Meltdown in Motown: A Nation forum in Detroit gauges the city’s pain and looks for solutions.



During the Memorial Day weekend–as that icon of American invincibility,

General Motors

, faced the near certainty of bankruptcy within days–The Nation and the

Institute for Policy Studies

hosted a spirited panel discussion at Detroit’s Cobo Hall, titled “Meltdown: The Economic Collapse and a People’s Plan for Recovery,” moderated with passionate intensity by Washington correspondent

John Nichols

. Even as the idea that Detroit would soon endure yet another economic earthquake was so painful as to be nearly unimaginable, the panelists, recognizing that imaginative leadership is precisely what has been missing, brought their creative minds to bear on the question of what might come next for the city–if the interests of the people who live there were put center stage.

In his opening remarks, Congressman

John Conyers

called President Obama the “smartest man in the world, with”–in reference to the composition of the national auto task force–“some of the dumbest advisers.” City Councilwoman

JoAnn Watson

, fresh from hosting a public session on making the stimulus package work for Detroit, lamented that so few funds had thus far been made available and brandished her own bold “Marshall Plan for Detroit” to bring the city back to life. Nation contributor

Robert Pollin

called for economic policies to promote full employment and living wages and a pro-worker green transition that could see Detroit manufacturing city buses rather than SUVs.

Community leader

Elena Herrada

declared that Detroit must make immigrants welcome, since they are key to its repopulation and therefore to its future. Bestselling author and Nation writer

Barbara Ehrenreich

attested to the nickel-and-diming of America, which has led to the destruction of welfare and decent working-class life, while UAW Local 235 member

Dianne Feeley

talked about the urgent need for an autoworker movement with a social agenda distinct from that of industry management. Legendary activist and author

Grace Lee Boggs

sketched out a socialist vision of a society organized around goals other than economic growth.

With a plunging population, a median home price of only $7,500 and the slated closure of twenty-nine public schools this year, there’s little good news coming from “the D” these days. But the political leadership on the platform at Cobo Hall pointed to the possibility of a brighter future, the battle for which will be joined by many others at a “People’s Summit” in the city, June 14-17, and the US Social Forum next June, when tens of thousands are expected to arrive from across the nation. Organizers are concerned about finding public transportation to bring visitors from the airport.   BETSY REED


“Transit is not just for big cities anymore,” announced

David Yarnold

of the

Environmental Defense Fund

(EDF) recently at a showcase for innovative public transit projects targeting suburbs and rural communities. On September 30 the current transportation authorization legislation (SAFETEA-LU) expires. The coincidence of a friend in the White House, a volatile oil market and a vigorous environmental movement has created the most favorable climate yet for comprehensive transportation reform.

Still, “what the public thinks about when they hear transportation,” EDF’s

Colin Peppard

told me, “are bridges to nowhere and…earmarks.” The Transportation for America Coalition, a group of federal and state representatives and organizations, hopes to change that.

One pioneering project is the Omnilink flex route bus system operating in Prince William County, Virginia, aimed at suburban commuters. Buses deviate from their routes to accommodate riders who would otherwise have to drive. The system is particularly life-changing for low-income riders, who spend as much as a quarter of their household budget on transportation.

“Jobs in public transit are existing green jobs,” explains

Tammy Bang Luu

, an organizer for transit riders in Los Angeles. Their demands: mandating that at least half of the federal transit budget go toward operating costs, which would result in lower fares and new ridership; and the reversal of the transportation bill’s spending formula of roads versus public transit (it’s now 80-20 in highways’ favor, which is why the legislation is often called “the highway bill”).

They’re up against deeply ingrained habits and a tough economy, but public transit advocates nonetheless seem to have what it takes to win this round: demand, low cost, a green stamp of approval and that most vital of Washington requirements, a voice.   LAURA C. DEAN


As expected, the California Supreme Court upheld

Proposition 8

by a vote of 6-1. It also ruled that the 18,000 same-sex couples who were married last year are still married. The decision naturally angered gays and lesbians, who took to the streets in protest in scores of US cities. But before gay advocates leap to put forth an initiative overturning Prop 8 on the 2010 ballot, they ought to consider the larger gay rights agenda.

Under California law, there is no material difference between marriage and domestic partnership. Not one of those 18,000 married couples got any new rights that domestic partnerships did not already provide; they only acquired the term “marriage.” Indeed, in part that’s why the court held that Prop 8 was an amendment to the state Constitution and not a broader, more fundamental revision. As the majority opinion argues, “the measure carves out a narrow and limited exception to these constitutional rights, reserving the official designation of the term ‘marriage’ for the union of opposite-sex couples…but leaving undisturbed all the other extremely significant substantive aspects of a same-sex couple’s state constitutional right to establish an officially recognized and protected family relationship.”

Meanwhile, in more than a dozen states gay couples have no partnership rights whatsoever; in many states it is still legal to fire someone just because he or she is gay; a federal

Employment Non-Discrimination Act

is stalled in Congress. The decision to sink millions of dollars into another initiative (Prop 8 was the second-most-expensive election in the country in 2008) should take this relative equality into account. Are there more-inclusive movement goals than an initiative that would give only California’s same-sex couples the M-word?   RICHARD KIM

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