By Shea Howell
December 12, 2015
This week the corporate elite celebration of the Detroit bankruptcy was brought to an abrupt halt. Gathered on the campus of Wayne State University, the Governor, Mayor, bankruptcy judge, and members of the mainstream media left the stage in the face of protests. Governor Snyder, who was greeted by boos from the audience, left in a huff. Judge Rhodes was drowned out. Mayor Duggan never appeared. Host Stephen Henderson admonished the audience saying, “This is not Detroit behavior.”
The Detroit Journalism Cooperative, a media collaborative that provided coverage of the bankruptcy and its aftermath, sponsored the event. The gathering was billed as a public meeting to assess the city in the wake of bankruptcy.
“Detroit Bankruptcy: One Year Later,” however, was put together without any consideration of those who objected to the process or who are being harmed by it. Only one viewpoint was allowed from the stage. If you weren’t willing to say the bankruptcy was a success and everything in the city is better than ever, you were not invited to speak.
That is not a true assessment of the state of our city, which is becoming increasingly divided by race and class, and increasingly impoverished in most neighborhoods.
This event was little more than a public relations stunt, marked by soft questioning from interviewers, canned responses by politicians, and efforts to reduce citizen perspectives to twitter feeds. No one should be surprised that the audience decided to challenge these constraints.
The organizers did not invite anyone who has challenged the bankruptcy, emergency management, the decisions to pursue aggressive water shut offs, the give away of revenue streams and assets, and the decision to use federal money to tear down houses rather than fix up homes.
Henderson defended this decision by resorting to name-calling. In a twitter exchange he said, “Protesters were not on program cuz it’s not the Springer show. They don’t want to discuss; they want to shout down.”
Of course, when people are not on the program, when the destruction of lives are rendered invisible, there is little left to do but to shout. In fact, our humanity requires it.
This defensive response by Henderson and the corporate elite to the disruption of their little show reflects how out of touch they are with the most of the people in the city.
The reality is that the direction set by this bankruptcy has resulted in a boom for a few neighborhoods. It has increased the number of young whites in midtown at the expense of elder African Americans and opened a kind of land rush in neighborhoods as foreclosures force out long-term residents. These contradictions of race and class are increasing tensions all over the city. The Mayor, Governor, and the Judge refuse to talk about them. But they are real.
According to U.S. Census Bureau between 2009 and 2014, median household income in Detroit fell by 20 percent from $32,493 to $26,095. The poverty rate increased from 33.2 percent to 39.8 percent. On any given day almost half the city is behind on water bills that are not affordable. Nearly 3,000 customers were threatened with water shutoffs last month alone.
We should applaud all those who raised their voices to disrupt the denial and evasion of the real questions facing our city. Pretending that our future is measured by bond ratings and buildings, rather than the quality of life of all our people and the care we show for one another, will lead to disruptions far beyond those of a simple meeting.