News Hits was surprised to see Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun has some new allies in his effort to keep a publicly funded span from being built downriver: the Rev. Malik Shabazz and his New Black Panther Party.
Shabazz and a handful of his associates showed up at a Delray community center at midday Monday, holding professionally made protest signs and shouting, "We say no!" as a bus taking state legislators and community leaders on a fact-finding tour of the neighborhood where the new bridge would be built pulled in for lunch and a presentation.
We weren't along for the ride earlier in the day, when the bus stopped at Moroun's truck plaza and duty-free shop adjacent to the Ambassador. According to the Detroit News, the reclusive Moroun made an appearance, preaching the virtues of the free enterprise system.
The bus also ventured across the Detroit River and into Windsor, to hear from officials there and see two planned sites: one where the publicly owned New International Trade Crossing (formerly known as the Detroit River International Crossing) would be placed and the other where Moroun wants to locate a privately owned second span adjacent to the Ambassador.
At the Delray community center, it was a different pitch being served up along with a lunch of sub sandwiches and chips. A broad cross-section of residents and business owners showed up to say they want a new bridge to be built in their southwest Detroit neighborhood — but only if it comes with legislative assurance that the project will bring agreed-upon "community benefits."
Outside, Shabazz and his group, with their chorus of "no," did their best to try to drown out interviews with people who actually live and work in the area. The good reverend struck us as the kind of guy who believes that you win an argument not with reason and facts, but by yelling the loudest.
Asked why he opposed the publicly funded bridge, Shabazz launched into a spiel about the strong financial state of Detroit Public Schools before it was first taken over by the state years ago. His point, if you want to call it that, was that Lansing can't be trusted, especially now that Republican Rick Snyder is sitting in the governor's office. Never mind that it was Snyder's predecessor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm, who originally supported a new bridge downriver.
"We're tired of Lansing helping us," explained Shabazz. He also expressed concern that the project — despite a guarantee from the Canadian government that it would foot the bill for the new bridge —would end up siphoning money from America's already depleted public coffers.
At which point News Hits felt as if we'd suddenly been transported to some sort of alternate universe. When Black Panthers start sounding like members of the Tea Party, you know truly strange territory has been entered.
Apparently, Delray itself was strange territory for a majority of the protesters.
"I've never seen any of them at any of the community meetings that have been held concerning this issue," said Linda Pierce, a luncheon attendee who runs a nearby homeless shelter. "If they have concerns, they should be sitting with us at the table."
When it was pointed out to him that some were questioning the timing of Shabazz's protest, and asking why it is only now that he's showing up to voice opposition to the publicly owned bridge, the minister replied, "Where were they when we were marching on drug houses?"
And when News Hits told the minister that his non sequitur of an answer was no answer at all, he responded by suggesting that we must be Snyder stooges.
So much for enlightened debate with the NBPP.
Also joining the protest was Detroiter Cortez Brown, who said he's in the trucking business but wouldn't give the name of his company. He said he's against the new bridge because of the added pollution it would bring to an area that is already suffering from an overload of environmental problems.
That's a legitimate concern shared by people who actually live in the community. A number of them were inside the community center, explaining that if there is going to be a bridge built in their neighborhood, they want a guarantee that there will be well-defined benefits accompanying any problems that would come their way.
Among other things, members of the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition are saying they will be willing hosts to a new bridge if it comes with guarantees of job training programs and that area residents will be able to obtain work constructing the span. They want fair compensation for the homes that will have to be removed, and replacement housing that is both affordable and green, so that those who want to remain in the area will be able to do so.
They want programs that will make sure the air is as clean as possible, new parks and other green spaces to help mitigate pollution, and a link to the riverfront.
State Rep. Rashida Talib, who represents the area, served notice that if a public bridge is going to get her support, a legally binding agreement detailing these and other community benefits is going to have to be nailed down.
That sentiment was echoed by Debra Williams, who said her family has owned a convenience store in Delray for more than 50 years.
"If a new bridge is built here, we want assurance it will be positive for everyone."