As we approach the end of the summer of 2014, the citizens of Detroit have endured nearly a year of uncertainty and confusion about the future of our City stemming from the bankruptcy eligibility trial and the imposition of an emergency manager by Governor Rick Snyder. The illegal foisting of bankruptcy on the City is yet another of the ruthless, undemocratic tactics implemented by the right wing to achieve the agenda of the City’s corporate elite. Though Detroit does indeed have a cash flow problem, this is true of many cities. In Michigan, there are many municipalities with cash flow problems. At the April 30, 2014 bankruptcy hearing, we learned that the state of Michigan has rated cities according to the severity of their financial crisis. Even though there were several predominantly White cities with greater severity ratings, 100% of the predominantly Black cities on the list, regardless of their ratings, were placed under emergency management. This fact exposes the racism of the appointment of emergency managers to cities with majority African American populations. When democratic majority rule places African Americans in control, Governor Snyder and the legislature do not hesitate to push the duly elected officials out of power by any illegal means they can devise. Appointing an emergency manager over our City was an act of unprecedented lawlessness.
The bankruptcy, which should be declared illegal, as it was not initiated by the elected representatives of our City, is another ploy of the power elite to justify the robbery of the City’s assets, and to contrive reasons for forcing the City’s working people and pensioners into greater financial hardships and sacrifices. It continues the avalanche of lawlessness against Detroiters.
Before the bankruptcy, there was the takeover of our public school system. In an outrageously unconstitutional move in 1999, Governor John Engler dismissed the duly elected school board and facilitated the subsequent looting by contractors of the district’s $1.2 billion bond. Later, Governor Snyder usurped the authority of a newly elected school board by appointing an emergency manager, supposedly to remedy the district’s financial deficit. However, the slash and burn tactics of Emergency Manager Robert Bobb, and a trail of recent administrators, have dismantled the district, increased the deficit by millions, left the daily operations in ruins, and deprived Detroit’s children of an orderly, substantive education.
With the Detroit school system wrecked, Governor Snyder moved to appropriate the power of the Detroit City Council. In 2012, under the unconstitutional Public Act 4, the State implemented its consent agreement takeover of the City Council. At the same time, the State continued to withhold from the City millions of dollars in agreed upon revenue sharing funds that would have mitigated the cash flow problem.
The false rationale offered by the State for illegally imposing the emergency manager was that the financial mismanagement and incompetence of the African American City Council made an Emergency Manager necessary. This racist narrative has been relentlessly rehearsed by the corporations-controlled media.
Though Detroit citizens successfully repealed Public Act 4, the state legislature ruthlessly overrode the people’s will in the enactment of Public Act 436.
Deterioration of the Quality of Life in Our City
In this period of unprecedented lawlessness, implemented by the Governor and the state legislature, and instigated by the banks and corporations, Detroiters have seen a severe deterioration in the quality of life in our City:
• Tens of thousands of families homeless through foreclosures
• Once vital and thriving neighborhoods destroyed
• Public City Health Department privatized, less services
• More and more poor people with less and less medical care
• More babies die here than other cities
• Our right to vote taken again
• Our votes undermined through election fraud
• Elected officials replaced with a corporate emergency manager
• Our public school system dismantled and sold for pennies
• Our children punished with limited cultural opportunities
• Crumbling public services like lights, police and fire
• Weakened power of our unions; workers’ rights eliminated
• The “grand bargain,” stealing pensions from retired Detroit city workers
• The Belle Isle takeover
• The closure of numerous other parks
• Racist policing of Belle Isle, downtown
• African American youth harassed by a militarized police force
Water Shut-Offs: The Most Recent Ruthlessness
In the context of the dismal conditions already characterizing life in the City, Emergency Manager Kevin Orr, dealt another blow: the campaign to shut off the water in thousands of homes where citizens are behind in their monthly payments. The United Nations and progressive organizations, including the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Associated Nurses of America, have denounced this measure as an attack on human dignity and a threat to the health and safety of the entire city.
International outrage shamed bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes into calling for an immediate remedy to this situation, and a “moratorium” on shut-offs was announced. All the while, however, contracted workers continued the shut-offs and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) failed to provide adequate access to citizens desperate to make arrangements. Under continuing pressure from grass roots organizing efforts, the DWSD has launched a “ten-point program” supposedly intended to help families cope with the expenses of water service.
However, while exacting unfair rates for water from low- income citizens, the DWSD continues to ignore massive debts owed by many of the City’s businesses: e.g. Illitch $80,000, Palmer Park Golf Course, $422,000. It is clear that the effort to reduce the DWSD debt is motivated by the Emergency Manager’s intent to make the Department attractive to private ownership.
Yet another publicly owned City asset is being put up for grabs by corporate interests. Under private ownership, water will be even more costly to citizens.
The End of Democratic Majority Governance of the City
Corporate elite strategies have devastated our City through:
• Collapse of our infrastructure of public, democratic governance by the majority;
• Corporate power exerted for its own ends – dividing the spoils of the city with no regard for the majority;
• Creation of two cities: One highly developed and privatized, the other neglected;
• Use of public funds to support the creations of the corporate city;
• Sell valuable city land to corporate entities for pennies;
• Corporate foundation grants and awards to influence or control the production of cultural leaders and artists;
• Corporate content dominating newspapers, radio, TV, cable and internet news;
• Corporate media content which applauds the anti-majority actions of the corporate elite;
• Corporate control of our highly valuable land, water and environment on the Detroit River;
• Corporate ethnic cleansing of the African American and low-income population in the City through:
• Worsening unemployment and poverty,
• Home foreclosures,
• Destruction of the public school system,
• Deprivation of essential health services,
• Shut-offs of residential utilities of water, gas, electricity,
• Limited public lighting, public transportation and other resources.
