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Governments not honoring contracts is nothing new, but responses to them can be

By Patrick Geans-Ali

This week we’re looking at Environmental Justice Principle No.11, which “recognizes a special legal and natural relationship of Native Peoples to the U.S. government through treaties, agreements, compacts and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination.”

Since my colleague Victoria Goff examined EJ Principle No. 11 from an environmental perspective in last week’s edition of the Michigan Citizen, I thought I might take the liberty to extrapolate the definition of “native peoples” from the traditional one and stay focused on current state of affairs taking place here in Detroit.

To be sure, the Native American communities of this area have very relevant and valid grievances historically and today against the government. It has been very interesting to see how two diametrically opposed narratives are simultaneously emerging around what’s happening in Detroit today. On one hand, there is a narrative saying this is a time of exciting growth in the city. There are economic opportunities here to be realized through strategic investments, and the city is being saved from oblivion thanks to the influx of new people and resources.

On the other hand, we hear the city is facing a depression unlike any we’ve ever seen. This necessitates the drastic shrinkage of jobs, wages, city services and even democracy itself. People are being driven from certain neighborhoods or forced to relocate outside the city because of systematic disinvestment.

Which one is true? Well, both. The thing is the narrative of investment opportunity, economic growth, hope and optimism is largely being targeted at and supported by people who live outside the city. Meanwhile, the narrative of wholesale disinvestment, economic austerity, pessimism is aimed at those who have spent their lives and resources keeping the city alive.

Native American historians might tell us this all fits a familiar pattern. After all, weren’t European settlers brought here by the companies of the 17th and 18th centuries with promises of economic opportunity and vacant land for the taking?

Whether they realized it or not, Native Americans of that time were living on prime real estate. They may not have viewed their land as a coveted commodity but I’m sure they knew the value of being located along central water routes that gave them access to key trade routes, farm land and other natural resources.

As we all know, it was all taken from them through corrupt and dishonest governments and given to select populations who may or may not have realized how they themselves were being used. Of course, maneuvering people in such ways today requires much more sophistication than in previous centuries. Or does it?

Governments of those days were notorious for disregarding standing treaties and social compacts. To the extent that Native American communities have tried to hold the government accountable to them over time draws quite a bit of backlash and resentment as Goff pointed out in her piece.

Still, I can’t help but think of the current controversies over the emergency manager law and the subsequent Consent Agreement as modern day incarnations of our government’s tendency to dishonor contracts and agreements with people. Both are thinly veiled attempts to get around Detroit’s home-rule charter giving the city a certain amount of autonomy from state rule.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s refusal to honor the revenue-sharing agreement with the city is another prime example. After all, is Detroit Corporation Counsel Krystal Crittendon the only person who thinks it’s more than a coincidence that the city’s debt and the amount owed in revenue-sharing is roughly identical?

So, when you consider that the investments being made in certain neighborhoods in the city through quasi-public/private entities like nonprofit foundations and community development corporations, it’s not hard to see they are literally robbing Peter to pay Paul. Even the privatization of schools, parks and city services are only private entities siphoning public funds to profit investors.

If you recognize that governments should live up to their historically contractual obligations to the people, you are invited to attend the Human Rights Training and Tribunal Aug. 24 and 25 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the University of Michigan Detroit Center.

Contact Patrick Geans Ali at

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