Thursday, June 24, 2010


The movement to put the people back on top, where they belong - Further dispatches from Detroit

by John Hill

Tuesday (continued)

Bike caravans and drum circles

I check in attendees during the morning. I have flown in, but many attendees have driven all night, some have come in buses and caravans from various cities. I hear from another Bostonian that there was a Boston bus. Some have come from pretty far away in caravans of bikes. I notice that despite their sometimes grueling trips, everyone I check in is patient and unfailingly polite.

I finally let someone take my place and I get some lunch. Later in the afternoon the opening march arrives after completing a loop in the city. It is raucous and energetic, with local activists leading the chants. Foreclosures and utility shutoffs are big local issues and the marchers shout their protest.

The marchers file in to the cavernous main room of the center and up to the stage where the opening ceremony is taking place.

And what an opening. We are treated to a half hour of Native American drumming, song, and dance. First the drum circle begins. Five or six Indian men of different ages bend over their drums, serious, careful, and intent. They begin to sing the in the high wailing tones passed down from their ancestors. Dancers come up to the stage in their colorful costumes, a man twirling as his feathers fly about him. Three women stand center stage: a young woman, a girl, and an older woman. All tall and proud as they face forward and dance.

My appreciation of this performance comes partly out of respect for the indigenous cultures of our country today, and admiration for how Native Americans have kept their culture alive as our government continues to fail them.

I am moved because our forum has given them a place of honor, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that drum circle, with the old men sitting by the young, teaching them, guiding them, so that they never forget who they are and where they came from (bent over their drums, serious, careful, and intent).

I’m back to my hotel room in the early evening for a little reading and to send off my first dispatch.


Voter rights, democracy wannabe

I’m out of the hotel and into a cab. I’m splitting it with a food activist with two nose rings. We talk about the connections between food issues (anything from school lunch programs to food access to community farming) and democracy issues. We’re both interested in defending our communities from rapacious corporate behavior. My mother is a water activist and I talk about her recent work. My food activist friend tells me about a big bottled water company targeting Latino consumers, playing on some of their memories of bad water in their native countries. I am struck by the contempt some corporations have for their “customers.”

The workshops at the forum are organized into “tracks” to help people make sense of the daunting list of hundreds of these workshops. I am sticking to the "Democracy and Governance" track because I am a democracy activist. What does democracy activist mean? In my own case it means someone who works for democracy because he believes that the United States is arguably not a real democracy and that many of our problems will be solved when we become one. I believe in progressive solutions, and while there is a common perception that we are a conservative country, serious public opinion polls repeatedly show that on many issues Americans are progressive in their views, and ahead of those who claim to lead us, just as the people of many nations are ahead of those that purport to lead them. So I feel that if the people can rule, progressive policies will follow.

My first workshop is on voting rights. Among the panelists is the director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, an indispensable organization defending the rights of detainees, and by extension, all of us.

The panelists talk about a voters’ bill of rights, the recent Citizens United case opening up the floodgates of corporate contributions, and possible strategies for increasing voter participation, including making election day a holiday like they do in other countries. An important point is that not only are corporations drowning out our voices with their propaganda promoting their candidates, but that we have made it almost impossible for many would-be voters to even get to the polls and pull the lever. What kind of democracy is that? Are we a proud pioneer who should be a leading light, showing the world what a vibrant democracy looks like, or a democracy wannabe, less democratic than many European and other democracies and under the thumb of private entrenched power. Guess.

Abolitionists of Detroit tour

In the afternoon I take a walking tour of abolitionist Detroit. Our guide is Sean, a recent local college graduate. He tells us how Detroit was a key stop on the Underground Railroad, with most roads to Canada leading through it. He leads us down to the "Gateway to Freedom" statue commemorating Detroit’s role. He shows us a map of the sites of Underground Railroad safe houses downtown. Along the way he tells us about leaders and sites in the struggle. I’ll excerpt from a local website:

“[There is] George De Baptiste, a black businessman and member of the Second Baptist Church in Detroit. He bought a ship, the T. Whitney, to take runaways across the Detroit River to Canada. The Second Baptist Church at Beaubien and Monroe Streets in Detroit is a 160-year-old church that helped as many as 5,000 slaves escape to freedom.

"Seymour Finney was a white Detroit hotel owner who allowed slaves to hide in his barn at the northeast corner of State and Griswold.”

We’re told that Baptiste organized armed bands that had firefights with slave catchers, sometimes snatching escaped slaves off of boats to rescue them. We’re told how Finney would entertain slave catchers in his tavern, while former slaves hid back in the barn.

I find it appropriate that we are learning about one of our great American peoples' movements (abolitionism and the Underground Railroad) as we try to bring about another great movement in that tradition, the movement to put the people back on top, where they belong.

John Hill has been an organizer, fundraiser, and activist working on many issues of social justice. Also a singer, songwriter, and musician, he now works to end corporate rule in the United States and to establish a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

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