Detroit: Austerity and Politics, Part 2

Against the Current No. 213, July/August 2021

Peter Blackmer

In July 2020 members of the Amalgamated Transit Union joined Detroit fast food workers in a rally outside a McDonald’s restaurant during the nationwide “Strike for Black Lives.” The Service Employees International Union is calling for a $15 wage in the fast food industry. Jim West

“WELCOME TO BELOVED Detroit.” The words rang out across Woodward Avenue, echoing off the brick buildings behind the hundreds of marchers who filled the street where the Algiers Motel once stood.

Monica Lewis-Patrick, co-founder of We the People of Detroit, challenged the crowd to see the connections between the murder of George Floyd, the 1967 executions at the Algiers, and the violence of austerity imposed under emergency management that has shaped Detroit’s political landscape over the last decade.

Lewis-Patrick connected the dots: the defunding of public schools, theft of pensions, illegal foreclosures, and mass water shutoffs are interwoven in the systemic racism the young activists were confronting.

It was June 8, 2020, the eleventh day of Detroit’s mass marches following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In Detroit they had been marked by police riots against protests and age-old claims of “outside agitators” by city officials.

Meanwhile marchers successfully challenged the curfew imposed to suppress the protests. That evening Nakia Wallace and Tristan Taylor, co-founders of the newly-formed Detroit Will Breathe, led protestors on a four-mile march from police headquarters downtown to the North End.

The march led to a small park where, 53 years before, three Black teenagers were executed by police inside the Algiers Motel during the Detroit Rebellion. There, dozens of Movement elders met with a new generation of freedom fighters to pass the torch and ground the emergent movement in the city’s tradition of radical struggle.

This article draws from oral histories with community organizers to offer some observations on how Detroiters have carried forth the city’s Black Radical Tradition to organize against austerity politics and reclaim the city during the era of emergency management and corporate capture.

Shock Doctrine & Fabricated Crisis

The period of emergency management in Detroit was an extension of a new form of colonialism, carried out around the world by the U.S. government and multinational corporations for the past 50 years.

Dubbed “the shock doctrine” by journalist Naomi Klein, the strategy uses authoritarian regimes and neoliberal economic advisors to seize assets, markets, and governments during periods of social crisis.

Whether a coup d’etat, hurricane, act of war or economic collapse, Klein explains, a moment of crisis puts society into a “state of collective shock” that is then exploited for conquest.(1) While people struggle to survive, democracy is suspended and austerity measures imposed as a form of “shock therapy” to shrink the government, dislocate the population, attack organized labor and suppress resistance.

In Detroit, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr used age-old racist narratives to justify the 2013 takeover and privatization of public assets. By blaming “dumb, lazy, happy, and rich” Detroiters for the economic crisis, the self-described “benevolent dictator” depicted a majority-Black city that was incapable of self-governance, in massive debt through its own faults, and in need of saving.

In reality, declining revenue sources were a greater factor than municipal debt. Alongside the devastating impacts of the Great Recession, a major cause of this revenue drought was a massive reduction in state revenue sharing.(2)

In a 2014 report, the Michigan Municipal League found that in the decade leading up to emergency management, state lawmakers withheld $732 million in funds from Detroit.

These declines were compounded by an Executive Order signed by Governor Rick Snyder (R) that cut revenue sharing by 33% percent in 2011 — the same year a new law went into effect that greatly expanded the powers of emergency managers.(3)

As veteran organizer Russ Bellant explained, “If you withhold the money, you help foster the conditions that are a pretext for the takeover.”

Resisting the Shock in Highland Park

The period of emergency management in Highland Park was a harbinger for what followed in Detroit a decade later. In 2001 Governor Jennifer Granholm (D) installed an emergency manager over the small city surrounded by Detroit.

After stripping elected officials of their powers, the emergency manager quickly raised water rates, enforced shutoffs and tied water bills to property taxes, resulting in foreclosures. She privatized the recreation center, sold off public lands, closed the city’s only public library, turned their schools over to charter operators and laid-off most city employees.(4)

These moves to privatize and dismantle public infrastructure, Highland Park organizers General Baker and Marian Kramer explained, turned the city into a “corporate wasteland.” Their determination to stop this theft was influenced by the decades of organizing experience that Baker, Kramer and Maureen Taylor brought to the situation.

