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Legal and right

Week 36 of the Occupation

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

The decision to pursue bankruptcy for the city of Detroit by Judge Steven Rhodes was not surprising. Almost everyone expected the judge to rule in favor of bankruptcy protection.

What was surprising was the amount of time the judge took in delivering his decision and the effort he took to explain himself, especially on the key questions of did the city negotiate in good faith with its creditors; the numerous objections filed by individual citizens as well as those by unions and pensioners; and the constitutionality of PA 436, the enabling legislation of emergency management.

Those critical of the process from the beginning have been concerned about the implications of this decision on the lives of our elders. There had been some indications that Judge Rhodes understood how devastating cuts would be to individuals and the community. Yet, he ruled the compact among generations is no different than any other contractual agreement.

The judge attempted to address the harsh reality of this choice when he said, “The court emphasizes it will not lightly or casually exercise the power under federal bankruptcy law to impair pensions.”

This call for fairness in the midst of what was already a suspect process offers little comfort. In fact, the larger picture emerging is that the gulf between what is legal and what is right is getting bigger with every step of this process.

First, there was the inflated claim of the size of the debt. The recent Demos Report, carefully prepared and argued, concludes the claimed $18 billion debt is both “misleading and inflated.” Anyone who has followed the story closely has watched the figure mushroom from $8 billion (closer to reality) to $20 billion, the oft quoted and rounded up figure found in mainstream reports.

Second, there is the distinction between long-term debt owed over decades and a very real cash-flow crisis. As the Demos report explains, “Detroit is bankrupt not because of its outstanding debt but because it is no longer bringing in enough revenue to cover expenses.” This shortfall, according to the filing by the EM is $198 million. This is a much more realistic and manageable cash problem. It is also considerably less than the claimed $327-900 million short fall in earlier reports.

What this means is the corporate right-wing ideologues in charge of our state play fast and loose with numbers in order to intentionally create an inflated and unrealistic sense of panic. They use this sense of urgency to block serious discussion of the nature of the crisis we face, the varying perspectives on its causes, the possible solutions to it, and the values that we want to guide our decision-making.

They are invested in creating a false sense of inevitability. They present the protection of corporate interests as the only possible alternative.

Yet, with each step of this process, the legitimacy of this claim to authority is eroding.  People throughout the city of Detroit, around the country, and increasingly around the globe, are recognizing the interests of people and the protection of corporate power are on a collision course.

The world is changing. The claim to a narrow legality, devoid of protection for the lives and aspirations of people, will not long stand.

We have a long history of putting what is legal above what is right. From the earliest seizures of land, through slavery and Jim Crow, those who make the laws to protect their own interests, claim logic and reason to cover greed.  Over and over we hear the legal logic that the destruction of people and places is the only way to save them. Being legal has never been the same as being right.

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