Aug 252012

There are two reasons Occupy the Midwest chose to hold its second conference in Detroit: despair, and hope.

Detroit is one of the cities hit hardest by the ongoing Great Recession, triggered by the 2007 collapse and bailout of the banking system. Mortgage foreclosures and evictions are still adding empty houses to an alarming stock of abandoned buildings and crumbling neighborhoods.

From Tanzania to This Hood of Ours. Cocoloco Photography

But activist Detroit is also an internationally watched urban laboratory. Its self-sustaining, DIY projects, such as growing fresh food on vacant lots and rebuilding dilapidated houses, work largely outside of government, corporations, and the consumer-based economy. 

“We want to show that even in the worst conditions, we can make positive change,” in part by equipping people with the right skills and knowledge, said Occupy Chicago’s David Olorosso, one of the organizers of Occupy the Midwest.  The conference geared up on Thursday and runs through Sunday, Aug. 26. 

Made up of Occupy groups from a growing list of states including Iowa, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Indiana, Occupy the Midwest started as an idea within Occupy St. Louis,  which hosted the first conference last spring. 

This weekend’s conference is really two running simultaneously, sometimes intersecting. The sessions at Occupy Detroit hub 5900 Activist Center center around government and political strategy. The schedule at the This Hood of Ours encampment is more hands-on, focused on providing basic needs, protecting the environment, and property-use strategies. The conference program presents attendees with some difficult choices. 

Here are a few:

  • Tar Sands — When This Spills, It’s a Whole New Monster: Meet the whistleblower who exposed cover-up of 800,000-gallon oil spill in Kalamazoo River.
  • Creative Living and City Survival: Blueprints for sustainable communities using natural energy, surviving climate change, gathering wild edibles.
  • The Role of Banks in the Destruction of Detroit: How the foreclosure crisis created Detroit’s fiscal deficit; Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac’s role in foreclosure crisis.
  • Reclaiming Abandoned Houses: Necessary steps for reclaiming and securing property confiscated by banks and government agencies.
  • Another World is Possible:  Peoples’ right to choose their own food, farming, livestock and fisheries systems versus international market-force control over most food.

Also looming large: Michigan’s disputed emergency manager law, Public Act 4; (foreclosure) eviction defense; urban farming; new self-government ideas; and the Occupy movement’s first year. The list of participating activist and community organizations is a map of regional  cooperation.

Detroit is part of a nationwide race to save as many communities as possible as fast as possible, said Jasahn Larsosa, chief organizer for This Hood of Ours. The Detroit-based organization is a campaign started started three years ago to help reshape local economies from consumer-based to self-sustaining, from valuing money and convenience services to cooperating to provide basic needs. This Hood of Ours also operates in Cleveland and in Anderson, Indiana. 

Use the land. Cocoloco Photography

“It never occurs to us that an abandoned home is an asset to a neighborhood, or a vacant lot,” he said. “Use the land, grow your own food. Move into the houses.” 

Larsosa said it’s insulting that residents pay taxes for public services they’re not getting, buses that don’t run, trash that’s not collected, neglected schools and parks. Property taxes make up three quarters of the city’s budget; a third of Detroit land space is empty, abandoned, and unused. So when the city confiscates a house for unpaid taxes, he said, leaving it empty and vulnerable, “take it back.”  

Detroit’s patchy victories and grim failures make it the perfect host for Occupy the Midwest.

–Janet Braunstein


Jun 252012

Detroit police Chief Ralph Godbee is using this YouTube post to prepare officers for reduced standards of living and working under the city’s controversial consent agreement with the state of Michigan. He urges all police department employees to accept cuts in wages and benefits so that he won’t have to lay off any more officers.

“There will absolutely be some critical sacrifices we all must make,” Godbee says. “Yet I implore everyone to really understand that without these structural changes, our department will be drastically reduced even further.” Only one of the three police department unions has a contract. The other two have expired, Godbee said.

The consent agreement, which the city also calls a financial stability agreement, frees the city from negotiating with employees starting July 12. According to the official summary of the consent agreement, when a union contract expires, the city can let it lapse and set wages and benefits unilaterally.

Godbee says the current Detroit city budget cut away $75 million, or almost one fifth, of the department’s funding. That means Godbee already is struggling to cut 380 jobs, mostly by not replacing people who leave or retire and, according to the Detroit News, by requiring all job applicants to work as volunteer reserve officers before they’re put on the payroll.

Worse, Godbee says, under the 2012-2013 budget that starts July 1, the department still has 108 more people working than it can afford. The city of Detroit employees almost 10,800 people, down from 13,400 when Mayor Dave Bing took office, according to Bing’s state of the city address in March. The cuts continue.