Kramer first became active with CORE in the South. After moving to Detroit in the 1960s, she organized tenants and welfare recipients with the West Central Organization and Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO).

General Baker’s theory and praxis was forged during the Black Power and New Communist movements, blending anticolonialism, Marxism, and Black self-determination into a cohesive analysis and organizing strategy. Taylor cut her teeth with Baker and Kramer in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers before emerging as a dynamic welfare rights organizer.

All three understood the necessity of organizing poor and working-class people around their material needs. With a focus on the water crisis and its connection to housing dispossession, they formed the Highland Park Human Rights Coalition (HPHRC).

This period of struggle is detailed in Liz Miller’s documentary “The Water Front,” a vital resource on organizing against emergency management and austerity politics.

“The lesson of Highland Park said we have to alert the frog that if the water is getting warmer, you might need to get out of the pot and do something,” Taylor explained. “The lessons of Highland Park are critical to the survival of working-class people.”

Despite HPHRC’s successes in ousting the first emergency manager and blocking the privatization of the water department, the struggle continued. By 2004, the creation of a water affordability program became a unifying demand in the struggle against shutoffs, displacement, and economic injustice in Highland Park and Detroit.

Three years after a water affordability plan was first introduced and approved (but not implemented) by the Detroit City Council in 2005, the People’s Water Board Coalition (PWB) was formed to expand the fight for safe, affordable water held in the public trust. HPHRC and MWRO organizer Sylvia Orduño has played a vital role in this ongoing struggle.

The Takeover of Detroit

With little relief coming from state and federal governments, however, cities with large populations of Black residents were disproportionately placed under emergency management.

Between 2008-2013, 51% of Michigan’s Black population and 16.6% of its Latino population were under emergency management at some point, compared to only 2.4% of the state’s white population.(5) Many of these cities already had their public schools taken over by the state as well.

Since 1999 various governors and state legislatures, whether Democrat or Republican, have acted to circumvent Detroit’s elected officials, or — when they could — win them to accepting the state takeover of the public schools and the city itself.

Explained as helping city residents, these maneuvers have usurped their funding and resources.

The state took over the Detroit Public Schools on two separate occasions in 1999 and 2009. This resulted in the closure of 195 of the district’s 288 schools (including all but three of the city’s African-centered schools) and enrollment dropping from 168,000 to 47,000. (Many now attend charters or nearby suburban public schools.) The DPS operating budget went from a $93 million surplus to a deficit of $3.5 billion.(6)

The commonly accepted explanation among activists for the first takeover is that the state wanted control of the $1.5 billion bond Detroit voters had passed five years earlier.

The first takeover was met with swift resistance from Keep the Vote/No Takeover, a coalition including parents, educators, lawyers, and civil rights leaders formed to fight for an elected school board and local control of DPS.

With leadership from parent activists and organizers like Helen Moore, City Councilmember JoAnn Watson and Russ Bellant, Keep the Vote drew from Detroit’s rich history of struggle for community control of schools that was a hallmark of the Black Power Movement.

The second takeover in 2009 spurred the formation of We the People of Detroit by Phyllis “Chris” Griffith, Aurora Harris, Monica Lewis-Patrick, Cecily McClellan and Debra Taylor, which would become a leading force in the fight against emergency management and for the right to water.

The state takeovers also brought student-activists into the fold through walkouts and demonstrations against school closures and funding cuts. Future Detroit Will Breathe co-founders Tristan Taylor and Nakia Wallace emerged as young organizers during this period through their involvement with By Any Means Necessary (BAMN).

At the same time, the wave of foreclosures, unemployment, and loss of revenues caused by the Great Recession sent Detroit reeling. Between 2005-2014, 36% of all properties in the city went into foreclosure, with Black working-class communities hit the hardest.

The Moratorium Now! Coalition formed to fight subprime mortgage foreclosures through the courts and direct action. Inspired by the anti-eviction work of Black communists during the Great Depression, they proposed a moratorium on evictions as a transitional demand toward a system that values people over profit. Their work also spurred the emergence of Occupy Detroit’s Eviction Defense Committee (now Detroit Eviction Defense) and played a vital role in the legal challenge to emergency management, bankruptcy, and corresponding attacks on public employee pensioners in the following years.

