DETROIT - He was never a guy who sought us out in the Detroit media.
I can count on one hand the number of times I've interviewed him over his seven years on council.
My impressions of him were mostly forged in the most intense and difficult votes Detroit City Council has ever taken. While distant with us [me, in particular], he is passionate, knowledgeable and given to racial hyperbole. If you have not gotten the idea yet, I do not know the council member at all well and he certainly seemed to like it that way. So today, on the day we learned he is no longer interested in running for a third term on Council, he was uncharacteristically chatty and downright verbose.
I found myself asking where this has been for the past seven years. I found him engaged, passionate, well informed, deeply concerned about the city and wishing he could have done much more than a City Council member can really do. In essence his was a fascinating, surprising interview. It is linked here is you are interested in watching part or all of our conversation that lasted about a half hour.
An Alabama native in his mid 50s, he is a product of the Shrine of the Black Madonna. It was there [and in other endeavors] he took to heart his social/political agenda. His philosophy is deeply rooted in reversing the effects of Jim Crow racism on Detroiters. Yet he also is deeply concerned about today's Detroit and where it is headed. While he is greatly troubled about budget cuts that will do away with things like Detroit's Health Department, a place he believes most of the City's most needy get the help they so desperately need, he is also calling for something this side of Marshall Law to attack the crime problem. It is a mind bending dichotomy. Here is a politician, who feels defeated in many ways [particularly with the consent agreement he so desperately fought] wanting now extinct city resources to continue flowing to the least among us and yet at the same time wanting a police force that might resemble the National Guard to hit the streets of Detroit. I never saw this coming!
Let me quote the man so you know I am not making this up. [I wondered if he remembered the last time the National Guard hit Detroit City Streets] "We have a deficit more than just on the economic front. We have a moral and social deficit in this community. We have a state of emergency that nobody has declared. The mayor or the governor hasn't declared a sense of emergency… I believe there has to be zero tolerance for crime and whether you take 30 days or 60 days you enforce curfews, you bring out Detroit 300 or whomever and you put a presence in the street that's saying we're not gonna take it, we're not gonna have it, we are going to get you, and we are going to prevent these things from happening."
He also made it clear the city's youth need to be told to pull up their pants and shooting people because they honked the horn in front of your house is unacceptable. Kwame Kenyatta sees the city crumbling before his eyes and he is ready to scream at the top of his lungs for everyone to just stop! I wondered as I sat with him whether he may be thinking of running for mayor. But if you watch enough of this interview you can see the fatigue. Kwame Kenyatta is tired, questioning what can or will work, only certain things need to change and he clearly does not have the tools to make that happen sitting in council meetings.
He told me "there is life after council, I'm not dying or going away anywhere. There is much work to be done." He ran the Malcolm X Community Center years ago and says he might spend more time with the city's youth in what remains of the city's teen centers. He wants to write inspirational books for Detroit's children, give them a better sense of right and wrong and above all some hope. There are many who don't like Kwame Kenyatta mainly because he sat on Detroit City Council. Still it's important to remember he was the guy who saw Kwame Kilpatrick coming down Woodward [he's known Kilpatrick most of his life having grown up in the same neighborhood] and was the guy who asked him to step down at the height of his legal problems. When Kilpatrick said no, it was Kwame Kenyatta who went to the reluctant Governor to hold hearings that eventually forced Kilpatrick to resign. Kenyatta fought the consent agreement believing Emergency Managers and contracts that act like one don't work.
The Council majority felt it had no choice; Kenyatta disagreed and in the end did not prevail. Yes he was there when council could not have looked worse.
No he did not decry the poisonous rhetoric that came from the angriest protestors as the consent agreement came to pass. But no one can assail this now lame duck council member's belief in the City and willingness to fight for its beleaguered residents.
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