Detroit After Bankruptcy

 “For [Nazi legal theorist Carl] Schmitt, every government capable of decisive action must include a dictatorial element within its constitution. Although the German concept of Ausnahmezustand is best translated as “state of emergency”, it literally means state of exception which, according to Schmitt, frees the executive from any legal restraints to its power that would normally apply.”

– Wikipedia [i]

“… Schmitt was a fierce critic of liberal democracy. He argued that liberal democracy was incoherent because of what he called the problem of the exception. In emergency situations, there is not enough time to act democratically. In an emergency, someone would have to declare an exception to suspend the normal democratic process and handle the emergency. … The language of the emergency manager laws is that of exception. Calling the situation an “emergency,” and the undemocratically selected financial manager an “emergency manager” is nothing other than a declaration of the anti-democratic nature of what has occurred.”

–Jason Stanley[ii]

“Now look, I’m a trial attorney. I can cut somebody’s throat and leave them to bleed out in the gutter with the best of them. But I didn’t want to do that. That’s not my role in this job. My role in this job is sort of the Zen of emergency management.”

– Kevyn Orr[iii]

Where We Stand Today

Is political legitimacy required for governance of Detroit, in the aftermath of the Chapter 9 bankruptcy?

As explained by Wikipedia, “Ausnahmezustand” translates as “state of emergency” or “exception”. The German noun “Sinn” (pronounced like the great People’s historian Howard “Zinn”) means “mind” or “sense”. Between the executive’s Zen declaration of the emergency, and the profound confusion and social crisis of authority in the public mind/Sinn, arising out of Detroit’s 21st century travails, what’s the shape of Detroit’s future?

Mercifully departed Detroit emergency manager Orr coined his witty, opaque phrase “the Zen of emergency management” on June 10, 2013, at the single statutorily required public meeting he held under the terms of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s Public Act 436. He almost playfully alluded to the evisceration of democracy in local government, where he acknowledges that more than 650,000 mostly African American working class city residents suffer from poor city services and quality of life. A few weeks later he took Detroit into Chapter 9 bankruptcy, a case for which his law firm Jones Day would be paid more than $53 million over the next year and a half. Nice work if you can get it.

In anticipation of Mayor Mike Duggan’s first post-emergency management State of the City speech on February 10, 2015, what’s the Sinn of Detroit leadership, development and community, in the aftermath of the exception? What is the mind or sense of local government policy in Detroit, as the Plan of Adjustment developed in bankruptcy court rolls into 2015? What would it really mean to “move Detroit forward”?

The Dominant Zen Narrative

In corporate media, in the elite venues of the Chamber of Commerce and for top powers from Detroit to Lansing, there is no doubt. The so-called “grand bargain” that enabled the bankruptcy deal was, in the words of Judge Steven Rhodes, “nearly miraculous”.

In this (loud and insistent) telling, there are invariably a few key “happy talk”[iv] points:

Access to credit: The relief from $7 billion in debt, we are constantly told, gives Detroit a second chance based on access to credit markets at commercially reasonable rates. No attention need be paid to obscene economic inequality, its racial dimensions, or its social consequences. Rather, policy is driven by the same old evil triplets of the (supposedly) “free market”, deregulation and disciplining labor to lower costs in the corporate utopia. It hasn’t delivered for Detroit since the days of Reagan and it won’t now. The conventional wisdom of this tired argument – based on the “structural adjustment” poison forced on the developing world in past decades – obscures any realistic, locally tailored, truly transformative solutions for Detroit’s structural and systemic problems of late capitalism.

Downtown and midtown development: At last, gentrification has arrived. Woo-hoo! 7.2 square miles in the downtown/midtown former Cass Corridor is now so expensive that longtime residents can’t afford to live there. Much of the rest of the city’s 131 square miles of residential neighborhoods looks like it was recently bombed. And these neighborhoods face an imminent tsunami of tens of thousands of threatened tax foreclosures in the next year or two. Even fossil conservative editor of the Detroit News Nolan Finley has admitted in two surprisingly strong editorials that the highly selective downtown recovery has so far really only benefited white People.

