why #OccupyDetroit won’t work

The #OccupyWallStreet protests have been incredible to watch. The protestors picked a great target for their message, organized without planning for a one day event, and have been building support ever since. I’ve spoken with friends involved in spinoff occupations and many ask me when “Occupy Detroit” is going to begin. Since then I’ve been throwing the idea around in my head and it never quite fits for Detroit. Just today I discovered that “Occupy Detroit” has already started to be organized for October 21, 2011.

1. What to Occupy

Interestingly the meeting point chosen is the iconic Detroit symbol of “ruin and decay,” Michigan Central Station. A large, empty building near Corktown, privately owned is not a great location to bring a large group of people to protest. I understand it is just the meeting point and protests will take place downtown, but that is where everyone should meet – downtown. It seems like the larger problem is that there is a group of people interested in occupying something, but they aren’t sure what to occupy yet.

The biggest corporate symbol in Detroit is GM Tower, right downtown by the river. The problem with protesting GM is that Detroiters and Michiganders are sick of being angry at the auto companies. It is a protest fatigue, everyone and their grandmother has something to say against the auto companies. It is an argument that doesn’t hold passion anymore. So what is next? Therein lies the problem. Detroit, corporately, is pretty small. The best large corporations that are in the city worth protesting are the banks. Many of the banks backed out of home loans for many Detroit residents during the recession. Just recently Citizen’s Bank was taken to court because of racial discrimination and unequal lending practices in Detroit and Flint.

Corporations take advantage of Detroit’s population in poverty all the time. A perfect example is Chase Bank, they have their community giving initiatives to look good, but where does the money they give away come from? It comes from all the people whose houses they foreclosed. Chase has set up a number of simple drive-through banking stations across the city. They’ve used technology to offer their service and avoided placing people in buildings to serve communities. Chase is notorious for its predatory lending services for home mortgages.

Chase Tower is located downtown, in the middle of an area where many wealthy people from the suburbs like to frequent. A potential place to make a statement in Detroit.

In the end, occupation in Detroit will be difficult. Many people “camp out” everyday for lack of a home or place to sleep. It is a divide between those who choose to take to the streets and those who have no choice. Another issue is that much of Detroit is unoccupied, so the message of an #OccupyDetroit effort may be easily lost.

2. Who will Occupy?

The other major problem that I see is that the young, white activist community in Detroit is doing the organizing. This is a far cry from the locally run organizations and neighborhood block clubs where the real effects of corporate greed are hardest felt. Many times African American residents of Detroit are very skeptical of young, white people making a lot of noise.

When the United Stated Social Forum (USSF) came to Detroit in the summer of 2010, there was a deep divide between the white activist community in Detroit (and the US) and the majority African American residents of the city. I was asked by many people, “what is going on?” and “why are all of these people here?” That isn’t to say that there was no racial diversity at the USSF, but unfortunately those who represented Detroit were a majority white activists disconnected from those living in Detroit.

I recently attended TEDxDetroit which was again a majority white. Detroit’s population is 76% African American, but TEDxDetroit was easily 80% or more white individuals with ideas to bring into Detroit without involving those who already live here. Why can’t organizations find and highlight the work done by people already here?

Detroit is full of vibrant ideas and interesting people. The problem is that the residents of Detroit who are facing the most difficult issues aren’t downtown. Most residents of Detroit live out in the neighborhoods and can’t often benefit from the downtown developments created to bring people in from the suburbs.

3. Already Occupied?

It is safe to say that many of those who live below the poverty line are less concerned with occupying something downtown and instead working on advancing their status in life. Detroit has a high percentage of its population living below the poverty line, hungry, without health insurance, and many without good paying jobs. The residents of Detroit are already occupied with making their lives and city a better place.

The recent Census showed that Detroit’s population is decreasing. Many people that I have talked to, including, Detroit high school student talk about getting out of Detroit and leaving for something better. How can a generation that wants to get out of Detroit be motivated to occupy what they don’t want?

If there is any sort of occupation in Detroit, it will represent the economic and racial disparities in the city and demonstrate the deep need to build real connections across communities. A real movement in Detroit would involve Block Clubs and Neighborhood Associations.

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