The Takeover of Detroit

By William Copeland

Reprinted with permission from The Dominion

The NBC show “Parks and Recreation” features a relatively benign and good-natured Emergency Management Team that motivates city workers to creatively problem-solve and think-outside-the-box to save the city’s crippled budget.  Each week the nation gets lots of laughs from the camaraderie between the managers and the municipal officials, who act as though they all were on the same team. In Detroit and other majority black cities in Michigan, we’ve experienced EM’s as closer to a horror flick than a situation comedy.

Highland Park, Michigan (93 percent black) was hit with an emergency manager and had to pay his salary of $200,000 per year and other consultant fees out of the city budget.  When he left, the city was further impoverished, hundreds of citizens faced home water shutoffs and related life-or-death issues, and the city’s problems were still unsolved.

Detroit Public Schools has been under emergency management for years, and now the governor is threatening to places the entire city under emergency management. After the schools were taken over by the state from 1999 to 2005 and again in 2009, EM Robert Bobb left his office advocating for a plan that would have closed dozens more schools and left up to 60 students in a classroom. This was his emergency recommendation for fiscal responsibility!

Detroit’s budget is a mess. But cities across America are struggling, even the U.S. government itself. The New York Times reports in “When States Shut Down for Business” that Pennsylvania, Tennessee, New Jersey, and Minnesota all had shut downs from 2002 to 2009, ranging from a few hours to nine days from financial shortfalls. How many of the cities there went into receivership?

If the new plan to send an EM to Detroit is successful, then the majority of Black people in the state of Michigan will be administered by these managers.   As the EM has the ability to remove elected officials and can spend money in ways that aren’t accountable to elected officials, it would take away our ability to govern ourselves.  When you look at the cities in Michigan that have been selected for emergency management, you’ll see that they are all majority Black cities and towns. In addition to Highland Park, other cities touched by emergency management include Benton Harbor (89.2%), Detroit (82.7%), Inkster (61.3%), Flint (56.6%), and Pontiac (52.1%).

In Michigan, emergency managers are appointed by the governor when he or she judges a municipality’s budget deficit to be irreparable. The EM has the absolute power to disincorporate the city, sell its assets, remove its elected leaders, privatize or eliminate services, and break union contracts, among other measures. During the state of Michigan’s 1999-2005 takeover of Detroit public schools, the elected school board was disbanded.

In the name of saving the system, the services that people depended on for livelihood and well-being were slashed until they were useless and unrecognizable. School Board Member Elena Herrada reports in a Facebook note to her constituents, “We have gone into much more debt, closed schools and lost many students from our District.  Those in power have set up a ‘failing district’ which is state wide, but only Detroit is in it. This parallel district is run by private interests.  There is no public oversight to it.”
In these select black municipalities, where budget deficits have led to the removal of the elected leadership, our political leaders face racial stereotyping that they are incompetent.

It’s even worse when Black people internalize the media messages and think that we have a monopoly on incompetence. Instead of discussing the systematic causes of underdevelopment, we attack our own community with statements like, ‘Woe is us, our leaders are so incompetent and corrupt.”
“ANYTHING is better than this.”
“Sign me up for emergency management.”

For all but the past 40 years of our history in this country, it has been illegal for us as Black folks to enjoy at least one basic human or civil right, like reading, writing, learning, marrying, assembling freely, or voting for leaders of our choice.  Black folk have been denied suffrage “for our own good,” because we were labeled not intelligent enough to make rational decisions.  In many areas we were denied these powers to keep us in our places as broke-down second-class citizens. Elders in the community wisely remind us of this history and see this emergency management as a new embodiment of this old discrimination.

Other people argue that these are just the tactics of a political system dominated by corporate interests aggressively trying to promote a corporate-friendly agenda. Fundamental human rights are being rolled back.  Advances which have increased standards of livings for almost all in this country are under attack so that corporations can post bigger profits.

The US Supreme Court ruled recently in the controversial “Citizens United” case that corporations have First Amendment rights equal to individual citizens. Last year Obama gave orders to CIA drones to assassinate US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, for his alleged role in terrorist organizations.  Congress is considering bills that would suspend habeus corpus in the US and give the military the ability to detain US citizens for terrorism-related suspicions with no civil/judicial trial.

In Michigan, we are seeing an amazing, unprecedented attack on public education, increasing corporate control of it. We’ve seen slashed education spending,the outsourcing of public teachers and various school-related staff, curbing collective-bargaining rights, limiting and vilifying teachers’ unions, and lastly a great increase in charter and “cyber” schools. Charter schools are part of a larger conservative movement to value individualism, profit, and success over public institutions, accountability, and common
infrastructure. Most of these actions have no effect on the quality of education.

I don’t know if emergency managers use their institutions to create a better, more profitable, climate for business.  But we have definitely seen EM’s increase voter disenfranchisement and minimize accountability. We’ve definitely seen them increase the load of debt. Emergency managers leave local communities feeling more turmoil and more powerless.

On December 1, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing joined with a majority membership of City Council, labor and faith leaders to denounce the governor’s plans for appointing an EM to Detroit. Voices of Detroit reports that at the December press conference, Mayor Dave Bing reminded all that the state owes the City of Detroit over $200 million because of an agreement that would increase tax breaks for corporations in Detroit.  At the press conference mentioned above, Detroit City Councilwoman Joann Watson said angrily, “It is outrageous that a state which has its own deficit, in a country that has its own deficit, has the nerve to point fingers at our city.”

These comments remind us that we must look at the financial troubles of Detroit in light of the state and national context and take the personal attacks so common in the media with a grain of salt. Black voters need to be wary of emergency managers and the agendas that place them in our communities. Let me rephrase that – Black communities need to join the fight to stop emergency managers from disenfranchising and looting our communities. Instead of Jim Crow Laws, these emergency takeovers should be called James Crow, Esquire — a polite, subtle, and bureaucratic racism.