As a child growing up in the neighborhood of Seven Mile and Greenfield in the 1950s and 1960s, Diane Bukowski didn’t realize the racism that was pervasive in her neighborhood. “My mother told me she was considered kind of an outcast, that [the neighbors thought that] she should have been home with her children instead of out there campaigning for civil rights.”
“I didn’t find out until later how racist my neighbors were.”
Diane attended Mercy High School and then University of Detroit Mercy (UDM). While Diane was attending UDM and living off campus, she began to question the whitewashed education she received from the Catholic schools she attended: “I had been researching – because they did not teach us in Catholic school about anything that was happening with the Civil Rights Movement and all of that – and I started researching on my own. I read To Kill a Mockingbird, Black Like Me, books like that to educate myself.”
Fueled by the passion of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion as well as the 1971 Attica Prison Uprising in New York, Diane began what would become a long career of standing up and speaking out for the rights of Black people in Detroit and in the United States.
In 1974, Diane was hired by the City of Detroit Health Department, and very quickly thereafter, elected as a union official. “Right away, we jumped into the battle to save Detroit General Hospital, which was a public hospital, Detroit’s public hospital, well-known for its excellent care for the poor.” Within the broader narrative put forth by state officials, local officials, and the mainstream media of Detroit as incapable of financially managing its public resources, Detroit General was converted from a large public hospital to a privately-owned hospital.
After over fifteen years with the Health Department, Diane transferred to the City of Detroit Human Rights Department, where she continued to advocate for the citizens of Detroit and against the continued privatization of Detroit’s public resources. Throughout her career with the City of Detroit, Diane was an active union official. “When I left [my job at] the City of Detroit, I was very aware of everything, all the privatization that was happening in the city because I was a union official and a very active one.” Diane retired from her career with the City of Detroit in the 1990s amid continued disinvestment and privatization.
Diane began writing for the Michigan Citizen, which was an independent, Black owned and operated weekly newspaper. Diane covered “not only the privatization in the City of Detroit but the destruction,” and was witness to plans to start systematically closing Detroit schools, the emergency management of Detroit, and the years leading up to bankruptcy.
In 2010, Diane started her own independent newspaper, Voice of Detroit. As Editor in Chief, Diane has worked tirelessly to create space for those who have been silenced by mainstream media outlets. Leading up to bankruptcy in Detroit: “We fought as best we could to protest in the streets, to sit-in, to do whatever we could to stop that bankruptcy because that bankruptcy was generated by corporate greed, by corporations and Wall Street.”
In addition to her extensive work for the City of Detroit and her work as a union official, Diane analyzed Detroit’s finances before, during, and after bankruptcy. She found that Detroit’s debt increased throughout bankruptcy. In 2013, Detroit had approximately one billion dollars in long-term debt. In 2015, Detroit had over three billion in debt. “The banks made out like bandits from that bankruptcy. They got a lot of the public assets of the city.” Through the process of Emergency Management and the subsequent bankruptcy of Detroit, public assets such as the General Hospital, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, Detroit Public Schools, and even the public street lights have faced threats of privatization. While cities across the country have undergone privatization of public resources in an effort to save money, privatization actually just passes the cost to the citizens who live in the cities and are trying to make ends meet. What starts as a money-saving endeavor results in large corporations gaining business and capital from the citizens in inner cities.
“This was my city, as it was also primarily the city of the Black population because that’s who stayed there and the kept the city going…I never really believed they would have the gall to descend on Detroit and – the largest Black-majority city in the country – to take it over, which is what they did in the end.”
Diane contextualizes the fight for Detroit as part of a larger threat to majority-Black cities across the country and the world. “What happened to Detroit is part of a larger plan, but Detroit was, has always been, the fore-leader for when there’s attacks from the system, they’ve targeted Detroit.”
While working for the Michigan Citizen, Diane also began to write about the violence that Detroiters face from the police and the criminal justice system. She has worked with numerous incarcerated people to advocate for their rights, overturn wrongful convictions, and challenge the injustices of the prison system. The widespread efforts to privatize Detroit’s public resources and the structural racism of the criminal justice system are not isolated from each other but rather are two of the ways of continuing the legacy of slavery for Black people in the United States. Through the racist housing policies of the twentieth century, Black people were not afforded the same upward mobility as White people. Rather, Black people were relegated to inner cities with little to no opportunities to move. Continued disinvestment from those inner cities promulgates poverty, poor health outcomes, and a stark lack of educational and employment opportunities. At the same time, those majority Black neighborhoods were overpoliced, with their residents being subjected to far greater criminal penalties and incarceration. Within the scope of the 13th Amendment, once an individual is convicted of a crime and incarcerated, they can be subjected to slave labor. The systems of poverty and criminal justice work together to keep entire communities in a position of desperation.
While the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, it has approximately 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. Furthermore, while the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in many instances, it includes an exception for people who have been convicted of a crime. In other words, forced labor is still completely legal in the United States for people who have been convicted of a crime.
Through her online newspaper, Voice of Detroit, Diane shares numerous stories of Detroiters who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit; who have received long sentences, including life sentences as minors (which was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2012); and who have been mistreated by racist police officers and judges. The Voice of Detroit website also describes that Michigan has the longest sentences for inmates out of any of the fifty states: “Those currently in the MI prison system are serving an average of 126% of their minimum sentence.”
Diane continues to report on the myriad problems facing Detroiters and incarcerated people in Michigan prisons. “I traveled all over the city to some of the poorest neighborhoods, interviewed people, covered killings by the police.”
Regarding her role as an independent journalist, Diane works to counterbalance the narratives put forth by mass media by focusing on the stories that the mass media largely leaves untold. “So you have to learn how to tell the story, the factual story, and try to tell both sides. But in actuality, what you’re doing, what you’re focusing on, is telling the story that is not told by the mass media, the story of the people, of Black and Latin and poor people, of working people.” This work is particularly important because the mainstream media does not regularly report on these stories except during periods of mass protests. Diane is one of the few people who continues to report on these stories when other media outlets look away.
Diane works for an equitable society that is not based on profits but rather is “run for the people and by the people,” and Diane also knows that it is time to pass the torch to the younger generations. “We’re waiting for the young people to come up and come forward because this affects their futures more than anyone else.”
Diane Bukowski, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, May 4, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.