Occupy Detroit: Boon or Bust?

by Sarah Coffey

On September 17th people answered a call to occupy Wall Street in New York City put out by Adbusters magazine and picked up by Anonymous, a civil disobedience internet organizing group. Since then, solidarity occupations have sprung up like weeds all over the country, and now in other parts of the world. Many within this movement are studying the lessons of the Arab Spring movement, particularly the Tahrir Square protests in Cairo, which initiated the 2011 Egyptian revolution. On October 14th, Occupy Detroit had its second general assembly at Grand Circus Park, and set up an encampment.

Let’s give a run down on how these “occupations” work. The General Assembly is the central body for discussion and decision-making. Anyone and everyone are invited to all General Assemblies, and decisions are made by consensus. Another component of what’s happening are Working Groups. Working Groups handle the nuts and bolts of the occupation. All Working Group meetings are open to everyone. Although numerous Working Groups have already been formed, anyone can propose a new one to the General Assembly and get it started. Then there is the Encampment. Anyone can pitch a tent at Grand Circus Park and join the encampment.

The question of the day is, “What is all this for? What will this do?” Some of these occupy movements have the same style and organizing models as the alter-globalization movement, which came out of protests against the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999. It is characterized by, among other things, mass mobilizations, horizontal (shared) power structures, and consensus (agreement) decision making. While the outcome of the occupy movement remains to be seen, it has the potential to pick up where the alter-globalization movement left off and take it to the next level. If it can take the huge swell of people and create a structure to keep them engaged, maintain a space to make community agreements, incorporate community organizing, and engage participation from ordinary folks, from all walks of life, not just college educated white people, then it could truly become a movement with power.

In an effort to assist Occupy Detroit in the necessary self-reflection to attain that goal, local community organizers wrote an open letter to the 1st General Assembly of Occupy Detroit, which happened on Monday, October 10th.

Excerpts from Open Letter to the General Assembly:

Detroit is a Movement City. Detroiters have been organizing resistance to corporate greed and violence for nearly a century, from the birth of the labor movement here in the 1920s to the radical black workers movements of the ‘60s to the current poor people campaigns against utility shutoffs that allow dozens of people to die each year. We have organized resistance to racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, ableism, and the criminalization of youth, to the systematic destruction of the environment in poor communities of color, to the dehumanization of people with disabilities, and so many other injustices—as they manifest in our daily lives and are reflected in practices that dictate access and distribution of resources, as well as policies at the local, state and national levels.

Detroit is moving beyond just protest. Because we have survived the most thorough disinvestment of capital than any major U.S. city has ever seen; because we have survived “white flight” and “middle class flight,” state-takeovers, corruption and the dismantling of our public institutions; because the people who remained in Detroit are resilient and ingenious, Detroiters have redefined what “revolution” looks like.

Detroit is modeling life AFTER capitalism. In Detroit, “revolution” means “putting the neighbor back in the hood” through direct actions that restore community. It means maintaining public welfare programs for residents who are without income which protect said low income families from facing utility shut offs and homelessness. It means outlawing poverty in any form since the resources to prevent such a condition remain abundantly available to this State. It means Peace Zones for Life that help us solve conflict in our neighborhoods without the use of police, reducing opportunities for police violence. It means food justice and digital justice networks across the city supporting self-determination and community empowerment. It means youth leadership programs and paradigm-shifting education models that transform the stale debate between charter schools and public schools. It means “eviction reversals” that put people back in their homes and community safety networks that prevent people being snatched up by border patrol. It means artists who facilitate processes of community visioning and transformation, and organizers who approach social change as a work of art. In Detroit, the meaning of “revolution” continues to evolve and grow.

Detroit will not be “occupied” in the same sense as Wall Street: The language of “occupation” makes sense for the occupation of the privately-owned Zuccotti Park on Wall Street. But this language of “occupation” will not inspire participation in Detroit and does not make sense for Detroit. From the original theft of Detroit’s land by French settlers from Indigenous nations, to the connotations of “occupation” for Detroit’s Arab communities, to the current gentrification of Detroit neighborhoods and its related violence—“Occupation” is not what we need more of. We will however participate in creating anew out of what remains in Detroit today.

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