Actions and reactions

Four official targets for demonstrations — "actions" in the USSF vocabulary — have been slated through five days of the gathering. 

The first, a rally by hundreds of protestors with 17 cardboard coffins symbolizing deaths activists blame on DTE, began Tuesday afternoon at the utility's downtown headquarters; the group then joined the opening march down Woodward. The organizers assert that DTE "continually violates" the limited protections offered to low-income individuals by the Michigan Public Service Commission; although residents can make payment arrangements to avoid having shut offs "if they slip once or miss a payment, then their utilities will be shut off."

Marian Baker, a member of the local organizing committee for the forum told us, "It's not only a question of no more shutoffs, but also the issue of utilities of being run by the government. DTE and these others don't have the right to be making profits off of energy. It is something that should be controlled and owned by the government for the benefit and well-being of the masses of people."

DTE spokesman Lee Singer — who spoke the day before the protest was scheduled to take place — says the company respects the demonstrators' rights to speak their minds but disagrees with the premise of the action.

"There are a lot of people that are coming in from out of town and declaring Detroit ground zero of the nation's problems. We, along with lots of people in the community — the faith-based community, local assistance organizations — have been working for years to meet the challenges of the city and its economy. For those of us who live here and work here, we're really focused on providing realistic programs and services to help," Singer says. "Last year we were able to connect about a quarter-million of our customers with about $120 million of state and federal assistance to help pay their utilities bills." 

Singer says those deaths, while "tragic," were not the result of any malfeasance by the utility company. "Our sympathies go out to the families and the community but this wasn't the fault of DTE Energy," Singer says. "There have been a couple of fires that resulted after utility services had been shut off, but investigations that have taken place have made no connection between DTE Energy Services and the deaths or fires at any of these locations."

The other three action targets are:

• Andiamo Restaurant: Earlier this year, members of the group ROC-Michigan — an offshoot of the national Restaurant Organizing Committee — filed suit in federal court against Andiamo, claiming they are owed more than $125,000 in "stolen" wages and also claiming discriminatory practices and illegal retaliation. There have been weekly protests outside the restaurant since January as the case progresses through federal court. It is assigned to Judge Denise Page Hood.

Joe Vicari, president and CEO of Andiamo, which has 11 restaurants in southeast Michigan, says police alerted him that the action was planned.

"It's really unfounded," he says.

With pickets appearing at the Dearborn location for months, Vicari says the company will do what it's been doing. "We ask they don't stop our customers as they come in. Most of the time they don't, but sometimes they do," he says.

The lawsuit, which has eight named plaintiffs, alleges Andiamo failed to pay overtime, denied workers pay for job-related travel, and required them to perform job duties that were outside their job descriptions.

Vicari says the restaurant owners offered to meet with the workers after they sent a letter demanding the $125,000, but never heard back from them. "We're disappointed that no one got our side of the story," he says.

The official USSF program refers to a rally, march and "street theater" on Thursday, and one of the USSF organizers who met with us said there'd be an unspecified Andiamo action as part of the opening march on Tuesday. 

Chase Bank: Said Lydia Wylie-Kellermann of the local organizing committee: "We're calling on JP Morgan/Chase Bank to sever its ties with RJ Reynolds and to work with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and also to declare a moratorium on foreclosures in Michigan. There will be a march that begins at Grand Circus Park and travels to the bank's headquarters on Woodward, where there will be a delegation asking for a meeting to talk about this." As phrased in the USSF program's synopsis of the Thursday action: "A selected delegation may go into the bank."

According to the program, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee is attempting to organize tobacco workers in North Carolina and "is focusing on the entire economic chain: from the largely undocumented workers, often in slave labor conditions, through small farmers, Farm Bureau Associations, RJ Reynolds, to the banks, notably JP Morgan Chase, with substantial investments." 

Company spokesperson Mary Kay Bean, contacted Tuesday, said JP Morgan Chase "would decline response."

Detroit Incinerator: The choice is partly symbolic in a city that, as the program puts it, "is home to some of Michigan's worst polluting facilities." The Saturday morning march from the Detroit Public Library to the incinerator is intended to "push the mayor to expand curbside recycling throughout Detroit — bringing new jobs and economic development to the city — and end incineration of Detroit's trash!"

"The idea is to have folks in the streets learning about this stuff as they are taking action, creating art and creating murals," said USSF's Adrienne Maree Brown. After the protest, participants are to march to the forum's finale at Cobo.

Paul Gilman, Covanta's chief sustainability officer, addressed concerns about pollution from the plant and its compatibility with recycling. He says, the Detroit facility has a "world-class air pollution control system" and that burning garbage at the plant to produce steam and electricity is less environmentally harmful than trucking trash to landfills, which emit methane gas.

As for recycling, Gilman says the problem in Detroit, the only major American city without comprehensive curbside recycling, is that city leaders, to this point, have not placed an emphasis on recycling. (The city is, however, looking at the issue and has established two pilot programs.)

 As to the protest, Gilman says his company understands that people have "heartfelt concerns" regarding incinerators, and that it can't be dismissive of those concerns. Dialogue, he says, is important.

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