Looking for real justice
What we can learn from a Corktown attack
Published: December 8, 2010
Ironically, in an earlier Detroit master plan after World War II, Corktown, following Black Bottom on the east side, was itself slated for clearing to make way to make way for light industry. Perhaps the suburban industrial flight could be slowed by a land offering, planners thought. Two-thirds of Corktown residents at the time were Maltese or Mexican, targets nearly as vulnerable as the African-American residents of the east side's Hastings Street.
One rallying point for the community struggle was Holy Trinity Church under the leadership of Fr. Clem Kern, long of blessed memory. I've been pleased to recently learn another was St Peter's, pastored by one of my predecessors, the Rev. John Mangrum, who did not parse his words: "Destroy families, tear up homes and supplant them with questionable business development and the wrath of God will fall on this city." He damn near makes God sound an obstructionist, or a preserver of community.
Free Clem Kern!
In a way, it is Corktown's very identity and vocation that are under harassment and assault. I mentioned Fr. Kern, Corktown's fighting labor priest who pioneered church-provided services for the poor in another era absent of government ones. A statue of him reaches out imploringly at Bagley and Trumbull, across the street from Steve's house. In a locked pocket park, the priest is hemmed in by iron bars, within Kern Gardens, the black low-income project that gives Corktown its enviable diversity stats, but for which Bagley Street is the racial divide. Local activists jokingly chant his release: Free Clem Kern!
He also looks out on the location, a couple doors down from Steve's home, of the first Catholic Worker house in Detroit, started by Lou and Justine Murphy in the '30s, run with six children underfoot. In a house there, now razed, the neighborhood's original Catholic Worker soup kitchen was begun. Some 60-plus years ago. Another irony: that's where the attack on Charlie earlier in the summer took place. I wonder if Steve knows that.
Lord, I wish the young white folks moving into the neighborhood, so full of themselves and ready to save the city, knew such history. I don't expect the development interests to have an honest memory, but I wish that "historic Corktown," instead of being an exclusionary mechanism for what color you can paint your window frames, actually nourished a memory of this peoples' history. What if we not only put up a historic marker remembering there the ministries to the homeless among us, but then, God save us, actually welcomed them as our neighbors in community?
It seems self-serving to linger on the history of my own congregation, but I'd be remiss not to mention that, under previous leadership, St. Peter's Home for Boys began there. COTS (the Coalition on Temporary Shelter) began there. Freedom House began there. WARM Training Center began there. Alternatives for Girls began there. Young Detroit Builders also found a home among us. We are proud to be part of the great legacy. Corktown at its best. Close to the heart of who we are and who we are called to be. Yet, in danger of being lost and forgotten. Commodified and compromised. Dismissing and displacing ourselves.
What's restorative justice?
All this is finally about community. In Detroit. At this historical moment. I come to this case with an eye to community-based restorative justice. This process, a deepening of "conflict resolution," involves a range of nonviolent responses to injustice, violation and violence. It aims to halt the cycle of violence in order for victims and offenders to identify together harms, needs and responsibilities, so that they can creatively determine how to make things right. By way of covenants of accountability, restitution and reparation, it moves toward reconciliation and what Dr. King called "beloved community."
The legal process, however financially imbalanced (Steve is out on $80,000 bond and represented by Gerald Evelyn, one of Kwame Kilpatrick's attorneys, very competent and equally expensive), is going forward. The bigger question is: How can our community in its own right be responsible for addressing this crisis? Not, "What law may have been violated?" but "Who was harmed?" In this case, I think, not just the man beaten, not just the soup kitchen crowd threatened nor Manna Meal nor the homeless population nor even the Corktown community at its best, but real community in Detroit. To ask who are the offenders and broader stakeholders is even tougher. Not just Steve or the sanctions of patrol or the young, predominantly white folks moving in or the realtors and development interests, but the planners and players who make the big money.
How do we acknowledge broader responsibility? And then, hardest of hard, what are the remedies? How do we take creative initiatives to make things right and just for all? How do we honor our neighbors? What sort of redemptive investment by the propertied residents is possible? How can street folks be better neighbors? Can we plan together a welcoming and economically diverse neighborhood?
For example, early last summer someone dismantled the benches in a park on Trumbull, presumably to make the public space less welcoming. In response to these recent events, a group of residents have committed to reconstructing them as a direct action of hospitality.
That's a move toward restorative justice, though it would move even further if Steve, who — whether he's found guilty or not — has become a symbol of opposition to the homeless, joined to help.
These are real questions, dear friends. And not just for Corktown, but for this city being reimagined from the ground up. We need to press them. And we are looking for real neighbors to help us find the answers.
> Email Bill Wylie-Kellermann