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Take charge

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Detroit moving forward, the new Detroit or the next Detroit, whatever you want to call it, will be highlighted as we go through our dysfunctional and expensive, yet legally mandated, four mayoral elections over the next 12 months.

Kenneth Cockrel Jr. is the temporary mayor until we elect another temporary mayor in April (after a February primary) to finish out the final eight months remaining in Kwame Kilpatrick's second term. Then in August we have another primary to decide the finalists for the November election, which will determine who commences a four-year term as mayor in January 2010.

Right now, Detroiters need to step up and take charge of things.

Little will get done at a government level during this time. Cockrel, who is already under fire, won't be able to do much of anything substantial because he has to face an election, and many of his 17 opponents will be poking as many sticks into his eyes as possible. Businesses will be reluctant to commit to deals with a mayor they're not sure will be around to see them through. Whoever wins in April will be immediately shackled by the same circumstances. And anyone who came close will be less than helpful as they strategize to close the gap in August.

It could get very, very ugly around here. That's why citizens need to take control of this election by getting together on our blocks, in our neighborhood and community organizations, our churches and schools, whatever social groups we participate in, and figure out what the issues are where we live. Then we must insist that the candidates address those issues. Whenever we have a chance, ask those questions and keep asking them until the candidates know that answering them is the only road to the mayor's office.

That's democracy from the bottom up. Nobody else is going to save us. That's one thing Kilpatrick said in his last state of the city address that rings true here. That applies to the gang who want to be mayor. Not a one of them is going to save us. Anyone who says such is either lying or on the pipe. One of them might help guide things in the right direction, but that can only work with a lot of citizen effort. And it's a long-term thing. Not one year or five or even 10.

In the meantime, all that citizen activism also needs to turn to making our neighborhoods better. We can do more about that in the short term than any political entity. I was convinced of this after reading Jay Walljasper's The Great Neighborhood Book, subtitled A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Placemaking. Published last year, it's full of examples from around the world where places have become better through the efforts of residents taking ownership of their neighborhoods.

It talks about how people have organized their blocks to create public spaces and convivial relationships. Some of it is as simple as smiling and greeting the neighbors or putting a bench outside for others to sit and rest — creating relationships with those who are in the same stew as you. Some of it is a little more complicated, such as slowing down neighborhood traffic or cleaning up a blighted building. The point is to dream and do something that is within your ability. As your successes pile up, so do your dreams — and the things needed to access them.

We've seen some of this type of action in Detroit already, from food activists who have created community gardens and vegetable markets to residents who've developed neighborhood watch programs and block parties. The Detroit City of Hope project, aimed at truth and reconciliation, is more ambitious than a neighborhood project, but it too depends on citizen activism rather than top-down political action. One of the more noted examples of a neighborhood activist who made a big splash was Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project. Unfortunately, that one temporarily ran afoul of the city government, but not before Guyton attracted worldwide attention. Which brings us to another Walljasper point: Take over from city hall. Some things you just have to go ahead and do without waiting for the grant or the permit to come through. Go ahead and do it yourself, then if some bureaucrat wants to show up and naysay the project, deal with it at that point. If you already have a community with you, it will be that much harder for politicians to stop it.

That's a bit anarchic, but anarchy already reigns in this city in many forms — from street violence to school board meetings. Why not an anarchy of kind acts? People all over the area are doing their bit, from literacy volunteers to those feeding the hungry. We need more. This city will prosper when we reach a critical mass of people doing their bit to uplift their neighbors and themselves. The politicians will have no other choice but to follow.

Yes, there are big-picture issues to struggle with, such as rebuilding our infrastructure, education and workforce development, security, urban sprawl, environmental concerns and poverty that need to be addressed on macro and micro levels. Yes, we do need politicians and government to do the right things. But in order to get that we need to force the issues. We can make the election more than a personality contest or about who is the blackest candidate, which is the way the last campaign was waged; what we really need to know is who is the greenest candidate as we take steps to green up our own little piece of town.

Right now is our next best chance to participate in reclaiming and rebuilding our city through our own efforts to force the issue with the powers that want to be, and to do what we need in our neighborhoods. One hand washes the other. Learn what is important at home and it will bode well for the next elections and beyond.

I wonder how Kwame is doing after a week in the slammer. The one time I was jailed, for illegal hitchhiking in Wisconsin, the moment that really hit me was when I was put in the cell and the steel door clanged shut behind me. That sound shot through me as I realized I really was in jail and wasn't going anywhere. After Kwame's smiling show in the courtroom last week, I knew it would be different once he was in the cell facing no one but himself for the next few months. Since he is separated from the rest of the jail population and gets but one visit a week, it will be even lonelier for the former mayor who seemed to revel in having people around him — people who kowtowed to his whims.

I also wonder what message he thought he was sending by his attitude toward the courts throughout the legal proceedings. His churlish, I'm-above-all-this behavior sent a terrible message to any young people who may have been watching. It was just like the gang members you see on television shows who act like getting sent to prison is just a rite of passage to ensure their street credibility. But then, maybe that's the goal of the mayor who grew up in relatively privileged circumstances — to end up in the street.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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