The Republican Occupation of Detroit

It took him two tries, thwarting his state’s voters’ will, but Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder got his wish—a major city that is dead politically.

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Detroit is no longer a city. Sure, it looks like a city. But that’s a façade. The oldest city in the Midwest—home of the first traffic light in America and the first urban freeway, the birthplace of Motown and the automobile and the ice cream soda—is now a ghost. Detroit, the place, is recovering—even thriving in some ways. But Detroit, the political entity, is dead.

In 2011, Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed into law Public Act 4, which gave the state the power to place cash-strapped cities and school districts under the control of state-appointed emergency managers. In 2012, Michigan voters overturned that law. But in 2013, Snyder signed a barely revised version of the emergency manager law—and then used it to take over Detroit.

So in the fall of 2013, Detroit voters went to the polls to elect a new mayor and City Council, but it didn’t matter. The powers of the mayor and City Council have effectively been suspended. Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, appointed by Snyder, has all the power and then some. A Democratic city that elected Democratic leaders is now controlled by the appointee of a Republican governor.

Or, to put it differently, Detroit—a majority African-American city—is now controlled by a governor elected by a majority of white voters in the state. It really doesn’t matter that Kevyn Orr, the state-appointed emergency manager, is black, nor that Mike Duggan, Detroit’s mayor, is white. What matters is that half of the state’s black population lives in Detroit. So through the state takeover, “half of black Michiganders have essentially lost the right to vote,” says Ife Kilimanjaro, co-director of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council.

Within this context, the water shut-offs in Detroit are more than just a human rights crisis but an existential one as well, with the state now literally shutting off the means of survival for hundreds of thousands of people in Detroit. And whether the temporary moratorium on shut-offs continues or not, the reality is that the crackdown on water bills is part of a master plan to shore up the finances of Detroit’s water and sewage department for privatization.

Why would any city want to privatize its water system? A report by Corporate Accountability International (CAI) shows that water privatization fairly universally leads to higher prices for cities and consumers and, in many cases, decreased efficiencies. In fact, the track record for water privatization is so abysmal that CAI found more than 20 American cities that had once privatized their water have taken back control of their systems since 2002. If water privatization is bad for the city of Detroit and its residents, who is it good for? Corporations. Which is where the state’s interest comes in.

Gov. Snyder has used his emergency management laws, versions one and two, to impose his conservative agenda across the state, including privatization. As Ned Resnikoff writes:

City agencies and entire school districts have been outsourced or privatized; public employees have been laid off in droves; municipalities have sold off vast swaths of public land; and city employee unions have seen their contracts whittled down to nothing. All of this was accomplished in the space of three and a half years. Michigan’s Emergency Manager system is what made it possible.

Snyder isn’t just using the emergency management excuse to take over democracy in Detroit and other communities. He’s also seizing their resources. Yet another example is Belle Isle, a gorgeous 982-acre gem floating in the Detroit River. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Belle Isle was the largest city-owned park in the United States—until this past October, when Orr and Snyder signed a deal to lease Belle Isle to the state until the year 2043. The Detroit City Council voted to reject the deal. Snyder and Orr went ahead anyway, under the authority of the emergency management law. Now attendance at the park is down and state policing— and allegations of harassment of Detroit residents — is up. Meanwhile the state is phasing in a fee for visitors to the island.

“There's nothing wrong with the city operating its own asset. Belle Isle is a significant treasure,” said Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson. Which raises the question in all of this — broke as it might be, Detroit still needs things like water and other public services. Private companies or the state can take them over, but that won’t change the bottom line unless these new overseers find a way to squeeze out more profit — for instance, jacking up rates or further cutting services. That’s simple math. The state, and its corporate beneficiaries, want to take over Detroit’s assets so they can bleed the people of Detroit for more profits. And there’s nothing the people of Detroit can do to stop it.

In the early 1900s, African Americans moved to Detroit to escape the inequality and injustice that persisted in the South. Much of the Detroit as we celebrate it in our national lore sprang from black political self-determination, economic leadership, and cultural expression. Plenty of dynamics conspired to dismantle Detroit’s greatness. But even bankrupt, struggling, falling apart, Detroit could still cling to its identity as a city—whatever price that meant in the past, whatever hope it held for the future. Now because of Snyder, even that is gone.