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Building a movement

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Is there an antidote to an electoral process dominated by special interests and the big money they use to influence elections?

The Committee for the Political Resurrection of Detroit is trying to find out.

Formed by a group of activists nearly two years ago, the CPR is attempting to mobilize a grassroots movement behind a slate of three candidates — Charles Simmons, Robert “Abayomi” Norfolk and Maureen Taylor — running for the Detroit City Council.

“The Committee for the Political Resurrection of Detroit was formed by a group of activists who came together complaining about what’s been going on,” says Simmons, a journalism professor at Eastern Michigan University. “We were concerned about things like the loss of control of the court system, loss of control of the school system, loss of affordable housing. After meeting for a while, we decided that we had to do more than just complain about things, that we had to actually get involved. And so we decided to run a slate of candidates. We feel that city government is representing the interests of big business and big developers and excluding the interests of people at the grassroots level. The trickle-down theory of concentrating development on downtown hasn’t worked.”

The core group of about 40 people who formed CPR came to the table as activists representing a variety of different interests — African-Americans, Hispanics, rank-and-file labor, gays and lesbians, welfare rights, and the environmental justice movement.

Their alliance created a multigenerational, multicultural group committed to progressive political values.

Norfolk, a former Detroit school teacher who now works as a statistician, see the CPR and his candidacy as an attempt to address issues that continue to be ignored.

“We have to unite all the people in Detroit — Hispanic, Arab, white, African-American — to forge a new identity for the city. Senior citizens, youth, women, homeless people — what we are attempting to do is attract a broad spectrum of people to create an agenda based on their needs as opposed to the interests of major corporations and developers.”

That broad spectrum is reflected in the issues their campaign addresses: affordable housing, public health, police brutality, environmental cleanup, mass transit, affirmative action, property-tax relief for homeowners, school reform, living wage, senior-citizen issues, and more support for midsized and small businesses.

“What we’re doing is running a slate of candidates based on ideas rather than personalities,” says Elena Herrada, a union organizer and one of the founders of the CPR. “So far, we’ve been getting a tremendous response.”

But no one is kidding themselves that success — at least in the short term — is imminent. Part of the problem, say those involved in the effort, is that many of the people who form CPR’s natural constituency feel “disenfranchised” by the current political process.

“A lot of people think corruption is so entrenched that even voting is useless,” says Brenda Smith, a longtime neighborhood activist who works at the publication Labor Notes. “It’s a very dangerous kind of situation. And it’s not just in Detroit. At many different levels, people feel that their government doesn’t really care about them.”

“It’s really crazy, asking people to participate in a process they don’t believe in, but that’s what we’re doing,” says Herrada. “We’re hammering through the numbness. I think more and more people are identifying with what we are trying to do, which is to create a completely new vision for the city of Detroit.”

No one, however, is predicting victory at the polls just yet. With the slate’s candidates accepting no contributions from corporations or developers, getting their message out is a slow, time-consuming process. Moreover, the field of nearly 100 candidates includes six incumbents and a number of other contenders bringing high name-recognition to the race.

“It’s a big mountain for us to climb,” says Simmons. “But we don’t have any choice. If democracy is going to work, people have to have a voice. And if we keep working at it, eventually we are going to have more power than big ads and billboards. But our success won’t be determined by the outcome of this election.”

Herrada agrees. “It takes a lot of time to build trust, especially where trust has been lost like it has been here,” says the longtime organizer. “Detroit has tremendous spiritual and human capability to create a completely new vision, but I don’t think that can happen today or this election. We’re building a movement here, and we have to be ready for the long haul.”

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or cguyette@metrotimes.com

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