Democracy in Detroit

Democracy in Detroit
By Shea Howell
Apriol 17 – 24-2011

The assault on the democratic rights of the citizens of Detroit escalated this week with the threat of a state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager to run the city surrounding the budget debate. Council President Charles Pugh vocalized what everyone has been thinking. “Do you want Mayor Bing and the council to run the city or do you want somebody else to run it?” He explained. “We want people who work in the city to understand that we’re up against a wall and we have to make some tough decisions about our pensions, benefits, contractors (and) the city services we deliver.”

Along with the possibility of a state-appointed Czar to run our city, the efforts of the Mayor to increase taxes on local casinos require state legislative action. Currently casino revenues are taxed at 19% for the state and 10.9 % for Detroit. This is a combined lower tax rate than our two nearest competitor states, Ohio and Indiana.

Detroiters find ourselves in a difficult position. Our elected leaders are saying, “Local unions must have contract changes, workers and retirees must pay 20% of their health care costs, and we must freeze pension funds.” If we don’t do this, an EFM will take over ” If that happens, the EFM will say, “Local unions must have contract changes, workers and retirees must pay 20% of their health care costs and we must freeze pension funds.” It is very hard to see what difference it makes.

That is the problem. When the sphere of potential political action has been so limited, local elected officials are essentially irrelevant, except for the damage they are willing to do in order to keep their jobs.

This situation is only going to get worse. Lansing has made clear that the redistricting of congressional districts will further diminish electoral power in Detroit. Further, they intend to draw up the city council districts.

By the end of this year, Detroit will be stripped of any meaningful direct democratic power. Our elected school board is not functioning. We will have an EFM or a Mayor and city council so stripped of creative energy that they might as well be appointed by Snyder. Most city contracts will have been renegotiated. Many of our public assets will have been sold or privatized. We will have a diminished presence in the state and federal legislatures.

All of this is happening at the time when many Detroiters are engaging in creating new democratic forms at the neighborhood level. In response to this growing assault people, are organizing.

In a recent article in Business Week, Joshua Long wrote thoughtfully of our city,

“Residents have discovered that real recovery comes from community initiatives, entrepreneurial creativity and citizen involvement.

“Groups like the Detroit Food Justice Task Force are educating the community about food access and nutrition while networking with entrepreneurs to build a locally sustainable, environmentally just food system. Projects like Hush House are tackling issues of adult illiteracy and homelessness while Urban Neighborhood Initiatives is encouraging rehabilitation of parks, vacant lots and community centers.

“Greening of Detroit, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, and Food and Water Watch are each working to promote equal access to clean water, air and open space for minority populations that historically have suffered disproportionately from exposure to pollution, dumping and waste sites.

“These are just a few examples of the type of community cooperation that is building a new urban economy from the bottom-up.”

He concludes, “An economy that relies on local actors and slow growth isn’t sensational, but it is democratic and viable.”

Detroiters are in the process of inventing a living democracy that will ultimately challenge the hollow efforts of control flowing from Lansing and beyond.