The Mustard Plant Comes Into Bloom: Michigan Poor People’s Campaign Takes the Movement to Duggan, Gilbert

Dawn R. Wolfe
Jun 19, 2018 · 7 min read

Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
— Matthew 17:20

Over 100,000 Detroiters have faced water shut-offs in the past four years.

Sermons at Christian churches throughout Michigan (and the country), this past Sunday were all about the large, powerful plant that bursts outward from one of nature’s smallest seeds — and the fact that Jesus held up the mustard plant, a weed, as an example to be emulated.

Marching on a day where the heat index hit three digits — middle-class and poor, all colors of the human rainbow, putting their bodies on the line to protect the human right to water.

Yesterday, I personally witnessed a 400-plus-strong gathering of activists as they burst into a mighty, confidence-filled crowd ready to take on the forces that are endangering poor people in the city of Detroit. From Central United Methodist Church to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, and then on to Campus Martius and blocking the QLine at Woodward and Michigan Ave., poor people — and their allies throughout the state — put those in power on notice.

Before setting off to take action in the streets, the Michigan Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) first came together at Central United Methodist Church for what had become the traditional pre-action rally. Monday’s speakers included the Rev. Dr. Jill Hardt Zundel, Central United’s senior pastor, and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization’s (MWRO) State Chair, Maureen Taylor.

But Monday’s pre-action rally also had something different — a memorial service for Gordon Leon King, a formerly homeless person who had been receiving support from the Central United community. While the rally’s speeches and protest songs helped cut through the sticky heat, there is nothing like mourning a human being’s death by state-sanctioned poverty to illustrate just why the Michigan Poor People’s Campaign has been taking to the streets.

Looking for a different kind of candidate — and if those candidates appear, the people will be ready.

After Mr. King’s memorial, the activists were ready to rock. And rock they did, in a line over two blocks long, and with a level of chanting, singing, and energy that defied the heat.

The demonstrators made their first stop at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and, while standing in the shade of the multiple-floored building, threw some devastating shade of their own. By this point, my need for water and a snack to keep myself fueled in the heat kept me from taking the best of notes. While I was keeping myself safe, Sylvia Orduño led us in a loud, powerful statement condemning the Water Department and Mayor Duggan for the over 100,000 water shut-offs that have taken place in Detroit in the past four years. Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, whose Blight Removal Task Force has received millions of dollars that were supposed to go toward keeping poor people in their homes, also came under fire.

Throwing some deserved shade while in the shade of the Detroit Water Department.

Next we heard from two women, one from Flint and another from Detroit, who have struggled having access to the clean, potable water that is their and their children’s human right. Finally, Maureen Taylor received the bullhorn, and put the powers that be on notice that, eventually, poor people are going to stop asking for what is rightfully theirs — and start taking it.

From the Water Department, the PPC headed to Campus Martius Park, where the park’s bright, sparkling fountain seems blasphemous in a city where thousands of people lack water to drink and to bathe in. It was at Campus Martius that the magic really started happening. First, roughly a dozen trained PPC protesters waded into the fountain, where they collected water to pour into buckets with labels that included “Water for the People of Detroit,” “Water for the People of Flint,” and “Water for the People of Grand Rapids.” As PPC activists symbolically re-distributed the water, the entire gathering burst into the slave spiritual “Wade in the Water.” Suddenly, it just didn’t seem all that hot anymore.

Claiming water for the people was just the beginning — next, things started happening so quickly that at first it was hard to keep up. According to a report in the Detroit News (which drastically and inaccurately under-counts the crowd), PPC protesters blocked the entrance to One Campus Martius on Woodward, which houses Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans. By the time I arrived, roughly five people were already being arrested.

Arrested within just a few minutes for blocking access to Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans.

Just a few hours earlier, Rev. Hardt Zundel had compared the Poor People’s Campaign to Jesus’ mustard plant. Now, that analogy was brought to life as it seemed that wherever you looked, Poor People’s Campaign activists were there.

Almost simultaneously as activists appeared at One Campus Martius, the bulk of the protest moved to the intersection of Woodward and Michigan Avenue, where PPC activists blocked the QLine on both sides of Woodward. The QLine, formerly known as the M-1 Rail, is only conveniently available to roughly eight percent of Detroit residents. Meanwhile, over $30 million in public money was put into this project, which was renamed “QLine” in honor of Gilbert’s Quicken Loans.

Earlier in the day, Monday’s pre-action rally was set apart from the same events during the past five weeks in Lansing by the addition of a memorial service. As trained PPC protesters engaged in civil disobedience, another huge difference quickly became apparent: when the PPC broke the law by claiming publicly-owned buildings in Lansing, the Michigan State Police were actually hesitant and took a long time before arresting anyone. In Detroit, when the PPC engaged in similar actions targeting Gilbert-owned and supported projects, Detroit police pulled out the handcuffs within minutes.

Clearly, in Detroit, the rich are getting the services that everyone else is paying for.

Yesterday’s action was the last in a series of six Michigan PPC protests before the entirety of the Poor People’s Campaign, which is active in over thirty states, descends on Washington D.C. this Saturday, June 23. I can’t speak to what’s happening in those other states. After covering the Michigan organization over five of those six protests, this is my impression:

The “mustard” has bloomed.

Here in Michigan, there is a chance that the Poor People’s Campaign will make at least a dent — a large dent — in the walls of division between our citizens that political leaders have been building since I was a child. Throughout the Michigan actions I’ve watched as middle-class, white people put their privilege on the line to advocate for the rights of the poor and minorities — while ensuring that those same poor people and minorities were put front and center as leaders and speakers.

In Michigan, Indian-Americans, Native Americans, Black Americans, White Americans, and people in every shade of the human rainbow, organized and acted to together. Religious leaders worked with LGBT activists. Christians organized with Muslims, Jews, atheists, and union leaders. People came from Ann Arbor, Lansing, and even rural Tecumseh to fight for the rights of people living in our cities. The very young, the very old, and practically every age in between, shared our streets and our water and enjoyed communal meals before taking the truth to power, together.

At this point, it’s impossible to say where this movement will go. But if what I have witnessed is any indication, the mountain that is power and wealth in Michigan should get ready to be moved.

Dawn R. Wolfe

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I'm a freelance writer & journalist in Ann Arbor, Michigan.