Destroying Detroit In Order To “Save” It

“We use data, analysis, advocacy and community organizing to protect and increase participation in the democratic process and to demand that state and local decision makers consider race and economic justice in their planning, funding and policymaking decisions.”
The Detroit Peoples Platform

“Upon appointment, an emergency manager shall act for and in the place and stead of the governing body and the office of chief administrative officer of the local government. … An emergency manager shall issue to the appropriate local elected and appointed officials and employees, agents, and contractors of the local government the orders the emergency manager considers necessary to accomplish the purposes of this act… If an order of the emergency manager is not carried out and the failure to carry out an order is disrupting the emergency manager’s ability to manage the local government, the emergency manager, in addition to other remedies provided in this act, may prohibit the local elected or appointed official or employee, agent, or contractor of the local government from access to the local government’s office facilities, electronic mail, and internal information systems. … Except as otherwise provided in this act, during the pendency of the receivership, the authority of the chief administrative officer and governing body to exercise power for and on behalf of the local government under law, charter, and ordinance shall be suspended and vested in the emergency manager.”
– Michigan’s “Local Financial Stability and Choice (Emergency Manager Fascist) (EMF) Act” MCL 141.151 et seq

“WTF? What ‘democratic’ process?” – Mulenga Harangua, noted fictional Detroit Everyman1

What’s that Sound?

What is the role of traditional democratic activities such as advocacy and community organizing in a ‘state of exception’ from the ordinarily applicable constitutional rule of law? What do People’s fundamental human rights even mean, in the context of Michigan-style “emergency management,” which is really only an extreme example of the 21st century total integration of the State’s governing powers and capital’s profit-maximizing imperative?

Like two ships passing in the night, Detroiters today exist in terms of virtually complete, exclusive political and legal realities; one model – the traditional constitutionally established democracy – was taught in school and still claims the loyalty of some. The propaganda service of corporate media and schooling touts its myths and ‘reforms.’ A new reality taught by the exigencies of ‘emergency’ management and neoliberal restructuring obtains in the streets, suites, courts and other transforming corporate spaces of the Mitten [Police] State. The whole point of the EMF statute is the negation of accountability, transparency and democracy itself, in favor of corporate restructuring of our society. EMFing our communities and our world.

The ‘emergency’ occupation of Detroit by leading EMFs Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Treasurer Andy Dillon, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and his giant global corporate law firm Jones Day, has a legion of multimillion dollar contract consultants to support their counterrevolution of asset-grabs and opportunities for pillage and profit. It is an entirely new and unprecedented form of antidemocratic local government directly controlled by the corporate agents of “the 1%.” Enabled by metro Detroit and Michigan’s brutal racial divides, as well as the accelerating class war of our Wall Street Too-Big-To-Fail era, the corporate EMFs are accountable to no one other than themselves (they make the law). They worship the dogma of austerity: all things for the rich. The poor can “Fuck Off and Die.”

Alternative Possibilities

Detroit’s organized progressive community quaintly calls for “increased participation in the democratic process,” and for racial and social justice. The EMFs use corporate slick-talk propaganda wielded by their control of mass media, across-the-board privatization of governance and community, the evisceration of any meaningful democratic processes and spaces, and the general domination of society and consciousness by neoliberal all-for-the-rich policies, to double down on fossil foolish, debt-leveraged structural adjustment imperialist economics. The chickens of suburban Detroit’s white ‘Reagan Democrats’ have truly come home to roost – transformed into gigantic Jones Day-represented multinational vultures tearing into the corpse of Detroit – formerly the arsenal of 20th century democracy and anti-fascism.

So what does a grassroots democratic ‘peoples platform’ mean in the context of ‘emergency manager’ fascism on the strait at the heart of the Great Lakes? It entails a redefinition of the basic nature of liberation and revolutionary politics – the only kind of meaningful politics left – in a corporate police state context. Detroit’s working poor, 90% People of Color, live a daily reality of structural economic violence threatening access to land, housing, water, food, justice, citizenship and human rights. The modern industrial fossil-fueled society, of which golden era Detroit was the engine, is collapsing around us in greed, fraud, ecological abuse and the human misery of its mind-boggling economic inequality. The twittering discourse of ‘blight,’ ‘ruin porn,’ ‘entrepreneurial revival’ and even ‘diversity’ is rendered tiresome bullshit.

