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On Democracy and Emergency Managers

By Jimmy Johnson

Progressive Michiganders have, in response to the proposed and imposed emergency managers, opposed the emergency manager (EM) laws as attacks on or subversions of democracy. This concern is based primarily around the emergency managers’ ability to dismiss the decision-making power of elected officials. This, in effect, removes the franchise from subject populations by disempowering those who won office by the vote.

There are countless good reasons to oppose the petty tyrant EMs, but opposing them on the grounds that the EM invalidates a pre-existing democratic norm both overvalues the status quo ante (for example, Mayor Bing vs. Emergency Manager equal horrible options to choose from) and misconstrues democracy.

Michigan governors appointed “emergency managers” to (mis)manage parts of or entire city bureaucracies since 2000. Former governors Engler and Granholm and current Gov. Snyder declared that certain city governments, mostly of majority Black cities — the white supremacist application of the EM laws, exactly whose vote is getting tossed out? — has been somewhat ignored, were so poorly run that the decision-making power should be devolved to the state government.

The governors imposed EMs on Benton Harbor, Detroit, Ecorse, Flint, Hamtramck, Highland Park and Pontiac along with, separately, the Detroit and Highland Park school districts. Wherever appointed, the EM takes on decision-making power formerly held by elected officials. It is this aspect, along with the EM’s power to renegotiate union contracts, that critics cite as reasons why EMs are an attack on democracy. Some go so far as to describe EMs as occupying powers. EMs certainly remove local decision-making power and effectively remove voting rights for subject populations, making mere seat-warmers of elected officials. But a quick look at social movements in history puts to question the image of democracy offered by critics.

This is clear in situations where populations previously denied voting rights participate in shaping politics. The Civil Rights Movement against racial segregation had its greatest successes before most southern Black folk had access to the polls. Virtually all the benchmark victories won by the Civil Rights Movement — the Civil Rights Act, school desegregation, the Voting Rights Act, an end to Jim Crow laws, etc. — were won in spite of the fact that southern Blacks were largely denied voting rights. If by “democracy” we mean “voting” rights, then the Civil Rights Movement won access to democracy. But if by “democracy” we mean the mass participation in shaping politics, then the Civil Rights Movement arguably produced broader democracy in the period before it won voting rights than after, despite the extension of the franchise (see the new book “Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party” for a discussion on the Civil Rights Movement as an insurgent social movement and the end of that insurgency with the Voting Rights Act and end of de jure segregation). The franchise did not allow access to democracy; the franchise was won through democracy.

Women’s suffrage throughout the world is another example of the shaping of politics by people denied the vote. Migrant justice is yet another realm where the communities leading the struggle do so with restricted access to voting. Anti-apartheid and decolonization struggles have been fought and won in spite of the lack of voting rights. Such mass participation in politics seems far more democratic than any recent election we’ve had in Detroit.

These social justice victories — like so many throughout history — were won through making impossible the daily conduct of business. Organizers and community members in these movements interacted directly with power — primarily through confrontation — and shaped politics through these interactions. Electoral campaigns, however, simply allocate power from one person who already has it (the incumbent) to another (the challenger) without, generally speaking, the electoral base playing a significant role in shaping politics. In such a system, the elections are not central to democracy and those holding office are not significant repositories of democratic power.

Does Gov. Snyder intend for the EM to replace local decision-making power? Obviously. But Snyder and the EMs can only do so if we avoid mass participation in politics, if we reject democracy. If, however, we embrace democracy, then we can shape politics directly through creative participation and disrupt the EMs and their regressive plans. We can decide to not cooperate with the impoverished view of politics — (s)elected officials as being the sole legitimate possessors of political power — that gives the EMs their power. The governor can only succeed if we cooperate with the image of governance he’s relying upon. We can do better. We, like subjects of undemocratic rule throughout history, can become ungovernable.

Jimmy Johnson is an unemployed Detroiter. He can be reached at

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