Over the last few months, Detroiters have gained important experiences in what democracy does and does not look like.
We have seen the imposition of a virtual dictator over the public school system. Emergency Financial Mangers Robert Bobb and Roy Roberts have wielded unchecked authority to disrupt and dismantle schools, without regard to their educational success or community importance. The Emergency Financial Manager legislation from which they get their power authorizes the elimination of mayors, city councils, and all elected officials. It allows a single individual to sell public assets in the name of solving economic emergencies.
We have witnessed efforts to subvert the new city charter process, including by some current city council members to limit the impact of electing representatives by meaningful districts.
We have seen countless back room deals on the use of land. It is becoming common place to expect the announcement of any new development project to be followed by slowly leaked stories of tax breaks, secret meetings or special incentives.
We have endured a remarkable failure to engage citizens productively in the Detroit Works Project.
The redistricting of Congressional districts has demonstrated a level of political cynicism and abuse of power that is unmatched in recent memory. The Republican Governor and Legislature have shattered the idea that congressional districts should reflect some shared community values and perspectives.
Many of these efforts have been justified with appeals to democratic processes. The Emergency Financial Managers claim to have gathered citizen input though public meetings and town halls. The Detroit Works Project touted its community meetings and open planning process. The Governor and Republican dominated legislature claim electoral victory as justification for their actions.
Anyone who participated in these processes recognizes the brittle, hollow claims of democracy they represent. These are not what democracy looks like. Rather these were thinly veiled efforts to manage people, to limit serious discussion or the engagement of people in resolving differences. None of them attempted to create processes that encouraged people to think together about how we can address the many challenges we face as a city and a state.
But these empty processes have provoked genuine citizen action. The outrageous decision of the Detroit Public Schools EFM to close the Catherine Ferguson Academy was challenged by a broadly based group of citizens and organizations. There we saw progressive media on local and national levels question why anyone would close a school with a 90% graduation rate. We saw the UAW join forces with community groups to organize demonstrations, information campaigns and bring pressure on the EFM. Roberts came up with a last minute charter process to avert what would have been a major test of the capacity of the EFM to impose his will over that of the citizens.
Demands for openness in city planning processes are increasing. Foundations, no longer willing to be sullied by association with the bullying and intimidation tactics of Detroit Works, are quietly withdrawing in reaction to citizen protest. People have organized to challenge the EFM laws through a public referendum that shows every sign of success with broadly based support.
Such direct citizen action is the essence of democracy. The right to petition, to protest, to gather in support of ideas and actions, to propose alternatives and to demand transparent decision making bring democracy to life.
Increasingly in Detroit we are seeing that representative democracy no longer represents the interests of citizens. Rather it represents the corporate interests that financed the elections. Instead of thinking private interests will some how result in public good, people in Detroit are working out a new methods of democratic action. These actions and the values they represent are the real basis for rebuilding civic life.