Detroit assembly fights banks and austerity

WW photo: Kris Hamel

WW photo: Kris Hamel

“We’re calling on the banks to refund the money they stole from our community. Make the banks pay!” With those words Wayne County Commissioner Martha G. Scott kicked off the first International People’s Assembly Against Banks and Against Austerity at Grand Circus Park in downtown Detroit on Oct. 5-6.

Organized primarily by activists from the Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shutoffs; Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management; and Fight Imperialism, Stand Together, the assembly placed the blame for the city’s financial crisis squarely on the shoulders of the bankers and corporate bosses.

Detroit was illegally forced into bankruptcy court on July 19 by attorney Kevyn Orr, the state-imposed emergency manager. Since then, Orr has been acting as an enforcer for leading U.S. financial institutions seeking to exploit this majority African-American municipality and push it into even deeper austerity. Orr is widely disliked among the masses.

City Councilperson JoAnn Watson told the assembly that, rather than allow an invitation-only meeting about the city’s future with the Obama administration to take place behind closed doors on Sept. 27,  “I showed up anyway.” When she was told there was no room for the City Council at the meeting, she protested, saying, “The people of Detroit should be represented here.” The assembly applauded her defense of people’s rights.

Deputy Research Director of the Service Employees Union Jono Shaffer discussed how Wall Street and the banks are behind the current attacks on public workers and other unions. Comparing today’s economic crisis with the 1929 Great Depression, he pointed out, “Now the politicians are going after all the things the workers have won” since then, like unions, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. Shaffer noted that although worker productivity keeps going up, workers’ wages have stagnated over the last 30 years, forcing workers into debt, while the wealth of the 1% multiplies. In 1980, he noted, there was no consumer debt; today it’s somewhere between $3 trillion and $4 trillion.

City workers like William Williams, vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, talked about the devastating effect of proposed cuts to pension benefits for more than 20,000 retired city workers. Renee Manley, of the Service Employees’ Capital Stewardship Program, testified about how city workers’ benefits and public services have been cut to the bone.

Very moving remarks that morning were made by former public school teacher S. Baxter Jones, who became an anti-foreclosure activist when the banks refused to give him an affordable loan modification. “We’re dealing with banks with a bully mentality.” He noted, “A lot of people in my situation abandon their homes, but I refused to walk away.” When he reported that he remains in his home after successfully fighting the banks, he got a standing ovation.

Youth activists Tachae J. Davis, of Fight Imperialism, Stand Together, and Dimeeko Williams, of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, roused the assembly with their determination to fight the system. They invited everyone to join them in a noontime march on the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel, where EM Orr has a penthouse costing $4,200 a month paid for by Detroit taxpayers. Following a youth contingent led by a FIST banner, activists took the streets on Washington Boulevard where the hotel is located, chanting, “Whose city? Our city!” and “Banks get bailed out, we get sold out!”

During the lunch break, workshops were held on fighting emergency management in the schools, media training, the anti-fracking struggle and uprooting racism.

In the afternoon session, many speakers took on the banks and multinational corporations for the crimes they have committed against the people of Detroit and the world. They also pointed out that if the ruling class can effectively carry out its full agenda in Detroit, then other cities throughout the U.S. will soon be victims of the same process of disempowerment and theft of resources like pensions and city assets.

Between speakers, solidarity statements were read or videos shown from various organizations and people around the world, including some in India, Lebanon, France and Colombia. Delegations from around the U.S. came from Cleveland, Chicago, the Bay Area in California, West Virginia, Oberlin College in Ohio, Philadelphia, New York City, Baltimore and Durham, N.C.

After a long day of speakers, solidarity statements, videos, workshops and meals, a cultural program was held that evening at the 1515 Broadway theater. All food was donated by local merchants committed to community development, and use of the theater was donated by the owner. The event was coordinated by  Moratorium NOW! organizers Andrea Egypt and Writer L. Bush. Cultural presentations were delivered by Insurgency, Jim Perkinson, Rise Up with Antonio Cosme, Aurora Harris, Walter Blaney, Wardell Montgomery and other artists.

Workers’ Assembly and Oct. 23 protest

The final sessions of the event featured a Workers’ Assembly where people spoke out about the impact of low-wage capitalist employment, two-tier automotive pay structures and the need to link community struggles with those involving people at the point of production and services. This session was chaired by longtime United Auto Workers member, labor historian and Moratorium NOW! organizer Martha Grevatt.

Workers facing mortgage foreclosures in Detroit and Chicago also described how they were able to save their homes. They forced the banks to back down when community and union activists came to their support through direct actions to stop evictions.

Concluding the assembly was a workshop, chaired by Fred Vitale of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, on action proposals to continue the struggle against the banks and emergency management in Detroit and throughout Michigan. Oct. 23, the day when hearings begin on the city’s eligibility for bankruptcy, has been designated an international day of solidarity with the people of Detroit. The workshop endorsed the call to surround the federal courthouse on Oct. 23 to demand an end to the bank-imposed austerity and illegal bankruptcy proceedings.

A leaflet issued by the Moratorium NOW! Coalition called for people to “Come out and make your voice heard” on Oct. 23. Demands include the “cancellation of the debt payments to the banks which have destroyed our communities and to make the banks pay for the rebuilding of Detroit.”

Additional demands call for halting attacks on city workers’ pensions, benefits and union contracts; stopping privatization of city jobs, services and assets; restoration of federal grants to serve Detroiters under control of city workers and not private corporations; the immediate halt to the $62 million looting of Detroit by Jones Day (Orr’s law firm) and other Wall Street consultants; and an end to the unconstitutional, anti-democratic, racist emergency management of this overwhelmingly African-American city.

Key to the assembly’s success, which was truly international in scope and character, were the endorsements, publicity and support of many groups and individuals, including U.S. Rep. John Conyers; Glen Ford, executive editor of Black Agenda Report; and Central United Methodist Church in Detroit.

For a complete list of speakers, international solidarity messages and sponsors, see workers.org.