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Update
March 05, 2021

Detroit: On a Journey to Be Seen

After struggling for decades against pervasive narratives and disinvestment, Detroiters are making policy work for them.
Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so Idea B. Wells

The Power of Narrative

A lot can be said about the power of narrative, especially in Detroit. The explosive summer in 1967, often referenced in the media as a riot, but considered a rebellion against police brutality by most Detroiters, sped up the spiraling decline of the city and exacerbated white residents’ flight from Detroit to surrounding suburbs. The election of the city’s first Black Mayor in 1974, lit up a media frenzy to bring the very vocal Coleman A. Young down to size, despite the fact that he was one of the most fiscally responsible Mayors of any major city.

Detroit, has consistently been plagued by a story that paints the city as mostly made up of thugs and hopeless, helpless residents who don’t care much about their crime ridden city. For a near half century, propaganda has been a brutal adversary, ridiculing Detroit in film, music and media. In “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” a parody sketch called “A Fistful of Yen,” threatens a trip to Detroit as its most severe punishment.

In a Smart Cities Dive article in 2007, titled “Is it Time to Change the Narrative about Detroit?” author Kaid Benfield highlights that, “The standard narrative for Detroit has been about a bankrupt, vacant, decaying, post-industrial wasteland; an environmental, social and economic disaster. Detroit has been the quintessential “shrinking city,” the poster child for everything that has gone wrong with the post-industrial Midwest.”

And in a 2014 article in the New Yorker, titled, “Drop Dead Detroit,” author Paige Williams discusses an interview with the late Oakland County Executive, L. Brooks Patterson, where he described Detroit by saying, “Anytime I talk about Detroit, it will not be positive. Therefore, I’m called a Detroit basher. The truth hurts, you know? Tough shit. … I used to say to my kids, ‘First of all, there’s no reason for you to go to Detroit. We’ve got restaurants out here.’ They don’t even have movie theatres in Detroit—not one. “I can’t imagine finding something in Detroit that we don’t have in spades here. Except for live sports. We don’t have baseball, football. For that, fine—get in and get out.” And as if his rhetoric wasn’t harmful enough, he went on to add bigotry to the equation, “I made a prediction a long time ago, and it’s come to pass. I said, ‘What we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.”

These comments, although hurtful from anyone, didn’t come from a person with no influence. They came from a suburban county executive who had amassed tremendous political power in his own county, in Detroit, and in other counties surrounding Detroit.

It’s important to offer an analysis on the power of narrative to shape the political reality of Detroit. Detroiters have been struggling for decades to come from under the black eye hurled at the predominantly Black city. Unfortunately, a city that has been taught to fear itself can easily become a city that conflates safety with militarized policing and surveillance.

Pushing Back

Detroiters live under constant surveillance. In 2016 the Detroit Police Department (DPD) entered into a public/private partnership with Guardian Alarm Company, Comcast Cable and local businesses to roll-out a real-time crime surveillance program called Project Green Light. Under this mass surveillance program, businesses pay to have flashing green lights installed on their property so that they can have priority 1 police presence 24/7. When the program initially began, it was promoted as monitoring of 8 or 9 gas stations that stayed open late. The program has since expanded to over 2000 cameras at over 700 businesses, including public housing, recreation centers, educational facilities, grocery stories and medical facilities.

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In 2019 Detroiters learned that facial recognition technology had been part of the surveillance program since 2017. We were encouraged by attorneys from Georgetown’s Center on Privacy and Technology to follow the groundbreaking research Gender Shades, which highlighted the misidentification of darker skin tones. Georgetown had also published a powerful report which shined a light on the pervasiveness of mass surveillance in Detroit. Detroit Community Technology Project would soon follow with its own revealing report.

This information galvanized the community to begin organizing against the technology. But despite hundreds of residents and organizations demanding an end to police and government use of facial recognition for more than a year, Detroit City Council and Board of Police Commissioners (BOPC - civilian oversight body) have been largely in favor of the program, with City Council ultimately voting to give DPD an additional $220K to extend their facial recognition contract with DataWorks Plus.

This was a blow to the coalitions of organizers and residents who had been working to secure a ban on facial recognition, but the organizing was not without small victories. In 2019, in response to persistent pushback from the public, DPD amended its policy to end the use of facial recognition on live feeds. Meaning, they cannot real-time track residents by scanning the faces of the public as they walk the streets of Detroit. An ask they had written into their contract with DataWorks Plus. DPD must also issue a weekly report to the BOPC on how they use the technology. Predictably, we have learned through these reports, that DPD has used facial recognition on Black people 100% of the time.

Our advocacy has also led to a provision in the policy holding officers accountable for misuse of the technology. Any indications of misuse must be reported to the Mayor, the BOPC and City Council within twenty-four hours of discovery. Misuse can be criminally investigated, leading to termination and potential charges. Organizers understand that “misuse” is a loose term when thinking about a technology that shouldn’t be used in the first place, and that is coupled with a legal system that consistently perpetuates unchecked abuse.

Detroiters have had to navigate marginalization in meetings, sometimes relegated to a mere 30 seconds to make a public comment, but we have stood firm on our beliefs and persisted. We were consistent in our pushback against facial recognition and Project Green Light, making clear that we know that #SurveillanceAintSafety. We were also clear that quality of life issues were the greatest contributor to quality of life crime. We knew that if we truly wanted to increase safety in our city, we would have to tackle policies that relegate our residents to the margins. So, we pressed forward to address the peoples’ needs.

