Power and Politics in Detroit Under Emergency Management

Electrical outage serves as prelude to privatization of public lighting

When the lights went out at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center (CAYMAC), the City-County Building, on September 11 it was during one of the hottest days of the year.  People were trapped in elevators while civil servants and court employees were sent home since they could not complete their work for the day.

Soon it was discovered by the public that the lights had been turned off intentionally under the guise of preventing a possible larger and more protracted outage that would encompass broader areas of the city. When statements were made by two functionaries of Emergency Manager (EM) Kevyn Orr blaming city employees for the drastic measures then it became clear that politics were involved in the decision.

Detroit like many other municipal areas around the United States needs massive reinvestment in its power supplying infrastructure. The systematic disinvestment in cities and the privatization of public services is the objective of the corporations and banks which dictate governmental decisions and expenditures.

DTE Energy has a virtual monopoly on the supply of electricity and natural gas services in the Detroit metropolitan area. Power outages have become more frequent is recent years also due to the failure of this major corporation to upgrade its infrastructure which is valued at more than $20 billion.

The Detroit Public Lighting system has been in need of a massive overhaul for decades. At present large sections of the city remain dark in the evening hours making driving and walking a major hazard.

CAYMAC and other large public structures in Detroit are supplied power through the Public Lighting system and not DTE Energy. This has been a major focus of the energy supplier and its minions for a number of years.

What is the solution to this problem for the Emergency Manager Orr who was appointed against the will of the people of Detroit six months ago? There has been a plan underway for some time even under corporate-oriented Mayor Dave Bing, who has served as a board member for the corporation, to turn over public lighting to DTE Energy to manage its operations.

When two aides of Orr spoke to the media on September 11-12 they as much admitted the political character of the power outage. Bill Nowlings, who is the spokesperson for the EM said that “The outages are a precautionary measure while DTE and city crews work to fix two main lines in the grid that went down earlier today.” (Fox2 News Detroit, September 12)

Nowling went on to say “That city grid customers were asked to reduce power, but failed to, so we had to move intentional outages to protect crucial service.” These decisions were made without any consultation with the Mayor’s office or the City Council.

The buildings impacted by the power outage were CAYMAC, the McNamara Federal Building, the Detroit Public Library main branch on Woodward avenue, Wayne State University, the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the People Mover, an elevated train that services downtown.

Gary Brown, who resigned his City Council position as president pro-tem to take a position with EM Orr, told the local Fox2 News in Detroit also that the power outage was intentional. Brown, who was fired as a top police official under former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, sued the city and won a large settlement in 2008, precipitating perjury and misconduct charges against Kilpatrick leading to his resignation from office.

Brown ran for City Council in 2009 and was elected as the second highest voter getter on the legislative body. During his City Council tenure he supported a right-wing corporate agenda advocating massive service cuts and lay-offs of municipal employees.

Three months ago Brown jumped ship from City Council and took a position with the state-appointed EM for a salary three times as much as the one he earned as an elected official. This follows a pattern under emergency management where functionaries are paid salaries that far exceed those of elected officials and civil servants even though the city has been placed in a so-called “financial emergency” and bankruptcy.

Brown, when asked why the power was turned off and were the occupants of the building warned, said “We did start calling our customers prior to taking them down and asking them to turn off air conditioners, but they weren’t responding as fast as we would like them to so we had to send them a strong message by turning the power off.”  He made these statements standing outside the CAYMAC building on September 11. (Fox2 News, September 12)

Brown went on to say when asked how the EM could justify turning the power off when people were in elevators on a 90-plus degree day that “I say we’re working very hard to get them out of the elevators.  I’ve turned the power on in the building we’re standing in front of (City County Building) to get people out of the elevator. I made sure people got out of the City County Building, turning the power back on.”

Brown told Detroit television station news staff that the real problem is the Detroit Power and Lighting Department’s aging grid, which is a real reason the city says it has agreed to turn over services to DTE.  The transfer has not happened yet. If we don’t take precautionary measures we could lose large parts of the city and we can’t allow that to happen.” (Fox2 News, September 12)

Nonetheless, DTE Energy is a major part of the problems facing the people of Detroit. The corporation shuts off services for over 100,000 customers each year throughout the area. These shut-offs have caused tremendous suffering and deaths.

When power services are shut-off it forces people out of their homes and the city. DTE Energy has refused to impose a moratorium on utility shut-offs as demanded by the Moratorium NOW! Coalition for the last four years. The Coalition held demonstrations against the corporation in 2009 and took it to court to force the company to turn the power back on in an apartment building in Highland Park that same year.

Turning over the city lighting system to DTE Energy will not benefit the people of Detroit or southeastern Michigan. In the September of 2010, a series of 85 fires erupted in various parts of Detroit which many people attributed to the failure of DTE Energy to respond to complaints about power surges and fallen wires.

The Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC), which is supposed to monitor the operations of the utility companies, held hearings during the Fall of 2010 in response to complaints about DTE Energy’s role in the fires. The MPSC absolved the firm of responsibility although public apprehension about the energy supplier continued.

Moratorium NOW! Coalition and Others Calls for Weekend of Solidarity With Detroit

On October 5 & 6, the Moratorium NOW! Coalition and over 60 other organizations and individuals from around the U.S. will gather in downtown Detroit at Grand Circus Park for an International People’s Assembly Against Banks and Austerity. The gathering is designed to continue the struggle against the imposition of emergency management in Detroit, which has the largest per capita African American population in the U.S.

Moratorium NOW! Coalition has been holding demonstrations outside the federal courthouse in downtown where the bankruptcy hearings are held. David Sole, a former president of UAW Local 2334 and a retired city employee, has spearheaded the organization of the Stop the Theft of Our Pensions Committee (STOP).

Retiree pensions are under threat by the EM who is working for the banks and corporations in their efforts to destroy the municipal unions and expropriate the benefits of retirees. A large banner saying “Cancel the Debt” has drawn the attention of the local, national and world media when it is hoisted outside the courthouse.

There are two major hearings coming up that the Coalition for an International People’s Assembly Against Banks and Austerity are urging Detroiters to attend. On September 19, over 100 people who have filed objections to the bankruptcy will be heard in court and on October 23-24, a hearing on the constitutionality of the bankruptcy will take place.

The International People’s Assembly Against Banks and Austerity will feature speakers, workshops, mass demonstrations and strategy sessions. Endorsements are still coming in and the organizers are encouraging all concerned organizations and individuals to pledge their support.



Mr. Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor for the Pan-African News Wire, is one of the frequent contributors for The 4th Media.



For more information on the event in Detroit just log on to the following websites:http://www.moratorium-mi.org and http://www.internationalpeoplesassembly.org orhttp://www.detroitdebtmoratorium.org .

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