Elizabeth Henderson  @  ChelseaGreen

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BikeIt! To the US Social Forum in Detroit, and Back

Posted on Sunday, July 18th, 2010 at 10:38 am by Elizabeth Henderson

Young friends say to me – “Farmers don’t retire!”  Friends my age say – “Good for you! You have worked hard long enough.”  For my first growing season in over 30 years without regular farming responsibilities, I am appreciating my new freedom to travel, though I still feel pangs of guilt at shirking a bigger share of the farm work. The Peacework farmers Greg and Ammie are getting on fine without me, so the problem is mainly in my head.  When the Domestic Fair Trade Association committed to doing a workshop at the US Social Forum in Detroit, June 22 – 26, I took my partner Jack’s challenge to get there on a bicyle.  We learned that people from Ithaca were organizing to make the trip and signed up to join them.

I caught up with Jack and the “BikeIt! to the USSF” group in Middleport, thanks to the kind assistance of Marianne Simmons who gave me a lift from Rochester, bike, gear and all on June 15.  I had wanted to attend the “Influence modeling”   session of the Urban Gardens project in Rochester and also could not face 87 miles of cycling my first day on the road. Middleport is 50 miles from Rochester on the Canal Trail.  It was a beautiful warm day with very little wind, which can be the main obstacle on these relatively flat trails.  Jack was riding with Jeff Furman, instigator of the BikeIt! venture, John, Diane, and Wendell with his two children, Serena and Aram.  The children each rode close to 60 miles that day!  We rode to the end of the Canal Trail in Lockport and then headed south on roads through North Tonawanda. No sooner did we get off the trail than Jack got a flat - which he quickly repaired. A few miles later, riding along the river, a bee flew into my eye and stung me.  Luckily, there was some plantain growing next to the road, so I was able to chew a leaf and make a poultice.  The plantain juice makes the sting go away in minutes.  In Tonawanda, we got on the Riverwalk, a lovely linear park that goes all the way to Buffalo.  Jack and I stopped at a bike shop to purchase a new tire to replace the rear one that had the flat.

A veteran long-distance biker and year-round bike commuter, Jack served as the BikeIt! blogger – you can read his reports on www.bikeit.org. This was my first experience riding more than 40 miles on a bike loaded with two panniers.  I packed the minimum - 3 underpants, 3 pairs of socks, a second pair of shorts, a pair of long pants, a dressier blouse, a sweatshirt, a small towel, toothbrush stuff, a camera, cell phone and charger, notebook, pen, a heavy u-lock and a chain for city security, and a rain jacket. And two jars of water.  Not a big load, but heavier than I was used to, so when I tried to negotiate a sharp turn up a ramp, I fell and scraped my knee.  With that, we decided to head straight to Jack’s brother Richard’s house instead of eating dinner with the group at the Mass. Ave Project (www.Mass-ave.org) community center.  I was ready to eat and go to bed.  Richard welcomed us with beer and cheese.  I slept well that night.

The next day, we joined the group for an afternoon of service, helping out in the MAP urban farm.  They have two contiguous house lots where they have built a garden and a hoophouse in which Jesse Meeder, garden manager, raises Tilapia fish, using their effluent to feed basil and salad greens a la Growing Power.  The Tilapia project has been so effective that they are putting up a much large hoop house where they plan to raise 30,000 fish a year to sell to restaurants to help fund MAP.  Despite the heat, some of our group joined in with the volunteer crew digging deep trenches for the fish tank.  I concentrated on pruning and tying tomato plants.  MAP trains youth in organic food production both growing and processing, providing jobs for 30 in the summer and 15 through the winter.

Over the next five days, we biked from Buffalo to Detroit along the north shore of Lake Erie.  We rode past expensive homes and prosperous farms, most of them with membership signs from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA).  Two busloads of OFA members toured Peacework Farm a few years ago and the organization encourages its members to create environmental plans to reduce pollution from their farms. Most of the fields we passed were growing corn, soy beans or hay, but there were also fruit orchards, vineyards, large plantings of potatoes, and tobacco, the remains of what was once a major crop.  In the Leamington-Kingsville area, I saw the most extensive greenhouses I have ever seen in one place – acres and acres of them full of tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers and flowers.  That area had also been smashed recently by a violent storm that had torn trees right out of the ground.  On Sunday, when we stopped at a drugstore, we saw many Hispanic men on bicycles using their day off to do some shopping in town.

