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A Day in Court: Jones Day and the Color of Corruption

by Tolu Olorunda

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, appointed in May 2011 by Governor Rick Snyder, announced his resignation after months of turmoil, particularly a bad week in which he was implicated for “borrowing” $12 million from DPS coffers to keep the EAA afloat—starting September last year through March this year. 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 convictions of several prominent education advocates in the city, including Helen Moore, who testified earlier this year in January at the Department of Education on mass school closings and the fracturing of the Detroit school system. “All the things that are happening to us are 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 at Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.

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May 3, 2013   No Comments

ROY ROBERTS REVELS IN ACCOLADES WHILE DETROIT’S CHILDREN FALL FURTHER BEHIND

By Dr. Thomas C. Pedroni

March 28, 2013

Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Roy Roberts had some fabulous news (see video below) to share on NBC’s Education Nation Detroit Summit this past Friday morning.  DPS had surpassed the Michigan state average in 14 of 18 categories measured by the state’s student proficiency test, the MEAP.  Applause and accolades followed Roberts’ pronouncement.  Chelsea Clinton divulged that she would entrust her own children to the Emergency Manager’s schools. 

Notably, the jubilant mood at the summit was not dampened by any of the usual naysaying.  There were none of the niggling challenges to Roberts’ assertions.  The day’s take-home message was clear—Roberts and his staff were finally turning the corner with Detroit’s long-suffering schools.  Education Nation, take note.

Given all the recent bad news in Detroit, Roberts might be forgiven if his facts were a bit off the mark. It turns out, according to the Michigan Department of Education, that DPS did not outshine the state in 14 of 18 MEAP categories. The actual number was somewhat lower—zero.  DPS trailed the Michigan average in proficiency in all 18 categories.  And not just by a bit—by more than 10 percentage points in the two science categories, and by 20 or more in the other 16.  But it was a happy moment at the summit.  No one—not one panelist, not one moderator, not one preselected member of the audience—raised an eyebrow over Roberts’ innovative facts.

Perhaps Roberts had merely stumbled over his own words.  Maybe he really meant to say that DPS schools were gaining ground on the Michigan averages—that yes, DPS was still behind, but was steadfastly narrowing the achievement gap in 14 of the 18 categories.  

Unfortunately, that’s not the story the MEAP numbers tell either. Instead they show that the Detroit Public Schools have fallen even further behind the state average since gaining an Emergency Manager in 2009.  The picture the numbers paint is particularly bleak when the 15 schools handed to the EAA just before the fall MEAP administration are factored in.  They show that Detroit’s third through eighth graders continue to lose ground in reading and math proficiency in most categories.

The hardest hit have been our youngest test takers—those who have spent most of their school years under emergency management—our third, fourth, and fifth graders.  Although Detroit students scored among the worst in the nation in 2009, Detroit’s third graders have since fallen 5.3 percentage points farther behind the state average in reading proficiency.  In math, they have fallen another 5.1 percentage points below the state average. 

Our fourth graders are now 2.9 percentage points farther behind the state average in reading proficiency, and 6.2 in math.  Fifth grade students have closed the achievement gap by 1 percentage point in reading (and are now only 27.5 percentage points behind their state peers), but have fallen 6.8 percentage points further behind in math. 

In sixth through eighth grade reading, the proficiency gaps increased by 0.6 points, 1.8 points, and 0.5 points respectively, while progress was made in math—by 0.2, 2.8, and 0.5 points respectively.

We hear again and again that Detroit’s children must be prepared to compete in the 21st century global economy.  If the proficiency gap between Detroit’s children and the Michigan average is any indication, our children have only fallen further behind these past four years.  Just don’t tell Chelsea Clinton—enrollment is also down sharply, and the Emergency Manager could desperately use a few more bodies.


Important Editorial Note:

This column was submitted for consideration to the Detroit Free Press on Monday, March 25. The column was accepted, and slated to run online beginning Tuesday morning.  However, on Tuesday afternoon I received a call from the paper’s editorial desk that more time was needed to go over the column.  I had already emailed the editorial office links to the Education Nation Detroit Summit video with the times at which the pronouncements by Roberts and Clinton were made.  I emailed a link to the MDE site where the relevant MEAP data is stored, and shared my Excel Worksheets on which I had done the calculations underlying the analysis.  The Free Press staffer and I carefully went over on the phone all the numbers and how they were derived.  She thanked me for my time and care.  The column was again cleared for publication, this time for Wednesday at noon. Just before noon I received another communication from the Free Press— that if they ran a piece accusing Roberts of lying, then the paper at least needed to check with him on what he intended to say.  I pointed out that the column did not accuse Roberts of lying, but merely used data to analyze his claim. Later Wednesday afternoon I received a final email, that based on Roberts’ response, there was too much that would need to be changed in the article, and that I was welcome to take it elsewhere.

