The former capital of capitalism lies in ruins. The fourth richest city in the world in the 1940s, Detroit, East-Central U.S.A., has become a graveyard of buildings and factories. The Michigan Central Train Station symbolizes the city’s crisis: inaugurated in 1913 and abandoned since 1988, the eighteen-story train station with hundreds of broken windows dominates the skyline and continually reminds one that of the devastation that is Detroit.
The Detroit Mayor’s office estimates that 44% of the population is unemployed; many people have left Detroit, seeking work elsewhere. Since 1970, half the population has gone — about 800 000 people live in the city today. In the Corktown neighborhood where the train station is located, on average two out of every five homes are abandoned or destroyed. According to information from a local newspaper, the city has 33,500 abandoned homes and empty lots where 91,000 houses were demolished. The data on housing – showing thousands of destroyed homes – is a portent of another statistic: Detroit has one of the largest homeless populations in the United States, estimated at more than 20 000 people. The police and the justice system repress the occupation of abandoned houses and families sleep in the streets or parks because they are unable to take shelter in vacant buildings.
But “another Detroit is happening.” This was one of the main slogans of the Second U.S. Social Forum, held in from 22 to 26 July, which brought together about 12,000 people from all the states across the nation. Despite being a national meeting, workshops and debates on the status of Detroit dominate the agenda because, as was explained at the Forum’s opening march by Linda Ray, chair of the Peace and Solidarity Committee of the International Union of Service Employees, “[the city] foreshadows what could occur in the rest of the United States.”
Detroit was the epicenter of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Detroit is the headquarters of major U.S. automakers, led by the General Motors (GM) group, which controls Chevrolet, Cadillac and other brands. GM went bankrupt and was re-structured in July 2009. Just this month, the company closed 900 of its 6900 dealerships and lay off 22 500 employees, under the supervision of U.S. government, which at the time had offered a loan of 4.7 billion dollars to prevent final insolvency. The GM headquarters in downtown Detroit became the media symbol of the crisis, just as the Michigan Central Train Station symbolized the ruins of capitalism. The government bailout saved the company, but the social consequences of the automaker’s collapse and subsequent impact on the city’s economy rage on.
“The bailout [by U.S. government help to corporations at risk of bankruptcy] has not served the regular people at all since there was no similar social program or bailout for Main Street,” complains Natalia Harris, of the student movement at the University of Eastern Michigan. Since the bailout, according to official statistics, poverty and unemployment in Detroit and the United States have increased while GM and other companies benefiting from government bailouts have disclosed profits in the millions.
The Alternative Town
Social movements in Detroit came together to limit and reverse the consequences of the crisis – and that is how another Detroit is happening. The alternative is based on four pillars. First, a coalition formed to demand housing rights and against evictions of people who can not pay rent or mortgage payments for their homes. At the Forum, organizations around the country began to talk about how to build a national campaign for a moratorium on the debts that poor families owe to banks for homes. On the June 25, hundreds of activists waved placards reading “a bailout for the people, not the banks” at a protest in front of Chase bank, a bank that benefited from government financial support during the beginning of the crisis.
Second, organizations have formed community gardens to reclaim abandoned areas of the city and improve the population’s access to quality food. The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network was founded in 2006 but became more active especially after the economic collapse of 2007. The Network occupies vacant lots and abandoned parks, and when they obtain legal recognition, they create organic gardens for the people. “The right to quality food, green areas and a sustainable life are the foundations of the idea of food security,” said Malik Yakini, of the Network, in a workshop on Food Sovereignty. The initiative of the gardens becomes a popular alternative to the lack of access to food for residents of Detroit. The Team for Projects for Low-Income People considers the city a “food desert”, or an area of relative exclusion where people face physical and economic barriers to finding healthy food. According to local newspapers, among major American cities, Detroit has proportionately fewer supermarkets and farmers markets. In poor regions, like the western part of the city, there are almost no places where one can buy food while the major businesses in the region are junkyards, liquor stores, pawnshops and pay-day loan centers.
The third pillar is education and the politicization of young people from poor neighborhoods, especially African-Americans. And these kids were one of the main groups participating in the forum, organized by the Youth build Detroit. The organization has set up a vocational school that trains young people in intensive programs, annually training 250 young people between the ages of 18-24. The training at the school students gains perspectives on how to address the problems of the labor market. In an informal conversation, one student said, in classrooms they learn not only technical skills, such as carpentry, but also how to contribute to their community and become a model for other young people in their neighborhood.
