This is the latest in a series of blogs discussing the Environmental Justice Principles adopted in 1991 by the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. Now up is EJ Principle No. 10 which: "considers governmental acts of environmental injustice a violation of international law, the Universal Declaration On Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on Genocide."
Sitting on a shelf in the ReMedia Lab at the Cass Corridor Commons space, a relic of the 2010 U.S. Social forum sits tucked away in a box. That relic is a mask of Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. It's a perfect metaphor for the conduct of our political leaders surrounding the various incarnations of the Public Act 4, aka the Emergency Manager Law e.g. Consent Agreement.
After reading of the anti-climatic news that Judge William Collette refused to reconsider his earlier decision, dismissing Detroit City Attorney Krystal Crittendon's legal action against the state of Michigan over the state's refusal to honor a standing revenue sharing agreement, I'm thinking it's time to dust off that mask and ask, "Who is this masked man?"
Crittendon's legal action sought almost $225 million (enough to pay off the city's much ballyhooed debt to banks) owed to the city by virtue of a revenue sharing agreement with the state. It was dismissed - not so much for lack of merit - but because Bing and a majority of the city council chose a different course.
Rather than take queues from the proponents of the Emergency Manager Movement in Michigan and exhaust every legal and political option at their disposal, Bing and the city council have decided it's better to submit to shock doctrine tactics that strips the city council of their duly elected authority as representatives of Detroit, strips Detroiters of their constitutionally guaranteed right to self governance, rewards hundreds if not thousands of their supporters with pink slips, and rewards those that survive the cuts with the further erosion of their hard-fought union protections.
Their behavior is a classic example of what happens when regulators are not empowered to do their jobs. Crittendon serves as a regulator of sorts on the local level, but in an era of unethical deregulation, you often lose your job by doing it. You get job security by going along.
Of course, we've seen how this plays out at the national level.
If the trendy deregulation movement had not elevated corporations above the law, we might not have been in the Great Recession today. If the watchdogs with the Securities and Exchange Commission were empowered to do their jobs, Wall Street may not have needed trillions of dollars in bailout funds. If Congress would abide by the highest law in the land, the last American war would have been just: World War II.
If environmental advocacy of groups like the Sierra Club and EPA had not been abandoned by the residents of Kalamazoo and the Gulf Coast, the ecology of their local water systems would not have been devastated. If our politicians valued American values enough, we would have exported our environmental protections and labor standards instead of our industrial base.
All these things resulted in a wrecked economy. All of them have made our country poorer not richer, worse not better. Similarly on the local level, is there any track record that shows economic recovery through EM's and Consent Agreements? At least politicians can be voted out of office. EMs and Consent Decree boards take unaccountability to an entirely new level.
This calls for some serious "institutional analysis" as Noam Chomsky likes to call it. Crittendon's action would have declared the Consent Agreement null and void because standing law states that the city of Detroit can't do business with any entity currently in violation of their obligations to the city. Since the state was refusing to honor the revenue-sharing agreement, the city can't legally honor the Consent Agreement.
For those outside of Detroit, the Consent Agreement was essentially cooked up back in February to stand in for the Emergency Manager Law. Once it became clear that nearly a quarter of a million voters signed a petition to have the law put up for a referendum in November, the EM Law was due to be suspended. Bing publicly waffled on his support for both, but the fact that he once lobbied to be the EM and was later granted with virtual EM powers in the Consent Agreement is quite telling.
The main difference between the two measures is instead of a single state-appointed individual to wield virtually unlimited power of decision making in the city, the Consent Decree comes with an unelected board with no-residency requirements to help do the dirty work.
In the context of EJ Principle No. 10, when local, state or federal officials refuse our inalienable rights derived from higher authorities, people need to look at other options. After all, does anyone believe that Detroiters suffering from environmental injustice in Southwest Detroit or around the Detroit Incinerator - for example - will find an emergency manager or an appointed board of suburbanites any more responsive to their plight?
The shiftiness of politicians is a symptom of a much larger problem in our society. Specifically, corporations and non-profits are masks for the private interest of individuals. Politicians should be the public face of the citizenry. But in the seeming plutocracy we find ourselves in today, politicians are more often front men for the private interest that fund their campaigns.
At every level of government, those charged to uphold the public trust seem unable to make decisions for the good of the larger society. The reason for their cognitive dissonance, of course, is the root of all evil. The question is: Can anything be done?
That is why many Detroiters are considering taking their concerns to the international human rights level. To those ends, concerned citizens are invited to a special Human Rights Training & Tribunal in Detroit with the U.S. Human Rights Network from New Orleans. The training will be held August 24-25 at a time and location to be announced.
If only local governments listened to their citizens, there would be no need to appeal to higher law -- whether it's city, state, federal, international or divine. It's not an easy job but somebody has got to do it. Crittendon has proven to be one of the few officials with the gumption to at least try.
In these Orwellian times, she has jeopardized her position by doing so. Yet, that's precisely what it takes to stand up for just causes in a world where ignorance of the law is strength, economic slavery is freedom and we wage perpetual war in the name of world peace.
All laws are subject to the people enforcing them. When it comes to politics, you never know if what is presented is what it appears. Still, it doesn't take much critical analysis to see whose interests these politicians are truly representing.
