Looking for real justice

What we can learn from a Corktown attack

Dec 8, 2010 at 12:00 am
Activist priest Fr. Clem Kern�s statue is in locked pocket park. - MT photo: W. Kim Heron
MT photo: W. Kim Heron
Activist priest Fr. Clem Kern�s statue is in locked pocket park.

Last Friday, Steve DiPonio, a resident of Detroit's Corktown neighborhood, pleaded not guilty in Wayne County Circuit Court to felony charges related to the October beating of a homeless man, Charles Duncan, also of Corktown.

DiPonio, according to witnesses, first used his pickup truck to harass several men, including Duncan, bedding down for the night in an alcove of Holy Trinity School, flashing his lights and revving the engine. Then, it is alleged, he beat Duncan repeatedly with a baseball bat, tied his feet with a rope and pulled him toward the truck, threatening to drag him to the river. Neighbors intervened. The prosecutor's office might well have charged this as a hate crime. Both the weapons and the symbolism bear a terrible weight.

As pastor of St. Peter's Episcopal at Michigan and Trumbull, both of these men are known to me. I count them each as neighbors. I'm struck that when Jesus was asked, "Who is my neighbor?" he told a parable about a man beaten and left for dead by the side of the road (Luke 10). In our story at hand, I notice a parable of community and hospitality as well.

Charles Duncan has made his home variously in Corktown for at least a decade. He is a regular guest at our soup kitchen, Manna Community Meal. Charlie is a chronic alcoholic, subject to seizures, but a truly gentle person, even if he can get exercised over the fate of certain Detroit sports teams. The homeless folks of Corktown are by no means all alcoholics, but then neither are all the alcoholics in Corktown homeless. He is currently in rehab. And through the District Court preliminary hearings, he has, by my lights, been courageous to keep appearing for all the proceedings. Grant him this heart: He stands up and refuses to be terrorized. He insists by his witness that you don't have to own property or even rent it to be a member of this community. He declares himself our neighbor.

Steve DiPonio is also our neighbor. For many years, he's lived down the street. He cares honestly and perversely about Corktown. He is a skilled handyman in neighborhood projects. He participates vocally, even loudly, in community meetings, and was formerly part of the Corktown patrol (think: Neighborhood Watch with yellow lights and walkie-talkies). He was not on the patrol the night of the beating, and has since been removed from its rolls. However, the assault with which he is charged fits into a larger pattern of violence against and harassment of homeless people in the neighborhood. Homelessness is being criminalized and profiled. By looking at someone on the street, it's presumed one can tell who belongs in the neighborhood — and who doesn't. Harassment is extended to young people of color as well.

Earlier in the summer, charges were dropped against DiPonio in a similar incident involving his truck when the victim didn't show in court. It must be said Steve has heard some voices of encouragement for the fine job he's been doing.

Downsizing's blunt end

Pan back to a larger frame: The Mayor's redevelopment plans for the city. I am among those who believe a rightsizing land use scheme will eventually displace people from certain central city neighborhoods and concentrate resources (including money to be made) on other communities. Corktown is a good bet to be prominent among the latter. And it is already being felt. Roosevelt Park in front of the train station (cleared of homeless folks in a sweep last November) is being redeveloped. Proposals are under consideration for the Tiger Stadium site. These two would surely be anchors. Here, it is social space that needs clearing.

What happened to Charlie may be seen as the blunt end of gentrification. Poor folks will be pushed to new margins. Homeless people for neighborhoods without homes.

Three years ago, a group calling themselves the "Conquistadors" (though they've long since rethought that name and even officially dissolved themselves) approached St. Peter's about closing the soup kitchen. Thereafter, I saw e-mail notes from their planning meeting. They were headed, "Please forward to anyone you think might be interested." Someone did and I was. The pertinent project on the agenda read: "The Bermuda Triangle: This includes (but is not limited to) activism to stop the free handouts in our neighborhood that facilitate the drugs, crime and general malcontent that thrives from St. Peters to the Train Station to the Mission on Michigan. [We] are hoping to go talk to the people at the church next week and will give an update. We'll try being nice first."

I don't know what would have followed niceness. We didn't wait to see. But I have thoughts on the kinder, gentler edge of displacement that aspires to find homeless folks some places in programs. Elsewhere. Which is to say, such will also push the programs (kitchens, shelters, services) to locations in which the homeless population is to be shuttled and reconcentrated. Who can argue with getting folks off the street, especially those with addiction and mental health issues, or especially as a bitter and deadly season fast approaches? Never mind there are neither beds nor rooms sufficient.

Still, I can't help remembering here the Poletown struggle in 1980, when, using eminent domain, an entire community was leveled to make way for GM's Cadillac plant (at Interstates 75 and 94). The priests of the two Roman Catholic parishes took very different tacks.

