Last week, after leaving 36th District Court, the activists were triumphant: real estate magnate Dan Gilbert hadn’t been the one on trial, but it still felt like he’d been found guilty.
In reality, a jury had actually found two defendants of the so-called “Gilbert 7” not guilty of misdemeanor charges stemming from a 2018 protest in downtown Detroit. After several days of deliberation, the jury deadlocked on the other five. The victory is bittersweet — the remaining five defendants return to court Friday, and they may even be retried for the crime of standing in the way of the sluggish QLINE.
Still, the partial win was the first court victory in a national social justice campaign with roots in the Civil Rights movement, even though the trial received little attention.
In June, the seven defendants were joined by several hundred others for a protest (which did get media coverage). The Michigan Poor People’s Campaign activists called attention to unequal development in Detroit, with money flowing into downtown at the expense of low-income residents and critical needs like affordable housing and education.
They first rallied at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, decrying water shutoffs for residents who can’t afford their bills, then marched to Campus Martius. There, they hauled water out of the fountain in the privately funded city park and symbolically poured it into containers with labels like, “Water for the people of Flint.“
Several people were arrested blocking the doors of a building owned by Gilbert. As the protest moved to Woodward, others were arrested for blocking the streetcar. Twenty-three people were arrested in total.
Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a retired pastor who lives in Southwest Detroit, was one of the QLine obstructors who faced trial last week. He represented himself, and was one of the two found not guilty. (It’s not totally clear why the jury couldn’t come to a decision for the other five defendants.)
“The decision of the jury is very gratifying, that’s a jury of our peers, those are Detroiters and I think in some ways that represents a very measurable response to the campaign,” Wylie-Kellermann said.
He said Campus Martius was chosen as a representation of the disconnect between downtown investment and water shutoffs and foreclosures that run rampant through Detroit neighborhoods, often forcing poor, primarily black residents out of the city.
“The QLINE is a symbol of that. It’s a transportation system that really doesn’t service neighborhoods, it serves just this downtown strip,” Wylie-Kellermann said. “Of course it’s named for Quicken Loans, by Dan Gilbert, and he himself is very much a driving force behind the restructuring of the city.”
The protest came amidst a swirl of momentum as activists around the country came together to revive Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. For six weeks last summer, protesters committed acts of civil disobedience in tandem. More than 2,000 people were arrested,according to The Nation.
In Michigan, activists protested at the state Health and Human Services Agency and the Department of Environmental Quality to call attention to the treatment of Flint residents during the water crisis. (Wylie-Kellermann was arrested in both of those actions as well; hespent time in jail for the former already and he goes to trial this spring for the latter action.)
The campaign has four prongs: “systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and the war economy and militarism.” The protesters’ targets might seem a little all over the place, but the broad focus is intentional.
“That’s one of the commitments of the campaign, to make connections between issues and communities and movements that are often kept separated from one another,” Wylie-Kellermann said.
The swell of national action (you can follow local efforts here), as well as the court victories, were encouraging to the retired pastor, who has been protesting for four decades. But he acknowledges that the Poor People’s Campaign hasn’t caught on or been treated as urgently as they believe the issues deserve.
“It was basically the largest focused campaign of direct action in U.S. history and it got very meager coverage,” he said. “That is actually part of what the campaign is saying: issues of race and poverty are silenced from the national narrative.” –Kate Abbey-Lambertz