Democracy and the City


Democracy and the City

By Shea Howell

Michigan  Citizen,  April 24-30, 2011

 The city is the foundation of Democracy. In western cultural lore Democracy began in the city-states of Greece. Socrates chose death, rather than a life without civic engagement. Plato contemplated a more perfect republic reflecting on the life of the city. Aristotle taught that by engaging with one another in cities, we could establish justice, celebrate our values and make decisions about our common welfare.

 In our own much shorter history New England town meetings embody democratic action.  Through free association and direct discussion people can make decisions about our shared concerns.

 The expansion of democracy in America is told through the tales of cities and towns. Lexington. Concord. Philadelphia. New York. Flint. Toledo. Greensboro. Montgomery. Birmingham  Selma.  Little Rock. Boston. Chicago. Los Angeles. Detroit. San Francisco. Seattle.

 Cities are where we sat down, sat in and stood up. Where we picketed and paraded. Where we raised consciousness, linked hands against arms, took back the night and brought to life the best of American values: the dignity of work, the right of all people to participate in the decisions that affect our lives, the longing for peace.

 In the tumultuous history of the 20th century, we learned that democracy has to be created by our whole selves, in shops, factories, mines, on bus lines, at lunch counters and in schools. We learned that democracy depends on direct action and citizen engagement.

 Today we have seen representative democracy become increasingly hollow. Money and manipulation dominate the public sphere.

 And now Emergency Financial Mangers are given legal powers to wipe out all the gains of generations of struggles for dignity and democracy.

In this new Republican vision of America, only state governments matter. If the national government passes laws they don’t like, Republican- controlled states now opt out.  If local governments don’t do what they like, Republican legislatures create financial chaos, then appoint an EFM to set aside all local government. Cities, we are told, are administrative creatures of the state.

So now on April 14 Joseph Harris, the EFM of Benton Harbor, and some say a man who longs to run Detroit, sets aside the power of all elected and appointed officials in that city.

 The wiping out of all city governing bodies hangs on a 1907 US Supreme Court Case. In Hunter v. Pittsburgh  the court claimed that local governments were only “convenient agencies for exercising…such powers as may be entrusted to them by the states.”

 Such a limited notion of democracy may be understandable at a time before women had the right to vote, before labor had the right to organize, before the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But it will not hold today.

 History has shown us time and again that what is “legal” is not always right. What is right has to be fought for, often in the streets of our cities.

 A new, living democracy is emerging in Detroit. Some of our most progressive organizations are challenging the legal basis of the EFM laws. Some people are organizing petition drives to recall the governor and to boycott all charter schools. Many are embracing the work of our Charter Commission that has created an impressive document to establish responsive city government.

Some of us are taking direct action. Robert Bobb was shouted off the stage at Kettering High School, so shaken that he cancelled the next town hall meeting..  Last Friday teen mom students at Catherine Ferguson Academy refused to leave the building, protesting efforts to close or charterize their school.

Citizens surrounded the home of Maryanne Godboldo to prevent a swat team from using violence against her and her child. Neighbors are refusing to allow evictions and organizing for community safety through peace zones.

 This is the new, living democracy beginning to grow in Detroit.

 Note: To be part of this new democratic action: come to Church of the Messiah,  E. Grand  Blvd & Lafayette,  this Saturday @ 12 Noon for a community vigil against violence. Creating Peace.