The consent agreement restructured Detroit government so that it is controlled by a nine-member, non-elected financial advisory board that works with and answers to two new, non-elected officials in the mayor’s office: a program management director, and a chief financial officer. The city council approved the agreement in late April. The advisory board, which includes the president of Charter Bank of Michigan, began meeting in mid-June.

Bing and Gov. Rick Snyder have argued that the consent agreement lets city and state governments share control of city affairs instead of turning everything over to a non-elected emergency manager. Under the vilified Public Act 4, Michigan’s emergency manager law, the governor could appoint a single person to control all city finances and control all city operations. That includes firing elected officials, closing departments and agencies, outsourcing public services such as street lighting or buses, selling off public assets such as parks, and, of course, voiding union contracts.

–Janet Braunstein

Jun 172012

Michigan’s controversial emergency manager law was signed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on March 16, 2011, effective the same day. It enables a governor to appoint an emergency manager to take control of local governments and school districts found insolvent by a review board. The review board is appointed by the governor, and, yes, so is the emergency manager.

The emergency manager serves at the pleasure of the governor; only the governor can fire one. The act allows an appointed EM to break labor contracts, make sweeping budget cuts, fire elected officials, and sell city assets, among other powers, without the consent of the public or the people the public elected to serve them. Why? According to the following excerpt from the law, officially called Public Act 4 of 2011:

“The legislature hereby determines that the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of this state would be materially and adversely affected by the insolvency of local governments and that the fiscal accountability of local governments is vitally necessary to the interests of the citizens of this state to assure the provision of necessary governmental services essential to public health, safety, and welfare. The legislature further determines that it is vitally necessary to protect the credit of this state and its political subdivisions and that it is necessary for the public good and it is a valid public purpose for this state to take action and to assist a local government in a condition of financial stress or financial emergency so as to remedy the stress or emergency by requiring prudent fiscal management and efficient provision of services, permitting the restructuring of contractual obligations, and prescribing the powers and duties of state and local government officials and emergency managers. The legislature, therefore, determines that the authority and powers conferred by this act constitute a necessary program and serve a valid public purpose.”

In other words, the state believes control of selected cities, towns and school districts in financial trouble should be transferred to state-appointed managers with powers that would be unconstitutional for elected officials to use. The state decides which cities these are.

Activists across Michigan continued protesting after the signing of Public Act 4, which strengthens and broadens powers held by an “emergency financial manager” under a previous version of the law.

In fact, activists collected 228,000 signatures, more than enough, on a petition to put repeal of Public Act 4 to a vote on the November 6, 2012, Michigan statewide ballot. If the repeal stays on the ballot, the law will be suspended.

But the Michigan Board of State Canvassers challenged the petitions’ validity on grounds that the three-word headers were printed in the wrong font size: 12-point instead of the required 14-point. It was acting on a complaint from Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, a group formed by members of the politically conservative and partisan Michigan Chamber of Commerce to oppose ballot petitions they disagree with.

To decide whether the font was the right size or not, the board of canvassers called experts to testify. In this video,  expert witness Michael Migrin, who retired after 22 years as a printer for the state, says the font size is correct and describes with some amusement his view of the partisan pettiness of challenge (don’t miss his tie):

Chris Corneal, a Michigan State University professor, also provided expert testimony finding the font size correct.

Made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, the board  split the vote. The Democrats voted to accept the petition while the Republicans voted to deny it, despite the expert testimony.

To break the tie, the question went to a three-judge Michigan Court of Appeals panel. The judges, all Republicans, acknowledged that a 30-year-old precedent that required them to accept an imperfect petition if it substantially complies with the law. Still, they asked that a panel of seven special judges consider it further, delaying the petition again. The full appeals court voted to refuse and ordered the board of canvassers to put the question on the November ballot.

It’s not difficult to imagine why all of this effort, time, and cost was exhausted around a trivial technicality, in fact, a false technicality. Desperate measures wasted taxpayer money in a partisan attempt to block a ballot measure restoring power to the citizens. Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility likely knew the conclusion but hoped to create a delay long enough to keep the proposal off the November ballot. Justice has prevailed, this time. Republicans learned valuable lesson: size doesn’t matter.

The question remains whether the case will go to the Michigan Supreme Court and, if it does, whether the court will hear it. Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility plans to appeal, according to a spokesman for the group. Hopefully, their appeal won’t be delayed by paperwork submitted in the wrong font type.

– Terry Hall