MLK Day in John Deere Country
By Grace Lee Boggs
January 27th, 2013
I flew to Iowa to speak at Grinnell College on MLK Day. The weather was many degrees below freezing but the reception was warm.
I was scheduled to speak at 4:15 pm Monday. At 4 people from the community began streaming into the chapel-like auditorium: mostly white women, their eyes shining with anticipation.
On each chair Shea Howell had placed two Boggs Center brochures: “Re-Imagining Revolution“ and “Self-Evident Truths.” Doc Holbrook had set up a literature table. (We sold all our copies of The Next American Revolution).
At 4:15, when classes ended, people from the community were joined by hundreds of students, so many that they filled the balcony, and many stacks of chairs had to be brought in for the overflow.
I spoke from notes I had made following President Obama’s inaugural address. I said that, although I had not campaigned for MLK Day, I was delighted that it it is our only national holiday that has become a time for reflection and looking in the mirror instead of pageantry, fireworks, barbecue, football and shopping.
I recalled Martin Luther King’s l967 “Time to break the silence” speech in which he called for a radical revolution of values, not only against racism but against materialism and militarism.
At this time on the clock or world, I said, we are suffering from the militarism of our country, not only in the Middle East and North Africa but on the streets of our cities and even in small towns like Newtown, CT.
All over the world the center is not holding; things are falling apart. People are hungry for a new dream. The overthrow of dictators has not provided this dream, and it is not coming from Congress or the White House.
But I feel very fortunate that I come from Detroit where I have lived for 60 years, most of that time in the same house. When I moved to Detroit in 1953, it was still the national and international symbol of the miracles of industrialization. Then, as a result of Hi-Tech and globalization, it became the national and international symbol of the devastation of de-industrialization.
But now, as a result of Urban Agriculture, which is bringing the country back into the city, and our Re-imaging Work and Education, we are becoming the national international symbol of a new post-industrial society.
We are creating a new dream that can address the hunger of people not only in this country but all over the world. We are reimagining Work. We are reimagining Education. We are creating Community.
Thirty years ago I co-authored, with John Gruchala and Ilaseo Lewis, a little poem:
“We are the children of Martin and Malcolm
Black, white, brown and yellow,
Our right and duty
To shake the world with a new dream.”
This new dream is what is urgently needed at this time on the clock of the world.
This new dream is what we are creating in Detroit.
We are growing our souls at a time when just growing our economy is endangering our planet and all living things, including ourselves.
Beyond Detroit Works
By Shea Howell
January 20th, 2013
This week Detroit Works released its framework for the redevelopment of the city. The project began two years ago amidst a contentious series of town meetings following Mayor Bing’s pronouncement that he intended to “shrink the city” and relocate people. The mounting public criticism of the effort forced a major rethinking of the approach. Highly paid consultants were quietly shifted into the background and Dan Pitera of the University of Detroit-Mercy School of Architecture was given a larger role in guiding the process.
He and his team have produced a remarkable document that reflects Pitera’s long standing commitment to the city, his experience in imaginative, asset based development, and willingness to listen to the community.
In 2001 Pitera was part of the team that created the Adamah Project. Adamah projected a 3000 acre urban agricultural community on the East Side. It grew out of organic relationships with University of Detroit architects, community activists and organizations that had been turning vacant lots into gardens, creating public art, exploring new ideas of education, health, and public safety. Adamah garnered international attention and played a central role in the formation of Kyoung Park’s International Institute for Urban Ecology (ICUE), bringing people from around the world to learn from the grassroots redevelopment of Detroit. Adamah helped move urban agriculture from a utopian idea to a viable strategy for urban redevelopment.
Pitera was also a central figure in the Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD). Just prior to the launch of Detroit Works, CDAD produced a strategic framework for redevelopment, emphasizing community based planning. The framework was especially important because of its typology of neighborhoods, ranging from the restoration of wilderness areas to densely populated urban hubs.
The strengths of Adamah and CDAD echo throughout the newly released Detroit Future City framework. This is the first plan to acknowledge that a declining population can be an asset, opening up new possibilities for greener, more ecologically sound ways of urban living. It provides a framework for thinking about our communities beginning with their strengths rather than emphasizing our problems. It gives a varied texture to the kinds of neighborhood life we can and are creating. It is filled with hard data to pinpoint areas that require new, careful rethinking.