By 2011 the Republican-controlled State Legislature passed Public Act 4, a new law that expanded the powers of state-appointed emergency managers. The new law gave them autocratic power over collective bargaining agreements, public assets, municipal budgets, and the ability to initiate bankruptcy proceedings.

Emergency management “was very race-based and used to target African American communities,” Flint labor organizer Claire McClinton explained. “It was assets, poverty, and minority. And those were the three dimensions of the drive toward emergency manager takeover.”

The law met with resistance across the state. While the Sugar Law Center in Detroit led a legal challenge, a big tent of organizers — including many from the AFSCME and the UAW — got to work on a state-wide referendum campaign to repeal the law. Coordinated by Michigan Forward and Stand Up for Democracy, the campaign connected working-class communities across the state.

Despite a spurious lawsuit filed by a conservative group to reject the petition signed by over 225,000 on a technicality, the referendum went to the polls and voters successfully repealed PA 4 in 2012.

Though an enormous feat, the victory was short-lived. In a lame-duck session, the State Legislature passed PA 436, a comparable law, but veto-proof.

While the referendum campaign was underway, Detroit was also coerced into a consent agreement, a concession to state oversight of the city’s finances. The City Council approved the agreement in April 2012 over the protests of Free Detroit-No Consent, a coalition that had emerged to resist PA 4.

Within months, Governor Snyder declared a financial emergency and appointed corporate lawyer Kevyn Orr as emergency manager. “I already saw the writing on the wall,” JoAnn Watson recalled. “I knew a consent agreement was a prelude to a bankruptcy.” With Orr at the helm, Detroit was ushered into bankruptcy and the shock doctrine kicked into full gear.

With democracy suspended, Orr accelerated water shutoffs as a bill-collecting measure to cut debt, increase revenues, and prepare the water department for privatization. He also attempted to cut retiree pensions and benefits by as much as 90% (the average pension for a city worker was only $19k), attacked collective bargaining agreements, and sold off city lands and services.

To manage the symptoms of austerity, suppress protest, and prime the city for redevelopment, Orr appointed James Craig as DPD Chief to implement broken windows policing.(7)

Tapping into organizational networks built over the past decade or more, a coalition of 35 organizations called Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM) was formed to fight the hostile takeover. It counted an array of veteran organizers including Linda Campbell, Sarah Coffey, Gloria House (Aneb Kgositsile), Shea Howell, Tom Stephens and Bill Wylie-Kellermann among its ranks. Many were veterans of the Civil Rights, anti-war, labor, and environmental justice movements. More recently, the Occupy movement and decades-long struggle to shut down the city’s trash incinerator proved important training grounds for many D-REM organizers.

Like HPHRC in Highland Park, D-REM organized direct action protests in city streets and at City Council meetings, held teach-ins and forums, legal challenges, public tribunals, public art projects, and media campaigns to mobilize resistance at every step.

“What we were always trying to do was organize a local communications, education, political mobilization node,” Stephens explained, “part of a larger movement to try to take that on as best we could.”

Amidst the chaos of emergency management, mass water shutoffs proved an effective issue for organizers to coalesce around. The struggle was energized by Charity Hicks, who urged Detroiters to “Wage Love” after her arrest for protesting shutoffs that spring.

In July 2014, organizers forced recently-elected Mayor Mike Duggan to declare a moratorium on water shutoffs. Though short-lived, it demonstrated the collective impact of mass marches, nonviolent civil disobedience, lawsuits, appeals to the United Nations, and media campaigns that brought international condemnation upon the city.

Likewise, retired city workers managed to eke out some concessions for their pensions and benefits during the bankruptcy proceedings. Facing political and media pressure to accept steep cuts with only meager support from unions, retirees like David Sole, Cecily McClellan, and William Davis fought through the courts and direct action protests to protect their fixed incomes. Though retirees were hit with pension and insurance cuts, end of cost-of-living adjustments, and annuity clawbacks, Orr was forced to back off his plan to cut pensions by 90%.(8)

Alternative Visions

In addition to the well-documented struggle against water shutoffs, the development of alternative plans for resolving the financial crisis and restoring democracy were important modes of resistance.

