Detroiters demand: ‘Turn on the lights!’

For six weeks in a row, community activists in Detroit have held “light walks” every Thursday night. Radio talk show host Cynthia Johnson, who initiated the walks, pointed out that there are a number of major thoroughfares around the city that are pitch dark when night falls. Busy bus stops are unlit. Residents around Dexter Street, where the walks have been held, describe hair-raising situations such as being in a wheelchair and almost being hit by a car or smashing the brake pedal to avoid hitting a child.

“Mayor [Mike] Duggan promised a year ago the lights would be turned on,” said Errol Jennings, president of Russell Woods-Sullivan Historic Neighborhood Association.

This unsafe situation was preventable. Decades of neglect, failure to purchase new bulbs and mass layoffs of union workers in the city-owned Public Lighting Department left many neighborhoods in the dark. Public buildings on PLD’s power grid experienced regular outages. This became the excuse former Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr used to dismantle PLD and make private utility DTE Energy the power supplier. The state created the Public Lighting Authority as an independent entity, incurring a debt of $185 million to the banks.

Emergency managers are appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder over cities he deems to be in financial distress; almost every Michigan city with an EM has a majority Black population. Under Public Act 436 — popularly known as the “dictator law” — the EM has the power to break union contracts, sell off city assets and make all kinds of decisions without the approval of the elected mayor and city council. Payment to the banks, by law, takes precedent over city services.

The city of Detroit had only 35,000 out of 88,000 existing lights working as of 2014, but the PLA brags that “the lights are coming back on.” This seems to only be true in the downtown and midtown areas that are targeted for gentrification, but the spin doctors of the capitalist media have used these limited improvements to convince the country there is a “comeback” in Detroit. In fact, the PLA plans to reduce the total number of street lights to 45,000, leaving many areas of the city in darkness. Neighborhood residents, stuck in their homes on a nice summer night because of unsafe, unlit streets, aren’t seeing a comeback but are wanting a fightback.