Over 1,000 people turned out for a demonstration and public outreach campaign in Detroit on Sunday outside the annual Concert of Colors on Woodword Avenue near the Wayne State University campus.
The day focused on both Israel’s ongoing military attacks against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the recent water shut-offs by the Detroit Water and Sewage Department. Tens of thousands of primarily black, working class residents are going thirsty because of this move by the bankrupted city of Detroit. It has been condemned as a public health disaster in the making by the largest professional association of nurses in the US.
An informal working group, which is part of a black-Palestinian and black-Arab solidarity effort, mobilized the largest local turnout for a Palestine event in recent years
Rather than choose symbolic or concrete places of oppression for the protest, organizers (of which I was one) decided to bring the message directly to the people. Demonstrators initially gathered outside of the Max Fisher Theater on Woodward Avenue, where the annual high-profile Concert of Colors was to begin.
The marchers engaged people they encountered in conversation, with leaflets calling for solidarity and joint struggle between Palestine and Detroit. At both the gathering spot and along the march demonstrators chanted, “Free Palestine! Free Detroit!” while numerous cars drove by with large Palestinian flags.
Claiming an elevated spot in the gathering space, Zena Ozeir, one of the organizers and a member of sponsoring organization the Z Collective (a Muslim feminist group), kicked off a series of rousing speeches, poetry and rhyme by local activists and artists from Detroit and the surrounding area.
Speakers included Dawud Walid from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Detroiter and Palestinian-American member of the Michigan state legislature Rashida Tlaib, poet Omar Aburashed and hip-hop artists and organizers Invincible and William Copeland.
The poetry and speeches addressed both the Israeli attacks on Gaza and the bureaucratic attacks on both the Palestinian and Detroit water systems. The action was endorsed by numerous organizations representing large parts of black social justice groups in Detroit and Arab, Muslim and Palestinian groups in Dearborn and metro Detroit.
At the gathering place there was a “photo booth” where demonstrators could pose for photos with protest signs as one way for the protest to produce not only speeches and chants of dissent and solidarity, but critical art as well.
In the words of Copeland, a local delegate to the 2012 World Social Forum - Free Palestine: “People were claiming and being fully present in the space.” He pointed to the rousing crowd responses and sense of camaraderie, and also to the crowd’s maintenance of the space with hundreds of people remaining for long after the action ended.
The event was a success, yet organizers saw significant room for growth in solidarity and building joint struggle between Palestine and Detroit. Copeland remarked that “It’s a long term work to connect black populations to the struggle in Palestine, and it’s a long term struggle to connect those groups supporting Palestine to the struggle in black Detroit.”
On the event’s Facebook page, some (apparently Palestinian) metro Detroit community members accused organizers of trying to “push alternate agendas” by including human rights violations in Detroit as a central part of the rally. Several people commented that the mass water shut-offs were not human rights violations at all but simply the inevitable result of an unpaid water bill.
One demonstrator named this as part of the work to be done in building solidarity and joint struggle in Detroit, saying, “There’s a gap in communication between the African experience, the black experience, and the Arab experience.”
Indeed, it is the tens of thousands of overwhelmingly working class and black residents of Detroit who are affected by the shut-offs. Several large venues frequented more commonly by wealthier, non-black metro Detroit residents saw no shut-offs, despite unpaid water bills amounting to tens of thousands of dollars each.
The shut-offs are no more a simple bureaucratic response to unpaid water bills than Israeli administrative home demolitions are a bureaucratic response to Palestinian construction without permits. This message needs to be better communicated.
The demonstrators responded in a uniformly positive way on the day and in the time since, continuing to post glowing messages and photos on the event’s Facebook page and contacting the action’s organizers. Copeland noted that the day was “a step, a big step” in the direction of building joint struggle between Detroit and Palestine.