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Crumbling US town on verge of democratic collapse

Published time: June 28, 2011 05:23
Edited time: June 28, 2011 13:20

An American state known for its great lakes has seen its middle class fade and automotive industry crumble. In Michigan’s poorest city, elected officials have lost all authority to govern as an unprecedented democratic collapse plays out.

In the face of massive public opposition, Michigan lawmakers recently reshaped democracy by giving unilateral authority to officials known as “emergency financial managers”.  EMFs have independent authority to fire elected officials, close schools, void union contracts, sell public property and privatize assets.

Residents and authorities of the small Michigan town of Benton Harbor say that the changes that have come to their town recently are alarming. 

“We believe it is illegal, immoral and unconstitutional,” said Benton Harbor Mayor Wilce Cooke. “No one person in this country has all that authority. The president of the United States did not have that authority.”

Benton Harbor residents like Scott Elliot say his city could be the start of a changing landscape in American politics.

“People throw around words like oligarchy and that sort of thing, but that is what it already is,” he said. “I think that the average citizen is going to have less and less to say about what is done with public assets.”

The new decision-makers are appointed by the governor to oversee school districts and cities like Benton Harbor facing financial distress. In April, Benton Harbor’s EMF stripped the elected City Council of its democratic power, leaving a city of 11,000 struggling Americans under the rule of a man they did not elect.

At least four other cities including Detroit have an emergency manager. In the “Motor City”, the EMF laid off some 6,000 teachers and is pioneering plans for corporations to privately run schools funded by public tax dollars

“They are hypocritical,” Wilce Cooke says. “They are trying to export democracy around the world, but at home, they are trying to suppress the citizens of this country.”

Benton Harbor Commissioner Marcus Muhammad believes that what is happening in his city might soon be repeated elsewhere. 

“Doctor Martin Luther King said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” the commissioner said. “So it is Benton Harbor today, but it could be New York tomorrow or it could be Chicago next week.”

Benton Harbor is one of roughly 100 cities or towns in Michigan reportedly on the verge of fiscal collapse. It seems that economic desperation is paving the way for financial martial law to spread throughout the state. Critics say that would lead to a deepening demise of democratic rights the US has always claimed to stand for.

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