By Shea Howell

June 12, 2016

As the gathering of Detroit’s elite on Mackinac Island fades into memory, the primary result is the astonishing lack of imagination on display there. After months of planning, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and claiming to set the agenda for the future, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce managed to construct a program of almost all white men evading the most important questions of our time.

Anyone seriously thinking about the future knows three things: 1. The growing gap between the minority of wealthy white men and the rest of the world is destroying the quality of community life at every level. 2. The abuse of our ecosystem is threatening the survival of all life, and 3. Reimagining how we live in cities, now holding more than half the population of the earth, is central to resolving these intertwined crises.

Mayor Mike Duggan of Detroit, who had an opportunity to raise serious questions chose to tout policies that he said would provide “opportunity” for everyone.

This is an empty claim. It reflects his inability to understand the imagination emerging all around the city to think and live differently.

The Mayor has refused every single imaginative, compassionate effort championed by the Detroit community to create a more sustainable and just city. He has refused to adopt a true water affordability plan, preferring charity to imaginative thinking. He has continued water shut offs to thousands of homes, he has refused to enact a community benefit agreement, he has refused to challenge the emergency management law, and he has refused to declare a moratorium on foreclosures. He continues an attack on “blight” to clear land for developers.

His call of opportunity is for people to join in his image of the city, on his terms, to do the bidding of corporate powers. It is an invitation to join in destruction and the brutal use of force.

The emptiness of this vision is captured in the pointed comment raised more than 50 years ago by Martin Luther King as he challenged the idea that becoming part of the ordinary ways of doing business is something we should want.

In one of his last conversations with Harry Belafonte, Dr. King said, “I’m afraid that America may be losing what moral vision she may have had. And I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.”

“I fear I am integrating my people into a burning house.”

At a time when we need creative, expansive thinking, we have a political and corporate elite wielding authority without intellect, making choices based on the narrowest of self-interest and shortsighted thinking.

While those at Mackinac evaded serious conversation, the Michigan State Legislature continued to do their bidding. We are going into the third year of the Flint water crisis without a viable plan or urgent commitment to restore the most basic human rights to its citizens. After nearly two decades of failure to support the Detroit Public Schools and enacting policies that amount to child abuse, the legislature continued its punitive practices. Still refusing to allocate adequate funds to move the district toward stability, the legislature chose policies to penalize teachers who act to call attention to the outrages our children face every day.

The urgency of thinking and living differently is clearer every day. Throughout Detroit and other cities, those who have been locked out recognize the question is not how to get into a dying system, but how we should make lives that enable us to care for one another, ourselves, and the earth we depend on. There is the source of a new moral vision.