On February 29, 2000, a first-grader in the Buell Elementary School in Flint took a semi-automatic rifle to school and fatally shot his classmate, six-year-old Kayla Rolland. Since then, there have been countless stories about the tragedy in the media. Those I have read or heard have focused on the chaos in the boy’s family and/or guns in the home and community. All have avoided saying that Buell School is in Flint. Instead they have located it in “Mt. Morris Township, somewhere near Flint.”
All except Michael Moore, the producer of Roger and Me, the rollicking documentary in which Moore keeps getting into the face of former General Motors C.E.O. Roger Smith for raking in profits by laying off workers. In an article written the day after the tragedy, Moore, a Flint native, informs us that “there is no such place” as Mt. Morris Township.
Buell Elementary School is in the Flint Beecher school district, and has a Flint address and a Flint phone number. But Flint officials, in collusion with GM, deny that Buell is in Flint, which has been known as Buick City. They want to dissociate GM from the devastation and violence that have overtaken the city since the Buick plant closed down.
And the media goes along with this denial. For example, in a March 20 Detroit News article describing Kayla’s dilapidated neighborhood, the reporters attribute the deterioration not to GM’s abandonment but “to the passage of an ordinance banning residential construction on lots with less than 100 feet of road frontage.”
I was in Flint a couple of weeks before the Buell shooting, and GM’s responsibility for the city’s disintegration is as plain as day. A generation ago, Flint was a thriving working-class town. Now the abandoned Buick plant, spread out over an area as large as Detroit’s downtown, sits like a ghostly monster in the midst of empty parking lots, surrounded by block after block of tiny houses, little more than shacks, which once housed GM workers. No wonder Flint suffers from one of the highest per capita rates of murder, rape, and theft in the country.
Even more insidiously, transnational corporations and the media are trying to erase place-consciousness from our minds altogether because they sense that it can seed a movement against global capitalism. That is why deepening our consciousness of place and organizing around place have become so important to movement-building in this period. Place-consciousness, in the words of Duke University historian Arif Dirlik, is the “radical other” of global capitalism (“Place-Based Imagination: Globalism and the Politics of Place,” Review [Fernand Braudel Center] 22, no. 2 : 151–87). Global capitalism relentlessly displaces people and abandons places because it views local communities, cities, and even nations as inconveniences in the path of progress.
Place-consciousness, on the other hand, encourages us to come together around common, local experiences and organize around our hopes for the future of our communities and cities. While global capitalism doesn’t give a damn about the people or the natural environment of any particular place because it can always move on to other people and other places, place-based civic activism is concerned about the health and safety of people and places.
Place-based civic activism is also unique in the way that it links issues. Thus the Environmental Justice movement calls on people of color to struggle against environmental racism, which results in disproportionate air and land pollution in our communities. Inspired by the Environmental Justice movement, the Labor/community Strategy Center in Los Angeles decided that, whereas the struggle against transit racism in the 1950s centered around direct actions like Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat, today it means engaging bus riders, who are mostly people of color and minimum-wage workers, in the struggle for timely, clean, and safe public transit.
Place-based civic activism also has important advantages over activism based on racial and gender identity which, in the last few decades, has consumed the energies of most progressives. Important as these identity struggles have been in the continuing struggle to humanize our society, they can lock us into single aspects of ourselves and ignore the multiple ways that we relate to one another in our communities—as neighbors, housewives, working parents, parents of schoolchildren, elders, children, sufferers from asthma and other disabilities, consumers, pedestrians, commuters, bus riders, citizens. Thus they have tended to isolate rather than to unite different constituencies. On the other hand, place-based civic activism provides opportunities to struggle around race, gender, and class issues inside struggles around place. Equally important, women naturally assume leadership of place-based struggles because they are so pivotal to neighborhood life.
It is amazing how much we can learn about movement-building from putting a school shooting in its place.