Giving the EM a fist? Or just the finger?

Emergency Manager Backlash

click to enlarge Protesters send a message Monday to Detroit’s new boss.
Protesters send a message Monday to Detroit’s new boss.

How big will the backlash grow to be, and will it be enough to make any difference?

That is the question we were preoccupied with on Monday as attorney Kevyn Orr assumed control of the city of Detroit. An unelected emergency financial manager — who becomes, through the magic of lame-duck legislation, an emergency manager on March 28 — Orr’s move into City Hall is by all measures a historic event.

For many residents on both sides of Eight Mile Road, it marks the moment that Detroit’s hoped-for turnaround begins. Unshackled from the bonds of politics as usual, beholden to no special interest group, focused on balancing the city’s books — Orr is poised to go for the gold in what he has described as the Olympics of restructuring.

That, anyway, is the conventional thinking.

It is the opinion held by both the editorial boards and leading columnists at Detroit’s two daily newspapers. It’s also the opinion of city leaders like Sheila Cockrel, who served on the City Council long before taking a job at Wayne State University and becoming president of a consulting firm.

“The right to vote is basic,” wrote Cockrel in a recent op-ed piece for the Freep. “But so is the right to live in peace, without fear, and without constant risk of violence. It is time for change. It is time to put democracy back together for Detroiters by first ensuring that our city can meet the threshold standard established in the Declaration of Independence…”

Cockrel’s point, we believe, is that some things are more important than the right to vote. Having streetlights that work and police who come when called is an even more fundamental right, and the need to make those things happen trumps any philosophical or emotional attachment citizens may have to actually voting. (Just ask the people of Highland Park how well emergency management worked in terms of their streetlight situation.)

What we have seen in the past year is really a “by any means necessary” approach employed by Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled Legislature to gain control of Detroit.

As the city enters this new phase, it is worth providing a quick recap of how it got to this point.

It began with the passage of an emergency manager law in 2011. A previous law, known as PA 72, had been on the books since 1990, but Snyder argued that the scope of that law, as it was written, was too limited in its ability to accomplish what needed to be done. So, Snyder signed a new law in which an emergency manager was granted broad new powers that essentially permitted the assumption of control over municipalities and school districts facing “financial emergencies.”

With the threat of an emergency manager appointment dangling like a sword of Damocles above their heads, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and a majority of the City Council signed off on a “consent agreement,” ushering in several new layers of outside oversight to the city and its financial operations.

In a reaction to all this, a coalition that included organized labor, civil rights and faith-based groups mounted a campaign to overturn that new law, known as PA 4.

First, they successfully collected enough signatures to place a voter referendum on the ballot. The people of Michigan would be the ones to decide: Do we want unelected appointees with vast powers calling the shots for our cities and our schools, or do we not?

But it wasn’t that easy. Republicans on the state Board of Canvassers effectively delayed that measure from being placed on the ballot, using as an excuse the arguably trumped-up claim that headings on the circulated petitions weren’t the proper sized typeface.

So, instead of having the measure immediately placed on the ballot, supporters of the referendum had to delay their campaign, spending precious time and money fighting in court to get the referendum in front of voters.

They eventually succeeded, but not before having to go all the way to the state Supreme Court.

In November 2012, PA 4 was repealed by 52 percent of the voters.

A month later, during a lame-duck session of the Legislature, a new emergency manager law was passed. That law, PA 436, offers cities and school districts determined to be in a financial emergency four options to deal with the crisis: enter into a consent agreement with the state, go to mediation to work out a plan, accept appointment of an emergency manager, or, with the governor’s approval, file for bankruptcy.

The problem for Detroit (and other entities under the rule of an emergency financial manager on March 27) is they won’t be afforded the opportunity of choosing any of the options provided by the new law. Instead, the transition language on the new law says that if an emergency financial manager is already in place, then that person automatically becomes an emergency manager on March 28.

In addition to passing a new law that was only marginally different than the one voters just repealed, the Legislature and Gov. Snyder made PA 436 “referendum-proof” by linking it to appropriations.

In other words, having heard from voters that they didn’t want emergency managers, the state’s leaders formed a new version of the law that had just been rejected, but did it in a way that prevents any future attempts by voters to reject it again.

And what about that consent agreement — which was supposed to have taken five years to achieve the desired results? That was deemed a failure by the state — after having pushed for it and then labeling it a failure after less than a year in place.

Is this what democracy should look like?

Speaking of democracy and how it should look, News Hits ventured to the Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit on Saturday to attend an organizing meeting held by the Detroit chapter of the National Action Network, a group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

About an hour into the meeting, which had several hundred people in attendance, the news media were told they had to leave. The reason given was that organizers of the event were going to begin discussing the “nuts and bolts” of resistance tactics, and they didn’t want those tactics to be revealed in the media.

We got up and left with a few of the other reporters but, after standing in the lobby for a few minutes, decided to go back in. This was, after all, a meeting the general public had been encouraged to attend. People inside were using their smart phones to record what was going on. Giving the boot to reporters made no sense whatsoever.

So we took a seat up front, but it didn’t take long before the Rev. Charles Williams II, the church’s pastor and president of the local National Action Network (NAN) affiliate, stopped proceedings and again said all media had to leave.