The plan provides much for all of us to build upon. It reflects a tremendous amount of work, talent, and vision for which we should be grateful.
At the same time, there are critical questions raised by this plan that we as a city must address.
All of the charts, maps, data, drawings, and images do not address the central question of for whom will the city be transformed? Whose interests will be given priority in the inevitable conflicts inherent in this or any plan for redevelopment?
The recent betrayal of the people by the Mayor and 5 members of the City Council over the Hantz Farms/Woodlands controversy does not bode well for the implementation of this plan. There, as in so many other cases, individual gain was given precedent over public good.
The failure to create a public, open process of community deliberation will haunt us. While the Future City Framework had thousands of individual contacts and small group meetings, it was not a process that engaged citizens with one another. As a result, the debate over whose interests are to be protected and fostered will work itself out in a piecemeal fashion, diminishing the possibility of creating a strong consensus for the overall plan.
The framework builds on the concrete dimensions of the moment, but lacks the historical sense that Detroit is in the forefront of a movement from the old, industrial paradigm to new, ways of sustainable living. This new paradigm is emerging every day as those first cast off by industrial society are reimaging how to live. This transformation requires a vibrant civic conversation about principles and values that the corporate-government-foundation complex continues to evade.
A New Dream
By Grace Lee Boggs
January 20th, 2013
At this time on the clock of the planet, of the world, our country and our city, I cannot get out of my mind The Second Coming, the famous “Things fall apart” poem written by William Butler Yeats nearly one hundred years ago –1919 in the wake of the First World War and the 1917 Russian Revolution.
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction,
While the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
By contrast, in the U.S.A. today, and especially in Detroit, we are shaking the world with a new dream. This is because
- Detroit’s devastation by deindustrialization has provided us with the Space and Place to begin anew.
- We are bringing the Country back into the City, growing our own food instead of worsening global warming by trucking it in from distant factory farms.
- We are making a radical revolution of values, a cultural revolution as profound as the transition from Agriculture to Industry 500 years ago.
- With passionate conviction we are Re-Imagining Work and Education.
- Our goal is to create MLK’s Beloved Communities!
Building on Wisdom
By Shea Howell
January 13th, 2013
As the Mayor and the City Council begin their new legislative session they have the opportunity to reflect on an unusually active and engaged series of recent public sessions. It should be abundantly clear that more and more citizens are concerned about the direction the Mayor and Council majority are trying to take the city. Slowly but surely people are organizing to pose a very different alternative set of values for the kind of city we want to become.
These values are rooted in the African American character and movement history of our city. They were fully and often eloquently spoken of in the battle over the Hantz Farms/Woodlands, the efforts to privatize the water department, and to turn over Belle Isle to the State.
The City Council should explore the kinds of values and ideas that would represent a much broader view of development than the one they seem to uphold at the moment. The current view is that the city can no longer impose any publicly responsible policies for development. It will sell land below market value, just so someone else can cut the grass. It will give away tax breaks, just to entice businesses to set up shop, and it will turn over long supported public resources in exchange for basic maintenance. Following this path, pushed by forces that have never had the interests of Detroit at heart, will diminish all of us.
Instead of going blindly down the road being drummed into them as they only alternative, the Council should look at some of the values and policy suggestions that emerged in the course of these recent struggles.
The single most important concern in the community is that development within neighborhoods should protect the people who are living there now. Most people believe that those who have stayed in neighborhoods as others left should be honored and respected. On street after street in Detroit, these are the people who have mowed the lawns of abandoned houses, taken over empty land for gardens and play areas, shoveled snow, and planted flowers. They have organized block clubs, established churches, opened small businesses, and built a home and life that they would like to pass on to their children.
Everyone knows that Detroit, like all major cities, has a history of plowing these neighborhoods under in the name of development. In a recent article in the Detroit Free Press that misrepresents the opposition to Hantz Farms/Woodlands, even the author John Mogk acknowledges this:
“Lower-income African Americans in particular have suffered from these actions taken by leaders seemingly to further the public good. Lofty public goals were behind actions taken by the city’s leaders to build the I-75 corridor and Lafayette Park, which wiped out the center of African-American community life in Detroit.”