Mayor Duggan’s managerial prowess: The bankruptcy court-appointed expert, the Chamber of Commerce, the suburban county executives, the Governor, corporate media and the rest of the white People of southeastern Michigan have pinned their hopes on the white career pol from suburban Livonia, who says “The first rule in any turnaround is we have to face reality as it is, not as we wish it to be.” Previous Mayor/Saviors funded and supported by the very same interests for decades had broader experience (Dennis Archer), more charisma (Kwame Kilpatrick), and much greater physical height (Dave Bing). But they didn’t have enuff of a corporate-donated financial advantage over all their electoral opponents combined to win an unprecedented write-in campaign.

“Moving Detroit forward” rests firmly on a white privilege Zen narrative, where the miracle of the bankruptcy and a picture of Mayor Duggan’s earnest, technocratic visage are supposed to justify and explain everything. This personal political deification recently reached an almost comically absurd peak in a lengthy February 2 profile in Crain’s Detroit Business weekly, previewing his State of the City speech. The piece portrays Duggan in the most glowing terms as a super-competent technocrat, but nevertheless allows that “he doesn’t always appreciate truth-telling.”[v] What could go wrong? Amid the gushing hagiography, Crain’s acknowledges that under the veil of emergency management, the mayor has so far only been “handling trash and goats”; in the long run, Detroit’s latest corporate-created administration “can’t just be a Mercedes body with a Yugo engine.”

The lack of real accomplishments is telling. When a disturbingly large pile of write-in ballots with Duggan’s name on them turned out to have virtually identical handwriting, they were spared any meaningful investigation of possible election fraud. With Orr finally Zen-ed out of town, Duggan now faces a huge challenge: generating a Sinn powerful enuff to pull together the wreckage of emergency management and bankruptcy. Regardless of alleged ballot box stuffing, the reality is that Duggan moved to Detroit from Livonia a year before the election to run for Mayor. He came out of the same notorious Wayne County political machine that produced the Kilpatrick clan, former Governor Jennifer Granholm, and other defective local leaders. And the Chamber of Commerce and its corporate allies (the very same interests cheerleading the bankruptcy beyond rational evaluation or critical perspective), effectively bought the office for him. Therefore, despite his overwhelming corporate support, a dark cloud of illegitimacy in the eyes of many Detroiters hangs over his head.

The pulling together in bankruptcy: It’s a new day in Detroit. In spite of the apartheid downtown development; the continuing gross regional disparities in wealth and power; the broader challenges posed by an obscenely unbalanced economy, ecological and resource constraints; and the totally unresolved crises of poverty, education, housing, health and social welfare in America’s poorest and blackest city, Detroit is framed as a test. The power of positive thinking, philanthropic propaganda and allegedly “colorblind” civic boosters taking “decisive action” will get us thru. It only took 18 months in bankruptcy court!

The possibility that there might be very good reasons for taking sufficient time to actually restructure the relevant obligations, rights, government agencies and public policies with due care and provision for the social consequences, rather than rushing thru a hack job, is beyond thinkable, or at least respectable, opinion in a majority black city that’s been effectively placed under white “savior” governance. It will be interesting to see the shelf life of this Zen-“managed bankruptcy” mega-meme, as we are forced to deal with the long-term economic consequences of the bankruptcy – a $176 million fast track bonanza for corporate contractors.

The Sinn in Detroit’s Streets

From a bottom-up perspective, urgent questions about virtually every element of the dominant narrative’s Panglossian glow besiege our city:

Crisis of legitimacy and the rule of law: Mayor Duggan’s amazing suburban write-in electoral victory, followed by his inheritance of the mantle and polices of the Governor and Emergency Manager – have yielded a de facto interpretation of his powers as an executive freed from any ascertainable legal restraints. Corporate media – who for the last several years never bothered to ask who decides, who benefits, or who pays for Detroit’s unprecedented restructuring (because it’s just a bunch of hopelessly messed-up Black People and who cares?) – continue to see no problem. Indeed, as in Crain’s this week, they have thrown all caution and critical intelligence to the wind. Many of us see no evidence of the clear vision, integrity or adequate program that alone might clothe the new administration with political legitimacy. Altho Crain’s communications gushes “Mike Duggan has the juice”, there’s no evidence that he can – or even wants to – use it in a way that effectively benefits the majority of People of color who are his nominal constituents in the city.

