Thinking for ourselves
On Public Relations
By Shea Howell
Week 54 of the occupation
April 15, 2014
Judge Steven Rhodes scolded Kevyn Orr and everyone else last week. After approving the latest proposal from Emergency Manger Orr to settle the swaps debt with Bank America Merrill Lynch and UBS, the judge said, “This bankruptcy is not about who wins in the court of public opinion.” The judge was upset by what he labeled as the efforts to wage an “orchestrated public relations campaign.” He warned, “Negotiating in public is counterproductive.”
Judge Rhodes is wrong. Whatever the outcome of his decisions, the people of Detroit and the State of Michigan face critical questions about our future. There is life after bankruptcy. This process, for all its cumbersome legal constraints, is clarifying the values and interests at stake. It is revealing deep structural concerns and raising fundamental questions about democracy, fairness, and our obligations to one another. These are public issues. The simple questions, “Who decides? Who benefits? For what purpose?” are the core concerns of public life.
The contrasting values surrounding these issues are evident in the “publics” that are being invoked.
First, there it the public that Emergency Manager Orr engaged. At the end of March, Orr trotted off to Wall Street. He spoke at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
This Institute is a right wing think tank. William Casey founded it in 1978. He later became the director of the CIA under Ronald Reagan. It pushes policies to dismantle public education and social supports. It has long supported the privatization of public services and the elimination of public pension funds.
Most recently it has been associated with the controversial police practice of “stop and frisk.” Its scholars typically write about the “pathological urban culture” and the undo influence of the “civil rights industry” on public policy.
In reporting on the meeting, CBS news said, “The Manhattan Institute’s interest in Detroit is based on whether the cities ongoing bankruptcy can be a model for communities in crisis.”
Moody’s Investors Service acknowledged Orr’s commitment to the fortunes of Wall Street. Moody’s declared “signs of progress” after the announcement of the $85 million deal on the SWAPS and the agreement to pay 74 percent to the unlimited tax bondholders (UTGO), on a claim of $388 million. This is “essentially elevating their claim to a secured status and reversing the city’s earlier proposal to treat” this claim as unsecured, meaning they would get a 15 percent recovery. Moody’s called this settlement “credit positive.”
In spite of all the Grand Plans and closed-door deals, Wall Street and big banks are coming out just fine. Orr assured the crowd at the Manhattan Institute that he hopes to continue seeking competitive bidding on services everywhere he can. On the question of who benefits, Orr has made his priority clear.
He has also made clear that he does not want to get too close to that “pathological urban culture.” A few days before the hearing last week, Orr called a press conference of sorts. On short notice he offered to give deep background to his new plan. Only no cameras. No recording devices. Notebooks only.
Clearly, he has no serious commitment to explaining or defending his plan in the public sphere. Nor does he intend to be held accountable for what he says.
In contrast to Orr and the Manhattan Institute, Detroit Police and firefighter unions held a demonstration in front of the Spirit of Detroit statue. It got little coverage. The unions, on behalf of the pensioners, gathered where Detroiters have for years come to call attention to injustice. They marched, chanted and shared stories of the pain that will be felt by families across the city. They insisted that those whose lives will be most affected by these decision should be heard.
The interests of the public go far beyond the walls of a small courtroom.