Curiously Mogk labels this assessment of an historical reality as “mistrust.” Such a label is only possible if you are writing from the perspective of the developers.
Another framing would be wisdom, based on experience and observation. From Black Bottom to the transformation of the Cass Corridor to Midtown, it is obvious that the current models of development drive people out of neighborhoods they have long lived in and cared for.
So instead of mischaracterizing opposition as” mistrust,” the City Council should enact policies building on the wisdom of the people to protect folks where they are.
For example, as the Council reflects on a differential tax structure for the city, they need to freeze the property taxes of those home-owners effected by development. Second, they need to enact some form of rent control throughout the city.
These are not new or radical ideas. But they are essential if we are to build a city with and for all of our people.
Celebrating Dr. King’s Birthday
By Grace Lee Boggs
January 13th, 2013
All over the country schools, churches, universities and other community groups will be celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday this week in many different ways.
Many, perhaps most, will recall King’s “I have a dream” speech at the 1965 March on Washington. Some groups will organize community service activities.
Participants will sing “We Shall Overcome” which has become the anthem of the civil rights movement because it proclaims to the world “I am down but not out; I will bend but not break” (as Detroit activist Doc Holbrook put it recently in response to my column on Disasters).
During Ronald Reagon’s administration, Michigan Congressman John Conyers and Motown musician Stevie Wonder led the campaign that won the King holiday. I did not participate because I thought the holiday would draw so much attention to King as a charismatic leader that the role of rank and file activists would be overshadowed.
I was wrong. Over the years the holiday has focused on King but it has also become a wonderful opportunity for reflection on his ideas and his leadership. As a result, it is the one holiday on our national calendar that is unlikely to become an excuse for barbequing, fireworks or bargain shopping.
Over the years I have grown a lot and I believe I have helped others grow by my participation in a number of MLK celebrations , e.g. at the University of Illinois Urbana; University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University.
That is why, despite my limited mobility, I am going this year to Iowa to speak at
Grinnell College where my old friend, Detroiter Kesho Scott, has taught for years .
I have chosen “What time is it?” for the title of my speech because I believe that we are living at a time when, more than ever, we need to commit ourselves to the radical revolution of values that MLK advocated in his l967 “Break the Silence” speech. We need a revolution not only against racism, King said, but against materialism and militarism. We must replace our thing-oriented society with a person-oriented society.
Truer words have rarely been spoken. Our materialism, or our decision as a new nation to pursue rapid economic growth, was understandable two centuries ago. But it led us to commit the world’s most grievous sin, enslaving black people, and it has now ended up with global warming and the planetary emergency of hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and the possible extinction of all life on Earth.
Our militarism has not only trapped us in two unwinnable Mideast wars and the probability of another 911 because of our drone murders of countless innocent men, women and children. It has also encouraged mass violence in our cities and small communities like Newtown, Connecticut.
In the 1960s I was more a supporter of Malcolm than of MLK because I thought that what was involved was only the tactical question of violence or non-violence. While I am still a supporter and admirer of Malcolm, I now have a much deeper appreciation of the leadership of King because his holiday has given us so many opportunities to think about the importance of spiritual leadership in revolutionary times.
It is because the King holiday has given me these opportunities to revisit King that I am able to view the American Revolution as a time to grow our souls.
So thank you, John Conyers and Stevie Wonder!!!
Chomsky: Work, Learning, Freedom
By Grace Lee Boggs
January 6th, 2013
I’d like to begin the New Year by thanking Noam Chomsky for his interview by Michael Kasenbacher published by RSN on December 27.
In the interview the 84 year-old Chomsky makes an important philosophic contribution to the building of a new 21st century society by viewing Work and Learning in the context of of Freedom. In the process he defines what it means to be a human being and what it means to be revolutionary at this time on the clock of the world.
I have never met Chomsky. Nor have I up to now wanted to write about him.
But I was moved by the personal story Chomsky tells in this interview (of how he lost his freedom as he became part and parcel of the U.S. educational system) and I believe it can play an in important role in the reimagining of Work and Education that is now urgently needed and already going on, especially in Detroit where devastation by industrialization has created the place and space for us to begin The Next American Revolution.
