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Our kind of government, from the block party to the United Nations

By Gregg Newsom

This is the latest in a series of columns discussing the Environmental Justice Principles drafted and adopted by delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held Oct. 24-27, 1991. Environmental Justice Principle 10 considers governmental acts of environmental injustice a violation of international law, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on Genocide (www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.html).

Last weekend, I attended the back to school supply give away and family fun day hosted by Yusef Shakur and his community. I arrived with my friend Andrew. As the heat gently slowed our approach to the music, the smoke coming off the barbecue and the kids going at the slip-n-slide, Andrew tilted his head and said, “Now, this is my kinda government” with a grin. I’ve been smiling to myself and reflecting on the sentiment since.

I really don’t know how much experience I’ve had with the type or form of government that Andrew was talking about, one that emerges from a barbecue on a hot day. As I was taking in the music, the food, hearing community members express their concerns, share their successes and having a few deep yet relaxing conversations, I was also attempting to understand how this right here was government. While in my heart I understand gatherings like this as being where the magic happens, my thoughts were attempting to translate this block party into a truly representative form of governance.

Yusef took the stage late in the afternoon. With both gratitude and pride he shared many things, spoke of his personal and his neighborhood’s history and most importantly, of the potential and importance of not only his neighborhood, but of all Detroit’s neighborhoods. While he shared a great deal, one phrase — “We will no longer be a product of our environment, but our environment will be a product of us” — has stayed with me as I’ve continued to reflect on block-level governance.

Why am I so interested in block-level governance in the first place? I’m interested in sustainability, not some green-washed corporate distraction like the one they’re pouring down the media channels, but the kind that actually has a serious chance of saving our collective butts. This type of sustainability cannot move unwanted people out of the way to be born, cannot be fenced in, and though it is one of the most challenging things in the world to achieve, can’t leave anyone behind and can’t assume to speak for those who are not there.

Also, my interest comes in answer to the fact that the people of the state of Michigan, along with the citizens of Detroit, currently face the most intense stripping away of democratic rights and corporate encroachment into our commons spaces that we have ever seen. This attack, and I try to use such language sparingly, is coming from many fronts. As we begin to encourage folks to register to vote and strategize to get people out to the polls to support the candidates of their choice, influence the future of the Michigan Supreme Court, help protect collective bargaining and, if it actually makes it to the ballot, to strike down Public Act 4, the emergency manager law, I think that it is vital we also continue to build and support block-level means of governance that are not influenced by or profiting from this attack.

In all of this, I’ve yet to even mention this week’s environmental justice principle, which considers governmental acts of environmental injustice a violation of international law, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on Genocide. For me, the weight of “governmental acts of environmental justice,” when swallowed with the attack on Detroit I’ve been attempting to articulate above, leads me to posit: Just what kind of recourse does a population of people whose rights and public holdings are being stripped away have?

While pondering this I came across Ron Scott’s entry in last week’s “Organize to save the city” column and it to me spoke in answer to the weight of our EJ principle. “We have to resist, economically and physically. We need to take it to the international level. Plead it before the U.N. as a violation of human rights. An important asset Detroit has is water. They want the water. Water is power and they are willing to take it by any means necessary and we must be willing to defend it by any means necessary.”

Personally, I consider the political, economic and cultural attack on Detroit and on democracy to represent a long-term premeditated strategy by corporate and private interests to turn a profit and displace a great number of residents in the process. I also witness this as part of ongoing national and global struggles that reach across the generations of many peoples. While I respectfully defer to the lived experience of elders, community members and my mentors in this work, I see a connection between Detroit’s ability to take it to the international level and our block parties, barbeques, local shops and really anywhere we gather and share what my fellow Food Justice Task Force coordinator Charity Hicks recently referred to as “extreme hospitality” with one another.

Again, maybe a little bit more concisely in this context, how does a community turn a block party into a direct democracy that can actually hear, bolster and lift up the voice people from neighborhoods across Detroit to the world? I perceive that governance, like expressions of style and personality, is going to look different in different neighborhoods. My personal experience with the Food Justice Task Force’s Cook Eat Talk community dinners and the People’s Movement Assembly (PMA) process both come to mind as potential means to respectfully create spaces where neighbors have successfully come together to learn from each other, craft resolutions and organize action in response to issues that directly impact us, build and reinforce a sense of pride in our neighborhoods and within ourselves and grow and re-establish trust and accountability with each other.

Gregg Newsom serves as a communications coordinator for the Detroit Food Justice Task Force (detroitfoodjustice.com), People’s Kitchen Detroit (peopleskitchendetroit.org) and other grassroots organizations.

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