It is becoming increasingly vital to the survival of our entire society to distinguish between those who believe in a society ruled by laws or a society ruled by men. Sorting through these masks to reach the mark that every direct action campaign must seems to be the task at hand.
The brilliance of Crittendon's suit is it understands that a successful direct action requires you reach the mark -- the mark being that person, place or thing that can ultimately make a decision. When Bing and the city council refused stand up for democracy in Detroit, Crittendon had to appeal to Judge Collette, who properly pointed the finger right back where it belongs.
It seems the majority of the Detroit City Council, the mayor, the state legislature and the governor are only capable of making decisions that promote the interests of their corporate paymasters. Crittendon's legal action is an attempt to appeal to something that should be above politics -- ethics.
Having no use for such things, the banks responded to Crittendon's action by lowering the city's bond rating. That gave Bing the excuse to ask her to resign. Snyder then threatened to withhold revenue sharing, and they all blamed Crittendon's law suit for costing the city money.
Wasn't Crittendon's suit aiming to achieve Bing's oft-stated goal of "getting Detroit back on sound financial footing"? Wasn't Snyder's with holding of revenue-sharing exactly what Crittendon was trying to address?
When she stood her ground and refused, Bing then declared that he will no longer use the city's legal counsel in favor of the same private law firm that helped broker the Consent Agreement. No one can point to an instance where an EM actually got a city out of debt. All EMs seem to do is come in, privatize, sell off assets, then move on to do the same in another city.
It's true that this has been done in many cities around the country. It's no coincidence, however, it hasn't been done to this point in the city that berthed both the American Middle Class and the Black Liberation Movement.
It seems counter-intuitive that our politicians will support to the bitter end a course that strips them of their authority. On the surface at least, even the one percenters -- the financial paymasters who run the country and have co-opted both the Republican state legislature and the Democratic city council -- would also benefit if Crittendon's action succeeds. After all, the city's debt is owed to the banks. Surely, they want their money. It would be a win-win situation for everyone. Right?
Wrong. Their support of the EM law, Consent Agreement and attack on Crittendon betray the fact that getting the city out of debt is of little or no concern to them. The banks make a lot of money -- and wield the masterful influence that goes with it -- by keeping governments in debt. They have no intention of letting Detroit off the hook, based on Crittendon's legal technicality. They'd much rather stick to their plan to commandeer the city's long-coveted resources and continue to collect interest on the debt.
Who cares that the state suddenly finds itself with billions of dollars in surplus revenue? Who cares that much of that surplus is due to the current revival of the auto industry in Detroit? Why wouldn't the state live up to its obligation, and save the state's most important city... if democracy was still a cherished commodity by our elected officials?
These were the questions asked by everyday Detroiters at two recent meetings with local officials. But as Lila Cabil of the Rosa Parks Institute likes to say: "It's important that we ask, 'Who's the we in these meetings?' Often the we in these meeting rooms are not representative of the average citizens." In both cases, I really believe that those who showed up to support Crittendon are "the we."
But when ordinary Detroiters showed up to support Crittendon's plan, Bing exited stage left, saying the meeting had deteriorated into a circus. A few days later, he had his own impromptu but well-orchestrated dog-and-pony show.
Anticipating that "the we" would arrive on our usually fashionable CP time, Bing's ringmasters took queues from the Detroit Incinerator's Brownsfield Tax Credit Hearing back in November. The lower decks were packed with Bing staff and supporters. Even the only two City Council members who bothered to show up were seated up in the peanut gallery with the rest of the common folk. Imagine that!
What followed was an three-ringed display that would have made Barnum and Bailey blush. When Bing was presented with these questions, his answer was Gov. Snyder claims he's not legally obligated to live up to the revenue-sharing agreement signed by the previous governor. So why bother?
I'm no attorney. Neither is Bing. Crittendon, however, is. I would think she's offering the mayor a sound, reasonable alternative that would restore the city's finances and preserve democracy.
Maybe Snyder is right. With the way our courts operate these days, who knows? I do know that because a quarter of a million citizens put their name on a petition, Public Act 4 is still likely to be up for a referendum in November - despite the latest stalling tactic thrown up by the court of appeals. They were told it couldn't be done. It's a good thing those "we's" don't regard Bing and Snyder's opinion any more than Crittendon.
Having the state live up to its legally binding obligations to the city is worth fighting for. That is especially so when the alternative amounts to a complete abandonment of every principle that has made our society worth living in.
It's also worth noting that the supporters of the EM law don't hesitate to try every legal trick in the book to get their way. For example, take the bogus claim about font size, which initially delayed suspension of the EM Law. Why are our elected officials so averse to trying all options on behalf of the 99 percent?
This city can and will revive itself, but it's becoming increasingly clear that in order to do so, citizens will have to appeal to higher authority. If the state won't hear, then maybe the federal courts will. If the feds won't, there are laws granting inalienable rights that supersede them too. The process starts with each of us and true public servants like Crittendon.
As P.T. Barnum would say, "Those who really desire to attain an independence, have only to set their minds upon it, and adopt the proper means ... and the thing is easily done."