Detroit conference advances fight against austerity

The National Conference to Defeat Austerity was held in Detroit on Saturday, March 24. Led by a coalition of organizations and individuals initiated by the Moratorium Now! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shutoffs, the event was a resounding success.

Over 200 people — from Detroit, other Michigan cities and eight other states — participated throughout the day in examining, from an anti-capitalist perspective, the attacks on poor and working people. Topics included education and housing, water shutoffs, mass incarceration, the lowering of wages and the role of the banks, Pentagon and government at all levels in perpetuating austerity.

Austerity is the direct rule by finance capital over cities and even countries, where the banks impose drastic cutbacks in services, wage cuts, destruction of pensions and privatization to ensure payment to the banks of debt service on fraudulent and usurious loans.

Since the early 2000s, the city of Detroit has been at the epicenter of austerity imposed by the banks and finance capital against the U.S. working class. Some 139,699 of Detroit’s 384,672 homes were foreclosed because of mortgage defaults or unpaid taxes from 2005 to the present.

The financial crisis brought on by the banks’ destruction of Detroit’s neighborhoods led to the imposition of “emergency management,” which took the city into bankruptcy. City retirees had their pensions slashed by 43 percent to pay off crooked financial instruments, such as interest rate swaps, imposed on the city by the same banks behind the foreclosure epidemic.  One hundred thousand families had their water shut off to satisfy the bondholders.

In the past year, however, under the weight of the attacks, activists in Detroit began observing a disturbing trend. Organizations ostensibly set up to fight for homeowners’ and other people’s rights suddenly began getting funding from the Bank of America and from Dan Gilbert — the owner of Quicken Loans and a chief forecloser and gentrifier.

Wealthy citizens, officials and the media were now heralding the very financial institutions that destroyed the city as architects of Detroit’s “rebirth.”

It was to reemphasize and expose the role of the banks and finance capital in the destruction of Detroit, and to reinvigorate the struggle to hold these institutions accountable, that the Moratorium Now! Coalition, the leading Detroit organization challenging the banks’ role in the looting of Detroit, decided to undertake organizing a National Conference to Defeat Austerity.

Ending racism, poverty and militarism

The opening plenary was chaired by Gabrielle Dior, a young African-American homeless and outreach organizer from Detroit, who played a major role in organizing the conference. The panel included city of Detroit retiree Yvonne Jones, of the Detroit Association of Active and Retired Employees, who gave an overview of the history of austerity in Detroit and the racist character of the attack by finance capital on this African-American city.

Erica Anna, a Xicana organizer from Chicago, gave an overview of the Trump tax giveaway to the rich and the Pentagon build-up as well as the effect they will have on low-income individuals. Anna emphasized the complicity of Republicans and Democrats in the war on the poor.

Dante Strobino, from the Southern Worker’s Assembly, discussed the tremendous West Virginia teachers strike and battles against austerity throughout the South.

The Rev. Edward Pinkney, Michigan political prisoner and longtime fighter against austerity, described conditions in Benton Harbor, Mich., and described the potential for uniting working and oppressed peoples in their common struggles.

Abayomi Azikiwe, a leading organizer of the Moratorium Now! Coalition, summed up the tasks of the conference in the opening plenary’s keynote address, stating:

“We are here today for three fundamental reasons. It is necessary for this gathering to clearly define the character of the multiple crises we face as oppressed, impoverished and working people. Our problem is economic at its base, yet the solutions are political and social. The first step in any struggle is to know who your enemies are. Our oppression and exploitation are rooted in a system of injustice. In order for us to achieve liberation we must challenge and overcome the structural barriers to our genuine progress.

“Moreover, we have come together to network among ourselves. To discuss both our strengths and weaknesses within the context of building a sustainable movement aimed at taking on the forces which are exercising hegemony over our very lives. At present no one organization has the capacity to advance the struggle without the cooperation of others. So therefore, we are here to find avenues of unity and coalition building toward our much-coveted objectives of creating a society devoid of the evils Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cited more than 50 years ago: racism, poverty and militarism.

“Finally, we look forward to the outcome of our deliberations today. The workshops should be encouraged to hammer out action items which are both specific as well as broad enough in scope so that they can be adopted by the entire conference.”

Seven super workshops

The conference then broke into seven workshops. Maurice B.P. Drew, co-founder of the Refund America Project, led a well-attended workshop on “What are interest rate swaps and the other financial instruments used by banks to rob cities and countries worldwide?” The Refund America Project is the leading organization working with community groups, from Moratorium Now! to the Committee for an Audit of the Debt in Puerto Rico, in helping to decipher these financial instruments in order to fight them in daily struggles.

Yexenia Vanegas, Detroit organizer of the Poor People’s Campaign, led a workshop on this critical effort to challenge the war on the poor across the U.S. Vanessa Fluker, Detroit people’s anti-foreclosure attorney, led a workshop on the housing crisis, foreclosures, evictions and gentrification.

Elena Herrada, an elected member of the Detroit School Board in exile, and Helen Moore, longtime public education activist, led a workshop on the education crisis and the defunding and privatization of public education. The workshop on water shutoffs was facilitated by Alice Jennings, lead attorney in Lyda vs. City of Detroit, which challenged Detroit’s mass water shutoffs during the city’s bankruptcy. Nicole Hill and Roslyn Walker, water shutoff victims and Lyda plaintiffs, also contributed.

