It's been an unusual year for Detroiters. Things were bad in many ways, in novel and historic ways. It may have been a banner year for just how bad things can get.
Detroit started the year under a cloud — well at least under emergency manager Kevyn Orr. We were also in the midst of the largest municipal bankruptcy ever. We inaugurated a new mayor and city council members who were mayor and city council in name only — as Orr was still very much in charge of things.
Mayor Mike Duggan is the first white mayor we've seen around these parts since Roman Gribbs back in 1974. It really doesn't matter that he's white, although it's worth noting for the same reason one notes that Barack Obama is the first black president — it's unusual.
The amount of snow we got last winter was unusual too. It was the snowiest winter on record, blanketing us with 94.8 inches of the white stuff. It was good for the water levels of the Great Lakes, but it was tough digging out from under it. The polar vortex (that's a new phrase I learned this year) brought us some of the coldest weather we've seen in decades.
Then, just as we were easing out of the winter, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department began the unusual process of shutting off residential service to some 1,500 homes each week of those it claimed were at least two months or $150 behind in payments. Maybe they thought we all had vats of snow stashed out back to melt as the weather warmed.
At the same time they were cutting off water to the homes of poor people they looked the other way at the tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands, owed by entities such as Wayne State University, the Detroit Lions, the Detroit Athletic Club, and a golf course management company until activists raised a stink about the double standard.
It was actually heartwarming to see how Detroiters came together to fight the shutoffs and aid those who were without water. Water Brigade helped those who were left dry. Demonstrations led to a couple of moratoriums on shutoffs, and lo and behold, the water department realized there were a few million available to aid those who couldn't pay.
The water shutoffs also led to the unusual occasion of having the United Nations (U.N.) label them as human rights violations. The U.N. also sent human rights envoys here to observe the impact of the shutoffs. After it was done the envoys reprimanded the city leaders. "It is contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills," said Catarina de Albuquerque, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation in a press release at the end of the envoys' two-day visit to the city. City leaders kind of shrugged their shoulders and kept on doing what they were doing, which was shutting off water to nearly 30,000 residents in the course of the year. The majority of those who had their water shut off shuffled on down to the pay stations and put deposits on their debt — finding some way to rob Peter to pay Paul in the city with the nation's highest unemployment and poverty rates.
We ended up with a new regional water authority behind that, which is where we've been headed for years. At least we avoided the privatization it looked like Orr was trying to pull off.
Then the bankruptcy was granted by Judge Steven Rhodes. Other than the fact that it was shoved down our throats by the state, which helped cause it in the first place. Retirees got screwed by giving up pension money, cost of living increases, and picking up more health care costs. It just wasn't as bad as first suggested by Orr. However, bad is relative when you are a senior citizen trying to buy your meds.
Along the way, the state took over Belle Isle and started arresting brothers left and right. The state cops didn't have to come in swinging like they did, but that's pretty much the way they do it these days when it comes to brothers. Lately when the state comes calling there is nothing subtle about it.
And the Detroit Institute of Arts' collection was turned over to a private trust. I'm guessing that Diego Rivera, who created the murals in the Rivera Court, has rolled over in his grave a few times. In the long run, the most revolting thing about the bankruptcy, other than the cuts to retirees, is that the state Financial Advisory Board will still look over our shoulders for the next 13 years. Hope they do better than the state financial oversight board that was set up before Orr (remember that?) that was set up in 2012 to grease the skids for Orr to show up.
We put a big cap on all this by giving Mike Ilitch and his organization 45 blocks to create a new hockey arena and entertainment district. What can I say? It was a very good year for those who were already rich.
On the national front it was still open season on brothers, especially from the police. The shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, led to massive protests and no charges against Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot him. Then the police used an illegal chokehold in killing Eric Garner in New York, leading to massive protests and no charges against the police officer who did it. Then police shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. The kid was armed with a toy gun that police couldn't tell from the real thing. It took police two seconds after they arrived to decide that the kid with a toy gun was dangerous and take him down.
All of this, locally and nationally, is under the cover of a rising Republican tide, in the state legislature, where they expanded their majority, and in the national Congress, where they have taken over both houses. It's going to be rough.
But there's hope. There's always hope. Apparently people aren't going to take things sitting down. In Detroit people fought back against the bankruptcy and didn't just take what was handed out. They fought back against the water shutoffs and made a difference. And they're fighting back against police overreach in the deaths of Brown, Garner, Rice, and others.
Maybe things weren't so unusual in 2014. The money and power people make their move and the progressive forces fight back. Here's to plenty of fighting back in the coming year. It looks like we're going to need it.