and agency in the Jones Day / Orr / Snyder emergency managed and -bankrupted Detroit than in any other city in this nation.  There has long been more regional racial segregation and inequality in metro Detroit than in any other metropolitan region in this nation.

This is not the time or place for patience.  And civility, while laudable and appropriate under circumstances where it suits the context and purposes of such actions, should not be elevated above the substance of the underlying concerns.

How, and how well, has the DJC’s journalism served our communities in this context?  Again using Dr. King’s words about meetings with Birmingham civic leaders in 1963, “we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise.”

Detroit’s intensified, lawless oppression under “emergency management” echoes the nation’s most shameful racial abuse.  Corporate journalism has powerfully covered up much of this orchestrated betrayal of democracy, which the Bankruptcy Judge admitted in his eligibility opinion is substantially true.  Calls for “civility” sound very different in the aftermath of such frauds by the powerful.

Objective journalistic coverage of a historic event / process like the Detroit takeover / turnaround requires a clear, critical understanding of the major systemic power dynamics that determine key outcomes.  Capitalism.  The efficacy (or failure) of law to deliver justice.  Corporate power.  The slick Wall Street lies told about why Detroit supposedly always has “no other option”.  Racism.  The basic idea that for $180 million paid to all those bankruptcy contractors, we should have gotten much more viable options on all the crisis fronts we face: education / water / housing / development / finance / and equitable partnership in a sustainable region.  We have been the victims of a broken promise.

One of Dr. King’s most famous statements in Birmingham applies very well to what I saw in the 3 minute video of the DJC WSU forum incident: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Was the failure of this event a sign that publicly confronting such “tension” around issues of racial equity and economic justice in Detroit may be healthy? That it’s absolutely necessary for us to “learn to listen and move forward”?  I believe so.