Residents Locked-Out Of Kevyn Orr's Public Meeting In Classic Detroit Style

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It can be hard sometimes to understand the vitriol of Detroit activists who opposed seemingly common-sense reforms like converting Belle Isle from a public city park into a public state park. It also can be hard to understand the outrage stemming Kevyn Orr’s appointment as Detroit emergency manager. Cities, after all, are not autonomous units of government. They are creations of and agents for state government. That’s settled Constitutional law. Read Hunter v. Pittsburgh, if you don't understand.

The depth and breadth of Detroit’s financial mess require extraordinary measures to fix systemic problems. An elected government that spent the last decade selling long-range bonds to pay for short-term expenses while doing dirty deals with sludge haulers has clearly abdicated their responsibility to solve these systemic problems. 

However, it’s hard to have the conversation about these complex issues when the powers that be literally lock their critics out of the room. Roughly 100 more Detroiters showed up for Orr’s public meeting at Wayne State’s law school than the facility could accommodate. The police shooed the overflow out of the building and into the rainy evening air.

This is how dissent becomes hostile and intractable.

More importantly, this is how, on June 10, 2013 at Wayne State University, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr officially became a Detroit politician.

A Detroit Thing

Orr and his crew are responsible for what happened Monday. But a government that operates with this sort of contempt for the people it governs isn’t an EM thing or a Kevyn Orr thing. It’s a Detroit thing.

Detroit currently has a mayor who seems visibly uncomfortable around regular Detroiters. The previous elected mayor traveled with a bodyguard that could only be described as imperial.

City Council has for years held critical meetings like mayoral budget addresses in their cramped, Dr. Stranglove war room-like “Committee of the Whole” chambers. Usually in these situations, Council’s spacious auditorium across the hall sits empty or is occupied by some function with a half-dozen people in attendance.

In contrast, when Troy was vigorously debating their transit center project in 2012 and their City Council chamber could not hold all the residents who showed up, overflow rooms were set-up in city hall so the public could watch their government on closed circuit TV and register for public comment.

This is what good government does: They hold public meetings in rooms that can accommodate the public 95% of time. The other 5% of the time, constructive solutions are found to handle the overflow.

In Detroit, where good government went out about the time they tore down old city hall, meetings take place in rooms that will accommodate the public for maybe 30% of all public sessions. The rest of the time, government essentially tells the public to blow it out their ass.

Manufacturing Capacity Crowds

That’s what happened Monday night when the Wayne State law school auditorium — not, by the way, the largest room on campus — couldn’t hold the public that showed up for Orr’s public meeting.

There was no overflow facility. Instead, there was crowded vestibule of increasingly angrier residents told by police that they weren’t welcome in a meeting with the man who holds Detroit’s fate in his hands.

Even if you have little sympathy for the anti-EM crowd’s position — you would be largely right to hold that view —  it’s hard to argue with their right to participate in a public meeting with Orr.

Open government works because of Voltaire’s maxim about defending the right to say disagreeable things. Let’s not forget when Congressmen like John Dingell and Delaware Republican Mike Castle withstood public meetings full of shouty Tea Party Jacobins like professionals.

Detroit politicians, a category that as I say now includes Kevyn Orr, see themselves as flowers far too delicate to deal with the public undiluted. Granted, an undiluted mass of homo americanus is almost always unpleasant. However, dealing with them is, you know, the job of a public servant.

Rather than engaging the public, mollifying critics, or at least spending an evening hearing them out and moving on, Detroit politicians stage manage these things like Soviet bureaucrats. We've seen it time and time again. Small rooms packed with insiders, questions only taken via note cards so really tough inquiries can be ignored, etc. By following that playbook, Orr essentially ensured his critics will only get angrier.

When DPD and Wayne State police, who frankly looked like the sort of beefy white cops who once climbed out of Big Four and STRESS cruisers to bang on black kids, tell Detroiters they can’t attend a public meeting, it only feeds the sense of injustice and exclusion that fuels so much of the outrage.

And when those police officers start shoving reporters observing a tense situation in a public facility outside a public meeting, well, the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilled prophesy. 

Crowd Control The Wayne State Way

The cops wanted the law school vestibule cleared and it was easier hassling a guy like me than an indignant protester. I can’t complain, though. The Detroit Police lieutenant who shoved me out of the building was reasonably gentle. It was a crowd control move. The Wayne State cop who manhandled Steve Neavling, stringing for Reuters Monday, made sure Steve landed on the ground. Hard. That was unnecessary. 

Yeah, the police were sent to do a difficult job by politicians who lack the courage to deal with this crowd. I get that. But those of us observing on behalf of the Fourth Estate had our own job to do. It does not involve leaving a scene that could have easily turned into a small-scale riot.

I’ll give the cops credit for one thing: They understood, in a way probably lost on the politicians, that the optics are better pushing around white journalists rather than black protesters. Truth be told, that was probably for the best. More truthfully, there was no reason to manhandle anyone.

I have the luxury of being philosophical about the incident: All in the game, yo.

The problem is Detroit has no such luxury. It can no longer afford to play games . To the best of their ability, people like Kevyn Orr need to convince the greatest number possible that their work is necessary, that Detroit is in as bad shape as they claim. Because it really is.

To be sure, Orr will never win unanimous acclaim even if all goes perfectly — something, by the way, pro-EM folks shouldn’t assume will automatically happen — but there’s no angle in giving his opponents ammunition.

Whatever the 250 or so people inside the hall may have heard, all that was accomplished outside was to reinforce the worst suspicions about who does and does not get a voice in Detroit.

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