Former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing warned the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Detroit Policy Conference that the Motor City is only “maybe one incident away” from riots on the scale of what was seen recently in Ferguson, Baltimore or Chicago, or even worse.
He said there could be “a repeat of 1967” when Detroit was ripped apart by what some describe as riots, or what Bing called “an urban uprising.”
“There is an undercurrent of frustration and anger,” said Bing.
Jim Martinez, the director of communications for the Detroit Regional Chamber, told PJM Bing offered “a unique perspective” and “provided insight” into an “important dialogue.”
But Detroit Police Department spokesman Sgt. Michael Woody told PJM that Bing “was out of line and offended a lot of people, especially me.”
Charlie Beckham, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s group executive, was little more charitable.
“Mayor Bing was a little off-base,” Beckham told PJM. “There is some modicum of truth in what he said, but I think he’s been listening to too much barbershop talk.”
Bing said the lack of room for blacks in leadership positions sparked the racial anger. He chastised the city’s largest businesses in his Feb. 22 address by pointing out that there are no African-Americans on the boards of most of the companies in Detroit.
However, the head of the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, Ken Harris, believes Detroit’s African-American business community is an “economic powerhouse.”
Harris told the Detroit Free Press following Bing’s speech that there were more than 32,000 black-owned businesses in Detroit, the fourth-highest in the nation, and he expects that number to grow.
“My personal belief is this is the third Reconstruction,” Harris said. “The financial and economic development of African-American people and businesses.”
John Roach, Detroit’s communications director, told PJM the city is working with the Black Chamber to create the first Detroit Neighborhood Business Directory, which features black-owned businesses, and for the first-time ever is enforcing minority hiring quotas on major development projects.
Bing, who played 10 seasons in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons, owned the Bing Group auto parts manufacturing company and moved to Detroit specifically to run for mayor.
He won a special election and served as mayor from 2009-2013. Bing saw Detroit at its worst. When he took over, it was a city decimated by the collapse of the domestic auto industry.
Detroit City Hall had been so corrupt former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick wound up in a federal prison cell. White flight that began following the 1967 Detroit riots was only exacerbated by the collapse of city services under Kilpatrick’s watch.
Detroit is definitely a majority African-American community. Nearly 83 percent of its 680,000 residents listed their race as “Black or African American alone” in the 2010 Census Bureau report.
It is also a community facing a high rate of poverty. The Census Bureau showed 39.8 percent of Detroit residents were living below the federal poverty line in its 2014 report.
Bing said the lack of black men and women in leadership positions in a majority African-American community means most business leaders who “say or think they are doing the right thing do not utilize or support African-American businesses.”
“Black contractors and developers find themselves on the outside looking in,” Bing said. “When (they are) given an opportunity, it’s minuscule.”
While many in Detroit point proudly to the revitalization of the city, Bing complained two white men were leading —and profiting by— the effort, Dan Gilbert and Mike Ilitch.
“We ought not to feel comfortable about revitalization without inclusion,” Bing said.
Gilbert is the billionaire chairman and founder of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans and is the majority owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Atlantic magazine called Gilbert “Detroit’s New Superhero.”
He and Ilitch, the majority owner of the Detroit Tigers and founder of Detroit-based Little Caesars Pizza, have spent billions of dollars between them to buy up millions of square feet of downtown Detroit property.
The result has been expensive condos rising from ruins of neglected buildings, a rejuvenated shopping district in downtown Detroit, new restaurants along the city’s Woodward Avenue corridor, and $1.2 billion worth of renovation around a new Red Wings hockey arena being created by the Illitch family.
The new Wings stadium has become a symbol for those who consider themselves disenfranchised by the new Detroit.
But city officials told PJM they are making sure minority hiring quotas are being adhered to by contractors who are building the new Red Wings hockey arena. They have to hire at least 50 percent of their workers from Detroit. At least 30 percent of the contracts’ value has to be spent with Detroit businesses.
And, for the first time in recent Detroit history, fines are being collected from contractors who violate those rules.
Rev. Charles Williams II, an African-American who leads the Detroit Chapter of the National Action Network founded by Al Sharpton, doesn’t buy into Detroit’s new national image as a renaissance city.
He said it all seems to be focused on well-off young, white professionals who are moving into Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood.
“Livonia Mike,” as Williams calls Mayor Mike Duggan —because he’s a white man who moved from the suburbs to Detroit to run for mayor, just like Bing — has invited the reverend to his city hall office for a meeting.
But Williams said it would be better if Duggan visited his church, King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church, and sat in the pews to speak with parishioners.
“We will have him here. We will address him. And we will address him straight up. We’re not going to play no games,” Williams said. “This is not a moment for playing games.”
Sgt. Woody insisted former Mayor Bing was “very disconnected with what’s going on in Detroit” and his department had worked “diligently” to make sure the Motor City didn’t turn into another Ferguson, Mo.
“This is not the same police department that Detroit had in the 1960s,” said Woody.
Still, perception is reality. And the perception many have in Detroit is that the reality of their lives doesn’t come close to the pretty picture painted by City Hall.
Protesters who carried banners reading “Duggan = Black Death” shouted down Mayor Duggan, interrupting his State of the City address at least four times in February.
“This city was not broken overnight,” Woody said, “and it can’t be fixed overnight.”