We spent a whole month in Detroit, a much needed breather from the non-stop motion of our first two months on tour. And, of course, it absolutely flew by (more so for Elena than Emma). But what is time anyway besides our movement through space and time in relation to objects and other humans? This project that we have built together, Delta Collaborative, is obviously a collaborative--which for us works out to be a constant togetherness. But Detroit was very much not, and so we've split up this blog post from "we's" to "me's". You see, it would only be right, as our time spent in Detroit has been vastly different. Emma has been in an intensive Fellowship called Humanity in Action, and Elena has spent her time working on the museum, making preparations for the final leg of our journey, and learning about the city in her own way.
Detroit derives its name from: “le détroit du Lac Érié,” which is French for “the strait of Lake Erie.” Across this river, from Detroit, is Canada. And, if one is to enter America from Canada, the first neighborhood one might encounter is Mexicotown, a place that feels more similar to America’s southern neighbor than to it’s northern. While at one time more heterogenous, today Detroit is some 85% black due to racially charged historical movements of people coming and going. If anything, this strange mix of european colonialism, borders, border towns, and imaginary borders points towards our historic and contemporary patterns of movement and exchange. It points toward our unwillingness to be contained as humans despite the constant attempts to contain us.
“So what do you think of Detroit?” I was asked this countless times as soon as it became know that I was not from the city, as if somehow this outsider with a narrow experience of Detroit could act as a litmus test. As I spent so little time there I know my answer would only be a mere impression if anything, like describing the moon having glimpsed it just once.
But, staring at its crescent shaped glow amidst an infinity, I was amazed at the inventive ways people in Detroit are making it the city of their dreams. Without huge sums of money or pools of other resources I noticed people doing more community and earth oriented work than I have seen in any other city I have visited. For example, there is The Heidelberg Project and Dabls African Bead museum, which have prioritized putting their art on city streets instead of behind closed, pay-to-enter doors, so that people can view art all around them. There is Earthworks and Growing Detroit (amongst many other urban farm programs) who farm the city as well as supply and distribute seeds and starts to community and family gardens twice a year at a fair price. In this way they are creating the dream they have for Detroiters to be able to grow their own food and maintain their personal health, as well as that of the environment.
I met so many people who were proud of their city and how it is starting to do well again, people ready to explain its recent and even not so recent history to me. I met others who were converting vacant lots into gardens, cultivating Detroit heirlooms, people who had visions of how Detroit could be a thriving agricultural city bolstering the local economy (by planting fruit trees, because the city is within the fruit growing zone; by raising bunnies and chickens for meat, because they need far less space and reproduce so quickly; and by planting grains in vacant lots and building small processing plants, amongst other ideas).
I experienced celebratory art events like the Symphony of Colors, collaborative musical events like Crash Detroit that brought together brass bands from all over the region to play. I experienced Lincoln Street Art park made of recycled, found, shared, and donated materials built and placed there by many individuals, and I found myself within an anarchist space that houses a precious collection of zines.
Detroit seemed to me the marriage between a rainbow and a sturdy car motor, a piece of broken glass glinting in the sun. Detroit to me was that meadow, teeming with flowers and bugs, that exists only because at one time there was a home on the lot, until its residents were evicted and the house condemned then demolished. This is a meadow that now hosts a beehive, maintained by a group of individuals who can see this meadow, remember its history, but still move forward seeking food sovereignty, ecological health, environmental justice, a stable economy, AND are making that dream happen. That is the Detroit I saw.
Meanwhile, as I experienced the world around me, I was also reading reading reading, exploring the world from within. The books I picked up in Detroit included A Wrinkle in Time, A Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and The Trial. Noticeably, the first three books all share the theme of social control.
In these three books, by various methods, mind control was used to keep the citizenry in order. This was supposed to secure peace and happiness within the societies while eliminating argument, disease, violence (this arguably still existed), petty crime, and ugliness. However, as the authors seemed to argue, this also meant the loss of individuality and dissent. With privatized and far reaching surveillance systems and the massive accumulation and dissemination (for profit) of pertinent information about our lives, how might we be giving up our individuality and how might we be losing the ability to dissent today?
Where I see the most relevance amongst these themes and today is when it comes to communication between the two sides of the political spectrum. On both sides I see an extreme unwillingness to listen to the other, as if each side believes it has the answers and the other side can only be wrong. In this way Americans find themselves in echo chambers in which corporate and social media feed and bolster strong opinions until they become rock steady truth, the other side's opinions false, and any difference of opinion becomes ignored. When we do this opinions become stale, unchanging, and ultimately, they become dogmatic. Arguments experience a rotting and deterioration as they trade their basis in reality, morality, and humanity for a set of stagnant ideas.
In these echo chambers individual thought and dissent are not only ignored they are silenced, as these things threaten the status quo. Quickly democracy suffers because democracy requires communication and the mixing of ideas of many different people in order to create arguments and later systems that are made up of all the different experiences of society. A country run by the people needs all the people to feel like their lives are being represented. As times change and the people change, so too should their arguments and the the laws by which they choose to be/are governed by. This cannot occur when sides of the political spectrum do not talk to one another, listen to one another, and share their ideas based on different cultures and values. This cannot happen when dissent--and remember demanding a woman's right to vote and the abolition of slavery were at one time dissent--is silenced. When we squash individual thought and silence dissent, we trade democracy for authoritarianism.
