A Failed Ideology’s Last Stand On Belle Isle
City Councilmembers Joann Watson, Kwame Kenyatta, and Brenda Jones led a rally at the Belle Isle band shell Wednesday against plans to turn the island into a state park.
Technically, they weren’t that nuanced. What they actually rallied against was the state “taking” Belle Isle.
Jones told the crowd that, as a one time inhabitant of Alabama, she knows a thing or two about slavery and turning Belle Isle into a state park or imposing a $10/year car fee to enter the island would be exactly like slavery.
The rally went down hill from there. Plenty of call and response chants of "no justice, no peace" led by the local Elmer Gantrys, a weird long-winded explanation as to why activist Greg Murray likes to call Dave Bing “Dave Bain” (so clever!), and even a prayer circle because nothing bad ever happens when you add religion to fevered pitch politics.
Now look, we can go through all the reasons why making Belle Isle a state park makes sense for Detroit and its residents. We could talk about striking a multimillion dollar expense from the city’s budget; we could talk about how Belle Isle as a state park means some of the tax dollars Detroiters pay into the state park system would go toward the city’s signature park, we could talk about how other cultural assets (municipal golf courses, the DIA, Cobo, etc) have flourished when separated from the city’s bureaucracy while effectively serving Detroiters; and we could talk about how years of neglect have left Belle Isle a shadow of its once glorious self. But to do so would be a futile exercise in rhetoric.
Detroit’s shouty activists have classified Belle Isle as a "jewel", so rational arguments have no place here.
And “here” is a place we should talk about because, in terms of state of mind, this rally didn’t take place in the United States of 2012. Today’s gathering, psychologically speaking, was held in East Berlin circa 1989—the apparatchiks have gathered to patch and defend their jewel of a Berlin Wall.
In so many ways the Detroit embodied by Watson, Kenyatta, Jones, and company is the last Soviet republic. True, there are no secret police or political prison camps, but there is a leviathan bureaucracy that exists to perpetuate itself instead of serving the public. There’s an ideology that has objectively failed the very people it claims to protect. There’s also a small, but vocal cadre of true believers willing to gobble up shit and call it cake. To their dying breath they’ll say it was cake.
Consider the scene today. Belle Isle’s band shell is a sorry sight. The modern edifice appears structurally sound but it is faded and peeling. A plaque on the thing is missing its bottom right corner. It sits in front of a cracked, littered parking lot that radiates heat and would be an unpleasant place to watch a concert on a hot summer day. Even its signage has seen better days. The thing is an allegory for the island itself.
This is a jewel worth celebrating in its present state? An institution that must be protected from—oh, how black nationalists can so quickly adopt the rhetoric of George Wallace and Lester Maddox!—meddling outside agitators?
Yes, that is precisely what this lot is saying.
“They say they want Belle Isle because Belle Isle is a jewel. They’ve taken all the other jewels that have!” AFSCME’s Ed McNeil told the crowd, either ignorant of or willfully dishonest about the fact that no one has "taken" anything.
All those regionalized or privatized “jewels” (some by the sainted Coleman Young himself!) didn’t hit Eight Mile. However, plenty of Detroit residents, fed up with a third-rate city that can’t police itself or maintain/program its signature park, have left. Between 2000 and 2010, 237,493 residents left the city.
Plenty more will follow so long as Detroit’s politics are influenced by fools and demagogues who believe a park’s value comes from the name of the bureaucracy on that park’s “welcome” sign.
One way or another, the days are numbered for the Joann Watsons, the Kwame Kenyattas, the ministers and the grape throwers. Either the city’s populace will assign these folks to the ash heap of history or they’ll govern a Detroit that history itself has placed upon said ash heap.