Here are some excerpts from the interview:
“The social system is taking on a form in which finding out what you want to do is less and less of an option because your life is too structured, organized, controlled and disciplined. The US had the first real mass education; it was largely designed to turn independent farmers into disciplined factory workers, and a good deal of education maintains that form.
“A book called The Crisis of Democracy – expresses the concern of liberal intellectuals over what happened in the 60s. it was too democratic, there was a lot of popular activism, young people trying things out, experimentation – it’s called ‘the time of troubles’. The ‘troubles’ are that it civilized the country: that’s where you get civil rights, the women’s movement, environmental concerns, opposition to aggression. And it’s a much more civilized country as a result but that caused a lot of concern because people were getting out of control.
“People are supposed to be passive and apathetic and doing what they’re told by the responsible people who are in control. That’s elite ideology across the political spectrum – from liberals to Leninists, it’s essentially the same ideology: people are too stupid and ignorant to do things by themselves so for their own benefit we have to control them. And that very dominant ideology was breaking down in the 60s. And this commission that put together this book was concerned with trying to induce what they called ‘more moderation in democracy’ – turn people back to passivity and obedience so they don’t put so many constraints on state power and so on.
“In particular they were worried about young people. They were concerned about the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young (that’s their phrase), meaning schools, universities, church and so on – they’re not doing their job, [the young are] not being sufficiently indoctrinated. They’re too free to pursue their own initiatives and concerns and you’ve got to control them better…. The idea of freedom is very frightening for those who have some degree of privilege and power and I think that shows up in the education system. And in the workplace…
“Children are naturally curious – they want to know about everything, they want to explore everything but that generally gets knocked out of their heads. They’re put into disciplined structures, things are organized for them to act in certain ways so it tends to get beaten out of you. That’s why school’s boring. School can be exciting. It happens that I went to a Deweyite school until I was about 12. It was an exciting experience, you wanted to be there, you wanted to go. There was no ranking, there were no grades. Things were guided so it wasn’t just do anything you feel like. There was a structure but you were basically encouraged to pursue your own interests and concerns and to work together with others. I basically didn’t know I was a good student until I got to high school. I went to an academic high school in which everybody was ranked and you had to get to college so you had to pass tests. In elementary school I had actually skipped a year but nobody paid much attention to it. The only thing I saw was that I was the smallest kid in the class. But it wasn’t a big thing that anybody paid attention to. High school was totally different – you’ve gotta be first in the class, not second. And that’s a very destructive environment – it drives people into the situation where you really don’t know what you want to do. It happened to me in fact – in high school I kinda lost all interest. When I looked at the college catalogue it was really exciting – lots of courses, great things. But it turned out that the college was like an overgrown high school. After about a year I was going to just drop out …”
Constructing a New Democracy
By Shea Howell
January 6th, 2013
The anti-democratic efforts by the right wing republican legislature in Lansing are putting Michigan in the national spotlight. One national commentator, Jim Hightower, is now referring to our state as “Michiganistan” because of what he called the rule of “iron fist-democracy, rule-of-law, fairness, and the people be damned.” He described the lame duck session as “dumbfounding, anti-democratic zealotry.” Others talked about the Governor and legislature pulling a “fast-one” by “introducing and then ramming through legislation…designed so it cannot be repealed by popular referendum.”
In the last days of 2012 Governor Snyder signed the new Emergency Manager law, flaunting the clear rejection by voters state -wide of such legislation.
In a remarkable effort at reshaping reality, the Governor issued a statement saying that the new law “demonstrates that we clearly heard, recognized and respected the will of the voters.” He claimed the new law “builds in local control and options while also ensuring the tools to protect … residents, students and taxpayers.”
The new law includes a $770,000 state appropriation to cover managers’ salaries, a provision that shields it from another statewide vote because spending bills are immune to referendums. Rep. Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, accused Republicans of going to “extreme lengths” with that provision.
Snyder further insults voters by claiming this law is substantially different from that just repealed by referendum because if a review team finds that a financial emergency exists, communities can choose their remedy. The choices are to request an emergency manager, ask for a mediator, apply for bankruptcy, or introduce a reform plan.
The Detroit City Council also rejected the will of the people by a slim 5-4 majority. They supported a massive sale of public land to Hantz Farms/Woodlands after an outpouring of public objections and approved the Miller Canfield agreement demanded by the Governor.
