‘Gardening While Black’ Lawsuit Reflects History of Food Justice Activism

A Black Detroit resident is suing three white women who allegedly fabricated charges to the police because they didn’t like a community garden being developed across the street. In a lawsuit filed on February 25, 2019, Marc Peeples alleged that he has been subject to "targeted harassment… for more than nine months” by neighbors of Hunt Park who repeatedly called the police. Peeples has been accused of vandalism, illegal planting, violent threats, and stealing from nearby homes, which led to an arrest and charges of three counts of stalking in May 2018. That case was dismissed by a judge who said the charges were “disgusting and a waste of the court's time and resources."

Deborah Nash, one of the women named in Peeples’ lawsuit, told The New York Times that she is not racist. “I was all for the garden and even helped with supplies at first, but he threatened me several times, in person to my face, that I needed to leave my neighborhood or I would be put out one way or another. I called the police because he was destroying property in the neighborhood and painting graffiti.”

Peeples has been an active member of the State Fairgrounds community, where he built an urban garden in Hunt Park between 2017 and 2018, the Detroit Metro Times reported. According to NBC News, Peeples spent nearly two years turning the overgrown park into a garden of flowers and vegetables. During that time, he also boarded up abandoned houses in the neighborhood and made other improvements to the park. According to the Times, Peeples’ work was part of “a personal redemptive mission after three years in prison on drug charges.”

The Hunt Park garden, now called Liberated Farms, will be part of local schools' STEM curriculum, and Peeples told the Metro-Times that he plans to add playground equipment to the area. Liberated Farms has also hosted clean-up efforts, book bag giveaways, and free agricultural workshops.

Peeples and his lawyer, Robert Burton-Harris, describe the case as an issue of “gardening while Black.” Yet Black Detroiters have long been “urban farming” as a self-reliant, community-oriented method of combating food deserts. The city itself condoned urban gardening over 100 years ago when Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree encouraged residents to plant potato patches on vacant land during the economic crisis of 1893. In 2017, Keep Growing Detroit estimated that the city boasted more than 1,500 individual, community, and school gardens, as well as larger-scale farms. Many of these farms create economies of scale and provide opportunities for local businesses to work together using sustainable practices.

“The growing network of gardeners and farmers in our city personifies the spirit of resiliency for which Detroit is known,” Keep Growing Detroit wrote. “Most Detroiters do not enjoy a wide range of high-quality, fresh, affordable produce where they shop. When that is the reality, the experience of growing a tomato in your backyard or buying one from a farmers’ market has the potential to cause a shift in how one views and values food.”

Peeples’ struggle is not only one against systemic racism and gentrification (Nash moved to the Fairgrounds neighborhood in 2014; Peeples is a third generation resident), but one for resiliency and justice that has deep roots in Black communities throughout the country. More than 35 percent of Detroiters live below the poverty line, Fresh Air noted in an episode on Detroit farms, making food a key point in the city’s various social justice fights.

“It’s deeper than some abandoned part and small farm,” Liberated Farms posted on its Facebook page. “Its [sic] about liberating the minds of children! It disgusts the system when they see young melanated men taking a stand in our communities and building righteously!”

About the Author

Jessica Lipsky is the content editor for The North Star. Her work as an editor and reporter has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Vice, Billboard, Remezcla, Timeline and LA Weekly, among others. She regularly pens authoritative features on subculture, broke several music industry-focused #MeToo stories, and also writes on the business of music.