Assault on democracy

Why aren't more protesting the shenanigans holding up a referendum on the emergency manager law?

When it comes to Michigan's emergency manager law and the effort to repeal it, we here at the Hits are a little bit mystified.

For the second week in a row, we walked away puzzled after spending some time over at the Court of Appeals, where activists, seeking to have voters decide the fate of what detractors call the "emergency dictator" law, staged another protest. 

This time they attempted to up the ante by trying to get arrested.

That's not mystifying. The union members, civil rights activists, clergy and others — including some from the Occupy movement — know that it is important to put public pressure on the courts to do the right thing. In this case, that means placing this referendum on the ballot so that voters can have the final say on a controversial law that strips locally elected officials of their power and places it in the hands of an appointed manager who has the authority to void contracts and sell off public assets.

Members of the Stand Up for Democracy Coalition had collected far more than the roughly 160,000 signatures needed to get their attempted repeal of the EM law on the ballot. But then the group Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, headed by a former Michigan Chamber of Commerce honcho, challenged the validity of the decision. The group claimed, among other things, that the font used in the petition's heading wasn't the required 14-point size.

When the Board of Canvassers split 2-2 along party lines, the measure was blocked from going on the ballot. Stand Up for Democracy appealed. A three-member panel on the Court of Appeals ruled that the petitions were "in substantial compliance with the law," and therefore, according to well-established precedent, should be placed on the ballot.

However, even though Appellate Court Judge Kurtis Wilder had helped uphold and strengthen that precedent in a previous ruling in another case, he and the other two judges hearing the emergency manager case said they disagreed with the precedent. They then asked all 28 judges on the COA if they thought the question of overturning that precedent should be given a closer look.

The answer came back "no," and so the Board of Canvassers was ordered to place the measure on the ballot. But the board appeared to lack a sense of urgency, so supporters of the measure went back to the COA and requested that it order the board to act immediately. The group asked the COA to act within seven days.

That was two weeks ago.

So a handful of the roughly 100 protesters, pulling a page from the civil rights movement's playbook, decided that a little civil disobedience was needed to show everyone just how serious they are about the importance of this issue.

First they sat in a circle in front of the main entrance inside the Court of Appeals building on West Grand Boulevard, singing spirituals and blocking the corridor. Police officers stood around, arms folded, watching.

Others in the group marched around the lobby. 

When state Attorney General Bill Schuette showed up to hold a press conference on the 10th floor, to announce his reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to uphold the legality of President Obama's Affordable Health Care Act, the protesters were blocked from going up when building security shut down most of the elevators and blocked protester access to those that remained operating.

Schuette had good reason to try to avoid this crowd. After all, he's filed an amicus brief siding with the conservative group Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, which is challenging the validity of petitions based on the font size used.

Part of the oddity of all this is that Schuette, while serving on the Court of Appeals, also ruled in favor of the "substantial compliance" standard in another case. 

So much for consistency — or integrity. Here we have two Republicans — Wilder and Schuette — reversing positions they've previously held because this state's right-wing power structure wants to keep the emergency manager law in place.

Talk about a lack of integrity. The stench of hypocrisy is overwhelming.

As Schuette's press conference was getting under way, a small group of protesters tried again to get themselves arrested, this time standing in one of the lifts, going nowhere. And again, the cops left them alone.

Although unusual, the lack of arrests wasn't completely bewildering. The protesters weren't causing any damage, and, although they were slowing things down, they weren't disruptive enough to cause a shutdown of the building.

Expect them to be back again, because, on Friday, the Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility asked the Michigan Supreme Court to take a look at the case.

Which means more of a delay. 

The Stand Up for Democracy folks submitted nearly 226,000 signatures they'd collected to the state back in April. Here it is July, and the measure still hasn't been placed on the ballot.

That's significant because, at the moment that does happen, the emergency manager law is suspended until voters have their say on Nov. 6.

All this delay over a dispute about whether a petition's font size is off by 1/36th of an inch.

But we all know this isn't really about fonts. It is about power. This state's conservative forces will do just about anything they can to keep the emergency manager law in place. 

It doesn't matter that more than enough valid signatures have been collected, or that the controversial law should have been suspended well before this point. What matters is control, democracy be damned.

Why doesn't this outrage more people?

That's the mystifying part.

Whether you agree with the emergency manager law isn't the issue at this point. What matters now is the democratic process, and the ability of a group of citizens to get a referendum on the ballot.

When the powers that be work to keep the citizenry from exercising constitutionally protected rights, we should all be up in arms.

During last week's protest, Melvin "Butch" Hollowell, attorney for the Detroit branch of the NAACP, connected some dots, pointing out how the fight to put the emergency manager referendum on the ballot is linked to voter suppression efforts under way in the state (see more about that issue in this week's cover stories, beginning on Page 16)

Just as the right-wingers are trying to keep the referendum off the ballot, they are also attempting to keep people away from the polls. Young people, seniors, minorities — all groups that tend to lean Democratic — will be disproportionately affected by the proposed changes in election law, including stepped-up photo ID requirements that have the potential to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters.

Take a step back and look at what's going on.

First there is a law that takes away the authority of duly elected officials and places extraordinary power in the hands of emergency managers who are completely unaccountable to the people who their decisions directly affect. 

When a group of citizens attempts to overturn that law, using the tools granted them by the state Constitution, they are stymied by a well-funded opposition and shameless partisan politics. While that's going on, those same right-wing forces are doing their best to keep people who don't agree with them away from the polls.

We hear a lot, especially around this Fourth of July holiday, about how special American democracy is.

What we find bewildering is that, when that democracy is under direct assault, only 100 people bother to show up and protest.

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