Written by Aaron Handelsman
Below is a speech given by Aaron Handelsman, on behalf of the Detroit People’s Platform, during the 29th Annual Martin Luther King Day Symposium at the University of Michigan’s Detroit Center.
Detroit People’s Platform is a membership organization that was birthed through the labor of several hundred people across Detroit who recognized the need to amplify power, justice, accountability, and love in our city. Why? Because, as Dr. King wrote, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” And we have a ways to go, but we also have everything we need to get there.
When the city of Detroit burned down in 1806, its motto became, “It will rise from the ashes.” And Detroit did that. It rose from the ashes to become the Arsenal of Democracy, the arsenal of industry, the home of the union and as a result the birthplace of the US middle class, not to mention the African American middle class. But today we sit again in the ashes. This time the ashes are the ashes of democracy. With the shadow of emergency management still hanging over us and the rusted hull of industry groaning in the past, it’s ash all around. But we are confident. We know it will rise again. But it will not rise again as the arsenal of democracy or industry. No, we have the opportunity today—and this is what the People’s Platform is committed to—to make Detroit the arsenal of justice working in the service of all humanity. We are here to build power and bring about justice.
On a separate occasion, Dr. King told his audience, “In the days ahead we must not consider it unpatriotic to raise certain basic questions about our national character. We must begin to ask: Why are there forty million poor people in a nation overflowing with such unbelievable affluence?” And indeed, we must ask today, in a region that is home to one of the wealthiest counties in the wealthiest nation in the world, a county which is just miles north of here, why are there so many poor and unemployed people in Detroit?
The answer, I contend, is the assumptions we’re working with: assumptions that miss the essence of why we are alive, that fail to recognize an individual’s obligation to his brothers and sisters is, that misconceive what development is and what government is for. These assumptions are seriously flawed. You can verify this by looking around you and recognizing that despite our explosive development, power, and collective wealth, we still struggle with many of the same, deep-rooted problems we have struggled with since this country was formed. But we can do better. Dr. King wrote that “For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born. Our economy must become more person-centered than property and profit-centered. Our government must depend more on its moral power than on its military power.” It’s just as true today as it was then. That is what the Detroit People’s Platform stands for—development that centers around people and the systems that support them. I contend that at this critical moment, we are called not to fit Detroit into the world’s expectations of it, but to set new precedents for what a great city can look like or, in other words, to do what Detroiters have always done best, which is to bring forward new ideas and new forms of expression to the world.
“In dealing with our particular dilemma,” Martin King wrote, “we will challenge the nation to deal with its larger dilemma.” And if we are successful in doing that, he continued, “historians in future years will have to say there lived a great people who . . . through tenacity and creative commitment, injected new meaning into the veins of American life.” This is what we have to gain. We have a lot of work to do to bring about the Beloved Community but we have everything to gain from undertaking that work. The greatest opportunity offered by Detroit today is the opportunity to reevaluate how we do business and how we relate to one another, to sign a new social contract that makes clear the responsibilities of a government to its people and protects not just legal rights but human rights. We are being asked right now to survey the fertile wreckage of disaster capitalism and take a moment to pause and reflect. We are being asked, whether we heed the call or not, to embrace ubuntu, which is to say that my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours, and vice versa. And we are asked to understand that as it is structured now (and I quote Dr. King again) “No matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty.” Knowing that, we are asked to relearn what development really means, and it is the call of the Detroit People’s Platform to rally Detroiters and Metro Detroiters around a new definition of development. Since we know that economic expansion does not by necessity improve all lives—which is to say that, contrary to the popular saying, a rising economic tide does NOT lift all boats—we must reframe and refocus our development and change efforts. We must understand and help our loved ones to remember that development starts with people. It does not start with bricks. Development is a spiritual undertaking. It is about connecting the needs and interests of the individual with the needs and interests of the many.
Popular narratives notwithstanding, our region suffers no want of means. The problem is a problem of distribution. Take for example the fact that there are more vacant homes in Detroit than there are homeless people. Using tools such as community land trusts, as advocated by the People’s Platform, the city and region could—at relativley low cost—increase density and make thousands of single women and children homeowners for generations to come through restrictive deeds. This would have an added benefit of ensuring permanent affordability and community cohesion for decades. But instead of protecting neighborhoods or focusing on keeping people in their homes or out of foreclosure, our non-representative, quasi-governmental decision makers have determined that what they call “blight remediation”’—which means tearing down the homes from which people have been evicted—is the most urgent use of our public tax dollars. Dan Gilbert, Mayor Duggan, and the DLBA all seem to agree. Similarly, our so-called representatives, who on the one hand tell us we must suffer through bankruptcy and broken pension promises, have on the other hand found hundreds of millions of dollars to pay—yes, pay—a billionaire to build a private stadium that will make him mountains money at the city’s expense, all without increasing the city’s functional tax base outside of Downtown. When asked to explain why this is the case, we are told that this is what is best for the city.
Well I think it’s about time that we ask, “What is the city?” I contend that the city is its people. And most of those people don’t live Downtown. Detroit is the people whose shoulders we stand on and the people who are here today, whose art forms, culture, migration stories, family histories, years of work and songs of jubilation and lament make the city what it is. The heroes of Detroit are its people—the people who stayed, who kept its heartbeat going, who kept creating and growing in the most dire situations even as the surrounding region and the parent state retrenched, attacked, and disinvested from them. If these people are not prioritized in all of our so-called revitalization, then there will be no Detroit left, no spirit worth saving. For far too long we have treated people as means and not as ends. From slavery (“independence”) and the assembly line (industrialization), to today’s burger flippers and builders working without living wages or CBAs, we have prioritized sticky comfort and excess over self-actualization and spiritual growth. It’s time to invest our resources in people, in one another, in the creation of the beloved community.
We who stand with the People’s Platform stand on the shoulders of our elders. Because of their courage and sacrifice, we know that with perseverance and the strength of our vision and conviction, we can do better tomorrow than we have done today. We know that we cannot look within the confines of the status quo, cannot resort only to what is currently deemed acceptable, or practical, or politic to solve the problems of today. We must look to what is right. The whole world is waiting to see what will happen in Detroit. We have the opportunity to become the exemplar of organized power moving in the service of love, and of development that works in the service of all humanity. These things are worth fighting for, and if any of this resonates with you, I urge you to open your heart, your mind, and your time or checkbook to come fight, struggle, and celebrate with the Detroit People’s Platform, for I am certain that we too will rise from the ashes.
-Aaron Handelsman, 19 January 2015