There are two reasons Occupy the Midwest chose to hold its second conference in Detroit: despair, and hope.
Detroit is one of the cities hit hardest by the ongoing Great Recession, triggered by the 2007 collapse and bailout of the banking system. Mortgage foreclosures and evictions are still adding empty houses to an alarming stock of abandoned buildings and crumbling neighborhoods.
But activist Detroit is also an internationally watched urban laboratory. Its self-sustaining, DIY projects, such as growing fresh food on vacant lots and rebuilding dilapidated houses, work largely outside of government, corporations, and the consumer-based economy.
“We want to show that even in the worst conditions, we can make positive change,” in part by equipping people with the right skills and knowledge, said Occupy Chicago’s David Olorosso, one of the organizers of Occupy the Midwest. The conference geared up on Thursday and runs through Sunday, Aug. 26.
Made up of Occupy groups from a growing list of states including Iowa, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Indiana, Occupy the Midwest started as an idea within Occupy St. Louis, which hosted the first conference last spring.
This weekend’s conference is really two running simultaneously, sometimes intersecting. The sessions at Occupy Detroit hub 5900 Activist Center center around government and political strategy. The schedule at the This Hood of Ours encampment is more hands-on, focused on providing basic needs, protecting the environment, and property-use strategies. The conference program presents attendees with some difficult choices.
Here are a few:
- Tar Sands — When This Spills, It’s a Whole New Monster: Meet the whistleblower who exposed cover-up of 800,000-gallon oil spill in Kalamazoo River.
- Creative Living and City Survival: Blueprints for sustainable communities using natural energy, surviving climate change, gathering wild edibles.
- The Role of Banks in the Destruction of Detroit: How the foreclosure crisis created Detroit’s fiscal deficit; Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac’s role in foreclosure crisis.
- Reclaiming Abandoned Houses: Necessary steps for reclaiming and securing property confiscated by banks and government agencies.
- Another World is Possible: Peoples’ right to choose their own food, farming, livestock and fisheries systems versus international market-force control over most food.
Also looming large: Michigan’s disputed emergency manager law, Public Act 4; (foreclosure) eviction defense; urban farming; new self-government ideas; and the Occupy movement’s first year. The list of participating activist and community organizations is a map of regional cooperation.
Detroit is part of a nationwide race to save as many communities as possible as fast as possible, said Jasahn Larsosa, chief organizer for This Hood of Ours. The Detroit-based organization is a campaign started started three years ago to help reshape local economies from consumer-based to self-sustaining, from valuing money and convenience services to cooperating to provide basic needs. This Hood of Ours also operates in Cleveland and in Anderson, Indiana.
“It never occurs to us that an abandoned home is an asset to a neighborhood, or a vacant lot,” he said. “Use the land, grow your own food. Move into the houses.”
Larsosa said it’s insulting that residents pay taxes for public services they’re not getting, buses that don’t run, trash that’s not collected, neglected schools and parks. Property taxes make up three quarters of the city’s budget; a third of Detroit land space is empty, abandoned, and unused. So when the city confiscates a house for unpaid taxes, he said, leaving it empty and vulnerable, “take it back.”
Detroit’s patchy victories and grim failures make it the perfect host for Occupy the Midwest.