Civic Participation and Democracy


Civic Participation and Democracy

By Shea Howell

Michigan Citizen, Nov. 7-13, 2010

Last weekend Amnesty International, USA, held its Midwest regional conference in Detroit. AI describes itself as “people from across the world standing up for humanity and human rights. Our purpose is to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied. We investigate and expose abuses, educate and mobilize the public and help transform societies to create a safer, more just world.”

As part of this mission, AI chose to shine a light on the human rights issues raised by the shrinking of Detroit. At the concluding discussion of the conference, it was abundantly clear that the combined efforts of government, corporate elites and foundations are raising serious human rights questions. Basic human rights, articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted at the founding of the United Nations, are being challenged on several fronts. The Declaration establishes fundamental rights to the protection of persons and property, participation in government, work, education and the full development of the human personality.

Heaster Wheeler, Executive Director of the Detroit NAACP, talked about the foreclosure crisis, saying, “Where we live should not determine if we live.” He said that policies pursued by predatory lenders have “stripped away” our communities. Bankole Thompson of the Michigan Chronicle said, “Detroit is ground zero for the economic crisis.” He noted that the politics of language was critical to our thinking about this moment and raised questions about the term “rightsizing.” Peter Hammer of Wayne State University Law School talked about the privatizing of hospitals in Detroit and health disparities between African Americans and whites. Ron Scott of the Detroit Coalition against Police Brutality said, “We need urgent action in urban America.” Talking about the human rights abuses of just the past few weeks, Scott advocated a law requiring mandatory reporting of police abuse, just as we do for child abuse.

My responsibility was to talk about “civic participation.” The Universal Declaration does not use this term. Instead it says “Everyone has a right to freedom of peaceful assembly,” to “take part in the government of his country directly or through freely chosen representatives,” and to public service.” It says the “will of the people shall be the basis for the authority of government.”

This perspective clarified how much the term “civic participation” is becoming a catch phrase propagated by corporations and foundations to diminish democracy. Over this last year, we in Detroit have seen a call for “civic participation” that is designed to limit the public sphere, to provide a cover for efforts to move us toward privatization , and to make human beings pay for what we should have as a basic right: the safety of home and person, education and the bounty of the natural world.

The town hall meetings staged by Emergency Financial Manger Robert Bobb were the clearest example of this misuse of “civic participation” After declaring he would close more than 50 schools, Bobb embarked on a “civic participation” process that allowed each school 20 minutes to justify its existence. He then went ahead and closed most of the schools, justifying his actions in the name of public input.

This experience has influenced the reaction of many Detroit citizens to Mayor Bing’s plan to reshape the city. Further, the refusal of Mayor Bing to campaign on the issue of land use has heightened suspicions that the interests of the people are being sacrificed to the interests of big business.

A new democracy is beginning to take shape throughout the city as Detroiters engage with one another to recreate civic life. From the neighborhood gatherings to discuss community gardens, to gatherings on how to bring peace and safety to our streets, people in Detroit are exercising a new power for making decisions about our lives. These experiences of making decisions about the things that matter expose the hollowness of “civic participation.” As we nurture and develop this new democracy, we will need the support of organizations like Amnesty International. ___________________________________________

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