Occupy Detroit has a home base for learning, organizing

With its comfy sofas, kitchen and sunlit windows, the brick building at 5900 Michigan Ave. in Detroit that opened this year could pass for a spacious café.

But a banner high on the wall that reads “We are the 99%” signifies this is a different type of place, one that’s become the center for activists in metro Detroit. After leaving their encampment in Grand Circus Park in November, Occupy Detroit has found a new home in the heart of southwest Detroit.

Across the street from a grocery store, the two-floor 12,000-square-foot building with a tall ceiling was refurbished by activists and is a striking symbol of the movement’s attempts to establish a solid base in the region for its activities. “OCCUPY,” it reads on the windowpanes outside.

“We want to bring power back to the people,” said Jessica Dawl, 26, a Hamtramck resident.

The movement is being supported by several unions. And a Ferndale roofer — outraged by what he says is the excessive power of money in politics — donated the building for at least this year.

Over the past few months, the center has become a meeting place for a wide range of groups: On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a new group that plants trees in Detroit sat around a table for its weekly meeting, while across the roomy first floor was a reading circle of elderly activists studying political books. The center also has daily yoga and aikido classes, giving the place the feel of a community center.

Technically, Occupy Detroit is not a group; spokespeople say it is a democratic movement that “is non-horizontal, non-hierarchical,” said Hans Barbe, 27, of Grosse Pointe Park. “We shy away from the word ‘organization.’ “

But there is a core group that’s at most Occupy meetings: young activists in their 20s and 30s who are fed up with current economic and political systems that they say failed their generation. They have become a free-floating assembly that supports various causes — such as advocating for immigrants, fighting budget cuts that affect poor people and protesting school closures.

Labor organizations are helping out. The AFL-CIO set up a bank account for Occupy Detroit to help the group receive donations. Workers from plumbing and electrical unions donated their time and money to spruce up the place — putting in new toilets and bathrooms. And some unions donated money to the movement.

But while Occupy Detroit is focused on political activity, activists want to help bring diverse groups together, too. The grand opening on a Saturday last month drew hundreds and raised $1,800 at an ox roast — the ox symbolizing what they see as the inordinate influence of Wall Street and corporations on American life. They’re concerned about growing income inequality as well.

This year, Occupy has been active in supporting protests against bank foreclosures on Detroit homes, GE during its shareholder meeting last month at the Renaissance Center, and the state’s consent agreement with the City of Detroit. This summer, activists plan to increase the pressure on banks to help people stay in their homes, and they want to move homeless people into foreclosed properties that are abandoned.

Chanting “Whose streets? Our streets,” protesters with the movement marched up Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit on Tuesday in their most visible activity since their encampment last fall in Grand Circus Park. With supporters in immigrant, labor and environmental groups, the crowd walked to the park for a rally, followed by a celebration. Activists who are part of Occupy Detroit range from liberals to Communists to even anarchists. The loose structure means that “getting people to work together is quite a feat,” Barbe said. But on Tuesday, the groups appeared to work together well.

Their idealism is what drew Marc Hesse, 52, who donated the headquarters. Hesse is with Detroit Cornice and Slate, a fourth-generation roofing company in Ferndale that his family has run since the late 19th Century. The company is a union shop, and Hesse says he’s noticing how it’s increasingly difficult for young metro Detroiters to find work at good wages.

“Kids today don’t have the opportunity that they had before,” Hesse said.

What also helped spark Hesse’s involvement was the controversy over billionaire Manuel (Matty) Moroun’s Gateway Project at the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit. Hesse, who owns an apartment building in Delray near the bridge, said Moroun’s delays and changes decimated the neighborhood. Hesse said Moroun’s influence is an example of the negative role of big money in America’s political system.

“He destroyed that community,” Hesse said.

Last year, Hesse visited the Occupy Detroit encampment to talk with the activists and came away impressed.

“I don’t see any politicians doing what these kids are doing,” Hesse said. “They are sincere people who are frustrated. I wanted to help them.”

And so Hesse let Occupy Detroit use the building he owns on Michigan Avenue. He had thought about making it into a coffee shop, but some vandalism deterred those plans. At first, the activists used the tall building as a storage facility for all the food and other items they collected during the encampment.

This year, they cleaned up the place and turned it into a brightly colored and inviting space. On a corner wall is a huge banner they had at the encampment that quotes the preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union.”

Hesse says he intends to let Occupy Detroit stay through at least this year, if not longer.

“Our representative democracy isn’t working anymore,” he said.

At Tuesday’s rally, union leaders were at Grand Circus Park to show their support.

“We’re all in this together to support the 99%,” said Chris Michalakis, president of the metro Detroit AFL-CIO. “It’s good to see our friends in the Occupy movement support workers’ rights. We all got to help each other and fight back.”

With the presidential election this year, some see the Occupy movement as a way to help mobilize for the Democrats. But many within the Occupy movement are turned off by traditional politics and so aren’t really focused on the election cycle, Barbe said.

So far, Occupy Detroit has had generally cordial relations with Detroit police. In stark contrast to other cities, police did not arrest Occupy protesters, though two rows of officers lined up in Grand Circus Park on Tuesday night threatening to arrest some protesters who wanted to camp out. In coming months, there might be tensions as some plan to help homeless people live in abandoned homes.

But for now, the focus is on creating networks out of a range of organizations. Sarah Coffey, 38, of Detroit, who works for a law firm, said the movement wants to “put the community at the center of our struggle.”

Contact Niraj Warikoo: 313-223-4792 or nwarikoo@freepress.com