By Shea Howell
November 21, 2016
Last week the American Studies Association met in Denver. The theme this year was Home/Not Home. Coming on the heels of the election, many people were feeling like strangers in our own homes.
I participated in a roundtable with Robin D.G. Kelley, Scott Kurashige, and Stephen Ward on the life and work of Grace Boggs. With the election of Donald Trump, and the daily news of his right wing appointments to positions of authority, I was glad to have had the opportunity to spend some time thinking about what was important to share about Grace’s work at this moment.
I looked at the decade from 1980 to 1990, as I think it is especially instructive for what we are facing now. Ronald Reagan had been elected President, swept in on a right wing tide, embracing evangelical Christianity, the desire to restore military power abroad and white male prestige at home. There was talk of dropping nuclear bombs on Iran and rounding up people with HIV. Racism, homophobia and sexism were woven throughout the campaign. It was a dangerous time. Unemployment had reached staggering levels as industrial plants automated, closed down or fled in search of cheap labor. In Detroit we were facing over 40% unemployment.
1980 was also the year that General Motors, with the aid of Coleman Young, the City Council, the labor unions, the archdiocese, and mainstream media decided to sacrifice an entire community for the building of a new Cadillac plant. Poletown became the symbol of the shifting relationship between capital and the community. With the aid of public money and political leaders, capital would destroy communities. In spite of widespread resistance, Poletown was leveled, destroying 1500 homes, 600 businesses, and six churches. Mayor Young used a swat team to drive out elders who occupied the last remaining church that stood against GM.
In the face of this growing crisis, we decided to organize the Michigan Committee to Organize the Unemployed (MCOU), as we saw those cast out the industrial base as holding the potential for creating a new force for change. This effort was a dismal failure, but in the course of it, we learned some important lessons about the distinctive character of an American Revolution. It was during this period that we began to make a shift from traditional organizing in the workplace to organizing with the community.
We learned that the main concerns of people were not about automation or overtime, but about violence in their neighborhoods and the horrible treatment they were experiencing at the hands of government, especially those responsible for offering service at the five distribution centers for surplus food. Over 40,000 people gathered one day a month to get cheese, flour, peanut butter, corn meal and other staples.
Ultimately we abandoned MCOU as people took the name Detroiters for Dignity and launched a struggle for a more rationale, humane and thoughtful way to provide for basic needs. After two years of protests, meetings, testimony before Council and sit ins at the Mayor’s office, we established a much better system, including deliveries to people unable to go out easily. In the course of this struggle Detroiters For Dignity became a moral voice in the community.
Through it we learned four important lessons for organizing. First, it was in the community, not the workplace where the values we need for the future were being practiced. In the community, people were thinking not only about themselves, but also about how to make life better for their neighbors. While in the plant, people were become more and more concerned about protecting their job; Detroiters for Dignity were talking about how we should treat each other with respect and care, especially in vulnerable moments.
Through Detroiters for Dignity we found our way to We the People Reclaim Our Streets (WePROS) where we marched against crack houses. There we learned that love could become a material force for change. Grace and Jimmy Boggs, with Dorothy Garner insisted that we see dope dealers as part of our community and that we learn to love them, even while hating what they were doing. In the course of this struggle, crime in Dorothy’s neighborhood went down 80% in one year.
And through Detroiters for Dignity and WePROS we found our way to join with Clementine Barfield and Save Our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD). In SOSAD we learned of the importance of transforming grief into life affirming action.
Each of these activities was surrounded with a sense of critical connection to struggles around the city, the country and the globe. Detroiters for Dignity sent a group of elder Detroiters to stand in solidarity with the Dine people in Big Mountain. The National Green Gatherings, Central American Solidarity work, Sanctuary Movement and anti nuclear efforts all infused the local thinking and acting.
As we face this right wing, counter revolutionary moment, drawing on the lessons gleaned by Grace and Jimmy nearly 30 years ago are important to call upon now. It is time to organize deeply in our communities to enhance the values of care and compassion, to see that love can be a material force for change, that our grief is the source of new action, and that creating connections among ideas and people moves us closer to the kind of places we want to call home.