One of Detroit’s most revered and insightful thinkers and elders, 97-year old Grace Lee Boggs, has reminded us about the tight causal economic connections between such social trends and underlying political attitudes:

“We have to probe more deeply, to understand the link between our passion for economic growth and slavery. We talk about enslaving people as if it were only a matter of racism. It was not just racism. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this country’s rapid economic growth depended on having many more people doing the work. That’s why we enslaved Blacks. And it depended on getting more land. That’s why we exterminated so many Native Americans. That fundamental contradiction – of dehumanizing ourselves while degrading others, for the sake of rapid economic growth – was built into the founding of this country.”

In case the relevance of the above thoughts to Detroit’s EMFs today isn’t immediately and blindingly obvious, let me spell it out; the ‘emergency’ isn’t just about municipal budgets, long-term government debts, or ‘turning blight into beauty’ thru ‘philanthropic generosity’ of the white rich. It’s about conflicts between classes of people – racially as well as economically divided and stratified according to opportunities, burdens and access to resources and recognized forms of power and authority. Some on top are spinning and winning their system’s twisted values and opportunities. A huge bunch on the bottom are struggling to make our lives and our love for the People of this community work for all of us. It’s not about what we say. It’s about what we do and why, and the social consequences. EMFs don’t support communities; they exploit them, accompanied by sweet-sounding lies about ‘progress’ and ‘partnership’ with a criminal enterprise State.

I’ve previously referred to it in terms of the parable of the scorpion and the frog.3 In this literally deadly zero-sum conflict structured by Jones Day and their clients’ white supremacist corporate patriarchal political forces lurking behind Governor Snyder’s incessant, bland lies, lots of people will get hurt and there will be immense opportunity for profit from the corporate scorpions’ ‘shock doctrine,’ providing lucrative ‘solutions’ for situations of unimaginable social pain. The false reality of the EMFs’ corporate scams is stealing the ground from under our feet and stabbing us in the back. Where can we look for the vocabulary and ideas as reference points to deal with this ongoing struggle?

One place is the work of Marxist geographer David Harvey, who briefly summarizes the discomforts and dislocations Detroiters have unfortunately learned to take for granted as part of daily life, and ties them to the difficult challenges of a profound revolutionary politics:

“Revolutionary transformations cannot be accomplished without at the very minimum changing our ideas, abandoning cherished beliefs and prejudices, giving up various daily comforts and rights, submitting to some new daily life regimen, changing our social and political roles, reassigning our rights, duties, and responsibilities, and altering our behaviors to better conform to collective needs and a common will.  The world around us — our geographies — must be radically re-shaped as must our social relations, the relation to nature, and all of the other moments in the co-revolutionary process.  It is understandable, to some degree, that many prefer a politics of denial to a politics of active confrontation with all of this.”

Or perhaps our revolutionary duty and our liberation is not really all that complicated. Maybe in practical terms it’s as simple as doing what’s morally right, even if it conflicts with the self-interests of one’s clients & corporate cronies. What a concept! I’m sure Jones Day has done extensive research to establish its impractibility, and indeed that it would violate the ‘law’ of their new normal state of permanent exception.

Failure to Communicate

This is one of the many things Kevyn Orr, his Jones Day partners, and their patrons in the Snyder administration don’t get about Detroit; we live with hardship, but our city changes history anyway – in World War II, in the effective interracial organizing of the UAW/CIO during the 20th century’s great depression, and in the Motown, hard bop and techno sounds that move people who aren’t into long essays like this. This is most definitely, absolutely and certainly another one of those times of Global Capitalist Crisis and Transformation. Take it to the bank or the casino of your choice. It amounts to the same thing. Detroit is American World lingo for ‘Deal With It.’

