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Detroiters Reclaiming Voice and Power

Written by Linda Campbell

On July 18 of 2013, Kevin Orr, the appointed Emergency Manager for Detroit, announced that he was filing for bankruptcy on behalf of the city.  Subsequent media coverage has focused on whether that means the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts will have to sell its most famous works, or whether more city services will become privatized (at a loss of more union jobs and an increased cost to city residents). This filing serves as yet another example of how the voice and power of local residents is being ignored in the face of admittedly dire economic circumstances.

The fact that Detroit has an Emergency Manager is itself an example of the trampling of the principles of democratic governance.  In the November 2012 general election, more than half of the residents of Michigan (including 82% of the voters in the city of Detroit) voted to repeal Public Act 4, which had transferred the power normally held by a municipality’s locally elected governing body to one individual – referred to as the Emergency Manager – appointed by the governor.  Despite the clear will of Michigan’s voters, the state’s legislature passed another Emergency Manager bill to replace the law that had been struck down by voters.  They did this during the legislature’s lame duck session, just a few weeks after the general election, thereby undermining the democratic voice of the people.   

These actions to circumvent the will of Detroiters represent an unprecedented consolidation of power by officials 90 miles away in Lansing, at the same time that the city of Detroit has tried to move towards more participatory and democratic governance.  For the first time in 90 plus years, Detroit’s city charter changed the city’s governance structure to move away from a city council consisting of all at-large members to one where each of the city’s seven districts elect separate city council members, ensuring that the city council represents all areas of the city.   

The work of Building Movement Detroit during the past year has focused on working with local grassroots leaders and residents to reclaim their voice and power- and take advantage of new opportunities- in the face of these challenging circumstances. 

From what we’ve seen, folks are energized about the new district structure. They’re excited about the opportunity for individuals who have demonstrated an ongoing commitment to their community to mount serious grassroots campaigns and challenge the current establishment.  There’s been a reawakening of Detroiters’ activism, which is now being defined through their neighborhoods rather than through a city-wide party structure.

At Building Movement Detroit, we’ve embraced all of these elements – encouraging emerging leadership in neighborhood associations like block clubs and community councils, hosting blogging workshops, and organizing letter writing campaigns for residents to contact local officials to address community needs or concerns. 

Our biggest event of the year was the Detroit People’s Platform and Convention, held on June 1st.  Over 200 people were in attendance, from all seven city council districts.  Residents, activists and community leaders came together to ratify a set of five issue platforms that are central to the life and vitality of a healthy and sustainable Detroit.   The event was covered by multiple community media outlets, and we are already beginning to see new alliances and partnerships grow out of the initial meeting.  We hope to use the momentum from the Convention as we head toward city council elections, concentrating on two or three of the issues to hold council candidates accountable to community concerns. 

With the City Council elections on the horizon this November, we’re now seeing neighborhood leaders inspired by the People’s Platform and Convention host Candidate Nights.  When council hopefuls come to local neighborhoods to discuss their campaign platforms, residents are bringing their own insightful and challenging questions.  Through the dialogue at these candidate nights, one city council candidate has already endorsed the People’s Platform as a whole, and residents are ensuring that they get more than just the standard talking points out of the folks running for public office.

In the coming year, Building Movement Detroit will continue to support residents and grassroots leaders to identify ways to reinvigorate democratic practice in their community, foster new alliances and partnerships, and support alternative media that provides a counter-narrative to the popular message justifying the non-democratic presence of an Emergency Manager.

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