Detroit emergency manager dictates ‘lights out’

When the lights went out at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center (CAY­MAC) in downtown Detroit on Sept. 11, it was 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 that the power had been turned off intentionally under the guise of preventing a possibly larger and more protracted outage encompassing broader areas of the city. When statements were made by two functionaries of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, blaming city employees for the drastic measures, 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 are 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 in recent years due to the failure of this major corporation to upgrade its infrastructure, which is valued at more than $20 billion.

The Detroit Public Lighting Department system has been in need of a massive overhaul for decades. 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 Detroit 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 EM Orr, who was appointed by Michigan’s reactionary governor against the will of the people of Detroit six months ago? A plan has been underway for some time under corporate-oriented Mayor Dave Bing, who has served as a board member for the power company, to turn over public lighting to DTE Energy to manage its operations.

When two aides of Orr spoke to the media on Sept. 11-12, they as much admitted the political character of the power outage. Bill Nowlings, who is the spokesperson for the EM, said, “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, Sept. 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 major downtown 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.

‘Strong message’ for privatization

Gary Brown, who resigned his City Council position as president pro-tem to take a position with EM Orr, told local Fox2 News Sept. 12 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, which led to the mayor’s resignation.

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 layoffs of municipal employees.

Three months ago Brown jumped ship from the City Council and took a position with the state-appointed EM for a salary three times higher than the one he earned as an elected official. Under emergency management, 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 buildings 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.”

Brown said that the real problem is the Detroit Public Lighting Department’s aging grid, which is the 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.”

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

Turning over the city lighting system to DTE Energy will not benefit the people of Detroit or southeastern Michigan. In September 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, which is supposed to monitor the operations of the utility companies, held hearings in 2010 in response to complaints about DTE Energy’s role in the fires. The PSC absolved the company of responsibility, though public apprehension about the energy supplier continues.

Oct. 5-6 weekend of solidarity with Detroit

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 shutoffs as demanded during the last four years by the Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shutoffs. The coalition held demonstrations against DTE in 2009 and took the corporation to court to force it to turn the power back on in an apartment building in Highland Park that same year.

On Oct. 5 and 6, Moratorium NOW! and 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 the Banks and Against Austerity.

The gathering will continue the struggle against the imposition of emergency management in Detroit, which has the largest per capita African-American population in the U.S., as well as against the city bankruptcy and disenfranchisement of the city’s residents. The assembly will link the struggles facing Detroiters with those affected by similar problems wrought by the banks and corporations throughout the U.S. and internationally.

The Moratorium NOW! Coalition has been holding demonstrations outside the federal courthouse in downtown where the bankruptcy hearings are held. David Sole, former president of United Auto Workers Local 2334 and a retired city employee, has spearheaded the organization of the Stop the Theft of Our Pensions Committee. Retiree pensions are under threat by the EM, who is working for the banks and corporations in their efforts to destroy the city unions and expropriate workers’ and retirees’ benefits. A large banner reading “Cancel the Debt” when hoisted outside the courthouse has drawn the attention of local, national and world media.

Two major bankruptcy court hearings are coming up that activists are urging Detroiters to attend. On Sept. 19, more than 100 people who have filed objections to the bankruptcy will be heard in court, and on Oct. 23-24 a hearing on the constitutionality of the bankruptcy will take place. The Michigan constitution prohibits cities from taking actions that threaten workers’ pensions.

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