I usually time my trip back to Detroit to coincide with my fraternity's boat ride. But there are a couple of conferences that occurred at the same time.
The first is the Allied Media Conference, sponsored every year by Allied Media Projects. Dozens of sessions covering everything from video games to documentaries to zines to mesh networks to dance to healing justice. (Browse the conference schedule.) Held at Wayne State University every year, there's so much demand for this type of work that the conference is literally bursting at the seams. The opening ceremony held in one of WSU's larger auditoriums was standing room only. From what I understand the healing justice folk have grown to the point where they need a whole floor for their work rather than a couple of rooms. I don't have the numbers handy but I'm pretty sure there were a few thousand registered participants and it seems participants represented the entire nation from Oakland to New York City.
I ran into a few Baltimore/DC folk there. We talked about the Red Emma-sponsored conference Mobilizing and Organizing From Below and how to establish something like the AMC on the East Coast. We've got the components–organizations ranging from the Baltimore Mixtape Project to the Baltimore Urban Debate League to Real News to 901 Arts to the Indyreader to Red Emma's to the Free School are already about using the arts and mass media to organize. Having a small local conference that teaches a range of folk how to create and disseminate their own media could be powerful. Particularly if such a conference can bring substantive numbers of black Baltimoreans into the mix.
The second is Detroit 2012 held by the Boggs Center. Whereas the AMC was based in but not necessarily centered on Detroit, Detroit 2012 was (as its title states) Detroit centered. The approximately 70 or so attendees (also from around the country) spent the day sessions doing work with Detroit organizations helping them establish peace zones, picking weeds at Detroit farms, tearing down abandoned homes. The evening sessions were conversations. About James' work. About "reimaginations".
I had the good fortune to attend a number of the conversations. Quick thoughts:
- In talking about Detroit, its past, and its future, there's a tendency to focus on the role of racism. I understand this. But Detroit itself is more than 80% black. We've got to wrestle with intra-racial dynamics driven by class. It's hard to have those conversations–particularly when most of the participants aren't black. But given that rustbelt cities like Detroit are still "the black
man'sperson's land" it's important to at least create a space for a conversation around black politics that doesn't devolve into discussions about internalized racism/oppression. Black people in Detroit have different interests. While there may be a small number of black men and women in cities like Detroit who hate either themselves or black people as a whole, most black men and women have a very healthy sense of racial self-esteem, and make political decisions against other black men and women for reasons unrelated to internalized oppression.
- A number of folk came to Detroit 2012 looking to contribute, and also looking for ideas they can take back home. But there's a challenge here. While people in other rustbelt cities can export a lot of what Detroiters are doing, the reality is that Detroit's land politics are very very different from the land politics in places out east and out west. There are at least 40 square miles of open land in Detroit. Mayor Bing's attempt to shrink the city's service footprint presents Detroiters in some areas with the opportunity to create semi-permanent autonomous zones, zones where they can live in cheap cheap homes (for as little as $500), can grow their own food, perhaps develop local currencies, provide off-the-grid power solutions, and create peace zones.
It would require hard community centered work–likely around gardens–but it's at least feasible. And through this hard work folk can develop alternative living and governing arrangements. But it's possible. Private developers and city/county/state/federal government forces don't (and won't–with one exception noted below) want that land. Folks can develop that land and create alternative spaces without fear of having to defend them from hostile state/capital takeover.
This could work in Milwaukee, depending. In Gary, for sure. And given recent news, Scranton as well. But in dense cities like New York or even Baltimore? It doesn't happen without simultaneously organizing within the system. Working to elect individuals or working to enact policies that make it possible. What's going on in Detroit is incredibly powerful. But we have to have make distinctions between the rustbelt and other regions, as well as between Detroit specifically and other cities. Along this line I can imagine having a series of discussions between Detroit activists and other activists that could be curated somehow. On the Baltimore end Marc Steiner's show would be the excellent place for it. On Detroit's end perhaps Ron Scott's show?
- A few years ago a group of folk in Baltimore started the Baltimore Green Currency Association to create a local sustainable economy through, among other things, creating a local currency ("BNotes"). BNotes are accepted by over 150 local Baltimore businesses. And my man Ed Dunn over at Dream and Hustle has long theorized about creating local economies through e-commerce. In fact just the other day he posted an idea about creating a local Detroit stock exchange. Detroit is likely even better situated than Baltimore to grow a local economy given the relative dearth of non-local businesses. There's a game changer on the horizon though:
If high-speed rail ever connects Detroit to Chicago, all that empty land that Detroiters won't necessarily have to defend, will have to be. Because it won't be that difficult to imagine people living in Detroit and taking the hour long commute to save costs.
- A few discussions I had with folks a bit older than I make me realize we have to work hard on new terms. I picked up one that I think I'm going to use mercilessly. "Solutionary." The new way of life that we develop will develop out of a series of practical solutions to real life problems, solutions that will likely be based in theory but will be about getting from A to Z through B, as opposed to theoretical abstractions that don't lend themselves to thinking about that space in between A and Z. But a couple that I heard that don't make much sense to me now are "internalized oppression" and the dreaded "black people can't be racist" idea. We can't work on the assumption that we've the power to develop alternatives unless we also take responsibility for our power to oppress. Our power to oppress may be relatively weak in comparison to deeply embedded structures of white supremacy, the same way a car that can only do 25 miles/hour is slower than a car that can do 180. But it's there. There was a time we didn't have that power. But we're about 20 years away from that moment at least.
Similarly, and I note this above, the concept of "internalized oppression" doesn't have the type of empirical weight behind it folks think it does. From what we know about conscious and subconscious attitudes some segment of black and brown people do have negative attitudes about their own group. But this segment is small and growing smaller every day. The reason black people in segregated communities find it difficult to work together isn't because they're black as much as it is the fact that they are segregated and resource poor. We should retire this term as well.
- Even if Detroiters are able to build and defend a new way of life, they will still be tax payers. As such there will always be a need to engage in every day politics. These politics don't necessarily have to be based on the "this is the most important election of our lifetime" disease. In fact, they shouldn't be. But elections do matter. And will continue to matter.
- In cities with large populations of non-whites, we have to get black people involved. I saw far too few faces at the Allied Media Conference, and far few faces at the Detroit 2012 Conference. Detroit is a majority black city. Solutions to it's problems, alternatives to deeply problematic ways of life, will and should be solved and developed by the people most affected by it.
Since I received tenure I've been thinking about the sweet spot that would link my academic, intellectual, artistic, social, and political interests together. I think going back to Detroit has helped me come to some tentative conclusions about what that sweet spot is.