One, theologically more conservative, ended up welcoming into the church basement the neighborhood council, which organized a resistance, thereby risking his own assignment and reputation in the process, como Oscar Romero. The other took the position that the most compassionate thing he could do was help facilitate the relocation process for these older residents. They would need tender assistance. His approach was pastoral on the face of it, caring for parishioners, but functionally and effectively it greased the skids for GM's takeover. (My late wife Jeanie Wylie documented this in her 1990 book Poletown: Community Betrayed.)

Ironically, in an earlier Detroit master plan after World War II, Corktown, following Black Bottom on the east side, was itself slated for clearing to make way to make way for light industry. Perhaps the suburban industrial flight could be slowed by a land offering, planners thought. Two-thirds of Corktown residents at the time were Maltese or Mexican, targets nearly as vulnerable as the African-American residents of the east side's Hastings Street.

One rallying point for the community struggle was Holy Trinity Church under the leadership of Fr. Clem Kern, long of blessed memory. I've been pleased to recently learn another was St Peter's, pastored by one of my predecessors, the Rev. John Mangrum, who did not parse his words: "Destroy families, tear up homes and supplant them with questionable business development and the wrath of God will fall on this city." He damn near makes God sound an obstructionist, or a preserver of community.

Free Clem Kern!

In a way, it is Corktown's very identity and vocation that are under harassment and assault. I mentioned Fr. Kern, Corktown's fighting labor priest who pioneered church-provided services for the poor in another era absent of government ones. A statue of him reaches out imploringly at Bagley and Trumbull, across the street from Steve's house. In a locked pocket park, the priest is hemmed in by iron bars, within Kern Gardens, the black low-income project that gives Corktown its enviable diversity stats, but for which Bagley Street is the racial divide. Local activists jokingly chant his release: Free Clem Kern!

He also looks out on the location, a couple doors down from Steve's home, of the first Catholic Worker house in Detroit, started by Lou and Justine Murphy in the '30s, run with six children underfoot. In a house there, now razed, the neighborhood's original Catholic Worker soup kitchen was begun. Some 60-plus years ago. Another irony: that's where the attack on Charlie earlier in the summer took place. I wonder if Steve knows that.

Lord, I wish the young white folks moving into the neighborhood, so full of themselves and ready to save the city, knew such history. I don't expect the development interests to have an honest memory, but I wish that "historic Corktown," instead of being an exclusionary mechanism for what color you can paint your window frames, actually nourished a memory of this peoples' history. What if we not only put up a historic marker remembering there the ministries to the homeless among us, but then, God save us, actually welcomed them as our neighbors in community?

It seems self-serving to linger on the history of my own congregation, but I'd be remiss not to mention that, under previous leadership, St. Peter's Home for Boys began there. COTS (the Coalition on Temporary Shelter) began there. Freedom House began there. WARM Training Center began there. Alternatives for Girls began there. Young Detroit Builders also found a home among us. We are proud to be part of the great legacy. Corktown at its best. Close to the heart of who we are and who we are called to be. Yet, in danger of being lost and forgotten. Commodified and compromised. Dismissing and displacing ourselves.

What's restorative justice?

All this is finally about community. In Detroit. At this historical moment. I come to this case with an eye to community-based restorative justice. This process, a deepening of "conflict resolution," involves a range of nonviolent responses to injustice, violation and violence. It aims to halt the cycle of violence in order for victims and offenders to identify together harms, needs and responsibilities, so that they can creatively determine how to make things right. By way of covenants of accountability, restitution and reparation, it moves toward reconciliation and what Dr. King called "beloved community."

The legal process, however financially imbalanced (Steve is out on $80,000 bond and represented by Gerald Evelyn, one of Kwame Kilpatrick's attorneys, very competent and equally expensive), is going forward. The bigger question is: How can our community in its own right be responsible for addressing this crisis? Not, "What law may have been violated?" but "Who was harmed?" In this case, I think, not just the man beaten, not just the soup kitchen crowd threatened nor Manna Meal nor the homeless population nor even the Corktown community at its best, but real community in Detroit. To ask who are the offenders and broader stakeholders is even tougher. Not just Steve or the sanctions of patrol or the young, predominantly white folks moving in or the realtors and development interests, but the planners and players who make the big money.

How do we acknowledge broader responsibility? And then, hardest of hard, what are the remedies? How do we take creative initiatives to make things right and just for all? How do we honor our neighbors? What sort of redemptive investment by the propertied residents is possible? How can street folks be better neighbors? Can we plan together a welcoming and economically diverse neighborhood?

For example, early last summer someone dismantled the benches in a park on Trumbull, presumably to make the public space less welcoming. In response to these recent events, a group of residents have committed to reconstructing them as a direct action of hospitality.

That's a move toward restorative justice, though it would move even further if Steve, who — whether he's found guilty or not — has become a symbol of opposition to the homeless, joined to help.

These are real questions, dear friends. And not just for Corktown, but for this city being reimagined from the ground up. We need to press them. And we are looking for real neighbors to help us find the answers.