Michigan: Race and the Drive to Dismantle Democracy
Michigan was once a behemoth power house of industrial production. Detroit (the Big Three automakers), Flint (General Motors) and Benton Harbor (Whirlpool), for example, symbolized this massive expansion with the auto industry at its heart. From the 1930’s thru the post World War II period huge industrial complexes like the Ford Rouge plant employed up to 100,000 workers at one time. The organizing drives establishing unions ensured that workers got decent wages and benefits, lifting the standard of living for all workers.
The introduction of robotics and electronics that started in the early 1970’s would change everything. Today these bustling cities are hardly recognizable. These majority African American cities now find themselves in the throes of poverty, high unemployment, homelessness, and record breaking foreclosures. Too many face a day-to-day struggle to survive, a far cry from the promised land they once knew. Just last year, Michigan had 400,000 manufacturing jobs, a whopping 46% below the last peak in 2000. The minority population, chronic unemployment and poverty were the “low hanging fruit” that inspired the frontal assault on democracy. Enter the Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) law.
In 1990, the Emergency Financial Manager law was enacted. Governors dispatched EFMs to cities or school districts to take over their finances. While it was undemocratic on its face, its powers were limited. Claiming a new law was needed to give managers new “tools,” Governor Snyder signed PA4 into law in 2011, giving the EFM breathtaking powers. Snyder’s bill empowered the manager to displace local elected officials and usurp their power. In the case of school districts, local school boards including the Superintendents, are no longer in charge. The new and improved managers under PA4 could void union contracts, sell off public assets (including water rights, public parks and beaches, libraries, hospitals, airport authorities, etc.) and privatize city services.
The managers are paid out of the local budgets of the financially strapped cities or school districts to which they are sent. In Flint, the manager makes $170,000 plus expenses: more than the now marginalized mayor made. Currently, there are five cities and three school districts under fiscal martial law. All but one has a majority Black population. During the hearings leading to the law’s passage, citizens primarily from Detroit and Pontiac along with some union supporters testified at the legislative hearings trying to stop what was to become the most vicious assault on democracy in the country. These Black elected officials and community leaders gave impassioned speeches about their right to vote being destroyed via these managers. Many harkened back to the Civil Rights movement in the South where voting was prohibited and illegal for Blacks.
Shortly after the signing of the bill in March of 2011, Michigan Forward, a Detroit advocacy group, launched a petition drive to put the measure on the ballot for repeal. They were joined by Stand Up for Democracy with the support of AFSCME. During the course of the struggle the corporate raiders decided to prime the pump for EFM takeover by, among other things, painting it Black. They knew exactly what they were doing. The fix was in. These cities were broke and needed the “tools” for “fiscal responsibility.”
Corporate media went into full gear. Ma-jor newspapers around the state endorsed the measure. Jack Lessenberry, a columnist for Metro Times, a weekly Detroit area newspaper, wrote that fiscal problems were the result of “corruption in local government” and“years and years of criminal behavior and utter irresponsibility on the part of politicians who ran Detroit.” A reporter from a Kalamazoo newspaper editorialized that Benton Harbor needed an EFM because the city government was “dysfunctional.” The blogosphere and talk radio were the shock troops spewing vile racist rants “…people who could not handle the finances of their municipalities or district in charge, whether they are just too timid to handle the situation or, too foolish to recognize the problem or simply corrupt…” or “The law protects the taxpayers of Michigan from people who are too dumb to do the right thing.”
The stripping of democracy in these cities compelled one minister to call Michigan the “new Mississippi.” A scathing report commissioned by Congressman John Conyers of Detroit by the House Judiciary Committee on the EFM law reported that with the prospect of Detroit being brought in, over half of the African-American population in Michigan is deprived of local democracy. It concluded that among other things, the law probably violates the Voting Rights Act. Early in the life of PA4 Allen Park, a small predominately white community asked the State for an EFM to come in and were told NO. (They now have one.)
