Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Detroit Diaries: Standing Up for Justice at The People's Summit

Detroit Diaries: Standing Up for Justice at The People’s Summit

Posted By The Editors On July 2, 2009 @ 6:24 pm
By Desiree Cooper

In mid-June, summer finally arrived in Detroit after an endless season of soupy, chilly, Seattle-like weather. Detroiters were out in droves for the Red Bull Air Races and a smooth jazz festival along the bustling Detroit River.

But I didn’t go to the summer festivities. Instead, I went to check out the kick-off of the National People’s Summit and Tent City in downtown’s Grand Circus Park.

The summit, which was held June 15 to 17, and may soon be traveling to a city near you, is a convocation of activists who have watched the bail-out of the financial institutions and the reorganizing of America’s auto industry, while wondering when any of the changes were going to trickle down to the average worker. The situation is especially dire in Michigan, where the African-American unemployment rate is barreling toward 28 percent, the nation’s highest. In April, there were an estimated 16,000 Detroit homes in foreclosure, according to the Detroit Free Press. At 14 percent, Michigan’s foreclosure rate is higher than the 12 percent national average.

“Because Detroit is the manufacturing center of the world, we caught the crisis first,” said Abayomi Azikiwe, 51, one of the spokespeople for the National People’s Summit. “People thought we were doing something wrong in Detroit, but with the economic crisis spreading, they’re starting to see that corrupt economic policies are the problem. With downsizing, outsourcing of American jobs and the over-extension of credit, it’s all starting to unravel.”

The People’s Summit is timed to coincide with a National Business Summit held in Detroit this week, attracting more than 1,000 of America’s corporate leaders to the Motor City to “define America’s future.” The problem, said Azikiwe, was that workers and ordinary citizens weren’t exactly invited. “The people who are meeting to define America’s future are the same people who created this problem,” said Azikiwe. “They haven’t changed their perspective.”

Summit organizers hope that at least their counter demonstrations will cause people to stop and think about how their lives are being affected by global economic policies.

“It’s crazy, what people are willing to accept,” said Ahmina Maxey, 23, who attended the summit as an environmental activist. “When you get out and learn more about the issues, you can’t be contented to sit and do nothing. The economic crisis touches everything from labor to air quality to health care. It’s all interrelated.”

Rocio Valerio, 24, is a Mexican immigrant who came to the United States at age 9. Also an environmental activist, she attended the summit to join in a spirit of collaboration with other concerned Detroiters. “There’s a feeling, energy and connectedness you get when you gather with others for a common cause,” she said.

The crowd grew slowly on Sunday afternoon as Detroit City Council candidate and activist Joan Gist opened the summit with a prayer. She was followed by Latino workers who implored the crowd to focus not upon immigrant labor, but upon the slave-labor policies of corporate America that are exploiting undocumented workers while displacing legal workers.

Listening to the speakers, I felt myself awaken from the numbness that had entombed me after a winter and spring chock full of bad economic news. I started to think that these ordinary people who were calling for fair trade policies, a human-oriented balance between the military budget and the social safety net, an investment in America’s infrastructure, national health care, and the regulation of financial markets knew just as much as the corporate big-wigs about what was good for America. How many homes and jobs must we lose before Americans stop being complacent and insist that their voices be heard?

I asked 67-year-old Willie Kirksey whether he ever felt that protest was futile.

“Once you get sick of protesting, that means you’ve given up,” said the Alabama native, who was a spot welder for Chrysler in better years. “You can’t ever get tired of standing up for justice.”

Desiree Cooper is a contributing author to the anthology Other People’s Skin: Four Novellas. A former columnist with the Detroit Free Press and co-host of public radio’s Weekend America, she is now a freelance writer, BBC correspondent and novelist. You can find her at http://www.descooper.com .

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