These actions have made it clear that fundamental change is needed in Michigan. At a time when the authority of nation states over the lives of citizens is decreasing around the world, a small group of well-financed right wing ideologues are stripping away all pretense of democratic responsibility. Representative democracy now means representing the interests of a corporate power structure over the will of the majority of citizens. It is providing a legal mechanism for immoral actions, allowing the looting of the public realm and the wholesale transfer of public wealth into private hands.
It is no longer enough to petition against these actions or to protest their implementation. We need to create new political forms that enable us to create new centers of public responsibility.
We are fortunate to be living in a time when many before us have faced similar conditions and found new and imaginative ways to organize for better lives. We should be especially grateful to our brothers and sisters throughout Central and South America who have been expanding ideas of direct democracy. They have much to offer us.
For example, for more than three decades communities have been using Participatory Budgeting to determine local needs and to strengthen democratic processes. Recently New York joined Chicago and Vallejo California in using this process.
Advocates argue that such a process enables communities to improve their quality of life while having a “direct and meaningful say in what government does.” Such a process creates “new spaces for groups to engage with the public in positive and constructive ways.”
This coming year the challenge for us in Michigan and Detroit is to move toward meaningful democracy. Over the last few months we have been developing a new language of policies that can move us closer to more equitable ways of living. Community Benefit Agreements, Land Trusts and Participatory Budgeting are not new ideas, but they are ideas sorely needed in our city and state as we construct a new democracy.
New Year, New Democracy
By Shea Howell
December 30th, 2012
The coming of the New Year is a time for reflection. We assess the past and project our hopes for the future. For many of us in Michigan, this past year has been one that has sharpened the two different visions for our future.
While much of the country rejected the idea that we would move backward in time, the republican dominated government in Michigan has redoubled its efforts to restore power and privilege to a few.
Governor Rick Snyder and the right wing republican legislature have aggressively adopted policies that come straight out of the Reagan-Bush-Romney vision for America. They want a country where market capitalism runs unfettered over the lives of people and the protection of the planet. They want policies that foster individual greed rather than communities of compassion. They believe that public resources should be used to create private wealth.
At the core of their vision is the belief that a select-elite know better than the majority of the people what should be done. This belief, once scoffed at as an archaic idea belonging to a time of limited understandings, was on full display during the last frantic days of the lame duck legislature in Lansing.
First, it was expressed in the brazen violation of the will of the people to curb the power of the state to impose emergency managers on cities and school districts. The overriding argument against emergency managers was that they were undemocratic, setting aside locally elected officials.
The effort to bring this issue before the public for a vote took unprecedented effort, overcoming almost laughable attempts to invalidate petitions and then to throw up court challenges. Even before the election, Governor Snyder and his group of extreme right wing republicans announced they didn’t much care what the vote was. They had another law waiting in the wings.
The people overturned the emergency manger law, especially in cities that were suffering from them. Within days, the republican dominated legislature reinstated a new emergency manager law. To prevent it from being overturned, they tied it to an appropriation of funds, precluding any future referendum.
A similar process was followed by the so-called “right to work” legislation. Attacking the capacity of unions to collect dues from all who benefit directly from union negotiations, the legislature again invoked an appropriations measure to preclude the right of the people to challenge this act.
Disrespect for the opinions of the people was on display at the Detroit City Council, too. Against a clear and vocal majority of citizens, five council members voted to practically give away almost 2,000 publicly owned lots on the east side to a single individual.
These actions have revealed starkly that legislative bodies do not represent the will of the people. Nor do they protect our interests.
In contrast to this limited view of power and privilege is one that has been slowly emerging as people have been reconstructing life on a human scale. In places long abandoned by corporate greed, neighbors have been coming together to create new community life that fosters local production, creativity, and compassion.
These new communities are rooted in radically democratic processes. People are coming together to make decisions about the things that effect daily life and the protection of what we hold as the common good. They are developing a sense of shared values and authentic processes for decision-making. In small groups, people are organizing new forms of education, establishing public safety, providing means for healthy food, and celebrating artists who advance our vision of a more just and sustainable future.
Over the next year, those of us envisioning a vibrant democracy necessary for rich community life will have to call upon our deepest resources of memory and imagination. These local, community-based efforts creating new democratic forms are our path to a better future.