Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
Week twenty-three of the occupation
September 10, 2013
The resistance to Emergency Managers is growing. The Honorable John Conyers convened a public forum to discuss the role of Emergency Managers and Detroit’s bankruptcy filing. The forum was hosted by scholar and commentator Michael Eric Dyson and brought together politicians, preachers, professors, union leaders, and lawyers to provide a broad understanding of the “extraordinary consequences” of this moment. About 350 attended the gathering Saturday, September 7 at Fellowship Chapel.
Professor Dyson claimed his Detroit roots and set the tone saying, “We are here today because of the devastation visited on our city.” Dyson explained that “the marketplace put a tremendous burden on the city” with the “bleeding of manufacturing jobs” that had been the cornerstone of middle class life for African Americans. That, combined with “white flight” to the suburbs and the destruction of 100,000 homes during the foreclosure crisis, left the city at 700,000 people.
He also talked about the role of Detroit as one of the last remaining “predominately black American cities.” This political and social power, he said, has “unleashed antagonistic emotions” that have resulted in “democracy being systematically denied in Detroit.”
The thirteen panelists assembled by Congressman Conyers offered legal, economic, and political perspectives. Several unifying themes emerged throughout their presentations.
First, everyone agreed that what is happening in Detroit matters to the entire country. Professor Dyson said, “Detroit is a bellwether of the health of democracy.” Others called Detroit “the canary in the mine,” as today 125 other cities around the country are facing financial distress. “An emergency manager could be coming to your city next , Rev. Wendell Anthony of the NAACP, said for the C-Spann audience. “Detroit is the model” and Republican forces want “national legislation to say if a city is in economic distress it does not qualify for federal dollars.”
Second, everyone agreed that Emergency Managers are illegitimate and a direct assault on democracy, opening the city to corruption and pillage. Speakers recalled the history of the Emergency Manager legislation, emphasizing that voters in the state and in the city rejected Emergency Management in a hotly contested public referendum. In spite of this clear, democratic decision, the lame duck Republican legislature passed Public Act 436, reinstating emergency managers.
Many speakers questioned the authority of a single individual, unaccountable to any elected municipal body, to authorize the filing of bankruptcy. Councilwoman JoAnn Watson stressed that the city did not file for bankruptcy. She argued state and federal law make this a municipal decision, not that of an appointed official. She said that as back door deals become public, it is becoming clear that this financial emergency is connected to “voter suppression. It is purposeful and has nothing to do with the financial crisis.”
Speakers also described avenues open to the city to meet financial obligations without filing for bankruptcy. Collecting unpaid taxes, negotiating in good faith with unions, eliminating fraud, collecting monies owed by the state of Michigan, and receiving revenue sharing owed the city were all listed as revenue sources.
The meeting concluded abruptly, before many of the people who wanted to speak had an opportunity. However, several clear actions were projected. In addition to the predicable call for voting in different law makers, speakers suggested: buy land in the city, attend public hearings, pack the courts, talk to neighbors so they know what is really going on, support Congressman Conyers efforts to hold hearing on Detroit’s bankruptcy and emergency management and stop spending money on those who support EM legislation.
Speakers also commented that courts and politicians respond to street heat. We need to increase this pressure.
Professor Julianne Malveaux, internationally respected economist and former President of Bennett College, concluded the speakers saying, “We have not fought hard enough” against those forces that want to turn Detroit into “Disneyland.” She said the disrespect of the city and her people must be fought “with all the passion it deserves.”