Thinking for Ourselves
Matters of perspective
By Shea Howell
Week fifty-two. Year one of the occupation.
April 1, 2014
We have now had one year of emergency management. Little has been achieved by Mr. Orr. But the contours of the kind of city Orr, Snyder and the corporate elite envision are emerging. They are advocating choices that will make Detroit a whiter, wealthier city, where a few people will live comfortably in a small downtown. Most of us will live in neighborhoods abandoned by services, except for a growing police force designed to keep us in our place.
Bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes marked the anniversary announcing he will seek expert witnesses to assess the feasibility of Orr’s restructuring plan.
The Judge indicated he was looking for impartial expertise in municipal finance and administration who have a “demonstrable interest in and concern for” Detroit’s future. He said he was interested in experts with no conflict of interest. That cannot be said of Orr.
The judge’s desire for objective expertise is an indictment of Orr and Jones Day. It reflects how shoddily they have represented the city. Over the course of this year they have proved themselves incapable of understanding the dynamics of the city, of representing its people or of advocating on behalf of the most vulnerable. In fact they can’t even meet simple obligations like giving the judge signed statements to approve, proofreading their documents detailing how much they plan to cut from pensions, or providing accessible information to retirees and the citizens of the city.
But it also reflects a mistaken belief on the part of Judge Rhodes that this is an objective financial crisis. It is not. The economic challenges facing Detroit are more than numbers on a balance sheet. They are the product of long standing historical and political forces. They are also the product of unintended consequences and of deliberate choices to strangle the progressive political power base of the city and to strip it of its resources.
How we assess the causes of this crisis, its dimensions, its responsibilities, and its solutions depends not on an objective balance sheet, but on the values we bring to understanding the past. It also depends on the visions we have for the future of our city.
It is more than a matter of perspective. It is a matter of whose perspective is valued. Here are some areas that reflect the differing perspectives and divergent values that are central in assessing this year with Mr. Orr.
The Emergency Manger gave Belle Isle to the State to save $6 million a year. Then he gives up $7 million from the concession and related incomes from the Red Wings.
The Emergency Manager maintains control of the police force and disbands the Police Commission, the single most important civilian avenue for accountability.
The EM allows “aggressive” water shut offs for 6 month old bills, but cannot “enforce” claims of $50 to $80 million owed to the city over two decades by the Red Wings for a longstanding TV revenue deal.
The EM offers to sell our water to private corporations rather than protecting it as a basic human right.
The EM cuts pensions for elders and offers tax breaks to billionaire developers.
These are not objective issues. They are not neutral contrasts. They reflect choices among competing values.
One year into Emergency Management the values behind the choices made by Mr. Orr are to protect the wealthy and to privatize the commons. These values will not restore a city that is sustainable. They are the antithesis of the Beloved Community Dr. King helped us imagine nearly 50 years ago this week when he challenged us to create a radical revolution in values.