As Orr was preparing to declare bank­ruptcy, Linda Campbell was organizing the first Detroit People’s Platform Convention that June. Reminiscent of the political conventions of the Black Power era, 200 residents and activists gathered in workshops and caucuses.

“We identified a five-point platform of issues that we would organize and fight for in terms of holding onto our own grassroot community-based democracy and fighting for equality alike for Detroiters,” Campbell recalled. The platform issues, included food justice, land justice, transportation justice, good government and good jobs.

Amidst the bankruptcy proceedings, D-REM also put forth an alternative to Orr’s Plan of Adjustment, called “The People’s Plan for Restructuring Toward a Sustainable Detroit.”(9) “What emerged in the city are actual policies that would make life better for everyone,” Howell later explained. “That’s the struggle that’s ahead of us, but a lot of those ideas came out of the bankruptcy process that we had to be able to show here’s a different way to develop.”

Resisting the Aftershocks

In November 2014, Judge Steven Rhodes approved Kevyn Orr’s Plan of Adjustment, marking the end of bankruptcy and emergency management. Comparing the plan to neoliberal structural adjustments imposed upon nations in the Global South, Wayne Law Professor Peter Hammer warned that the plans “sucked the life out of countries forced to receive them,” predicting that “the same will happen to Detroit.”(10)

The plan also subjected the city to continued state oversight through the Detroit Financial Review Commission, a local version of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Orr heralded his term as a “turning point” for the city and took pride that under his iron fist, Detroit did not “take the bait” and “did not have another ’67 riots” (which would have jeopardized the corporate capture of the city).(11)

While Orr claimed that Detroiters supported his plans, the reality is that despite the mass resistance, the shock doctrine worked. Organizers were spread too thin, resources were limited, and hundreds of thousands of residents were too busy struggling to survive.

With the reins turned over to Mayor Duggan, austerity measures have continued as Detroit has been turned into a corporate playground. However, the shock has begun to wear off.

D-REM remained active until 2017, working mostly on communications and media while much of the coalition channeled their efforts into the ongoing water struggle. One of the major outgrowths of D-REM has been the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement (DIFS), modeled on the SNCC freedom schools Dr. House helped organize during the Civil Rights Movement.

A continued focus on grassroots organizing has fostered the political development and leadership of people directly impacted by the financial crisis, which has been vital to movement-building in Detroit. “It’s just a matter of going in and knowing that the experts are there already,” organizer and poet Tawana Petty explained. “They just might not know how to connect whatever resource to change it or how they got there.”

Sonja Bonnett, who had her home stolen through an illegal tax foreclosure, has become a leading organizer for policy change and reparations with the Coalition for Property Tax Justice. Likewise, through saving their homes with the help of Detroit Eviction Defense, Jerry Cullors and Urealdene Henderson have become steady forces in the fight for housing justice.

Through an organizing strategy that combines mutual aid, political education, direct action and policy advocacy, MWRO, WTPD and the broader People’s Water Board have fostered the development of organizers like Nicole Hill and Valerie Jean, both of whom had their water shut off during emergency management.

Hill, who has been involved with MWRO, PWB and other organizations, credits Maureen Taylor with teaching her how to fight. “That’s how we roll at welfare rights,” Taylor said. “There’s no crying here. There’s only fighting and organizing.”

Organizers with roots in the Black Power era have resisted land grabs and are leveraging vacant land to cultivate liberated territories through food sovereignty, cooperative economics, and political education. These projects include Feedom Freedom Growers on the East Side, formed by Myrtle Thompson-Curtis and former Black Panther Wayne Curtis, and D-Town Farm on the West Side, founded by educator and organizer Malik Yakini.

The Charter Commission Fight

This is the political landscape our current generation has inherited. In response to the contradictions of austerity and escalation of police violence, surveillance and repression, younger Detroiters like PG Watkins (BYP100), Paul Jackson (Frontline Detroit) and Lloyd Simpson, Nakia Wallace and Tristan Taylor (Detroit Will Breathe), have emerged as dynamic leaders.

