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The people of Detroit will be voting on a revised city charter Aug. 3. This governing document is the product of the efforts of the elected Detroit Revised Charter Commission, which was empowered in 2018 to develop it.
After more than 200 community meetings with all sectors of Detroit’s population, the Revised Charter being submitted to voters for approval is a remarkably progressive guide for governance of the city. However, it has been opposed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, both Democrats, who have tried unsuccessfully to keep the measure off the August ballot.
The Revised Charter’s Declaration of Rights reads:
“The people have a right to expect city government to provide for its residents, regardless of zip code: (a) affordable, habitable and safe housing; (b) job opportunities; (c) reliable, convenient, safe, accessible, affordable and comfortable public transportation options, whether walking, biking, driving, ride sharing or using public transit; (d) access to parks, urban green spaces and recreational facilities and activities; (e) cultural enrichment, including libraries and art and historical museums; and (f) clean air, soil and waterways; safe, clean and affordable drinking water and a sanitary, environmentally sound city.”
Immigrant rights and internet accessibility
The Charter’s equal protection clause adds immigration status as a protected class along with race, color, creed, national origin, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity. It provides for setting up a taskforce to investigate and report on inhumane and discriminatory treatment of ethnic minorities, Indigenous peoples and other categories of individuals or issues related to other human rights matters occurring within the boundaries of the city.
The Revised Charter also provides for an Office of Immigrant Affairs, responsible for providing services, advocacy, assistance and programming for Detroit’s diverse immigrant community.
The Revised Charter calls for fair broadband access for all Detroiters, including the development of a free public broadband network. This is a critical need in Detroit, a city where 40% of the population has no access to any type of internet, 57% lack a high-speed connection and 70% of school-aged children have no connection at home, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Affordable water, transit services and green initiatives
More than 100,000 Detroit families have had their water cut off over the last seven years. The Revised Charter addresses this mass crisis and mandates an amnesty on shutoffs to be implemented within 90 days of adoption of the charter.
It limits water bills to a maximum of 3% of household monthly income. It also prohibits any shutoffs for inability to pay for residences with pregnant women, youth under 18, elderly or disabled individuals or those who have chronic health conditions residing there. It contains language prohibiting shutoffs during periods of national or local health emergencies.
The Revised Charter mandates that city council pass an ordinance providing for reduced transit fare programs for low-income individuals, military veterans, unemployed people, homeless people, seniors, youth, individuals with disabilities and other people for whom a reduced fare is deemed necessary by city council. Low-income-based, reduced-fare programs shall be based on income levels below 200% of the federal poverty line.
The Revised Charter incorporates and expands the language limiting privatization of city services that was incorporated into the prior charter after a grassroots struggle. These limits on privatization, however, were ignored entirely while the city was under emergency management from 2013 to 2015.
The Revised Charter provides for setting up a city department to prepare and implement a long-term strategic plan to establish, use and support green initiatives and technologies and businesses, utilizing public and private partners.
Strong language to stop police abuse
The Revised Charter has strong language aimed at controlling police brutality and abuse in the city. It states: “The City’s police forces are in all cases and at all times in strict subordination to the civil power. It is recognized that individuals within the boundaries of the City of Detroit have a right to be free from police misconduct, including excessive police force and racial profiling, and shall enjoy unbiased, humane and dignified treatment from agents and agencies of law enforcement.”
The Revised Charter prohibits the police department form acquiring, stockpiling or accepting donations or transfers of military equipment or property from any federal military equipment program. It also prohibits use of kinetic energy munitions, or armor-piercing weapons, on individuals engaged in activities protected by the First Amendment.
The Revised Charter also provides for the following rights to protect people against police abuse: “1. Electronically record the actions of police officers; 2. Receive the reason for any police stop or detainment at the time of the stop or detainment; 3. Obtain an officer’s name, badge number and instructions for filing complaints upon request; 4. Request the presence of a supervising officer during police stops or detainment; and 5. Any other right as determined by the Board of Police Commissioners and approved by City Council.”
Answer to politicians: Make the banks pay!
The Revised Charter to be voted on has been attacked by Mayor Duggan and Gov. Whitmer as being too costly and threatening to put the City of Detroit into another financial disaster. The city emerged from financial oversight less than three years ago and from municipal bankruptcy in 2015.