So somehow, as in these books, we find ourselves in a strong and destructive system of social control. Perhaps created through social media, corporate media, our unwillingness to speak to those with different opinions, our submission of vast quantities of personal data, or some combination of these things. This makes me even more jumpy to get back on the road, to have conversations with people who think different than me. Because, in order to converse with people with differing opinions one must enter conversations believing they do not have the answers to everything. And even those answers they do have may not be Truth. As soon as this happens we can become open to other people’s ideas being just as valid and close to a truth. With this basis, we may converse and together we might come to even better ideas and solutions for our society.
Elena and I have lived totally different lives for the last month in Detroit. While she’s been living in the anarchist collective, gardening, writing, and working on the museum, I’ve been participating in a 70hr a week fellowship and wearing navy blue slacks every day. My fellow fellows (22 of us in total) and I have spent the last month addressing the history of Motor City, and where it stands today. We’ve had somewhere in the realm of 90 speakers come impart their knowledge on us, and many passionate conversations amongst ourselves. All of us work or study in the realm of human rights, some come from America, others from Europe and Africa.
Elena wants me to write about what I’ve learned during this fellowship, which somehow seems like an insurmountable task. And interestingly the first thing that I feel pushed to write about is how much I’ve learned about her. There’s nothing like being stuck with 21 other people for 13 hours a day to make you realize how lucky you are to have found someone that you can live, work, and plan with in all your impassioned ferver to save the planet, in all your struggles and bad days and the heat and confined space of a school bus and still come out the end to drive a museum around the country together to talk to people about important issues, AND still love each other. One day, in the middle of the craziest most intense week of this fellowship, Elena made me a cookie. If I had a picture of it, I think it could speak a million words.
On the first day of the fellowship, after I had hurriedly unloaded my possessions from the bus (yelled at all the while by the young Wayne State student working behind the desk, who seemed to be overwhelmed by the number of rules I was managing to break), Elena called me downstairs in a fit of stress. The bus wouldn’t start. It was parked in front of the dorms, in an absolutely illegal spot, in 95 degrees, and it wouldn’t start. The world was ending as we knew it. I was supposed to leave with my fellow fellows for our welcome reception dinner, but instead they left without me, aweing at the girl, covered in grease, head under the hood, cursing, the owner of a school bus. It is of never ending wonder that these moments of unimaginable stress and exhaustion are always the moments people find wonder and excitement in what I’m doing. “Wow you get to sleep in THAT!?”, “Wow that’s so cool you know how to work on cars!” (disclaimer, no, I was trying to shove the engine oil dipstick back into place), “Wow that must be the most awesome job ever, you get to travel all over the country in a school bus!”
This work is the most emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting work I’ve ever endeavored upon. The travel, the budget, making time to reproduce ourselves, wash our clothes, research our route, promote the openings, clean the bus, talk to people, talk to people, talk to people. It’s difficult to cut through the glamour that other people see with the reality that we do not live on a party bus that drifts through space.
While in Detroit I was inspired by this geographical norm of “hustler.” Of the social community organizer who also teaches middle school, drives for Lyft, raises a family, advises politicians, writes poetry, and publishes zines. I learned about “the poor black city,” deserted by wealth and whites, surrounded by the suburbs--stock full of amenities that Detroiters do not have access to. The poor black city, left to its own demise, told to pull up its bootstraps and flap its feathers to entice entrepreneurs back into the city, that the only way the city can “come back” is if they clean themselves up enough to make the whites comfortable enough to come back. But after a month there, I can confidently say that I’ve never known a city of people with as much drive as Detroit.
They like to say, “Detroit coming back? We never left.” It would seem that it’s not white entrepreneurs that are needed. But the violence of institutional racism and white colonial attitudes to end. And what I mean by that is that black Detroiters (and when I say Black Detroiters, I am referring to around 85% of Detroit’s population), grow up getting an inadequate education, exposed to massive amounts of air pollution (the most polluted zip code in the state is in SW Detroit), and then enter adulthood to be extorted on car insurance (highest rates in the nation), not provided any forms of regional transit (white suburbs refuse to connect to Detroit’s regional transit despite many Detroiters having to commute for work to the suburbs), have their homes taken away from them (from unabated tax foreclosures that often end in household demolishment and vacant lots), and then often end up imprisoned (20% of Michigan’s general fund is spent on imprisoning an extraordinary number of people, of which blacks are imprisoned 6.7 times more than whites--compared to the state’s demographics, which are 78% white and 14% black). And at all points along this trajectory, there are white men who profit from the pain, suffering, and imprisonment of black Detroiters. If this isn’t racism, I do not know what is.
And at the root of it all is this highly manipulative, misguided, colonial discourse. This discourse that is shaped by the (often white) philanthropists and government officials: that Detroit needs to do more and be better to bring back the city. This discourse, which distracts from the reality that this city never left, and that its residents have fought for justice since long before 1967, and that this justice has been withheld from them every step of the way.
My fellowship was hard. There were weird tribalisms that formed within the group, exhausting conversations about race, ethnicity, class, and access, and long hours of keynotes, presentations, and group projects. But I gained a deep respect for Detroit, and the residents that have lived there through its hardest times, and came to love so many of the people that I spent the month working alongside.
But we're off to August now (and back to using "we"), and the TIMESHIP is on the road again, fiercer (and cleaner) than ever.