As bike touring goes, this was relatively cushy.  Thanks to the inspiration and organizing of Jeff Furman and Claire Stoscheck, two vans and a car accompanied us, carrying tents, sleeping bags, food and cooking equipment, and, when necessary, tired bikers.  Jeff had actually hired the skilled staff from Mandibles Café at the Mann Library in Ithaca to serve as our food providers.  Every evening, we ate a different gourmet meal.  We camped at national parks and conservation areas, taking turns as “sweeps,” the last riders who make sure no one gets lost, and all helped with dish washing.  Best of all, the north shore area is almost entirely flat.  Biking, you see the countryside in a more leisurely way than in a car, and you experience the smells, both good ones – the heavy fragrance of milkweed blossoms, and the bad ones – leaking gas from passing vehicles and blasts of cigarette smoke out car windows.  I counted 155 dead birds along the roads – robins, warblers, a baby killdeer, a brilliant oriole.  The cars that thoughtlessly smashed these birds could do the same to us bikers…

For Thursday, Claire planned a shorter biking day since the border crossing was unpredictable. At dinner, Wednesday evening, we had a long discussion on borders and immigration issues.  As it turned out, we sailed right through and reached our first campsite by mid-afternoon with time for a swim.  87, 72 and 78 were the mileage goals for the next three days.  At about mile 70 on Friday, my rear tire developed a big bubble and would have exploded had I kept riding.  The van carried Jack and me to a Canadian Tire store some 20 miles north, where we purchased a new tire. Jack did another fine repair job.  On Saturday, the dread west wind picked up and though we left camp at 7 am, we did not reach our resting place till 7 pm.  Some gusts almost stopped my bike and I had to pedal to go down hill against the blasts.  Though longer and hotter, the Sunday ride was a breeze through the still, hot air.

Bizarre as it sounds, the bridge between Windsor, Canada, and Detroit is privately owned by a billionaire and does not allow pedestrians or bikes to cross.  Friends of Jeff from the Ben and Jerry’s Foundation came to the rescue with a trailer and a van.  We arrived in Detroit midday on June 21 and rode our bikes to the site of the Tent City on Woodward Avenue, a major downtown thoroughfare. Next to the Vietnam Veterans’ Center, surrounded by abandoned buildings and shelters for the homeless, a crew of volunteers, Detroiters and bikers from Chicago and Michigan, had established a clear fence around the circumference and no one was allowed to enter without a special armband.  That afternoon, the crew was busy trying to turn this block-sized parcel into a campsite by dumping piles of old leaves in the low spots to make level areas for the 100 or so expected tents.  Use as a parking lot had packed the ground hard.  We shared the one mallet available to drive in our tent stakes, an effort well rewarded when a few nights later thunderstorms with high winds ripped through the city, flinging unstaked tents into the air and flooding the low spots.  The crew also set up improvised solar showers, a 50-gallon barrel of water on the roof attached to garden hoses with spigots.  Jack actually got to shower during the day when the water was hot. My morning showers were cold.

That evening the cities of Windsor and Detroit celebrated together with a fireworks display over the river that separates them.  While most of the BikeIt gang headed downtown to join the crowd of over a million, Jack and I retreated to a quiet restaurant near Wayne State and then watched the fireworks from Tent City along with neighborhood folks.  Traffic clogged all 6 lanes of Woodward for hours.  Helicopters circled overhead. Great beams of light flashed through the darkness.  It was the noisiest place I have ever slept.  Jack fell asleep instantly and somehow I joined him.  The next morning we did our shifts at Tent City security along with three hired guards dressed in military-style uniforms, camouflage trousers and black jackets.

Before the opening parade for the Social Forum, Detroiters led us on a 16 mile biking tour of the city.  We rode past neighborhoods that looked poor, but more or less normal, then streets where some houses were inhabited while others had the front door open and you could look right through them into the empty back yard as you rode by. Our tour continued along an attractive bike path, through Wayne State University, past the Eastern Market and then back up Woodward Ave. to the gathering point for the parade.

Under a parching sun, thousands of the most diverse people you can imagine marched together to Cobo Hall.  There were people of all ages, races, ethnicities and styles, on foot and in wheel chairs, carrying posters and banners for any anti-corporate, anti-war and pro-humanity cause you can conjure up.  There were puppets and stilt-walkers, musical groups and chanters. “This is what democracy looks like!”  We could not ride our bicycles as a pack as we had planned since the pace was too slow and the entire width of the street full of marchers.

With a hundred or so workshops at every session, there was no way to take in more than a small percentage of the offerings.  Besides workshops, there were cultural performances and film showings, an enormous hall with long rows of tables with exhibits and sales from the hundreds of participating organizations, training sessions on useful skills such as computers and videotaping, tours of city projects on political and historical themes, and local actions such as a demonstration against the city incinerator.  Not to mention endless opportunities to network.  I had been warned that social forums were not well-organized, but this one was an extraordinary organizational tour de force with over 17,000 participants.