The New, White Detroit, Designed by and for the Corporations
The circumvention of duly elected government officials and the undemocratic imposition of emergency managers are strategies to ensure corporate control of the City. Emergency Manager Kevin Orr and the trail of lawyers and consultants will be paid more that $l00 million for their criminal takeover of the City. Whose interests are they serving? The Detroit- based multi-national corporations and the banks. Detroit’s major corporations occupy key positions within the global economy, where the competition is fierce for appropriation, acquisition or theft of the people’s wealth and assets, at home and abroad. These multi-national corporations are reconfiguring the City to operate as their own command base. They have no use for a large population of working people, only a specialized workforce to manage their offices and maintain their work and leisure spaces. Hence the emergence of the privatized Detroit that we are witnessing.
But WE Are Not Going Away!
While we must resist the measures of emergency management that have created such hardships for City residents in all the ways that we can – organized self-help, like the water relief stations that have been set up, demonstrations, community forums, urban farming and food cooperatives, mobilization to win more humane policies governing people’s access to the City’s resources, etc. – we must also use our collective power to create our City, a city of self-government, public accountability, and protection of one another.
We are Rebuilding Our City!
Join the Efforts to Create a City that Meets Human Needs
That more humane future is rooted in the power of people to come together and establish ways and means of how we shall live. The people of Detroit have been forging a common public life that reflects values of self-government, public accountability, love, and protection of one another and of our earth. This reality could hardly be further from the falsified corporate image of dehumanization and racist disregard for Detroiters.
Detroiters protest the dictatorship of emergency management and organize people to demand full democracy and human rights from all institutions. At the same time we dream, create, build and expand alternatives. Just like walking, we constantly shift our weight from one side or another — fighting for control of resources and building alternatives — in response to the needs of the movements and the people.
In places long abandoned and forgotten by corporate development, we have established visionary ways to address the needs of our community. Turning abandoned lots into gardens, cast off materials into public art, and restoring homes, parks, schools and neighborhoods, with often little more than imagination, we are creating ways of living that are life affirming.
Throughout the city small gardens have formed a web of community gardeners consciously working to create Food Security where people are not only producing for local needs, but expanding small market gardens to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to the community. These long-standing efforts feed thousands of people and are expanding into new neighborhoods every season as we share knowledge and skills.
African-centered and place-based educational institutions are thriving, and make an important contribution not only for our children but they also serve as community anchors. Community groups have special back to school and after school activities, encourage students to stay in school, and raise money for students to study beyond high schools. Community libraries and parks are kept open and safe, even as officials withdraw support.
Block clubs, neighborhood associations, and churches organize thousands to participate in patrols that watch out for children and our elderly neighbors. They also organize help for our seniors with lawn and household chores. Non- violent trainings, reconciliation, mediation, truth telling, and creative problem solving processes are growing throughout the community.
Community groups develop activities for young people, establish intergenerational support in schools, and provide ways for artistic development. Churches and block clubs organize to encourage small businesses in commercial districts. Regular community meetings keep residents informed and encouraged in dialogue and discussions, developing action plans over a broad range of community issues. Volunteers devote thousands of hours to these ideas to bring them into reality around the city. Slowly but surely we see a new future emerging based on local production for local needs, working to create useful and beautiful items for neighbors.
No Water Shutoffs!
Visionary thinking too is woven into the community-based policies for ensuring that all people are engaged in shaping the future of our city based on values that respect life and the natural world. Drawing on a long history of social and environmental justice, for example, in 2005 under the direction of Michigan Welfare Rights, people developed a policy initiative that embraced the values of water as human right and public trust. The People’s Water Affordability Plan (PWAP) emerged out of broadly based community discussions. With the advice of Roger Colton, an internationally respected expert in developing affordable, sustainable utility plans for cities, we presented a Water Affordability Plan to the Detroit City Council which approved it in 2006.
The heart of the Water Affordability Plan is an alternative rate structure which includes residential rates where income plays an important role in billing, not just how much water is used. In this way we can ensure access to water for all; a steady stream of income without costly interruptions; and, funds for infrastructure maintenance.
Although the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department did not implement this plan and created a much less effective alternative, people have continued to advocate for the PWAP. Had this plan been in place in the spring of 2014, we would never have faced the shut off crisis that has brought international criticism to the City and the Water Department. We would have kept the water flowing along with a consistent revenue stream.
Throughout the city, even while people advocate for humane public policies, many are caring for one another. Church and community groups have set up water stations so those most in need have access to clean, safe water. Neighbors share water with one another. Community groups are establishing catchment systems and rain gardens to support clean water. Water, its treatment, collection and usage, are collective acts and should be socially embraced, not through an appointed board, but by moving toward full public control of water as a key part of our commons and a public trust.
These activities are foreshadowing a new kind of city that is emerging out of the cracks of the old industrial age. Their power to offer a more collaborative, thoughtful future points the way for others around the country to create ways of living that are the best hope for all of us to live in dignity, mutual respect, and love.
Prepared by Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management August 16, 2014