—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King’s quote resonates deeply, but it also reminds me how rare it is to see justice and power at their best. More often than not, “power” is taken to mean “money,” and money, it seems, is rarely a servant for love and more often a substitute for it. In America, the land of “progress” and “development,” corporations are not merely encouraged but required to do everything possible to maximize profits for their shareholders. Of course, what is “possible” is not always legal and what is legal often seems subject to interpretation, which is in turn subject to the influence of large campaign contributions to elected legislators. When corporations place profits over the welfare of individuals and communities in a way that is deemed to have violated the law, they are often simply asked to return some of their ill-gotten money, and only then after lengthy and expensive legal battles. There is no love and arguably no justice for harmed communities and individuals in this equation. Recent events demonstrate, however, that people fueled by love and acting in solidarity can modify this broken equation, cultivate power, and achieve justice.
On January 12th, Detroit International Bridge Company (DIBC) owner Matty Moroun and President Dan Stamper were convicted of civil contempt and sent to prison. I took extreme delight at seeing the billionaire’s hollow face contorted into a look of absolute shock when he was convicted. But the source of the overwhelming joy I felt had nothing to do with vengeance or pleasure derived from a guilty man’s suffering. The joy came from the realization that I was witnessing what has been—but does not need to remain—the rare instance of power implementing the demands of justice.
For years, the people of Southwest Detroit have mobilized around the Gateway Project—a state- and federally funded transportation project designed to improve access to the bridge and alleviate bridge-related traffic in the community—and DIBC’s failure to uphold its end of the contract. DIBC’s breach of contract has had a disproportionately negative impact on low-income residents and people of color, who are the majority in Southwest Detroit, where the Ambassador Bridge is located. Meanwhile, the legal battle that the DIBC has done everything in its power to prolong has also harmed local businesses who made what they thought would be temporary concessions for the sake of infrastructure improvements the bridge company still has not completed. Finally, DIBC’s legal shenanigans and willful disregard of the law has physically harmed individuals by exacerbating the thoroughly documented health and safety issues (semi-trucks on residential streets and the resulting high incidence of toxic, particulate matter and nauseous fumes in the air) that already plague the otherwise vibrant neighborhood. The collective lobbying, researching, advocating, and protest activities of community members, place-based environmental non-profits, elected representatives, and allies in the legal and policy sectors built a foundation from which to demand justice. Now they are finally beginning to get it.
Southwest Detroit is a special place, but the lessons derived from its residents’ battle with a corporation that has routinely acted against their interests are applicable everywhere. The main lesson, perhaps, is that the cultivation of power begins internally, on an individual level, and grows from there. A number of individuals in the Southwest Detroit community have refused to become complacent, to learn helplessness, or to toss their hands up in the air and concede that life is unfair. To the contrary, these everyday people understand that their needs, wants, and dreams have value and that their rights, too, are not only valuable, but inviolable under the law. This sense of empowerment and personal value brings with it a sense of responsibility to help others harness their own power and fight against those who would try to strip our power, our right, to build ourselves and our communities around our shared needs and values. We have all seen communities try to stand up to injustice perpetrated by corporations or governments and falter; nobody wants to feel as though they are fighting a losing battle. But a battle that is never fought is automatically lost. The battle now is to stand close together to cultivate the kind of power that carries in its wake a justice to dismantle the dams of personal and democratic empowerment and unleash a torrent of love.
What is abundantly clear in light of recent uprisings and protests on the international and local levels is that this battle can be won. If we refuse to accept helplessness and continue to push together for what we know is right, and we embrace our responsibility to create the world as we wish to see it, it will be.