Not in Our Town, Not in Our State
Shortly after the signing of the law (March 19, 2011), the state set up training sessions for potential dictators. Shamelessly called SWAT teams, at least four to five hundred candidates passed through the classes. Obviously, dictatorship was poised to spread throughout the state, not just “dysfunctional Black” cities.
The petition drive to repeal the law was launched in June of 2011 and petitions were submitted in February of 2012. After a series of bogus challenges along the way, the ballot initiative to overturn PA4 was finally approved for the November 2012 ballot. Both the petition drive and the ballot initiative campaign opened up new opportunities to the cause.
The takeover of primarily Black cities and school districts to ensnare the entire state was not lost on outraged citizens from around the state. Cities, townships, and small rural towns began to ask for petitions. Occupy groups joined in. They learned how the EFM secured the seizure of Jean Klock Park in Benton Harbor, a cherished public park on the shores of Lake Michigan deeded to the citizens, turning it into a golf course for the elites. With hundreds of thousands of miles of Michigan shoreline around the state at risk via dictatorship, citizens groups sprang into action. Local activists held forums, demonstrations, radio and TV interviews, spoke at churches, staged sit-ins and even staged street theatre to overturn the law. Democrats and Green Party supporters were joined by a network of Republicans.
No one is untouched by the breathtaking power grab authored and bankrolled by the ruling class here in Michigan. Dick DeVos (the former CEO of Amway) and the notorious Koch Brothers had their fingerprints all over the offensive. Shortly after the New York Times Magazine covered the story of Benton Harbor and its Emergency Manager model to save “distressed cities,” one analyst quipped “maybe Greece needs an Emergency Manager.”
Capitalists Cannot Rule, Workers Cannot Fight in Old Way
The use of race, particularly African Americans, to satisfy the needs of capitalism is as old as the day the first slave set foot on North American soil, from slavery to welfare reform (color it Black), to voter suppression (color it Black and Brown) to the Emergency Dictator Law. When the measure was defeated on Election Day (All but six of 83 counties said NO), the people rejoiced and the bondholders panicked. Since the managers ensured they got paid, the threat of cities turning to bankruptcy could spark investor losses.
The electronic revolution is ushering in a “Brave New World” of corporate rule where civil rights, union rights and civil liberties are becoming obstacles to advance capitalism. The fight against PA4 was not only a civil rights issue or a labor issue but signaled a new round of class battle that put democracy itself on the line.
To say that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is a new type of Governor is an understatement. He has defied the will of the people and signed a new Dictator Bill with minor tweaks. (He also set 80 years of labor history on its heels, signing “Right to Work” legislation. Organized labor is part of Michigan’s DNA).
But the combatants in the war to fight dictatorship are likewise a new type of fighter. Local spontaneous organizations arose creating blogs, websites, and other independent networks to win the fight. The scattered groupings were loosely held together and were not organizationally connected under one umbrella. The usual suspects, organized labor, (with the exception of AFSCME who was totally engaged throughout),the Democratic Party establishment and to some extent, the traditional Civil Rights organizations played a supporting role at best in this fight.
Political correctness and morality were not the drivers of the debate here. White workers weren’t about to risk handing over their democracy on the pretext of those “incompetents” in the Black cities, and many resented attempts by the state to engage in the “racebaiting.” Further, the notion of dictatorship as a solution to the fiscal crisis, regardless of color, on its face was soundly rejected. Majority Black populated cities where the struggle began are becoming aware of what Nelson Peery so powerfully wrote in The Future Is Up To Us, “…the leaders of the Black masses cannot raise one single demand that is not in the interests of the poor of all colors, and against the interest of the wealthy no matter their color…”
Class war is breaking out on a new foundation and the fascist offensive has taught us that the people of Michigan have shown that they are up for the challenge.
March/April 2013. Vol23.Ed2
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011