Looking for real justice
What we can learn from a Corktown attack
Published: December 8, 2010
Last Friday, Steve DiPonio, a resident of Detroit's Corktown neighborhood, pleaded not guilty in Wayne County Circuit Court to felony charges related to the October beating of a homeless man, Charles Duncan, also of Corktown.
DiPonio, according to witnesses, first used his pickup truck to harass several men, including Duncan, bedding down for the night in an alcove of Holy Trinity School, flashing his lights and revving the engine. Then, it is alleged, he beat Duncan repeatedly with a baseball bat, tied his feet with a rope and pulled him toward the truck, threatening to drag him to the river. Neighbors intervened. The prosecutor's office might well have charged this as a hate crime. Both the weapons and the symbolism bear a terrible weight.
As pastor of St. Peter's Episcopal at Michigan and Trumbull, both of these men are known to me. I count them each as neighbors. I'm struck that when Jesus was asked, "Who is my neighbor?" he told a parable about a man beaten and left for dead by the side of the road (Luke 10). In our story at hand, I notice a parable of community and hospitality as well.
Charles Duncan has made his home variously in Corktown for at least a decade. He is a regular guest at our soup kitchen, Manna Community Meal. Charlie is a chronic alcoholic, subject to seizures, but a truly gentle person, even if he can get exercised over the fate of certain Detroit sports teams. The homeless folks of Corktown are by no means all alcoholics, but then neither are all the alcoholics in Corktown homeless. He is currently in rehab. And through the District Court preliminary hearings, he has, by my lights, been courageous to keep appearing for all the proceedings. Grant him this heart: He stands up and refuses to be terrorized. He insists by his witness that you don't have to own property or even rent it to be a member of this community. He declares himself our neighbor.
Steve DiPonio is also our neighbor. For many years, he's lived down the street. He cares honestly and perversely about Corktown. He is a skilled handyman in neighborhood projects. He participates vocally, even loudly, in community meetings, and was formerly part of the Corktown patrol (think: Neighborhood Watch with yellow lights and walkie-talkies). He was not on the patrol the night of the beating, and has since been removed from its rolls. However, the assault with which he is charged fits into a larger pattern of violence against and harassment of homeless people in the neighborhood. Homelessness is being criminalized and profiled. By looking at someone on the street, it's presumed one can tell who belongs in the neighborhood — and who doesn't. Harassment is extended to young people of color as well.
Earlier in the summer, charges were dropped against DiPonio in a similar incident involving his truck when the victim didn't show in court. It must be said Steve has heard some voices of encouragement for the fine job he's been doing.
Downsizing's blunt end
Pan back to a larger frame: The Mayor's redevelopment plans for the city. I am among those who believe a rightsizing land use scheme will eventually displace people from certain central city neighborhoods and concentrate resources (including money to be made) on other communities. Corktown is a good bet to be prominent among the latter. And it is already being felt. Roosevelt Park in front of the train station (cleared of homeless folks in a sweep last November) is being redeveloped. Proposals are under consideration for the Tiger Stadium site. These two would surely be anchors. Here, it is social space that needs clearing.
What happened to Charlie may be seen as the blunt end of gentrification. Poor folks will be pushed to new margins. Homeless people for neighborhoods without homes.
Three years ago, a group calling themselves the "Conquistadors" (though they've long since rethought that name and even officially dissolved themselves) approached St. Peter's about closing the soup kitchen. Thereafter, I saw e-mail notes from their planning meeting. They were headed, "Please forward to anyone you think might be interested." Someone did and I was. The pertinent project on the agenda read: "The Bermuda Triangle: This includes (but is not limited to) activism to stop the free handouts in our neighborhood that facilitate the drugs, crime and general malcontent that thrives from St. Peters to the Train Station to the Mission on Michigan. [We] are hoping to go talk to the people at the church next week and will give an update. We'll try being nice first."
I don't know what would have followed niceness. We didn't wait to see. But I have thoughts on the kinder, gentler edge of displacement that aspires to find homeless folks some places in programs. Elsewhere. Which is to say, such will also push the programs (kitchens, shelters, services) to locations in which the homeless population is to be shuttled and reconcentrated. Who can argue with getting folks off the street, especially those with addiction and mental health issues, or especially as a bitter and deadly season fast approaches? Never mind there are neither beds nor rooms sufficient.
Still, I can't help remembering here the Poletown struggle in 1980, when, using eminent domain, an entire community was leveled to make way for GM's Cadillac plant (at Interstates 75 and 94). The priests of the two Roman Catholic parishes took very different tacks.
One, theologically more conservative, ended up welcoming into the church basement the neighborhood council, which organized a resistance, thereby risking his own assignment and reputation in the process, como Oscar Romero. The other took the position that the most compassionate thing he could do was help facilitate the relocation process for these older residents. They would need tender assistance. His approach was pastoral on the face of it, caring for parishioners, but functionally and effectively it greased the skids for GM's takeover. (My late wife Jeanie Wylie documented this in her 1990 book Poletown: Community Betrayed.)
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