I decided to focus on seeing as many of the Detroit community gardens as possible and on the topic that brought me to present in a workshop – domestic fair trade.  I listened to members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers telling with simple eloquence the heroic story of their organizing.  With other members of the Domestic Fair Trade Association (www.dftassociation.org), I talked about fair trade as a movement, and made a small contribution to a People’s Assembly on Food Sovereignty that resulted in an eloquent resolution that became part of the final declaration from the Social Forum.  One evening, I heard a series of Detroit activists, including Malik Yakini, president of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (www.detroitblackfoodsecurity.org) and 95 year old Grace Lee Boggs, share their thoughts on their history, experience and future directions. Another evening, we took a high speed ride out to Dearborn with one of the Restaurant Organizing Committee (ROC) leaders to join in a rousing demonstration against an Andiamo’s that owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid overtime and skimped wages to its workers.

I spent two mornings touring gardens and the Detroit Farm in Rouge River Park.  As a bus took us to the east side of town, Lindsey Terpin, a staffer for the Detroit Garden Resource Program Collaborative branch of Greening of Detroit (www.greeningofdetroit.com), explained that there are 1200 community, school and family gardens in the city for which her agency provides services and scavenging.  Partnering with recreation centers, churches and assorted community groups, the collaborative hosts meetings of  the gardeners in each of the four sectors of the city twice a year to brainstorm on the services and materials they need and then to evaluate the season.  The collaborative distributes seeds, seedlings, tools and compost, provides 50 workshops a year on gardening skills, runs Urban Roots, a nine-week gardening and organizing course during the winter, and facilitates cooperation among gardeners for additional resources.  Gardeners can sell excess produce at farmers markets. On this tour we saw three small family gardens, the Georgia Street Garden, a community garden initiated and run by a single family, a new youth training program at a church, and EarthWorks, a well-tended organic city farm that provides food for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. Robin Douglas, who staffed the USSF Village, kindly offered to drive me to the Detroit Farm some 20 miles to the west.  On the way, we stopped at a few more gardens that Robin particularly admires including a beautiful collection of raised beds across the street from a restaurant that serves some of the produce.  At the Detroit Farm, a group of volunteers from the Social Forum were tying tomato plants. In preparation for a program for children, Malik Yakini was mowing the interior of a new hoop house inspired by Will Allen and Growing Power.  Malik explained that the farm currently uses 2-acres of the park but will soon expand to include 5 more.  The new peripheral fencing keeps out the deer, but rabbits appeared to be thriving on the farm’s greens.  Starting a farm in a park is every bit as overwhelming and demanding as in a rural village.  It struck me that there may be a useful role for retired farmers as advisors.

The Tent City closed at noon on Saturday, so Jack and I moved to a motel near downtown for our last night.  That afternoon, I attended the Forum’s closing ceremony which included several young hiphop performers and an inspiring speech by Pablo Solon, the Bolivian ambassador to the UN.  Solon talked about the Cochabamba Climate Summit and its resolution calling for a new contract with Mother Earth.  He also pointed to the need for an international tribunal to try environmental criminals like those who run BP, and concluded with an appeal that we all help push to add clean water and sanitation to the list of human rights.  As I left, I did what I could to contribute to the huge task of cleaning up Cobo Hall.
Sunday morning, Jack and I biked north to Port Huron where we knew government personnel would transport bikers across the Blue Water Bridge to Canada for free.  No doubt because of the weekend’s protests going on against the G20 meetings in Toronto, the Canadian authorities grilled us on our intentions.  We biked to Stratford and then spent two days in Waterloo visiting old friends before biking home to Rochester via Buffalo.  Our round trip covered over 600 miles on bikes.

I was not involved in the Forum’s organizational work that promises to carry the energy of this huge event into the future. You can join me in reading the resolutions and programs for transformation on the US Social Forum 2010 website (www.ussf2010.org).  So many worthwhile causes.  So many promising collaborations and heightened levels of understanding.  I carry in my heart the devastated city where people are struggling to reconnect and rebuild themselves and their community.  I stand with the USSF declaration – Another World Is Possible! Another US Is Necessary! Another Detroit is Happening!

Direct actions aimed at the farms that hire them brought retaliation, so they decided to target the corporations that buy from the farmers. Years of steady work has won them a significant following among college students, church groups and other citizens who have helped pressure these corporations which in turn are pressuring the growers to improve conditions for the farm workers.  Their next target is supermarket chains.

Check out a great album of photos from the trip.

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