OPINION By Nat Zorach
Until last week, the most frustrating headlines I was reading were mostly so-called “think pieces” about the effects of the COVID19 pandemic on the future of cities.
“Maybe cities are too crowded,” they would muse, vacuously.
“Maybe the density of the built environment is too high.”
On May 25, though, the tragic and senseless death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police raised questions about how cities can be safer places to bring us together and keep us safe — not from viral pandemics, but, from police brutality.
In general, while Detroit’s storied comeback is not exactly an entirely egalitarian one, most would probably argue that the city is, in many ways, better off than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Until COVID-19, the city was posting budget surpluses. Municipal services were being restored and expanded, parks renovated, and new business attracted.
But downtown’s gleaming towers and Silicon Valley satellite offices evidence a futuristic land of plenty, while cracked sidewalks, closed schools, and water shutoffs in the neighborhoods betray a sinister wealth gap that hampers the city’s progress as a whole.
This disparity was made particularly stark at the past three nights of protests when Detroit police, armed to the teeth, indiscriminately fired tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets at protesters– including the author, on Saturday night.
It is particularly jarring — and yet, so utterly, uniquely, and tragically American — that while school funding is indiscriminately slashed, bus services are cut, and the healthcare industrial complex lays off workers by the thousands, that police face no shortage of weapons, nor of vitriol against protesters simply trying to hold them as a collective force accountable for their actions.
It’s true that George Floyd didn’t die in Detroit. But as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his famous 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail:”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
That garment of destiny is worn by every American as we face down the COVID19 pandemic.
It is worn by every American standing up to police brutality and violence.
It is worn by journalists like the Detroit News’ Christine McDonald, whom Detroit Police handcuffed and detained at last night’s protest, or a Detroit News photographer I spoke with on Saturday night, who was tear gassed by riot police, her media credential prominently displayed on a lanyard around her neck.
The network of mutuality of which King spoke must bind together black and white as we stand united against injustice. That network is threatened by white supremacy and it is threatened by what we have seen to be an inexcusable level of police violence, assumed when the department deployed heavily armed officers to violently confront, rather than to maintain the safety of, protesters.
“The DPD I saw on TV yesterday certainly couldn’t have been the same department that would publicly announce they couldn’t respond to burglaries across the city when I was a teenager,” one Detroit city planner says.
The objective here is not to cast a pall of gloom over the future of our city, but rather the opposite. The people of Detroit are the most resilient people of any place I’ve ever lived. Detroiters remain shockingly positive in the face of decades of corporate disinvestment, municipal mismanagement, and amid violence in their communities by both criminals and the state.
In spite of a smattering of violent acts and petty vandalism, mostly by non-Detroiters, there was no looting. No stores were torched, nor police cruisers overturned.
Every time I’ve been in a store, Detroiters are wearing masks in accordance with CDC guidelines. I have yet to witness some petty hostility or violence toward frontline store workers.
Detroiters are not complaining. Detroiters know that these are hard times. Detroiters know this because they’ve fought to survive through hard times.
This time, survival will be no different. What must be different, though, is the need to demand better for the citizens of our city and of our country.
My clothes from the protest, covered in a powder that I understand is a surfactant used in tear gas canisters, can be washed. Our cuts and bruises can be cleaned and dressed, and can heal.
On the other hand, we cannot bring back the lives of those tragically and senselessly lost, whether George Floyd or the 21-year old man shot and killed at the Friday night protest. We can, however, honor their memory, acknowledge and work to heal the trauma of the communities that have struggled with it for so long, and vow to ourselves and to each other to do better.
Demanding accountability can begin with rethinking our priorities as a society, and making sure cities are safe for every citizen.
Nat M. Zorach, AICP, is a city planner, writer, and MBA candidate studying economic justice and sustainability in capital markets. He lives in Southwest Detroit with four roommates, three dogs, and three pet rats.