Distorted Reality in Detroit

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Distorted Reality in Detroit

In Detroit, the fight for dignity and democracy is just beginning. (Photo: Flickr/cc/changsterdam)

One year ago Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr filed for bankruptcy. It has been a brutal year for the people of Detroit. Step by step we have seen long cherished rights and values trampled on in the name of financial necessity.

Public lands have been given away. Generous tax breaks have been handed to developers, while elders have seen their pensions taxed and slashed. People have been threatened. Many have lost livelihood, home, and health care. Schools have been closed. Classrooms are packed. Political cronies line their pockets while abusing our children in academies designed to deaden imagination, connection, and creativity.

We the people have been lied to. Kevyn Orr, Jones Day, Rick Snyder and the right wing forces in our country have long been thinking about how bankruptcy can be used to attack pensions, privatize services, and destroy the political power of cities. As early as 2011, Jones Day lawyers were considering how bankruptcy could be used to eliminate pension obligations. Emails released in Court over this year document the secret plotting to move the city toward bankruptcy. Meanwhile Jones Day is collecting millions from Detroit while they peddle their expertize to Puerto Rico.

Orr/Snyder and their corporate sponsors claim cities are just administrative units. Concerns for public health and welfare are reduced to simple equations and potential markets. Political choices, balancing costs and benefits, to whom and for what purpose, are decided behind closed doors, with no public explanation or accountability.

Thus we are faced with decisions that defy rationality. We are presented with conclusions that benefit bankers, businesses, and a small financial elite.  

This assault on Detroit includes a form of psychological warfare.  The first shot of this battle was in August of last year. EM Orr told the Wall Street Journal the people of Detroit are “dumb, lazy, happy and rich.’

A storm of protest forced Orr to distance himself from the crudeness of his comment. But its essence guides his thinking. It is the same thinking invoked to justify the aggressive shut offs of water to thousands of Detroiters who cannot meet their bills.

Daniel Howes of the Detroit News reflected it last week when he wrote about “scofflaws.” These are the people of Detroit, he says, who think we “could ignore bills without fear of a shut-off, plead poverty, blame accounting snafus in their books, run to City Hall in search of political intervention, or petition the United Nations in the name of human rights violations. Howes argued that Detroiters are living in a “culture marked by entitlement and abandonment."

Echoing the dumb, lazy happy and rich image, Howes explains that the recent increase in water costs of nearly 9% in a year is “driven by the disproportionately high number of water customers in Detroit who consume water they do not pay for. The result: higher percentage rate increases for Detroiters who do pay than for overall users of the system.”

This effort to demonize and divide people in the city is an old tactic. It ignores basic facts: most notable among them is that since 2005 there have been efforts to tie the cost of water to the ability to pay. This would be both financially sound and ensure the right of all to water.

Because the city has not implemented the Water Affordability Plan, approved by Council in 2006, Detroiters are paying twice the national average for water. In the last decade, our bills have increased 119%. Most residents pay 20% of their pretax income for water, nearly ten times the EPA recommendation.

Howes, Orr, Snyder, Duggan, most of the city council and administrators at the water department know nothing of the people in this city.  They make decisions based on myths, supported by a right wing ideology. Then they repeat the myths over and over again, to try to get the rest of us to believe in their distorted reality.

Shea Howell

Shea Howell is a professor and chair of the Department of Communication and Journalism at Oakland University in Rochester, MI, where she teaches courses on communication theory and multicultural and political communication. Her most recent book is Making Sense of Political Ideology.

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