Bill Wylie-Kellermann was born and raised in the Eastside of Detroit. He attended Cooley High School and graduated in 1967–the same year that rebellions against police violence and systemic racism broke out in Detroit and Newark, NJ. “I have a really vivid memory of looking down Grand River Avenue to see the smoke rising from the city in July,” he remembers,”my heart was just kind of pierced by that.”
Bill describes the 1967 Rebellion, the racism in Detroit, and the civil disobedience of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as shaping his worldview and contributing to his call to be a pastor. “[M]y high school senior paper was on civil disobedience. So, it had not only [Mahatma] Gandhi and [Henry David] Thoreau, but I was reading a lot of Martin Luther King at the time.”
Upon returning to Detroit in 1977 after attending college and seminary, Bill saw vast changes in the landscape of city. “[T]he white flight and the capital flight and job flight that Detroit experienced in the ’60s and ’70s…turning into deindustrialization here in Detroit was organized and wasn’t accidental and wasn’t some ethereal phenomenon,” he explained. “It was using white racism as an economic driver for extracting resources from the city and building the suburbs and the expressway system…use of urban renewal–sometimes called “Negro removal” in those days–was clearing neighborhoods for the sake of the expressway projects and, of course, that was infrastructure for white flight, as was the Detroit water system.”
Since his return to Detroit, Bill has been involved numerous struggles to preserve Detroit’s public resources. He was witness to attempts to prevent the destruction of the Poletown neighborhood for a General Motors plant in 1980. Promising to bring 6,000 badly needed jobs to the city, 465 acres of the Poletown neighborhood was razed using eminent domain. The area that was razed contained 1,500 homes, 144 businesses, and 16 churches, yet when the plant opened in 1985, only 3,000 jobs were delivered.
In thinking about the legacy of Poletown, Bill sees what would become a precedent for displacing working-class Black Detroiters in the 2000s: “what we’re seeing now in Detroit in terms of driving poor and Black folks out of neighborhoods using foreclosures, mortgage and tax foreclosures, water shutoffs, school closings, withdrawal of infrastructure including transportation. All of those things are a cheaper way to clear neighborhoods than buying people’s homes and paying them to move.”
In 1995, Bill participated in the newspaper strike, supporting writers for the major Detroit papers. The newspaper strike was not an isolated event but rather is contextualized within a large scheme to strip workers of their bargaining power and rights that grew in the Reagan administration and continues to today.
When the union contract with the papers expired, the papers refused to renew it, leading to a strike that lasted over a year and a half. The newspapers attempted to convert large portions of the employees to independent contractors in order to cut costs and remove workers’ rights. Because the newspaper printing plant was located in Sterling Heights, a lot of the actions were focused there. Picketing efforts were met with both Vance Security, a paramilitary strike-breaking company, and Sterling Heights Police, who were paid by the newspaper companies. Bill and several other pastors participated in the strike to bring a “visible presence of the church.”
Bill sees labor struggles inherently as community struggles, “…this is about the dignity of neighborhoods…this is about Black folks and white folks working together,” he explained.“We were part of an effort that got 800 clergy and religious to sign a letter supporting the boycott of the papers…We were trying to ignite that sort of broader vision of…what a struggle could be.”
In thinking about the emergency management of Detroit that stripped Detroiters of their democracy from 2013-14, Bill understands the city’s financial crisis and the consent agreement that paved the way to emergency management as “substantially manufactured.” While job flight, white flight, capital flight, and the loss of the tax base was a part of the emergency in Detroit. Rather than a debt crisis, he explains, “the emergency was predicated on what was really a cash flow problem, and that was substantially exacerbated and created by the state itself.”
In a 2014 report, the Michigan Municipal League found that in the decade leading up to emergency management, state lawmakers withheld $732 million in funds from Detroit. These declines were made worse in 2011 when Governor Rick Snyder signed an Executive Order that cut revenue sharing by 33% percent. It was the same year a new law went into effect that greatly expanded the powers of emergency managers.
The consent agreement, which primed the pump for emergency management, was a means of “raising the temperature of the water that you’re in little by little,” so that when emergency management began, it didn’t look like such a big step to Detroiters. Bill attended the City Council meeting when the consent agreement was passed and, with several others, stood up and sang as an act of protest. He recounts how many other people who attended the City Council meeting joined in and sang with them.
The process leading to emergency management was a strategy: “create a financial emergency and then come in with anti-democratic, non-democratic, unconstitutional, illegitimate powers and restructure the city.” Bill explains emergency management as “the power to write laws, repeal ordinances, privatize departments, sell assets, break contracts, including union contracts, unilaterally, rewrite the city charter.”
“[V]irtually every Black city in the state of Michigan has been under emergency management.”
“At one point, half the Black population of the State was under non-elected governments, and three-quarters of the Black elected officials in Michigan had been replaced by emergency managers.”
Bill also attended the bankruptcy proceedings. He paints a vivid picture of the court on the day of the bankruptcy proceedings: “it’s a sea of white faces all forward and corporate attorneys, you know, representing bankers, and Kevyn Orr is the only African-American person in front of the bar, and then behind the bar are Detroiters, you know, largely African-American, watching this decimation of the city.”
In response to the drastic changes of emergency management, Bill worked to create a space within St. Peter’s for direct action, education, and organizing. The Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (DREM) continues to be committed to water rights in Detroit and prioritizing the needs and goals of Detroiters. “It’s actually pretty amazing that for a small congregation of probably eight or ten folks who have been, just in recent years, involved in civil disobedience actions.”
During the proceedings, Bill stood up and addressed the court, and when the judge looked at him as though he was an attorney, Bill said, “We don’t need this testimony to know that the banks should actually be prosecuted instead of being paid off by this process.”
As Homrich Wrecking, under the direction of the Emergency Manager, began shutting off the water of thousands of Detroiters in 2014, Bill was organizing. The water shutoffs were the epitome of emergency management because it put the needs of corporations above the needs of Detroiters, and city officials – at the time, the emergency manager – contracted vicious actions out to companies that did not care about the people they were impacting and injuring. As part of what was later called the Homrich 9, Bill and his fellow activists physically and literally blocked the Homrich trucks from leaving the yard and continuing to shut off Detroiters’ access to the basic human right of water. They were arrested and awaiting a trial that the city continued to delay until eventually the charges were dismissed for lack of a speedy trial.
At this point, the United Nations had declared a human rights emergency in Detroit and news outlets from across the county and the world were shining a spotlight on the travesty of water shutoffs in Detroit. Bill worked with many organizations to address these violations of human rights. The trial of the Homrich 9 “energized the water struggle.” The water shutoffs exist in the midst of emergency management, bankruptcy, and selling off valuable Detroit resources.
In thinking about his vision for the city of Detroit, Bill calls to mind what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called the Beloved Community. According to the King Center, Dr. King described his idea of the Beloved Community as a “realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence,” and as “a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth.” Bill describes his similar vision as “rooting in building community…community-based economics can transform things from below, and I think that’s how we’re going to need to move because it’s not going to come from top-down.”
Bill Wylie-Kellermann, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, March 23, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.