Water and human rights crisis: In a major historic subplot of the bankruptcy, the giant Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), a regional utility owned and run by Detroit that has supplied about 4 million People thruout the region with clean fresh water, and treated our waste water for well over a century, was spun off into a new regional Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA). Thousands of Detroiters – the most vulnerable and impoverished in the community – faced mass water shut offs of 5-600 per day, without regard to their inability to pay accumulated bills amounting to large percentages of their meager incomes, so that the emergency manager could cut loose bad debt in the regional restructuring and privatization of this essential (and, for contractors, extremely lucrative) public infrastructure.

The United Nations special rapporteurs who investigated this scandal marveled that there is no precedent anywhere on earth, for such an advanced water system systematically regressing en masse, by suddenly cutting off service from thousands of families without any meaningful notice or opportunity to contest the assault on their dignity and fundamental human rights.

To add insult to injury, altho GLWA is supposed to pay Detroit $50 million per year for 40 years to lease this critical infrastructure, in January 2015 (as soon as the federal judges who brokered the deal took their boots off the suburban leaders’ necks), suburban county executives started talking about welshing on the deal.[vi] Again, the shelf life of this nascent regional collaboration in 2015 will be interesting.

Education crisis: Snyder admitted the obvious in December 2014: emergency management hasn’t worked in Detroit Public Schools (DPS). DPS is in more trouble than ever after being under state control for 12 of the last 15 years. Then, in January 2015 Snyder appointed another emergency manager to govern DPS.

Another undefined educational “reform” – supposedly having something to do with reorganizing all schools in Detroit under one administrative structure modeled on past-Katrina New Orleans – is rumored for the next few months. It has no more robust educational substance than the totally untested and disastrous “Education Achievement Authority” Snyder foisted on Detroit’s lowest-rated schools early in his first term.

There have been no positive outcomes whatsoever as a result of the imposition of emergency managers on DPS. On the contrary, the Zen policies of exception, implemented by one educational “reform” after another, have undermined the entire public education system in Detroit. Emergency management has led to wide-scale looting of DPS’ financial resources, criminal neglect of the children’s educational needs and overcrowding of classrooms, demoralization of teachers and students, disenfranchisement of the democratically elected school board, and a total destabilization and collapse of the system.  I could continue with this subject at great length, but it’s sickening.[vii]

Foreclosure crisis: Detroit has already been decimated by foreclosures caused by predatory Wall Street mortgages and derivative scams. In the next two years, more than 100,000 Detroiters face tax foreclosures. Mayor Duggan’s land use policy is limited to using the Detroit Land Bank Authority – one of a long list of unaccountable, opaque government “authorities”[viii] – to implement the corporate-designed, anti-neighborhood Detroit Future City plan bought and paid for by the Kresge Foundation.

There is no plan, and no resources, dedicated to keeping our People in their homes, preserving neighborhoods and community quality of life by defending Detroiters from the predatory corporate state. If it weren’t for the effective, heroic grassroots efforts of groups like the United Community Housing Commission and Detroit Eviction Defense,[ix] these folks would be standing alone and helpless against the impending catastrophe of dispossession.

Race and regional inequality: Last but certainly not least, is the essential dynamic underlying Detroit’s rise and fall for more than a century; determining the winners and losers in the morally bankrupt restructuring; and continuing to drive the ubiquitous political economic and cultural siege of this great American post-industrial community. The white suburban privilege and dominance over the urban core city’s identity, resources and opportunities. In this continuing pattern of brutal fiscal austerity and cunning structural, spatial racism,[x] there is opportunity galore for white, regional elites – including Mayor Duggan from Livonia among many others, with stark segregation of life chances and quality – in Detroit’s continued subjection to a de facto state of exception.

