This past May Day over a dozen community members and activists showed up at the 36th District Court for the arraignment of two longtime Detroit activists and community leaders, Elena Herrada and Bill Wylie-Kellerman. Both had been arrested last week Tuesday at the city council for staging a civil demonstration against a 5-2 vote approving Jones Day, a global law firm, as Mayor Dave Bing’s choice in restructuring the city’s finances.
The announcement, made March 1, was met early on by vocal opposition from many community groups who questioned the conflict of interest in handing a 6-month $3.4 million contract to the former employer of the new emergency final manager, Kevin Orr, appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder on March 14 for 18 months with a $275,000 salary. The powerhouse law firm, based in five continents, has an extensive corporate client list including CVS, Chrysler, ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, and Bank of America, some of which hold deep ties to the city’s finances, as with Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, one of the city’s bond creditors and responsible for a sleuth of the home foreclosures over the years.
Orr, a bankruptcy attorney, had worked, before resigning early March, at Jones Day since 2001. His burden is restructuring a city saddled with a $380 million short-term debt and $14 billion long-term debt. Soon after his appointment it was revealed Orr had previously defended AmeriDebt and National Century Financial Enterprises Inc. against federal charges of fraudulence and scamming.
As reported by the Detroit News, “AmeriDebt was a credit counseling company whose clientele was largely poor, and in 2003 regulators alleged the firm scammed $172 million in hidden fees from 300,000 customers.” Orr also represented “National Century Financial Enterprises in its bankruptcy in 2002” which led “to the bankruptcies of more than 200 hospitals and clinics nationwide and involved nearly $3 billion in corporate fraud, according to prosecutors.”
That Jones Day is a predominantly White firm managing the resources of a predominantly Black city is another concern for many. Detroit’s newspaper of record, The Michigan Citizen, recently published some historical facts on the firm worth reprinting:
· 1893 — founded in Cleveland, Ohio
· 1982 — first Black partner
· 2,400 attorneys world wide
· 36 offices worldwide
· $1.6 million in annual revenues
· 828 partners; four lawyers of color elevated to partner annually since 2003; total number of Black partners unknown; 153 women partners.
On April 30, about three dozen protesters gathered in the city council chambers, organized to nonviolently oppose the approval vote. Sitting on the ground or standing, linking arms and singing “We shall not be moved,” chanting “Shame, Shame, Shame!” they successfully delayed the vote for over an hour before police came in and informed they would be removed if remaining defiant, which some did. DPS board member Elena Herrada says they were not warned of arrest prior, yet were soon after handcuffed, driven off in a bus to the precinct, charged with misdemeanors and then released.
A week later, they pled not guilty, reserving the right to a pre-trial, and were assigned a new court date on July 18.
“We want to have a trial because we want to keep the light on Jones Day,” Herrada said after the arraignment. “And because of the media blackout we have to find any possible way to inform the people.” Speaking on the decision to waive a plea bargain, she explained: “This is one avenue that is still open to us. And because of that we shall not be moved.”
Bill Wylie-Kellerman, pastor at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, was also arrested and spoke of the 50-year commemoration of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail which spoke of “unjust laws” and the moral responsibility to break them. Kellerman said this portion best reflects the new EM law, Public Act 72, signed in response to an overwhelming (82% in Detroit), city-wide repeal of the former law, PA 4, last November. He also called for greater community engagement on these issues, expressing a “level of disappointment at [the] passivity” of the city council. “The Jones Day contract,” he continued, “is the layout for the EM crisis; it is unjust and unconstitutional.”
The Jones Day fiasco has become a strong emblem for current state of affairs—likeable to lawlessness and corporate impunity, undaunted by protests over corruption, the looting of public resources, wholesale auctioning of neighborhoods and the denial of voting rights—with the imposition of emergency managers who hold absolute power, can arbitrarily shred union contracts, fire public employees, and dissolve locally elected boards. So far, this remains a reality reflected predominantly in cities with large poor Black populations—Inkster, Allen Park, Flint, and Benton Harbor.
For Detroit, the impact of external control ricochets past the council chambers into its public schools, which are being closed, defunded, and transferred out for management by corporate entities. An example was with the creation of the Education Achievement Authority in May 2010, through an inter-local agreement between the governor and the appointed board of regents at Eastern Michigan University.
Coincidentally, the day after the court hearing, Detroit Public Schools emergency manager and EAA chairman, Roy Roberts, announced his resignation. Appointed in May 2011 by Governor Rick Snyder, Roberts’ week was particularly bad – he was implicated for “borrowing” $12 million from DPS coffers to keep the EAA afloat and then in a revealing press conference May 2nd, attended by DPS board members, Roberts, a former VP of sales at General Motors, let out a moment of truth, saying he was tapped to “blow up the district and dismantle it.”
This had been the long-held conviction of several prominent education advocates in the city. In her testimony in January at the Department of Education, Helen Moore spoke about the mass school closings and the fracturing of the school system.
“All the things that are happening to us is by design,” Moore had said. “They got us divided into fractions. It’s a schizoid in Detroit. We don’t even know what is going on.”
From the Jones Day contract to the EAA, the struggles run parallel—a people stripped of their agency, self-governance, right-to-know, and inheritance in the name of reform and development.
The collateral damage of these policies was evident a few minutes before Herrada and Kellerman were called up by the bailiff when Trudy Ingram, the mother of a 9th grade student at Henry Ford High School (EAA), took the stand: she was being fined $500 because her daughter (subsequently suspended) had missed a day of school. Ingram was able to get the fine absolved, yet wondered afterward why she and her daughter were being dragged to court, both forced to miss work and school. “I think it’s unfair and it’s really inconveniencing,” she said. “Why should she have to go to court? It’s another day she’s missing.”
Ingram had seen traces of this pattern emerge months back with a 9-yr-old nephew who got into a fight and was expelled from his elementary school, missing school for 3 months. It’s a pattern of disposability—students and parents disappeared without context. “No talk or nothing. They just get rid of you real quick.”
Without critical action, this could be a pattern without end.
Tolu Olorunda is among other things a writer and multi-media journalist currently living in Detroit. Reach him atTolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.