Amidst the uprisings following the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others last spring, organizers also began working through the City Charter Revision Commission as a vehicle for seeking policy change in support of Black lives. (12)

The proposed City Charter includes many of the revisions the coalition has called for. “We are at a rare moment in this nation’s history when the voice of the people is being amplified and real change is achievable,” City Council member Mary Sheffield.

As such, the Charter Commission’s work has drawn heavy fire from Mayor Duggan and others interested in preserving the neoliberal status quo in the city. In addition to Duggan’s fear-mongering that the Charter would trigger a return to emergency management and threaten pensions, his corporation counsel has sought to undermine the legality of the Commission’s work. Residents with connections to the city’s political establishment have also filed lawsuits seeking to keep the Charter off the ballot. The matter is currently in the hands of the State Supreme Court, which halted a Wayne County Circuit Judge lower court’s decision to remove it from the ballot.(13)

If the Charter makes it to the ballot in spite of voter suppression, it will take mass grassroots organizing under a big-tent coalition to counteract the well-financed propaganda and pass “The People’s Charter.” If that effort succeeds, then the work will begin to make those rights a reality in the nation’s largest majority-Black city.

Organizing Our Future

The struggle against emergency management and the current movement against state violence both demonstrate the need for expanding our organizational capacities to resist the immense forces mobilized against us. We must draw from traditions of struggle to develop strong networks capable of coordinating direct action protests, mutual aid and survival programs, cultural productions, political education, policy advocacy, legal challenges/defense, media and narrative campaigns, and intergenerational dialogue.

Grassroots organizing must be grounded in the material conditions of poor and working-class people and the recognition that people closest to the problem are closest to the solutions. In the process, organizers must also support the political development of “indigenous leaders” and the creation of transitional demands from meeting immediate needs to achieving systemic change.

These are among the lessons passed down to this generation. From the Algiers Motel to emergency management to George Floyd, it is our challenge to learn from Black freedom struggles that have shaped our current political terrain. We must apply that knowledge to developing concrete strategies for collective liberation.

“You are our hope, you are our promise,” Monica Lewis-Patrick professed, “If I don’t ever breathe another breath, everything that we’ve done, has been for this moment.”

Notes

  1. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2007), 20.
    back to text
  2. Wallace Turbeville, “Lessons From the Detroit Bankruptcy,” Dêmos, July 16, 2014.
    back to text
  3. Anthony Minghine, “The Great Revenue Sharing Heist,” Michigan Municipal League, February 2014.
    back to text
  4. General Baker and Marian Kramer, “Highland Park, Michigan: A corporate wasteland Community stands up for its rights,” People’s Tribune, February 2006.
    back to text
  5. Shawna J. Lee, et al., “Racial inequality and the implementation of emergency management laws in economically distressed urban areas,” Children and Youth Services Review 70 (2016): 1-7.
    back to text
  6. Leanne Kang, Dismantled: The Breakup of an Urban School System Detroit, 1980-2016 (New York: Teachers College Press, 2020).
    back to text
  7. Scott Kurashige, The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017). (As of May 2021, Craig has resigned as police chief and is considering running for political office as a Republican — ed.)
    back to text
  8. David Sole, “Theft of Detroit retirees’ pensions gets one step closer,” Workers World, July 28, 2014.
    back to text
  9. Linda Campbell, et al., A People’s Atlas of Detroit (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2020).
    back to text
  10. Zenobia Jeffries, “Beyond bankruptcy,” Michigan Citizen, November 30, 2014.
    back to text
  11. “Q&A with Kevyn Orr,” C-SPAN, July 29, 2015, https://www.c-span.org/video/transcript/?id=48913
    back to text
  12. Tawana Petty, “Detroit: On a Journey to Be Seen,” Data For Black Lives Blog, March 5, 2021, https://blog.d4bl.org/detroit-on-a-journey-to-be-seen-2/
    back to text
  13. Shea Howell, “Beyond Reform: The Detroiters’ Bill of Rights,” Riverwise, Winter 2021, https://riverwisedetroit.org/article/beyond-reform-the-detroiters-bill-of-rights/
    back to text

July-August 2021, AT 213

Leave a Reply