The End Doesn’t Justify the Means

So this is where we stand today. The Sinn of Detroit’s intense, all-consuming Ausnahmezustand in the wake of the “Zen of emergency management”.  Our reality exposes all the Chamber of Commerce’s “happy talk” as the bullshit it is.

A community in this shape might be on its way to a brighter future. But only if and when its People fight back against bankrupting corporate forces calling the shots.

The corporate restructurers’ Machiavellian stance is in essence that the ends – an ethnically cleansed, business-friendly new Detroit where the poor, African American majority of the old Detroit are harshly punished for being losers – justify the means; the state of exception, evisceration of democracy and third-world style structural adjustment. Such a racist and oppressive agenda can only be opposed by insurgents restructuring Detroit democratically from the ground up, in the spirit of Black Lives Matter, Occupy, the Indignados and the new government of Greece. In the name of sustainability, equity and shared prosperity. The opposite of the dominant Zen foolishness derived from the theories of fascist legal philosopher Carl Schmitt.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last book in 1967 – the year of the Detroit uprising – was entitled “Which Way from Here: Chaos or Community?” 48 years later Governor Snyder, ex-emergency manager Orr and Mayor Duggan are united in a bizarre, surreal governing Sinn, without a discernible legitimacy other than a flood of corporate cash, where their answer for Detroit is clearly the embrace of “chaos”. Carl Schmitt twisted it for his Nazi buddies into “Ordnung” (order). That legacy of fascism and racial genocide, in the ruins of America’s cold war glory years, seems to be much stronger than anyone wants to acknowledge. In the spirit of facing reality as it is, not as we would wish it to be, consider this quote from Dr. King’s last book in terms of post-bankruptcy Detroit:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity . . . This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos or community.”

Governor Snyder recently voiced his distorted perception of reality in his State of the State address. His speech writers had him refer to the “River of Opportunity”. In our post-industrial community on the Detroit River that grew out of a colonial settler fort, changed the industrial world and became an African American cultural capital, his strange phrase evokes the intellectually bankrupt core of the corporate white restructuring. Here in the middle of the greatest blessing of fresh water on the planet, the whites in charge deny (mostly) black People water – and shelter, education, and dignity – because they’re too poor to pay the whites who control the system for it. And blame the victims for the chaos that inevitably follows.

What Duggan of Livonia distorts as “reality” is accurately described by Malik Yakini of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network:

“Changing a society that is deeply mired in systems of oppression is protracted work. It is not quick or easy. It requires lifetimes of commitment. It requires political education and the study of recent revolutions and resistance movements. It requires discipline, sacrifice and the willingness to put the interests of the group over our individual desires. This critical work is full of both challenges and joys.

Equally important, is the transformative work that we must do on ourselves, our relationships and our communities. Ushering in a new era of self-determination, justice and equality will require us to go beyond changing who controls state power or which economic system we use. It will require us to change ourselves, and how we relate to each other, the earth, and the plants and animals with whom we co-inhabit the planet. The hard, cold reality is that either we make these changes or humanity won’t survive!”[xi]

This will continue to be interesting. Brutal, unjust, crazy, racist, and even ecocidal. But transformative birth of a new, sustainable social order and political Sinn, where Detroit thrives in reality, not just in corporate propaganda, where community transcends the corporate bottom line, and where quality education, water and housing are guaranteed and protected human rights, was never going to be a polite photo op. “Detroit can’t wait”, indeed.

Frank X Murphy is the pen name of a Detroit attorney.







[vi] Oakland County’s Brooks Patterson:

Macomb County’s Mark Hackel:

[vii] ; and



[x] ; For an utterly stunning anecdotal, individual example from just last week, see:



Frank X Murphy is the pen name of a Detroiter seeking emergency anger management resources and opportunities.