Please help me circulate this article despite the obstruction by the Free Press.  Share it as widely as you would like.

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March 29, 2013   No Comments

Empire Builders rally round Stephen Henderson’s Free Press editorial

a post from our new sister site, Detroit Deprogramming

March 18, 2013, Detroit – Last week, in the Free Press, Stephen Henderson wrote an editorial that was highly critical of the protestors who gathered outside of Cadillac Place as Governor Snyder announced Kevyn Orr would be Detroit’s Emergency Manager. EFM protesters miss opportunities to truly help Detroit paints the protestors as both inane and as demagogues, while mindfully misrepresenting their concerns and demands. He summarizes his assumption about their argument:

Their argument… is that we, as Detroiters, can fix our problems by ourselves. Outsiders need not meddle and certainly shouldn’t be swooping in to take the reins.

Henderson conveniently leaves out a number of the protesters most poignant demands to get this one off. The majority of the opposition that I’ve spoken with cite the fact that Detroit needs help from ‘outsiders’ to the tune of the money the state owes the city and from many ‘insiders’ like Detroit’s large corporation’s coming clean on their tax debt before moving forward with new developments.

He also, with a great deal of disrespect from my perspective, makes the mistake of assuming that the protestors are not active in their communities, are not cleaning up their blocks, parks, etc. I’m not claiming I know or can know even a small slice of everything going on in Detroit, but Mr. Henderson’s claims must mean that he hangs out in vastly different circles than I. If our paths ever crossed, he’d know like I do, many of the protestors he’s attempting to call out here are extremely active in community service, many of them across generations.

The article is also rife with what sociologist refer to as coded-language. If you’re not up on that lingo, I totally understand. Coded language is a means for racism and other indoctrinated parameters to retain prevalence in the face of state imposed legislation and cultural engineering fostered by political correctness and corporate interests. It’s a common strategy employed to avoid any meaningful systemic transformation, which would be bad for business.

I was searching around for clear examples of coded-language and found Newt Racism: The Racially Coded Language of Presidential Candidates by Jason Eastman, that focused on last year’s election campaign and Newt Gingriches’ word usage. Along with an accessible Daily Show skit the page cites Eduardo Bonilla-Silva who “argues that the new racism entails individuals saying and doing things that perpetuate racial stereotypes and inequalities, but they do so in such a way that the offender is able to deny being explicitly racist.”

I’ll not debate whether or not Mr. Henderson was aware of the coded-language he was throwing about. What I do find interesting and feel well within my realm to critique is how many Detroiters I consider to be progressive in both thought and deed, relished in and rallied behind Henderson’s words. The buzz was potent. It was as if, finally, someone spoke with clarity from their perspective. To use Henderson’s own coded language, it seemed like for some Detroiters, his editorial finally broke through “the Darkness”.  I’ve bolded a few examples here that are quite lush.

The protests of the emergency financial manager in Detroit appeal to the most base and craven instincts, seeking to tell a people who can’t count on the most basic services that their biggest problem is the outsiders tasked with restoring order.

A human chain around City Hall? It’s a bit inane, and focused on the idea of power, rather than results.

In Detroit, our problem is the lack of services and the fiscal imbalance that make it impossible to manage a sustainable urban center. Trash. Darkness that helps make streets horribly dangerous.

If you think the idea that words carry cultural weight and power is too ‘out’ there, check out any marketing textbook to confirm that manipulated messaging influences consumer choice. Having some personal experience in sales and marketing, in addition to doing penance everyday, I’ve observed that coded language is most successful when folk don’t intellectually or consciously connect to the undercurrent of meaning.

The most powerful aspects of indoctrination are the subtle ones, the ones that are barely perceptible to us but could speak volumes to others. Hence my bringing it up here, it’s like an interruption. Excuse me? Did he just say what I think he did? If he did, are Detroiters still certain that they want to so readily fly this flag?

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March 20, 2013   No Comments