“Give us the ballot!”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s words still resonate with many of us today. From the marches and protests in Selma, Ala., to the hundreds of voting-rights lawsuits to the on-the-ground slogan “One Man, One Vote,” the road to equal voting rights has not been easy, particularly for communities of color.
This year conservatives have attempted to rewind the clock by stripping certain groups of their political power, and unfortunately, they have been successful in many places. In Michigan, a conservative-backed law that threatens to rob poor people of color of their democratic voice was passed without the attention it deserved. Under the pretext of fiscal accountability, the Michigan Legislature authorized the use of emergency managers who threaten the very fabric of our democracy: participation.
So far, emergency managers appointed by the Michigan governor have closed 75 percent of traditional public schools in Detroit, suspended the power of the mayors and city councils in Pontiac and Benton Harbor without any say by community members, and privatized emergency services in Ecorse. In Detroit, because the Detroit Public Schools’ emergency manager has the power to revoke public contracts and award them to anyone, the district has reneged on union contracts, and teachers are now being asked to pay a percentage of their health benefits and take a pay cut.
These managers have sweeping powers to take over a city or school district and sell its public assets (including land and buildings); revoke public contracts; suspend the power of locally elected officials; and dissolve cities, towns and school districts altogether. These decisions can be made with little to no supervision, oversight or accountability and without input from citizens. Essentially these managers can act as “dictators” over fiscally strapped communities of color.
While many jurisdictions in Michigan are in fiscal crisis and therefore are eligible for emergency managers, almost all of the communities where they have been appointed are predominantly black. In these black communities, public schools are being shuttered, public jobs are being privatized, mayors and city council members are being unseated and silenced, and deficits, in some cases, are actually increasing.
Black communities are the “guinea pigs” for ending democracy as we know it. And recently, the state took steps to put another black city, Flint, and another black school district, Highland Park, on the track toward emergency management.