Detroit’s most radical young black activists are on the verge of a revolution, and aren’t letting anyone – even police – stop them.
he calls to action are loud and clear. The location is unknown until you’re expressly notified. The instructions are as directed: “Wear all black to represent our unity. Don’t get out of your vehicle until directed.”
The message is simple. “Stand with us.”
Before open meetings, you’re pat down and asked for identification.
This is where the movement begins. Again.
When meetings are called to order, everyone in the room raises their fists. A member leads the room in chanting the group’s motto: “One man, one woman, one child, one community at a time,” followed by “All power to the people” and “black power.”
One by one, men and women take to a stage in front of the room. Their unapologetically loud message is colored with pain and passion from a suffering community in Detroit, a community facing oppression, violence, gentrification, economic hardship. Addressing these obstacles is the basis on which this group was founded.
This is New Era Detroit.
“This is dangerous work. We’re going against the system,” Zeek, New Era Detroit’s president, says.
They’re dressed in all black, and many don’t use their government names with the understanding they may be under surveillance.
“We’re putting everything on the line and, at this point, there’s no turning back for any of us. This is our life. Regardless if some of those people don’t care for us or don’t like us. We’re putting it all on the line for our people and we’ll continue to do that.”
Founded in 2014, NED’s easier-said-than-done mission is to bring back black unity within black communities by empowering and encouraging black residents in Detroit to get involved and be aware.
In its short existence, however, public reaction to the organization’s methods has been mixed. Members of the organization are often seen en masse staging protests at local businesses, churches, even Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s State of the City address this year, sometimes leading to us-versus-them tales that play out in local media and force onlookers to choose sides.
NED is well aware of this, which is why each of the group’s demonstrations are professionally filmed by its members and posted to their own social media channels, usually receiving thousands of shares, likes and comments in support.
Take for instance a well-publicized incident last month, when the group posted a video of their protest of Great Faith Ministries International Bishop Wayne T. Jackson after he hosted GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump for a visit and interview. Dressed in their customary black, members flooded the aisles of the west side Detroit church during a Sunday service, sharing their opposition of Jackson’s actions.
The video goes on to show the protesters as they’re met by churchgoers, dressed in their Sunday best, forcing them out of the building, pushing them right past the pastor’s Rolls-Royce as both groups get in a heated exchange of words and messages.
“Any organization that ever did anything positive for black people has always been depicted negatively in the media,” NED director of development Nguvu Tsare says. “What makes New Era Detroit different – and what we’ve already mastered that previous organizations didn’t – is that we have the power of social media and we create our own narrative.”
But interspersed between controversial protest videos, you’ll also find videos of the group marching in different communities, cheering on and giving high fives to Detroit students on their first day of school, and corralling as many people as they can into local black-owned businesses.
“People always overlook our programs that we promote. They always look at the things that are considered to be theatrical versus the programs that we promote on a weekly basis,” Negus Vu, NED’s vice president, says.
Their public-facing programs like Hood to Hood, Streets is Watching and Tangie’s Ride are when they are most connected to the community. This is when they share their message with their neighbors, patrol the streets in the early morning hours to make sure kids have a safe route to school, and bring meals to the homeless community on the buses.
And then there’s NED’s Street Code, which has become a point of contention between the organization and the city’s police department.
If you know anything about the hood, you know those rules; street codes are nothing new in urban America. For years, communities have informally enforced their own set of rules for handling grievances. If the police won’t handle it, the streets will.
NED’s Street Code, published on its website, includes rules like “all beefs must be handled away from school grounds, churches and businesses,” which aims to leave innocent people out of street beefs, and “no drive-bys” sparked by the number of children killed by drive-by shootings in Detroit.
Initially, Vu says the relationship between NED and the Detroit Police Department was supportive. But in recent months, the group’s relationship with the police has been strained, culminating in the group filing a lawsuit against DPD back in August. “I think it all started, really, with the Street Code,” he says.
The code gained attention and criticism because the 10-point list didn’t take a direct stance against all criminal activity. It was covered by every major news outlet and immediately denounced by Detroit Police Chief James Craig.
Vu says when the code was released, Craig notified the group’s leadership that he had to denounce it.
“But to the degree that he went, it got a little bit out of control,” Vu says. “Of course we rebutted. He wasn’t quite fond of that, and from that moment on things started to dwindle.”
NED’s lawsuit highlights an altercation between DPD and NED volunteers in June, where the lawsuit reports more than five members were assaulted and arrested, including NED executive secretary Mikera Manning.
“We’ve never, not once, even with the harassment and assault, put out anything anti-DPD until that arrest happened,” Manning says. “We often boasted about the fact that we lived in Detroit and we still had a police force that represented the community.”
Scrill, who holds the title of NED’s chief visionary, says DPD and NED ultimately have the same goal: to protect and serve the people.
“If they’re about serving the people, serving the community – which police officers ultimately say they’re doing – if it lines up, it shouldn’t be a problem because we’re out here doing the same thing with all of our programs,” Scrill says.
“With a high level of influence comes a high level of responsibility,” Vu adds. “We’ve sat down with (Craig) trying to figure out ways where we can cooperate in a way where things are peaceful and we don’t necessarily overlap each other in terms of work, but more so be in alignment with each other. However, because of our influence and because of our political opposition towards the mayor, who is his direct boss, he hasn’t necessarily been in favor of us.”
Vu expands that they’ve had negative altercations with the police when out doing their community work.
“They’ll come, they’ll impede, they’ll tackle our guys and, say he had a gun on him, and we’ll say, ‘Yeah, he said he had a license and we’re in an open carry state.’ So these are the contradictions and the things that we’re dealing with now because of all of the little personal petty stuff that we had with the leadership of DPD.”
Lawsuits, aside, NED has no plans of stopping. The group’s rapid growth – there is a New Era Chicago spinoff chapter – and frequent comparisons to the Black Panther Party keeps their fires burning.
“We have so much under our belts already, but in 20 years, we’ll actually have these liberated zones that we’re working for,” Manning says. “We’re actually going to have affected businesses that employ people in the community and help to generate and circulate wealth in the community.”
NED sees the power in Detroit’s black community. It’s why the “all power to the people” motto resonates.
“My mother will tell anyone that I came out of her womb with my fist in the air,” Tsare says. “I’d been waiting for an organization like this my whole life. The first time I ever came to an open meeting I said, ‘This is it. This is where I’m supposed to be.’”
ALANA WALKER IS ASSOCIATE EDITOR OF BLAC DETROIT.