Building for a fight

Detroit businessman shows another face of the Occupy movement

Building for a fight
Curt Guyette

With the burly build of a construction worker, Marc Hesse bears a passing resemblance to actor Robert Duvall. The local businessman has the same bald pate, steely gaze and hardscrabble voice as the Academy Award winner.

Nothing about Hesse, outwardly at least, would cause anyone to think he might in anyway be connected with the Occupy movement. You know, the crowd that Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told to stop whining "and go get a job, right after you take a bath."

Hesse, in fact, has a couple of jobs, one of which is helping to run Detroit Cornice & Slate, a roofing and construction company his great-grandfather founded in 1888. He also owns four apartment buildings in southwest Detroit — one of which is poised to become a base of operations for Occupy Detroit.

Hesse offered the building at 5900 Michigan Ave. to the movement for free a few weeks back, when some of its members were told to abandon the camp they had established downtown in Grand Circus Park.

"They needed a space," says Hesse, 51. "I had a space that wasn't being used. So I offered it to them." 

Simple as that.

But not quite. The tents, sleeping bags, mattresses, bikes and other gear used by the campers are indeed being stored on the apartment building's first floor, a 5,000-square-foot storefront Hesse had planned to turn into a coffee shop. 

At least that was the plan until the economy collapsed in 2008. So the place has been sitting there empty and unused. But through a sometimes "messy" consensus process, the Occupy Detroit's general assembly has held off on determining what, if anything, the group wants to do with the building.

Part of the reason for the holdup is that a lawyer active in the movement is advising that no money be put into the effort until a lease is signed. Her concern is that Occupiers will put time, energy and cash into fixing the place up only to see Hesse turn around and kick them out.

Complicating matters is the fact Occupy Detroit has no formal legal status. As a self-described "horizontal" organization, it doesn't even have any hierarchal structure or designated leaders.

Hesse is cool with that. In fact, he prefers that the group refrain from incorporating, even as a nonprofit. It makes it more difficult for the government to target it that way.

And he has no problem committing the space to the group for at least a year, and maybe even three, giving it time to have an effect during the next two election cycles. But just as the Occupiers don't want to put resources into a building only to get kicked out, Hesse doesn't want to be locked into providing space if the group doesn't live up to its inherent promise of effecting social and political change.

Because that's what Hesse wants to see — change. He wants it because he's pissed off at what he sees going on in this country, with those at the top squeezing the life out of the middle class that he's part of.

As for a debate that's going on within Occupy — whether to be a political movement involved in electoral politics or a social movement creating change outside the established structure, Hesse, who twice voted for conservative presidential candidate Ross Perot in the 1990s, leaves no doubt where he stands on that issue.

"Some in this movement say we shouldn't be political," he declares, "but that's not me." 

Owning buildings in southwest Detroit, he has a ground-level view of exactly how the system works right now. 

If Detroit were to have a poster representing the outsized influence of the 1 percent, there's no better face than the wizened mug of billionaire Manuel "Matty" Moroun to have plastered across it.

The owner of the Ambassador Bridge, by spending millions of dollars on political contributions and deceitful television commercials, has so far successfully blocked all attempts to build a publicly owned span that would provide competition to what is now a virtual monopoly.

The public benefit, for the ravaged Delray neighborhood in particular but for the region and state as a whole, would be immense, Hesse contends. It is an opinion shared by the governor, the Big Three automakers and their suppliers, the state of Ohio, the nation of Canada, various chambers of commerce — basically any entity not connected with the name Moroun. 

Hesse throws a printout containing the names of various state legislators and the amounts of money Moroun and his family have funneled their way.

"Just because it is legal doesn't make it right," he says, the words landing with the force of a stone mason's hammer.

He sees the same sort of legalized corruption wherever he looks. Take President Obama, and his promise of universal health care.

"I expected him to get health care done. But because of the insurance industry's lobbying, what we ended up with is convoluted garbage."

And then there's Newt Gingrich, who suggested at the Mackinac Policy Conference that the UAW needs to take its cue from China. Hesse doesn't even try to hide his disgust:

"That's his solution? To be more like China? That's what he wants, for Americans to work for $10 a day and a bowl of rice?"

Meanwhile, the porcine former speaker of the U.S. House is sucking from a decidedly different trough, his company having collected at least $1.8 million for consulting for taxpayer-supported mortgage lenders Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

So Hesse isn't waiting for the general assembly to make its decision. In a movement like this, people are going to do what they want. In less than two weeks, volunteers have cleaned the place up. Electricity, plumbing and the heating system are all now up and running. A so-called "affinity group" that's associated with Occupy Detroit, but not officially part of it, is taking over the space. 

The whole thing is a case study of sorts, showing how internal squabbles are only an impediment if those who are determined to get things done let them stand in the way. 

"I like that this is a movement without leaders," says Hesse. "I see hope in this movement. That's why I'm involved. We're going to fight to keep them from choking off the 99 percent, forcing them to live off less and less so that the 1 percent can have more and more and more."

Class warfare has been going on for a long time now. What the Occupy movement represents is the fact that all those on the losing end are just beginning to wake up and fight back.

"The more people get educated, the more they will understand that we've been robbed."

Hesse also says it's irrelevant at this point that the Occupiers are no longer actually occupying a Detroit park. 

"Being in the park was great. A lot of people got involved in the movement that might not have been involved otherwise because of that. But now, it doesn't matter. They can throw us out of a park, but the idea is out there now. And there's no way to kill an idea whose time has come."