An Assault on Local Democracy

A big change came down in Detroit this spring. Under sanction of Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law (Public Act 4), on April 4 the city council authorized a “consent agreement” ceding its authority over the budget to a shadow body of corporate leaders (emergency manager by committee). For some, this bodes fast-track redevelopment and downsizing the city. For others, it means the end of collective bargaining. For Detroiters, it’s the blunt face of political disenfranchisement.

Although Public Act 4 is being challenged for its constitutionality in court and for its political legitimacy in a statewide repeal effort, the assault on local democracy remains in full tilt. Triggered by financial insolvency, governor-appointed emergency managers are empowered from above to remove top administrators and elected officials, void union contracts, cut and remake budgets, overturn local ordinances, and sell off assets. The “consent agreement” keeps the mayor and city council in place, but vastly disempowered.

But, apart from the vacant land so plenteous these days in the city, are there assets in Detroit to be desired and seized? The water works may quickly be sold or controlled by a suburban arrangement. It is one of the few revenue-generating departments in the city, and it is among the key infrastructures of white urban sprawl. Then there is the riverfront itself, and the gem-of-an-island city park, Belle Isle, which casino-owners and developers have eyed lasciviously for years. There are newly built or rehabbed schools sought by for-profit charters. There is the privatization of services or entire city departments. And, of course, the deregulated clearing of the way for projects yet to come.

Only Michigan cities with black majorities have had Public Act 4 imposed upon them. And none of them have seen financial turnaround, but only been left for worse. Already Benton Harbor, Highland Park, Pontiac, Flint, and Ecorse are under emergency managers. Add Detroit and more than half of the African-American population of the state is ruled by non-elected governments.

Other states are waiting to follow. Detroit is the big test to see if it will “work.”

Public schools have been under an emergency manager for three years, which has left them with a larger deficit while building or rehabbing schools that will be turned over to charters, both for-profit and nonprofit. The system has been divided into two districts, one with the better schools, the other a statewide district for failing schools (at this point Detroit is the only system in this district).

For two years, the mayor had already been spearheading a plan to “downsize Detroit,” in accord with the realities of white flight, job flight, tax flight, and capital flight. In general that’s meant, with corporate support, concentrating resources in certain, mostly center city, neighborhoods, and pulling the plug (schools, churches, and services) in others, where homeowners and neighbors are left to fend for themselves.

The role of the philanthropic foundations in this has been mixed at best. Although they are not democratically accountable to the city or its neighborhoods, they exercise substantial planning and development authority. They collaborate with one another and with substantial nonprofits in selecting neighborhoods to be saved—while others are left de facto to their fates.

Where are things headed? One might envision two Detroits: one in the central city and along the waterfront, with a few additional pockets—substantially white and essentially gated. And another of more-desperate outlying black neighborhoods fighting for resources. Not exactly equitable development.

Yet there is indeed much hope from below. And there the future lies. For decades Detroiters have met economic devastation with creativity, turning vacant land into an urban agriculture movement and neighborhoods into peace zones. They have been reinventing work and reimagining economy as community-based and community-building forms.

Now, with local democracy under assault, not only will they need to fight to reclaim their voting rights, but also to reimagine democracy at every level. They will need to create new structures of accountability and new forms of urban rule to build a future for Detroit that is both equitable and free.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a writer and community activist, is pastor of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit.

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