A workshop on food justice, fighting low wages and the inaccessibility of healthy food to the oppressed, was led by Jonathan Roberts, director of ROC (Restaurant Opportunities Center United) Michigan, which is spearheading the One Fair Wage petition campaign in Michigan. A workshop on colonization and racialized capitalism was facilitated by Antonio Rafael, leader of RaizUp and SwGrows Agroecology.

After a lunch provided by ROC Michigan, Abayomi Azikiwe opened the first afternoon plenary on the international dimensions of the struggle against austerity. The featured speaker was Ricardo Santos Ramos, former president of the Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers of Puerto Rico (UTIER). Maria Del R. Ortiz Montes, his spouse and a leading activist in her own right, translated.

Santos Ramos reported on the role of Promesa, the U.S. law that establishes an oversight board for restructuring Puerto Rico’s debt; the impact of the imposition of massive debt service on the continued devastation of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria; and moves being made to privatize public institutions throughout the island.

Jesus Rodriguez Espinosa, former Counsel General in Chicago for the Bolivarian government of Venezuela, delivered a video statement to the anti-austerity conference from Caracas. He said that despite the hardship caused by U.S. economic sanctions against his country, he was confident of the victory of President Nicolás Maduro in the upcoming elections.

Julia Kassem, a Detroit organizer of U.S. Palestine Community Network, reported on her recent trip to Lebanon. She described the lack of water and electrical infrastructure she observed there due to robbery by the European Union and Saudi elites who dominate the economy.

Frank Hammer, representing ASOTRECOL Solidarity Network and a former president of United Auto Workers Local 909 in Warren, Mich., discussed the plight of union workers in Colombia. Some 3,000 unionists have been assassinated there since 1980, and hundreds of injured General Motors workers have been fired in Bogota.

Cosmo, a participant in the 2017 Venceremos Brigade, described Cuba as an example of how health care and education can be guaranteed to the entire population.

Solidarity messages to the conference were delivered from Fronte Popolare, Italy; Red Network, Spain; and on behalf of Jose Sison, from the Philippines, leader of the International League of People’s Struggle.

Town hall meeting on many struggles

Next was a town hall meeting, chaired by community activist Carlos Topp, where representatives of struggles in Detroit and around the U.S. reported to the event. Among the speakers were Joanne Watson, former militant Detroit City councilperson; Kristy Cooper, on behalf

of the Library Defense Network; David Sanchez, Southwest Detroit organizer for immigrant rights; Andrew Mayton and Trevor Wakefield, of the Baltimore Bus and Transit Riders Union; Maureen Taylor, chair of Michigan Welfare Rights Organization; and Jess Jude from Durham, N.C., on the victory over white supremacy with the dismissal of charges against nine freedom fights who took down a Confederate statue in that city.

Other speakers included John Steffin and Mary Kaessinger on behalf of the People’s MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) in New York City; Kimberly Simmons, the second juvenile lifer released from Michigan prisons after serving 29 years; Martha Grevatt, from Pride at Work on the LGBTQ struggle and the fight against austerity; and Joanna Strayham, who described the housing crisis in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the 1,000 immigrants recently arrested there as part of “Operation Rio Grande.”

The town hall also heard from Miranda Edith from the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly on the struggle against the creation of a private police force by Johns Hopkins University; Dior Gabrielle, representing Jeff Toms from the Machinists union, on the fight against two-tier wages in the airline industry; Ted Kelly, from Philadelphia who announced the Days of Solidarity with Mumia Abu-Jamal and played two audiotapes from Mumia; and Jamie Smedley, from Detroit Workers World Party, who exposed the robbery of tax dollars by Mike Ilitch and Dan Gilbert, the two main Detroit gentrifiers.

Fightback proposals adopted

The final session was chaired by Yexenia Vanegas, a leading organizer of the Michigan Poor Peoples Campaign. Vanegas played a major role in building the conference. This section dealt with action proposals, which included a March 29 demonstration against tax foreclosures called by the Moratorium Now! Coalition; a national day of actions against U.S. wars on April 14, reported by Syrian-American youth activist Joe Mshahwar; and making May Day an anti-austerity day as well as a day of solidarity with immigrant rights, reported by Mike Shane.

Other action proposals adopted included support for the Poor Peoples Campaign with its 40 days of civil disobedience starting May 13; and solidarity with actions calling on the Philadelphia Symphony to stop its planned trip to Zionist apartheid Israel in violation of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign, announced by Joe Piette.

A conference summation was given by Jerry Goldberg, an organizer for the Moratorium Now! Coalition and Detroit WWP. Goldberg emphasized the importance of taking the lessons of the conference forward by formulating programmatic demands that bring the anti-capitalist message to the day-to-day struggles of the workers and oppressed. He received a rousing response when he emphasized that the basic needs of the people ultimately will only be achieved by overthrowing the capitalist system and replacing it with socialism, where human needs and not profit will determine the course of humanity.

Following the conference conclusion, a delicious dinner prepared by Youth for Global Health was served. A dynamic cultural event followed, with spoken word and music chaired by Mond Sankara, a youth leader of WWP Detroit.

Throughout the day there was drumming by #1DRUM and reflections led by Gabrielle Knox of the Detroit Poetry Society.

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