Dominion of New York


December 15, 2011

The Takeover of Detroit

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Written by: William Copeland


he NBC show “Parks and Recreation” features a relatively benign and good-natured Emergency Management Team that motivates city workers to creatively problem-solve and think-outside-the-box to save the city’s crippled budget.  Each week the nation gets lots of laughs from the camaraderie between the managers and the municipal officials, who act as though they all were on the same team. In Detroit and other majority black cities in Michigan, we’ve experienced EM’s as closer to a horror flick than a situation comedy.

If the plans to send an EM to Detroit are successful, then the majority of Black people in the state of Michigan will be administered by these managers.

Highland Park, Michigan (93 percent black) was hit with an emergency manager and had to pay his salary of $200,000 per year and other consultant fees out of the city budget.  When he left, the city was further impoverished, hundreds of citizens faced home water shutoffs and related life-or-death issues, and the city’s problems were still unsolved.

Detroit Public Schools has been under emergency management for years, and now the governor is threatening to place the entire city under emergency management. After the schools were taken over by the state from 1999 to 2005 and again in 2009,   EM Robert Bobb left his office advocating for a plan that would have closed dozens more schools and left up to 60 students in a classroom. This was his emergency recommendation for fiscal responsibility!

Detroit’s budget is a mess. But cities across America are struggling, even the U.S. government itself. The New York Times reports in “When States Shut Down for Business” that Pennsylvania, Tennessee, New Jersey, and Minnesota all had shut downs from 2002 to 2009, ranging from a few hours to nine days from financial shortfalls. How many of the cities there went into receivership?

If the new plan to send an EM to Detroit is successful, then the majority of Black people in the state of Michigan will be administered by these managers.   As the EM has the ability to remove elected officials and can spend money in ways that aren’t accountable to elected officials, it would take away our ability to govern ourselves.  When you look at the cities in Michigan that have been selected for emergency management, you’ll see that they are all majority Black cities and towns. In addition to Highland Park, other cities touched by emergency management include Benton Harbor (89.2%), Detroit (82.7%), Inkster (61.3%), Flint (56.6%), and Pontiac (52.1%).

What Is An Emergency Manager

In Michigan, emergency managers are appointed by the governor when he or she judges a municipality’s budget deficit to be irreparable. The EM has the absolute power to disincorporate the city, sell its assets, remove its elected leaders, privatize or eliminate services, and break union contracts, among other measures. During the state of Michigan’s 1999-2005 takeover of Detroit public schools, the elected school board was disbanded.

In the name of saving the system, the services that people depended on for livelihood and well-being were slashed until they were useless and unrecognizable. School Board Member Elena Herrada reports in a Facebook note to her constituents, “We have gone into much more debt, closed schools and lost many students from our District.  Those in power have set up a ‘failing district’ which is state wide, but only Detroit is in it. This parallel district is run by private interests.  There is no public oversight to it.”

In these select black municipalities, where budget deficits have led to the removal of the elected leadership, our political leaders face racial stereotyping that they are incompetent.


About the Author

William Copeland
William Copeland
William Copeland is an organizer and cultural worker from Detroit. He works as EMEAC's Stand Up Speak Out (SUSO) Youth Coordinator and helped to create the city-wide Youth leadership team- - Young Educators' Alliance. He is working with a group of Detroit activists to create the Whole Note Healing Collective, breathing this process one step at a time. He served as one of the local coordinators for the 2010 US Social Forum and participated in the 2011 Detroit 2 Dakar Delegation to Dakar, Senegal.


Photo Courtesy of Flickr/vpickering
Photo courtesy of Flickr/SelbeB.

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