Reporter’s Notebook: ‘Occupy Detroit’ encampment remains testament to political malaise

Bill Shea Contributor
Font Size:

DETROIT, Mich. — About 200 anti-capitalist activists have slept in a Hooverville-style tent city for the last seven days that quickly devolved into a mire of mud and filth after a week of steady rain, cold winds and typically gray October skies. Although the number of “occupiers” occasionally dwindles to fewer than 100 as temperatures have fallen, the themes emerging from this “Obamaville” are visible and jarring.

During the dedication of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. last Sunday, President Obama extended an endorsement of sorts to the Occupy Wall Street movement, saying Rev. King would support its aims and activities if he were alive today.

In Detroit, the protesters’ encampment shows signs of permanence, or at least the intention of permanence, making it hard to avoid the conclusion that Grand Circus Park is Michigan’s Obamaville.

Under a series of jerry-rigged tarps and amid webs of ropes and Bungee cords, an ad hoc field kitchen in the park is churning out meals for both the “occupiers” and the homeless. Grand Circus Park always has had a few homeless “residents,” but word of free food, blankets and clothing traveled quickly. At least a dozen are taking full advantage. Because some of the homeless are drunk and sometimes rowdy, volunteers in urban camouflage and tactical gear (but unarmed) began patrols Thursday evening with the intent of defusing any incidents.

Protesters held their first rally outside Detroit’s city hall on Oct. 14, attracting a crowd estimated at anywhere from 500 to 2,000. A colorful litany of chanting anarchists, Marxists, socialists, trade unionists and other left-wing factions mugged for TV cameras.

They marched several blocks north along historic Woodward Avenue to an encampment in Grand Circus Park. They brandished picket signs. They called for more taxes on the rich, an end to foreclosures, greed, capitalism, CEO bonuses, the Federal Reserve, wars and racism.

Still, the most serious casualty of the “Occupy Detroit” protest’s first week was a broken nose. And that came not from a policeman’s truncheon, but from a steel street barrier tipping over in the wind and onto the face of a protester affixing a sign to it. The otherwise bloodless affair has drawn little interest from police and the public, shifting the Detroit protest’s role from active agitation to passive omnipresence.

The Detroit demonstrators have largely been a mixture of young white students from the suburbs, graybeard ’60s protest veterans, and black activists. Most of that first march’s flamboyant characters — including anarchists in plastic Guy Fawkes masks synonymous with the “Anonymous” collective of cyber “hacktivists” — have floated away to jobs, classrooms, or mom and dad’s basement.

Those who remain seem mired in their Obamaville, complaining less about the lack of jobs — as shanty-town dwellers did in former president Herbert Hoover’s days — than about the lack of urgency behind what they see as a wholesale and inevitable culture change.

Detroit “occupiers” have mostly pantomimed their New York City counterparts’ antagonism toward capitalism, wealth disparity, bankers’ malfeasance and student loan debt. They want an end to all of those things, but haven’t publicly expressed any solutions — or even much interest in the mechanics of suggesting solutions.

Some of the old warhorses, especially the communist World Workers Party members, have been handing out anti-capitalist newspapers featuring photos of Che Guevara and defending the authoritarian regimes in North Korea, Syria and Cuba — and calling for revolution. Organized labor support is visible in the form of preprinted signs from a local AFL-CIO council. Milk crates and temporary shelves hold a free library including titles ranging from Noam Chomsky to Dr. Seuss.

At least one participant, a self-described advocate of “black bloc” street violence tactics, said there are no plans to riot or attack symbols of the establishment. Not that there are many overt cathedrals of capitalism in downtown Detroit: Most of the gleaming glass office towers of banks and other financial institutions are in the wealthy suburb of Troy, which remains unoccupied by the movement. Downtown is home to endless symbols of the city’s slow recovery from generations of economic wasting disease. No one seems interested in damaging a city in which vandalism is often hard to distinguish from organic blight and neglect.

Like their New York counterparts, Occupy Detroit’s denizens don’t have permits to protest, parade, or squat. Grand Circus Park, in the heart of downtown Detroit, is owned by the city. A permit application was filed but rejected, although organizers have said city officials have been friendly and invited the movement to seek a shorter permit. Police have won praise by mostly remaining parked in their cars on the fringes of the circular park, looking listless and bored.

They did arrest one person, described on the movement’s official Facebook page as a tall white man, when they found him with stolen property from the campsite. Activists also accused him of urinating on tents. And a car belonging to another occupier was stolen near the park. She had driven to the park from the suburbs to “drop off hugs” and other supplies.

But sporadic interests aside, this Obamaville is decidedly humdrum as it enters its second week. There are few signs of public interest in Occupy Detroit other than a few horn honks of solidarity.

A quick scan of the official “Occupy Detroit General Assembly and Discussion Group” on Facebook reveals significant internal dissension — at least among the movement’s virtual participants. As is typical in Detroit, race has reared its head. A white suburban participant who lists her occupation as a grocery deli clerk posted a comment expressing frustration at what she said was reverse racism.

The resulting outcry from other activists included more than 600 Facebook comments, including claims that white people, by virtue of their birth, are guilty of historic race crimes.
White Progressives are recoiling in horror.

Committee meetings on racial sensitivity and concerns about “white privilege” were also on the movement’s docket this week. Like in other Obamavilles, everything is debated and nothing is agreed upon without “consensus.”

Shannon McEvilly, a 25-year-old resident of the city-within-a-city enclave of Hamtramck, has been working to coordinate Occupy Detroit before and after her day job with a local investment services firm — an irony that she chuckles about. McEvilly doesn’t identify with the movement’s more radical elements, saying solutions can be achieved through legislative means. She is the rare participant who says out loud that the U.S. capitalist economic system needs reform rather than replacement.

“I think things can be corrected within the system that we have,” she said, adding that the American tax structure is “obscene” in that it favors the rich.

The daughter of middle class auto workers who later left the industry, McEvilly called herself lucky that she never had to deal with family unemployment struggles during her suburban upbringing.
People today have to rely on luck rather than honest toil to get ahead, she said.

“It doesn’t matter how hard you work if you’re a middle class person,” she said. “You shouldn’t have to rely on luck.”

Last Sunday’s general assembly in the park provided some luck for the protesters, as their general assembly coincided with a Detroit Lions football game. Many of the more than 60,000 fans downtown for the game trudged right past the park.

“Come for the Lions, stay for social justice,” went the chant.

None of them stayed for social justice. A few hooted insults and calls to “get a job.”

“We have a job. It’s called democracy,” one young female occupier said to a friend, clearly irritated.

Follow Bill on Twitter