Finally, worker organizing is one of the key axes of social movements in Detroit, and labor organizations greatly influenced the agenda of the Forum. The city is one of the cradles of American trade unionism, where the United Auto Workers (UAW) was founded. The UAW led major mobilizations between 1950 and 1970, and won important social benefits for workers. In 1970, more than 1.5 million workers belonged to the UAW; the unions are in crisis in the U.S.A. today and they now have less than 355,000 members. “The crisis of trade unions is reflected in the lack of militancy, the neglect of historical demands and the prioritization of negotiations with business owners rather than mobilization. Currently, workers are under constant attack, the American Dream no longer exists and we must revise our ways of organizing to rebuild the workers’ struggle,” said Caleb Maupin of the Workers World Party. Elected only a week before the Forum, UAW President Bob King spoke about the recent multiplication of protests against companies that fail to comply with negotiated workers’ rights, especially in Detroit.
The Nightmare of Home Ownership
Lasher Road, number 6582. The address on the outskirts of Detroit, U.S.A., emotionally moves its former resident, Sandra Hines, a 59-year-old social worker. “This was my family’s house for 39 years, but since my sister and I had no money to pay off a loan we lost it in 2007.” Hines was unemployed at the time and her sister, an employee of General Motors, had half her salary cut during the crisis which forced them into insolvency. They took a loan with a local bank, Wachovia, and, according to Hines, had not understood that, if they could not pay, they would lose their home. “The loans are a real scheme. First, the financial agent is someone in your neighborhood, someone you know, someone with whom there is a relationship of trust. Second, the terms are not clear. Third, the payments are floating, so in 2007 we had to pay three times the initial value of monthly payments.” Hines and her family managed to get a new home, and she began to participate in a movement against evictions, the Coalition for Immediate Moratorium because she wanted to help people who were facing similar situations, “only on my block six families lost their homes, at the same time as I did.”
There are on average 40,000 evictions per year in Detroit and 4,400 families are currently facing expulsion procedures from their homes. These data, released on the June 22 at the opening of the Second U.S. Social Forum show, according to Ted Phillips, counsel for the Unified Coalition for Community Housing, urban dynamics of Detroit: “Entire neighborhoods are being decimated, abandoned houses are sold at low prices to investors who accumulate land in the hope that the value will increase.”
Room 421 of the District Court
Room 421 of the 36th District Court of Michigan is where eviction hearings take place — receiving families who are victims of eviction from their homes. In a casual conversation, a court official said that, up to 11:30 on June 25, the day I went to the courthouse, 157 people had already passed though the room; the previous day there had had been 253. “Working here breaks my heart. In my view, an eviction is as serious as rape. Police arrive at your house, start taking your things and put everything on the street. If you do not find a place to live quick, your things are left on the street and are stolen or broken,” said the official, who also said there were three houses abandoned because of evictions on the block where he lives.
Kim Braxton, 40, has suffered 20 evictions. “It’s like I say eviction is my middle name,” said the African-American unemployed women sitting on the bench next to room 421. In court, reporters are not welcome. Cameras and sound recorders are blocked by the metal detector at the entrance of the building. But, in informal conversation that would not appear like an interview as these are prohibited in the courthouse, Braxton says, “I feel voiceless. I come to court and the judge tells me ‘Shut up’ and I shut up. The unemployment assistance that I get is not enough, but to whom can I complain?” In her case, evictions occur when she cannot pay at least three months rent. On average, she says, you can be evicted if you owe the banks or the owner of home even $800 dollars. She was evicted the first time when she was 19. It has been an eviction per year ever since and she never had money to hire legal representation that could help her in the proceedings. “I have no job, no social assistance, nobody, and it will remain so,” she laments.
At the Social Forum, social movements seek to change the reality of people facing evictions. The attorney Jerry Goldberg, founder of the Coalition for Immediate Moratorium pressures the government to stop criminalizing the poor who can not repay loans and leases. “We are in an exceptional situation of capitalism and we need to protect the lives of the most affected. We pressed the state government to impose a debt moratorium for poor families, but Governor Jennifer Granholm replied to us: ‘The banks would not like it,’ “ he explains.
Obama, the Big Absentee
President Barack Obama was not expressly invited to the Second U.S. Social Forum, held in Detroit, and he probably would not have come if he had received the invitation, but a remarkable feature of this event was the lack of any summary evaluation of the Obama administration. In the First U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta in 2007, Washington’s policies had been the central theme of discussions, recalls the unionist Linda Ray. In workshops and plenary sessions, Obama was sometimes mentioned, but without stimulating any major debates.
And American social activists have reason to discuss the policies of Obama’s Washington. Obama plans to invest more in the war and occupation of Afghanistan. Rather than address the social ills of the crisis, government policies have exacerbated the situation of the poor American. In the final plenary of the Forum, however, the president’s name was not even raised.