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Culture

Idle hands are the activist’s tools

Anarchist activism in the Cass Corridor

Elena Herrada speaks at the No Borders Radical Organizing Center.
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Published 5/11/2005

Where in Detroit can a radical go to find communion with brethren, to get involved in anti-war, environmental and community-improvement campaigns, to read about fighting sexism, capitalism, globalization and the use of Great Lakes aquifers to produce costly bottled water or simply to support unions fighting privatization and layoffs in Detroit?

Why, to the lower Cass Corridor, of course, home to the new No Borders Radical Organizing Center, a nice complement to the longtime anarchist activist center at the nearby Trumbullplex.

“There’s a large network of people in the Detroit area willing to work for change,” No Borders collective member Marie Mason says. “We want to help get information out and actually start building strategies. The whole goal is to empower people, to connect people, to get people away from the mindset that Detroit is so isolated.”

No Borders is the new iteration of Idle Kids, a volunteer, DIY collective with a skate-punk vibe that set up shop in late 2001 on Second Avenue under the former Flying Dutchman headshop (“These anarchists mean business,” Metro Times, April 24, 2002). Idle Kids moved down the street last year to 3535 Cass Ave. to expand and add on a kitchen, and about six months ago the group split. Idle Kids now operates as an indie-music distributor while No Borders inhabits the community space.

Much of what was offered at Idle Kids can still be found at No Borders: revolutionary and left-leaning books, comics, a nice zine selection and fliers on local and national community initiatives and nonprofits. No Borders also offers, free of charge, an office space with computers and printer for the creation of indie mags, handouts and lit. The Idle Kids tradition of holding poetry, educational, cultural and music events will continue, as will free movie nights, but No Borders aims to be less of a live music venue and more a political organizing space, says Frank Ambrose, a collective member.

“We want to do political work, to fight privatization and gentrification in this city, environmental degradation and globalization projects,” Ambrose says.

While No Borders is not a coffee shop per se, the large interior room is dotted with couches, chairs and tables where one can rest or, for instance, play a game of backgammon. The house has just one rule.

“If there’s no coffee when you come in, you have to make a pot,” Ambrose says.

“You don’t have to sign on as an anti-authoritarian to participate,” Mason says.

But it might help. On May 1, May Day, No Borders held an all-day fest to commemorate its grand opening and the “struggles of the past and those yet to come,” as its online release says. The day featured presentations, a “radical vegetarian potluck” and “a general caucus to discuss where we are all at today and how we can all work together better to fight capitalism and the state,” as the release says.

The event was a coming-out party for a community center that’s not afraid to endorse hardcore approaches to today’s problems. Environmental activists talked about the need for “no compromise” and direct action, including “putting your body on the line so you can stop the process of destruction.” For instance, No Borders is helping organize and support a national fight against a form of coal mining in the Appalachian mountain range in which mountain tops are literally removed, devastating the natural environment.

After lunch, Detroit union activist Elena Herrada spoke to an audience of several dozen mostly white youth about the struggles of today’s unions. Herrada said that today it’s hard for union leaders to help members because people live in fear of losing their jobs, paychecks and health care. People are afraid to strike, or even to pass out fliers, leaving organizers powerless.

“We aren’t able to provide power to the people,” Herrada says of union leaders. “We are hamstrung by fear. Nobody will go on strike. We are faced with incredible cowardice. People have some shit and they don’t want to give it up. And a lot of people go without things. And we can’t go to someone who has gone without and ask them to give things up.”

The nasty word “boss” was tossed around like a poisonous apple in a discussion led by Herrada after she spoke; audience participation exemplified the need for and interest in a radical education center in inner-city Detroit:

“This is really cool. I like to hear about the labor movement, even though personally, I don’t work,” one youngster says.

“I don’t really know what a worker or a union is because I just graduated college and I’m looking for a job,” another says.

A guy in his late 20s, who says he works retail, says, “The idea of a worker is insulting. … Bosses just use tricks to mess people up.”

“My dad says unions only represent people who screw up on the job,” another says. “But at my job, the other baggers were stealing and I said why and they said because the union won’t let us get fired . Don’t get me wrong, I don’t deny that I took whatever was left over in the bakery.”

“People need to realize it’s not wrong to take from the bosses, because the boss is constantly taking from the workers in time and unfair wages. The workers take back what they feel they deserve. It’s not wrong to take from the corporations because they wouldn’t be there without us,” someone points out.

“It’s not cool to be broke,” a recent college graduate says. “And it’s like, I made $48 and I feel proud because I worked hard for my money.”

Harold Stokes, a fiery 81-year-old with sparkling eyes, shakes his head in understanding. He says he’s at the event to support a fight against the privatization of water, exemplified by the American movement away from local government-owned-and-operated utilities toward private water companies.

“Why, water is a basic need,” Stokes says. “So is air. Pretty soon we’ll have to do like they do in Japan, where people rest in cubby holes to get pure oxygen. Hell, Detroit could make a quart of water for a couple pennies, and you go buy a gallon at the store and it runs more than a dollar. We’re living in a world where people say anything to make money. We don’t have a democracy anymore. We have a market economy based on who can extract the most.”

And the radical discussion continued all day. But that’s not all the space can be used for. No Borders is available for all sorts of community events, such as wedding showers or parties, member Tony Khalid says. Khalid and others say they hope the space brings people together to organize for action to improve Detroit and the world.

So why did the group change its name?

“We have participants from age 16 to 67,” Khalid says. “We are not kids. And we are very active. None of us is idle.”

 

No Borders Organizing and Community Center, 3535 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-832-7730; no-borders.org.

Lisa M. Collins is a freelance writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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