We stood up in protest, saying this was a meeting the general public was invited to attend, at that we had a right to be there, but the crowd shouted us down. Then Sam Riddle, who had been given a seat with the other leaders around the pulpit at the front of the cavernous church, came down to ease us out.

It was the first time we’ve seen Riddle since his release from federal prison, where he served time for committing bribery while working with former Detroit Councilmember Monica Conyers; the wife of U.S Rep John Conyers, she spent some time of her own behind bars for corruption.

So there was Sam, understandably looking a little haggard after having spent many months in the pen, trying to escort one of the News Hits crew from a meeting being held to protest a law critics say is anti-democratic.

Here’s a news flash, NAN: The media plays a critical role in ensuring democracy functions as intended, and trying to exclude us from covering meetings that the general public is invited to is both hypocritical and downright dumb. It does nothing to keep efforts secret; it took about five minutes for us to find out what was discussed after we got the boot. And what good does it do to remove TV cameras and radio microphones when there’s an audience filled with people holding up their smart phones, capturing everything that happens?

Aside from the fact that getting kicked out of a church by convicted felon Sam Riddle will be forever a career highlight for us here at the Hits, the whole encounter helped to crystallize our thoughts about what’s been going on these past few days.

It started with a news conference held last week to announce that there would be an attempt to create a movement of mass resistance to the emergency manager being imposed on Detroit.

That press conference featured, among others, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. Conyersand Detroit Councilmember JoAnn Watson.

As with the Saturday meeting, the focus was placed on African-Americans, and how they fought long and hard for the right to vote, and that this is a civil rights fight on a par with the one waged in the streets of Birmingham and Selma during the 1960s.

We here at News Hits won’t dispute that point. But we also think that this is a bigger issue than that.

At a rally held in front of the Spirit of Detroit statue on Monday — held in a snowstorm, with only about 100 protesters in attendance — attorney Jerry Goldberg drew attention to thousands of documents his group, Moratorium Now!, had obtained by filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the city. The documents detail credit swap transactions with bondholders — deals Goldberg said have cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessarily high interest rates, and could cost hundreds of millions more if so-called “termination” payments are called in.

Here’s the thing that we think is important: This isn’t just a question of black people being denied the vote. It is also about the imposition of the economics of austerity on a city that has suffered tremendous hardship at the hands of the big banks and Wall Street, both in terms of the predatory lending schemes that led to a devastating foreclosure crisis in Detroit, and in terms of equally predatory schemes used to jack up the rates on bond payments.

The emergency manager law helps protect those interests while allowing for legally negotiated contracts with unions to be torn up, and public assets to be sold off. It is about letting the corporate right have its way with us.

In a letter to The Detroit News (a copy of which was sent to Metro Times), attorney Tom Stephens, who works for the City Council’s legal department and has long been active in progressive causes, described what’s going on this way:

“This is a corporate power and money grab of historic dimensions, ably assisted by corporate media’s refusal to print or broadcast the truth.”

Stephens, it’s worth pointing out, was also part of a successful effort to have the Department of Education open an investigation into allegations that the state of Michigan “discriminated against black and Hispanic students and parents in the Detroit Public School District … based on race and national origin by appointing emergency managers to the District but not appointing emergency managers to similarly situated predominantly white suburban school districts.”

As with a federal lawsuit that will challenge the constitutionality of the emergency manager law (a lawsuit expected to be filed this week), the request for a federal investigation into the situation at Detroit Public Schools is an attempt to enlist the federal government and courts in this fight.

But successful social movements are first won in the streets, by building widespread public pressure. History teaches us that. And there is no shortage of others who have an interest in this fight.

One obvious party is organized labor. AFSCME already has a place at the podium, but they are in need of a show of solidarity from all their fellow unionists.

There are also the various aspects of the Occupy movement, the core of which remains active, and is in touch with a reservoir of youth, energy and creativity. There are students who only want a good public education at schools that are safe. There are environmentalists worried about the privatization of public water systems, and activists who want the big banks and Wall Street to pay for the devastation they have wrought.  It is a movement for anyone who believes that democracy needs to be defended, public assets protected, and austerity economics resisted.

During the part of Saturday’s meeting we were allowed to observe, the Rev. D. Alexander Bullock, a first-rate orator, told the story of a young man who wanted to become a karate champion, but lacked a left arm. But he didn’t let that disability deter him, and found an instructor who said he could help the young man achieve his goal if “… he was disciplined, remained focused, and mastered just one move.”

In the end, the championship was won, and it was revealed that the one crucial move that needed to be mastered was one that could only be countered by an opponent’s grabbing the left hand of the person using it.

The point, we gathered, was that a seeming liability could be turned into an asset.

That might be true. But even a one-handed person needs to be able to form a fist if they are going to have any real chance in a fight. And for all the attempts to recast this struggle in the shadow of Selma, it is difficult to imagine it succeeding if more fingers don’t come together.

And at this moment, Detroit seems as good a place as any in America for all this to happen.

But one thing is for sure: Having 100 people listen to preachers shout into a bullhorn in front of the Spirit of Detroit isn’t going to stop anything.


News Hits is written by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]

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