The urban desert of Detroit, outside of Occupy Detroit's building space

The city of Detroit used to have two million people. Today, the population is around 900,000. Seventy-two thousand homes are vacant, meaning a quarter of the city’s homes are empty. It is the poorest large city in the country with over thirty percent of the city’s population living in poverty. Given those statistics, one might expect the Occupy movement would thrive here.

I met with a couple Occupy Detroit organizers (Kevin and Sarah), while I was on a tour of occupations in the Great Lakes region of the United States. They spoke to me about how Occupy Detroit started, what it was like to maintain an encampment, when they ended their encampment and what plans they had for Detroit now.

On October 11, Occupy Detroit had a march from the “Spirit of Detroit” statue to Grand Circus Park. This happened after a large general assembly at a church that had to be held in the parking lot because there was not enough room for people to fit into the pews. They setup tents and, like other Occupy sites, reorganized the camp multiple times and worked to make the kitchen more functional.

The occupation experienced an amazing outpouring of support. They had to ask people to stop bringing food. They had too much produce. They were taking food to pantries.

Kevin, a member of a local electrical workers union, offered to give me a tour of Detroit so I can see where Occupy Detroit has been. He and Sarah drove me to Grand Circus Park and showed me how they had laid out the camp. As he explained it, the park had been packed with tents.

Similar to other occupations, they struggled with homeless people. With many of the mental health hospitals in Detroit shut down, the word got out that there was a site where one could go for a tent, food, clothing, etc, and a migration started to happen.

Occupiers were “naïve.” They left out cell phones, laptops, food and water. There was disorganization and no way to hold people accountable for stealing. The occupation was giving individuals tents that essentially gave them a place to go shoot up on drugs.

The park was adjacent to a club called Club Lax. This was used by occupiers for restrooms, meetings and by those who needed electricity. The owner was very accommodating. The restrooms became a bit wrecked as a result and union plumbers donated their services and fixed the bathroom.

There would be individuals out drinking past 2 am, hooting and hollering. The park had fire barrels out for warmth. There would be knife fights. There were drug dealers in and around the park. There were individuals in the encampment that had hits out on them and were wanted dead. But, the site had a few bold and courageous homeless people that stepped up to do security around the park for over thirty-seven days of the occupation.

The encampment lasted until it was time for the city’s Thanksgiving Day parade. They were to be out of the park on November 19. The National Lawyers Guild met with Detroit police and got the occupation an extension. They could have challenged the end date being imposed on the occupation but decided in a contentious general assembly meeting to pack up and leave the park.

Kevin and Sarah introduced me to one of the men who had stood guard over the Occupy site. Clayton, an African-American probably in his upper twenties, argued with the drunks. He would act as a marshal at marches and bank protests.

Clayton learned about Occupy Detroit after a 10K marathon. He saw people wiggling in their hands in the air. They would then put their hands back down and then there would be more hand movements. He thought he needed to watch this. He was there for the entire meeting and soon decided that he needed to stick around.

An unemployed person who knows people that have been foreclosed on under fake documents, he helped protect Occupy Detroit with three other homeless people. He often would sleep only two hours of the day.

Without people like Clayton, Occupy Detroit probably would have buried somebody. The Detroit police were dropping people, who had no place to go, at the Occupy site. That is not to say the police were opposed to the occupation like NYPD appeared to loathe Occupy Wall Street. The police, according to Kevin and Sarah, called Occupy Detroit a “national model” of how Occupy sites should run. They acknowledged the park was in better shape after Occupy Detroit left because occupiers had cleaned the park. (Kevin helped Clayton and the other homeless people who did security find an apartment after the occupation was over.)

Occupy Detroit has a building called the 5900. It was given to them to use for a year by a property owner, who heard they were going to have to leave the park. The owner handed the occupation the key. As Kevin explained, here in Detroit property values are so low that some owners just want to get rid of their property.

The past months have been spent renovating the space, which had safety hazards, rats, etc, in it when occupiers first entered. The space now houses the Detroit People’s Library. It is a place where people can come for meetings. It is where they keep the many supplies they have left over from their occupation in the park. Their offices will eventually be here and they will hold regular meetings in the building too.

Occupy Detroit still has many “comfort” supplies. They could not fit it all into a semi-trailer. And they have shelves of water and non-perishable food. Because they have so much left, they might be opening up a pantry to help feed some people in the neighborhood.

The occupation has gained some attention for bringing the “Occupy Homes” campaign to Detroit. Right now, they are trying to save a family’s home, which they have been in for more than twenty years. Huffington Post reported recently:

Occupy Detroit, Moratorium Now and Homes Before Banks gathered Monday morning at the Garrett home on Pierson Street in Detroit. A contractor attempted to deliver a dumpster to the house but was blocked by people gathering in the street, said Steve Babson, who works with Occupy Detroit and Homes Before Banks. Police then arrived on the scene but left shortly afterward, claiming it was a civil matter.

A group which organized with Occupy Detroit are out at “The Squats.” They went there when the camp shut down. They are in homes that are slated for destruction. They have been winterizing and staying in them. They have a wood burner that was donated by Occupy Lansing. And they are working to clean up the neighborhood.

Going forward, Occupy Detroit may be returning to Grand Circus Park but if they do it will be with a small group and they will be much more organized than they were when they occupied the park last year. There will also be standards because some of the occupiers thought Occupy Detroit was a “social service.” Volunteers and people in needed experienced drama. Individuals were rude and abusive and most were “unwilling to call people out for rudeness.”

A listening campaign may be launched where occupiers go into communities to find out what community groups or organizations are already doing and how occupiers could help them with that work.

Sarah shows me the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school for pregnant teenagers and teen mothers. The Academy, founded by a freed slave, has a small farm with chickens, roosters, goats, etc, and was slated for closure under the emergency manager law in Michigan that basically grants the state government the right to go into cities and violate or end union contracts. But, students and teachers staged a sit-in and occupied the school during Spring Break in 2011. Their action garnered support from Danny Glover and Rachel Maddow and the closure was averted (though the public school is now a charter school).

Detroit is in many ways an urban desert. As one stands by the 5900 building where Occupy Detroit is now headquartered, one can see vacant lot after vacant lot. One can see the ruins left behind in a once-industrial city that no longer has the robust industry it had decades ago.

I go through what is known as the Cass Corridor as I leave Detroit. It is an area that was known for drugs. It had public housing projects that were torn down. It has been heavily gentrified and has been rebranded “Midtown.” There isn’t much to “Midtown.” It is another barren and vacuous area of Detroit.

This city is one in America that needs Occupy. Industry has left workers for dead. The political class has failed. And, the answer that leaders are prescribing for the trauma residents have experienced now involves privatization and the gutting of the remaining services that provide residents the ability to live and survive. (Last year, the emergency manager for Detroit ordered the city to close half of the schools.)

I was here in June 2010 for the US Social Forum. Activists and organizers said then they would be concentrating their energy on Detroit to make it a better place. But, Kevin told me whatever energy there was in Detroit for action after the Forum had entirely dissipated until this came along.

Occupy has a lot of responsibility. This is a city in crisis that desperately needs people who care to step up and empower those in deep poverty. They have gone through a lot of pain and suffering in the past few decades and need to find a way to believe in the power of fighting back again.