Spinning Democracy

Spinning Democracy
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, May 9, 2010

The mainstream media bias against Detroit surfaced starkly last week. It centered around sharply contrasting reports on the role of citizens in public meetings.

Concerned and angry individuals of Troy, Utica, South Lyon and Royal Oak who spoke up at public meetings were portrayed as citizens  trying to exercise their right to free speech. The Detroit News reported that these suburban residents were often blocked from contributing to public dialogue because officials had police arrest and remove people just trying to be heard.   Reporting that “Across metro Detroit, tension has been building between citizens and officials as school boards and city councils make tough, often unpopular decisions to close schools, cut services and lay off employees” a Detroit News article provided the context for encouraging suburbanites to speak up. The story of the police removal of a 79-year-old Troy man was followed by a thoughtful analysis of his right to speak.

Shawn Lewis of the Detroit News described the core issue:

“Residents and free-speech advocates object to time limits, sign-in sheets and rules that make citizens wait to speak until a meeting’s end. They argue that such restrictions are being used at public meetings to marginalize or silence the public.’ I hear those kinds of complaints all the time,’ said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest group in San Rafael, Calif.‘But the purpose of the meetings is to make them more transparent, and to force elected representatives to hear what their constituents have to say, even when they don’t want to hear it.’”

Thus the Detroit News gives its readers an appreciation for open democratic decision making outside the city of Detroit. But no such context was given in the report on the recent public meeting inside Detroit between Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb, the elected Detroit School Board and about 250 residents,. The issue of democracy was not even mentioned. Instead the report highlighted the “tension” in this first meeting and allowed Emergency Finance Manager Robert Bobb to describe it as a “circus.”

The article noted that Bobb is only appearing at this public meeting because he is “under a court order.” It also noted that Bobb left before the meeting was adjourned as “more parents and students were waiting for their chance to address him.”

Yet there is no effort to talk about the implications of  Bobb’s behavior for democracy. The mainstream media, it seems, is only concerned about democratic decision making when it is attacked outside the city limits. Inside Detroit, the desire for such debate is considered a “circus,” or, as the Free Press likes to say, something of concern only to “the board and its allies in the teacher’s union and radical community groups.”

The mainstream media does not acknowledge that it is precisely this assault on democracy by Bobb that is fueling the passion of Detroiters against his schemes.  Democracy does not mean Detroiters listening to someone else’s plans for our future and then agreeing with them. It means debate, discussion and struggle over differences.

Bobb has not sought this kind of meaningful input from teachers, staff, parents or community groups. He minimizes any opposition by Detroiters  to  his schemes by calling people who question them “defenders of the status quo” who want to “block the momentum toward transforming our schools.” He claims he has had “an extensive community engagement process” beginning in March, even though his so-called town halls were a farce, reducing the fate of schools and neighborhoods to 15 minute time limits.

Detroiters welcome change. The issue is “who decides the direction of change and whose interests does change serve.”  Manager Robert Bobb and the mainstream media refuse to recognize that this struggle is about democracy versus dictatorship. That is the most important lesson for all of us now.



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