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Democracy in Detroit?

Week six of the occupation

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

The questions being raised in Detroit are important for the whole country. Over the last few years, we have seen an assault on our shared values, conventions and civic assumptions unlike anything previously experienced in this country. Except for brief, extreme periods of Martial Law, declared in emergency situations, no citizens of a city have had their basic rights and responsibilities so perversely violated.

These violations have been done in the name of providing financial security for the city. With each new announcement, it is clear the financial security being created is for corporate, powerful elites to profit from the people’s pain.

The assault on democratic values is so clear that even students in a law school far away notice “democracy is dead” in Detroit. In a recent article in the Free Press, Adrienne N. Young, follows this pronouncement by arguing that democracy died long before the emergency manager was appointed. Her evidence is the low voter turnout rate in the last mayoral election. She further argues that we should turn the “civic engagement” of protest against the EM and company into efforts at voter registration “to make it less likely any of the ‘undesired’ leaders are re-elected at the state and local level.”

She laments the lack of ideas for civic engagement, saying, “Beneath the cries of ‘shame’ and fury, there must be ideas, there must be innovation if Detroit is to recover. Why not get that same group of people together and write a request to be a neighborhood advisory committee for Orr? Why not look to the school system that only just established universal early childhood education and ask how citizen engagement can enable tutoring, fund-raising, coaching and mentoring programs?

These are good ideas. That is why thousands of Detroiters have been doing them for years. Citizen Advisory Councils are operating in communities across the city, as are neighborhood associations, block clubs and a host of civic groups. We have just completed a vibrant, open and often visionary process of publicly writing and approving a new City Charter.

More than 7,000 people participated directly in public meetings with the Detroit Works Project, and thousands upon thousands more have been engaged in school board in exile meetings, rallies, information gathering sessions and public conversations about serious issues.

Something as mundane as the Library Commission attracts overflow crowds. Tutoring, fundraising, coaching and mentoring happen from the most formal levels involving the previous governor, to the most humble games of basketball fashioned out of makeshift hoops.

The point is not that “democracy is dead in Detroit.” Rather, what is happening in Detroit reveals the inability of representative democracy to preserve and protect the safety, life, liberty and happiness of the majority of the people. The challenge now is to create new forms of public, political relationships.

Young hints at a core element of this new democracy when she notes that while state intervention in local affairs “feels wrong, city-level democracy is not constitutionally guaranteed or protected at the national or state level.” It should be. It is in cities, at the community level, where we make decisions that directly affect our common life.

For nearly 50 years, with the abandonment of Detroit by corporate interests, Detroiters have been experimenting with direct democracy. We have established schools and churches, block clubs, businesses, entertainment centers, museums, innovative educational practices and new institutional relationships.

Now we have the challenge to draw upon this experience to not only resist the assault of the EM and corporate interests, but to establish local self-governing councils to create the core of civic life in our neighborhoods. We have much experience to draw upon, not only to restore our own communities, but also to point the way toward new forms of democratic life for everyone.

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