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David Alexander Bullock

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Emergency Managers Destroy Democracy

Posted: 01/27/2012 1:59 pm

In a crisis, people look for a hero. We have been trained to believe that our deliverance can only be found in the one man or woman. The hero is our hope. The hero has the answer. The answer is easily identifiable, quickly implemented and doesn't require much from us -- all we have to do is let the hero solve the problem. The trouble with this way of thinking is that it is unrealistic. It fits in comic books or Hollywood movies. It is the DNA of great dreams and apart of the structural skeleton of our mythic imagination. Still, in reality the solution to the crisis we face requires all of us to get involved. We cannot solve the most persistent problems in society without collective action. We must build consensus and common ground. We must all act in our own individual spheres and collectively over time to gain ground in the trying tug of war that is our political, economic and social life. Change requires all of us. Change is slow. We must work together and win small victories in order to transform structural injustice and ill-conceived social policy. This is the undying value of democracy.

While no political system is perfect, democracy best approximates the need for collective leverage required to lift society. The divine right of kings, the rule of the smartest, government by the elite all suffer from the same sickness. This sickness is a debilitating cancer. It produces destructive cells in the body politic that cancel change. It builds the tragic tumor of top-down leadership. We believe that the state (everything in fact) should be run like a corporation. Using this approach, we look for the appropriate hero to our political, economic and social problems -- the business executive. Still, we end up creating the conditions for massive apathy, escapism and citizen dependence. This is the real problem of our political life and the true danger of the emergency manager law.

Public Act 4 is anti-democratic. It is unconstitutional. It is bad policy -- it doesn't work. However, its real danger is the way it creates a debilitating body politic. The idea that an emergency manager -- a hero can come into a community and singlehandedly solve all the problems is dangerous in two key ways. First, it is a devious political and social deception. Second, it destroys the faith Americans traditionally have in democratic government.

Governor Snyder says he wants to help Detroit. The mainstream media is using its force to paint a horrifying portrait of Detroit. The image is familiar. It includes a shrinking population, incompetent political leadership and a growing and apathetic underclass. This is not an accurate picture. While Detroit has lost population, there is no mention of the role of bank and tax foreclosure to speed the rapid population decline. There is no talk of the high cost of insurance in the city, the lack of major retail and the 200 million or more spent outside of the city for groceries. There is a lot of talk about violence, but no talk about the seeming economic development embargo on the city of Detroit. The emergency manager is supposed to a hero. After receiving training by the Snyder administration, s/he will come in and do what no elected official and collective community action can -- save Detroit. This is a destructive fiction. The Detroit Public School system, the City of Highland Park and the City of Benton Harbor prove that emergency managers are not miracle workers or supernatural saviors. Detroit doesn't need an emergency manager. Detroit needs emergency reconstruction. We don't need a consultant. We need community and civic engagement. It will take elected officials, labor, pastors, parents and citizens at large to turn this ship around before it collides into the impending iceberg of increasing decline.

We must restore our faith in democracy. Rule by the elite has produced underperforming charter schools, closed libraries, no light rail, limited transportation options, no massive broadband or recycling projects, limited unemployment benefits, unfair limits on welfare cash assistance, closure of neighborhood city halls, a top-down city planning and foundation investment program, horrible trade policy, and a motor city without an engine for it's economy. The legacy of democratic action is the abolition of slavery, the maintanence of the Union and the New Deal. The election of President Barack Obama signals the true power and triumph of democratic action. It should be apparently clear that emergency management is a sin against the sacred right of suffrage. It should also be noted that it doesn't work. Our salvation can only be found in more democracy -- government by the people, for the people.


D. Alexander Bullock is pastor of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church, president of the Highland Park NAACP and Rainbow PUSH Detroit Chapter.