However, the proposed revisions include an important section that would go a long way to solving the city’s ongoing financial problems by making the banks, who intentionally caused Detroit’s financial crises, repay the city for the disaster they created.
The Revised Charter provides for setting up a Taskforce on Reparations and African-American Justice. It states: “There is established a permanent Human Rights Commission Taskforce on Reparations and African-American Justice to study, investigate, report on and address through reparations, the involvement, facilitation, complicity and culpability of the City of Detroit in relationship to the slave trade, institutions of slavery, institutional and structural racism, and discrimination against enslaved Africans and their descendants.”
From 2005 to 1010, the people of Detroit, who formerly enjoyed the highest Black home ownership rate in the United States, were deliberately targeted by every major bank with a racist, criminal, predatory mortgage scheme.
Racist banks owe reparations
Bank salespeople were sent into Detroit’s neighborhoods to induce mostly African-American homeowners, many of whose homes had been fully paid off, to refinance their homes in order to obtain cash to take care of repairs or other family emergencies.
The banks induced homeowners into subprime, adjustable rate loans, with low teaser payments to begin with, but with the interest rates adjusting upward within a few years to unpayable amounts. Homeowners were falsely assured that they would be able to refinance before the adjustments kicked in.
These fraudulent loans were given the highest ratings by agencies like Moody’s and Standard and Poors, which were paid by the banks for these ratings. The ratings agencies chose to ignore the inevitable collapse that would and did come as a result of these unpayable loans, which made refinancing impossible and led to massive defaults and home foreclosures.
In Detroit, 65,000 families lost their homes to bank foreclosures between 2005-2015, with approximately one-quarter of Detroit’s residents driven out of the city, according to a report in the Detroit News. This was part of a national phenomenon that resulted in approximately13 million foreclosures of primarily African-American and Latino families, with 53% of Black wealth and 66% of Latino wealth being wiped out. Ultimately, the banks were bailed out of their losses by the federal government while families were tossed into the street.
With its tax base severely eroded by these massive foreclosures, the Detroit City treasury itself was then targeted by these same banks with predatory bonds featuring criminal interest rate swaps. These unpayable debts directly led to Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy and were the motor force behind the city’s massive water shutoffs.
Banks must pay for racist destruction
Many of the same banks who perpetrated the massive destruction of Black wealth in Detroit and across the United States during the predatory lending spree of the 2000s were involved in the slave trade, including JP Morgan, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Bank of America, according to the BBC.
The Reparations Taskforce provided for in the Revised Charter empowers the people to go after the banks and demand they repay Detroiters for the $4 billion (as estimated by the Detroit News) in subprime loans imposed on Black homeowners who subsequently lost their homes, as well as the hundreds of millions of dollars lost to interest rate swaps and other predatory loans by the city itself. This is on top of the trillions owed the descendants of slavery in this majority-African-American city.
Far from costing the city of Detroit money, the Revised Charter, with its provision for a Reparations Taskforce, shows the way for Detroiters to obtain the funds to rebuild our neighborhoods and restore this once-great city. This can be done, not by giving funds to developers and investors as practiced by the politicians, but by going after the banks and finance capitalists to repay the money stolen from the people.
Grassroots movement can win charter vote
A group of Mayor Duggan supporters filed a lawsuit in an attempt to keep the Revised Charter from even being submitted to a vote this August, but the Michigan Supreme Court ruled against them, at least for now, after a press conference and rally by supporters of the charter amendments.
Still, supporters of the Revised Charter are up against many obstacles. The Charter Commission, in contrast to the big-money politicians like Duggan and Whitmer who oppose the Revised Charter, has not even been provided with sufficient funds to mass print copies of the Revised Charter so the people of Detroit can be educated regarding its benefits.
It will take a grassroots movement to win the vote for the Revised Charter. In a city hard hit by the ravages of capitalism, a vote in favor of the charter would be an important step in reversing the attacks on the poor and working people of Detroit, and place them in a stronger position to fight back and assert their rights in the coming period.
A copy of the proposed Revised Charter with background on the charter commission can be found here.