Detroiters’ Bill of Rights

In early 2020, we decided to take our struggle to the elected Charter Revision Commission. Residents had tried Detroit City Council and the Board of Police Commissioners, to no avail. We have a civilian oversight body chaired by former law enforcement, which largely rubber-stamps police policy, and a city council with a similar make-up that often does the same. However, two city council members, after originally voting in favor of Project Green Light and facial recognition listened to the community’s persistent outcry and research, and changed their course.

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The misidentification and wrongful arrests of Robert Williams and Michael Oliver, and the global uprisings after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, opened a dialogue between residents, community organizations and Councilmember Raquel Castaneda-Lopez and Council Pro Tem Mary Sheffield about the possibilities of enshrining racial equity into the City’s constitution. Those discussions led to the creation of a Detroiters’ Bill of Rights, which tackles issues of affordable water and housing, disability rights, safety, immigration rights, and a right to recreation and quality of life. It was no small undertaking.

We met three sometimes four times per week, including weekends, and late into the evening. Each issue item was broken down into committees, and those committees not only had their own planning and strategy meetings, but they attended Charter Commissioners’ committee meetings as well. Some of the charter Committee of the Whole meetings ran nearly eight hours long. Organizers of the Detroiters’ Bill of Rights also championed other revisions submitted by residents who were not a part of the Detroiters’ Bill of Rights, that we felt were in alignment with the revisions we submitted, and in pursuit of Detroiters’ enhanced quality of life. Most of the Charter Commissioners took our research very seriously and afforded the community an opportunity to have a democratic voice throughout the process.

Those discussions led to the creation of a Detroiters’ Bill of Rights, which tackles issues of affordable water and housing, disability rights, safety, immigration rights, and a right to recreation and quality of life.

The Detroiters’ Bill of Rights coalition formed out of a necessity to pull together impacted residents, organizations and social justice organizers, who felt their voices were not being heard by city government. And after nearly a year of consistent weekly organizing, many of the revisions we advocated for, were adopted in some variation through the first phase of the charter revision process. The full revised charter, which has moved forward to the Michigan Attorney General and the Governor for review, is a culmination of three long years of work by residents, the Charter Revision Commission and the community advisory board members who were elected by residents. The Detroiters’ Bill of Rights contributes to that ongoing work.

This new charter is not without contention. It has already faced public pushback by the Mayor and the deputy finance chief. They claim that this proposed charter would be too costly for Detroit. Well, the residents of Detroit have already paid too much. They have suffered with their lives and have had little to no recourse for their suffering through city government. Detroiters’ were overtaxed by over $600 million dollars, a situation which has not been rectified by the Mayor. Detroiters suffered tens of thousands of water shutoffs deep into the pandemic, which contributed to a greater loss of life. These are costly decisions and indecisions made by city government. One city council member has even created a narrative that the City can’t adopt the new charter, because then it wouldn’t be able to pay for pensions. A last minute effort to sew division between generations. City officials must begin to take seriously the humanity of all Detroiters and reimagine what costly truly means.

The Commissioners combed through each revision, combed through budgets and sought out research. It is our hope that the Michigan Attorney General and Governor look beyond the attempts by the City to distort the narrative, a longstanding tactic to disenfranchise the voice of Detroit residents.

Should the revised charter be adopted by the Michigan Attorney General and the Governor, residents will have an opportunity to vote on the following provisions on the August 2021 ballot.

This is not an exhaustive list of the revised charter. There are many more revisions that are not defined under the Detroiters’ Bill of Rights, that we are also in alignment with. Our list is briefly captured below:

  • Right to Be Free from Discrimination: Immigrant Community - (establishment an of Office of Immigrant Affairs, Immigrant and Refugee Affairs Commission, language access standards, protection of immigrant communities), Disability Community - (establishment of office of Disability Affairs, Disability Rights Commission)
  • Right to Water: (prohibition on shutoffs, affordable water at 3% of household income, advisory oversight and permanently funded assistance program)
  • Right to Safety: Demilitarization of the Police (ensuring that chemical weapons are not used on 1st amendment protected activities), Restriction on Surveillance (including facial recognition and related surveillance technologies. It would also require the Detroit City Council to implement an ordinance for future surveillance tech.), Restructuring of the Board of Police Commissioners - the civilian oversight body (strengthen board’s powers, removing appointments, and preventing former law enforcement from serving on the board)
  • Right to Recreation: (establishment of Recreation Commission)
  • Right to Access and Mobility: (Low-income fair, creation of a motorized/non-motorized transit plan, strengthening the Transit Advisory Commission to add a transit driver to the commission)

Our Journey to Be Seen

Data for Black Lives’ Detroit Hub is looking forward to continuing our collaborative efforts with organizations like the Detroit Community Technology Project, Our Data Bodies, Michigan Liberation, Detroit Action, the Michigan Chapter of the ACLU, the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, Green Light Black Futures, Detroit Safety Team, Black Lives Matter - Detroit Chapter, Riverwise Magazine, the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, Detroit People’s Platform, Fight for the Future, the Detroit Justice Center, We the People of Detroit, Freedom Freedom Growers and so many other organizations and impacted residents who have come together to ensure that the quality of life in Detroit is addressed through policy and action. We are also actively organizing with residents and community organizations on a campaign called Green Chairs, Not Green Lights, a direct response to the city’s mass surveillance program.

Should this charter succeed, and residents vote to adopt it on the August ballot, it will not only enshrine equity into the city’s constitution, but it would make Detroit the first predominantly Black city to ban facial recognition, effectively saying #NoMoreDataWeapons and ushering in a new day for residents who have waited far too long to be seen. We understand that in order to defend Black Lives, we must ban facial recognition. We hope the Michigan Attorney General and the Governor agree.