Forced Underground: The Price of Food Sovereignty in Detroit

By Atieno Nyar Kasagam

A couple of weeks ago,
following an ongoing dispute over our rights to share a piece of vacant city land,
a neighbor and fellow farmer,
and/or his sympathizers,
called animal control and alerted them to our harborage of 12 laying hens,
which they confiscated without warning,
and attempted to charge tickets of $500 a bird.
A total of about $6000 if we officially claimed that we were the caretakers of the birds.
The cost of a beautiful home, or two, in Detroit, or about 30-60 plots of land from the Land Bank or Wayne County Auction.
Money we do not have.

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For this piece, the details about the disputed land/ struggle to negotiate an agreeable shared workspace are not relevant, except that we were reprimanded doubly by the head of animal control, for ‘stealing public resources’ by penning and grazing our chickens on several acres of vacant city owned land, land that has been vacant for years in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood.

Needless to say, we lost what had been a pleasurable, humanizing and educational experience raising and nurturing a beautiful flock of birds, and a secure and abundant supply of organic, free range, rich brown eggs that were our family’s main source of protein for two years.

We lost a significant source of manure which we would compost and ammend our soils for our spring, summer and fall planting. We lost wealth.

We were powerless, and we were abused for our choice to disregard an unjust and unreasonable ordinance, and for our choice to pasture our birds on property that belongs to the commons, held in trust by the City of Detroit.

We were threatened by disproportionately high and unreasonable fines for keeping what in cities like Hamtramck, New York, Chicago, Milwaukee and Los Angelos is perfectly legal and lauded. Here in the City of Detroit, the fines for possession or harborage of chickens could easily exceed the fines for ‘illegal’ possession of marijuana. We were to be charged with $6000, at a minimum, for a confiscation that occurred without our notice, without ‘warning’ and with the city’s continued knowledge that numerous residents continue to keep livestock, and are even working with the city, to pass an urban livestock ordinance.

Welcome to the capital for urban agriculture in the United States.

Welcome to the city in which only a few weeks prior to our incident, a brother in the work, was plastered on the front page of the Detroit Free Press, and lauded by the media for keeping chickens and goats at his farm.

Where we must pursue food sovereignty in hiding, and where the underground of dissidents is too afraid to mobilize for our common cause- too fearful that their own will be at risk, too flaccid, too timid, too disorganized.

Welcome to Detroit.

Where urban farming exists to facilitate white revitalization and not black revolution.

Where urban farming exists for the production of comfortable puff pieces, about beauty, about blight remediation and about blue-eyed white boys from the suburbs growing crisp lettuce and plump vine tomatoes.

Welcome to an underground that continues, defiantly, to do what it must to survive and thrive away from the shackles of corporate economies, urban apartheid and resource scarcity.

Welcome to an underground that is too busy seeking permissions to assert human rights.

Human rights to good, healthy, accessible food.

Human rights to well nurtured, honorably treated, healthy livestock and livestock products.

Human rights to know and determine where our food comes from, and how it was grown and or raised.
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Human rights to a life free from wage slavery.

Human rights to a life free of slavery.

Human rights to a life engaged with the natural world.
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Detroit,

Where my heart is,

Home,

Where my life now is,

regulated,

policed,

and forced underground.

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