Take over Detroit? Good luck with that, Slick Rick. The Governor is already scrambling to contain a fast-spreading scandal engulfing his hand-picked EMF for the Detroit Public Schools, former GM executive Roy Roberts, like Kevyn Orr a figure of enhanced racial standing by virtue of his personal embrace of neoliberal business models, who just bowed out in the midst of financial scandal. A question of the moment is whether Snyder’s second designated Black Man with Business Sense – Kevyn Orr – has sense enuff to see he is being used in preparation for being thrown away like Roberts. As always, time will tell. We live here so we’ll be around to tell the story.

When the story is told, Rick Snyder, Roy Roberts, Kevyn Orr and all the EMFs they rode in will be all-but-forgotten footnotes. Robert Koehler widens the frame of Detroit’s (and the planet’s) real emergency – a crisis for which Snyder’s EMFs have no answers at all:

“We’re at the far edge of the industrial age: the age of fossil fuels. How do we proceed beyond it?  A sense of alienation permeates modern society and drives its markets. It spawns a value system that permits pollution and war in service to these markets, and feeds the hatred and mistrust that fragment the planet. There is another form of alienation that permeates society, as we devolve ever more deeply into spectators of life. This is alienation from our own power.”

The EMFs’ ‘answer’ to our contemporary crisis of economy, ecology and social justice is merely more of the same neoliberal plutocracy, which I’ve previously analyzed as, in Detroit, a new peak in the whitewashed abuse of official power.4 Even more recently, the indefatigable Wall Street watchdog Matt Taibbi has reported in Rolling Stone that the political economy of ‘emergency’ management, based on phony ‘interest rate swaps’ like those orchestrated by Jones Day’s clients Bank of America and Merrill Lynch, for which Detroit is now paying thru the proverbial nose, means “Everything Is Rigged.”

Whether or not these systemic abuses can give rise to a new local politics of transformational organizing and a truly just, alternative vision of ‘development’ beyond corporate profiteering and white male supremacy is one of those future contingencies that can never be known beforehand. But I’ll tell you what; it’s one helluva lot more likely than continuing on the way we’re going and expecting anything better in the face of mega-bankster frauds, climate chaos and the kind of pure crap that passes for rhetoric when it comes out of Slick Rick Snyder’s mouth.

Embracing Uncertainty

I don’t pretend to know how the EMFization of democracy in Detroit will turn out, much less whether it will be a successful model for future corporate power grabs in other communities. I don’t pretend that there is a massive, effective uprising on the immediate future horizon that will send Snyder, Orr and their cronies packing in disgrace (tho one can’t completely rule out the possibility in the interconnected world made by the aftermath of the Arab awakenings, Europe’s Indignados, Occupy Wall Street/Together and Idle No More). I don’t have any magical anti-neoliberal oppression incantations or silver bullets that can kill “relentless positive action” lies of Michigan’s sleazy, two-faced Governor. I can hope for, but not guarantee, the continued rise of grassroots, multiracial alter-globalization, counter-capitalist and social justice powers in all their myriad dimensions. I can relate to John Trudell’s truthful and hard-won insights about justice, action, power and oppression:

“When I go around in America and I see the bulk of the white people, they do not feel oppressed; they feel powerless. When I go amongst my people, we do not feel powerless; we feel oppressed. We do not want to make the trade…we must be willing in our lifetime to deal with reality. It’s not revolution; it’s liberation. We want to be free of a value system that’s being imposed upon us. We do not want to participate in that value system. We don’t want change in the value system. We want to remove it from our lives forever…We have to assume our responsibilities as power, as individuals, as spirit, as people… We are the people. We have the potential for power. We must not fool ourselves. We must not mislead ourselves. It takes more than good intentions. It takes commitment. It takes recognizing that at some point in our lives we are going to have to decide that we have a way of life that we follow, and we are going to have to live that way of life…That is the only solution there is for us.”

All power to the Peoples Platform. Run Snyder’s crazy baldhead evil mother fucking fork-tongued pirates outta town. U feel me, Mulenga?

Tom Stephens is a people’s lawyer in Detroit. He can be reached at

Tom Stephens is a volunteer educator for the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement (DIFSM) and a Peoples lawyer in Detroit.