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Detroit's Emergency Manager Ruling a Threat to Democracy?

Phoro: Occupy Detroit banner hanging

With its declining population, high crime and collapsed economy, the once great city of Detroit has no choice but to seek a dramatic solution to its fiscal woes, but the emergency manager plan announced last week by Michigan governor Rick Snyder could do more harm than good.

That plan is for a state board to appoint an unelected official of its choice to manage the city's financials. Under the recently-enacted PA 436 law, this person would have far reaching powers to renegotiate union contracts, sell off (i.e. privatize) municipal assets, and even eliminate whole city departments. If that sounds a little like a dictatorship, it very well may be. The Shock Doctrine strikes again.

The emergency manager law itself is rife with controversy. The original law was replaced in 2011 by PA 4, which strengthens the powers emergency financial managers have over struggling municipalities and school districts. But grassroots organizers and unions objected to the broad powers PA 4 would give one individual. With their leadership (and an inspiring show of people power) the law was decisively struck down by voters in a referendum last November. Undeterred, the governor and his Republican-majority Legislature swiftly slid through a very similar law, PA 436, during the lame duck congress. To many it was an affront to democracy, and a rejection of the will of the people of Michigan. As reported by the New York Times:

“For one individual to be able to wipe out the duties of our duly-elected officials, that’s more or less a dictatorship, and it’s against everything that America is supposed to be about,” said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, the president of the local N.A.A.C.P. “If you come into Detroit,” Mr. Anthony said, “you own Detroit. You own education. You own police and fire.”

Equally troubling is the fact that if this law is indeed implemented, fully half of Michigan's African-American population will have no elected government. That's 686,945 people. The law itself might not be racist, but the result will further disenfranchise a population that has been disproportionately affected by housing, educational and economic troubles since the last recession. (Watch the moving documentary Detropia for a nuanced look at the city's decline.)

But the people of Detroit are mobilizing to fight the appointment, with several groups building a case against the takeover.

"We believe it's unconstitutional," said the Rev. Charles Williams II, president of the Detroit chapter of the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, which joined with the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and the Detroit Branch NAACP in a news conference Monday to call for opposition to the emergency financial manager appointment in Detroit.

"It's obvious to me that this is an attack on voter rights," Williams said. "It will cause voter apathy, voter suppression. We feel we need to show a mass demonstration of people who feel their rights are being violated."

These organizations are also drafting a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's office requesting a federal investigation into whether Snyder's actions and Michigan's emergency manager law violate U.S. law on voting rights and civil rights.

The Detroit City Council still has until next week to appeal the ruling.

As bad as this is for Detroit, the precedent its sets has disturbing implications for other struggling American cities to be taken over by a state more interested in implementing an investment-friendly environment than serving the people. Keep an eye on this one, and take some inspiration from the good work of Occupy Detroit in fighting home foreclosures.

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