Thinking for Ourselves
By Shea Howell
March 16-23, 2013
The crisis in Detroit is not economic. It is a crisis in democracy. The contours of this crisis are becoming clearer with each passing day. Last Thursday, Mayor Bing called a press conference to announce that even though he disputed the “facts” of the rationale provided to the Governor to appoint an emergency manager, he would not challenge the findings. He said, “We need to end the drama and infighting and understand that whether we like it or not, an emergency financial manager is coming to Detroit.”
Mainstream media and the elites they represent hailed this statement. Meanwhile those who oppose the appointment of an emergency manager were diminished and demonized. The Detroit Free Press labeled protesters as numbering in the “dozens.” Jack Lessenberry characterized us as irrational children saying, “we can scream and kick our little feet—or we can rationally start preparing to try to work with whomever that emergency manager may be to try to save Detroit. Fighting the inevitable is a waste of time.”
While virtually no one joined the Mayor in his decision to go along to get along, hundreds of people gathered with Councilwoman Joann Watson to stand up for democracy. This meeting kicked off a series of organized efforts to draw public attention to the real issues at stake in the struggles against the Emergency Manager. This is a struggle about the basic right of people to self-determination, to have a right and responsibility to decide our own future, and to have a meaningful and full voice in our government.
Councilwoman Watson began the meeting emphasizing the historic nature of the fight in front of us. She began the meeting talking about the struggles of people to secure the basic rights of citizenship and emphasized the key role Detroit has played in the history of our country as a center for the dignity of labor, for the birth of black power and self determination, and as home to people who have a long history of standing up and speaking out. This struggle against the EM, she said, was like the struggle for basic rights begun more than 50 years ago on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama. With the appoint of an EM in Detroit, 49% of African Americans in the state will not have the right to elect local officials and 75% of all elected African Americans will be disempowered.
Mayoral candidate Krystal Crittendon discussed the challenge to the EM as a question of constitutional rights. She said, “You have a right to democracy. Even if you only have two pennies, you have a right to elect your officials. Just because you live in an economically depressed region, you do not lose the right to elect people.” She went on to say that this is especially true when “the people who take away that right are the same people who owe us money.”
This meeting was an example of the new democratic forms developing in Detroit. As representative elected bodies are being outlawed by the state, leadership is emerging to create new forms for political discussions and decision-making. Here, people came together to remind one another of our history, to share information and ideas, and to generate strategies for action. People pledged to remember Martin, Malcolm, Rosa Parks, Coleman Young, Maryanne Mahaffey, Erma Henderson and all those who struggled for justice. They pledged to lift up our young people and to educate one another about the real issues we face.
As one minister said, these are times that require us to become “creatively ungovernable,” even as we find new forms to make decisions about our lives and our communities. Detroit is finding new voices that promise to shake the efforts of the old order to hang on to power and privilege. It is a new day.