By Michael Betzold
Motor City Muckraker
On Saturday I was kicked out of Eastern Market for trying to get signatures on “Recall Snyder” petitions.
Though I had done the same activity in previous weeks at the same outdoor spot between the covered sheds and was complying with the previous instructions of market security not to impede the flow of shoppers, I was told within an hour of beginning my efforts that the rules had changed.
For this weekend and next, security personnel told me, the rules were different because of the greater volume of people expected for Mother’s Day weekend and for the annual Flower Day on Sunday, May 15. I was told I could solicit signatures somewhere on the sidewalk on Russell – where there is about a hundredth of the number of passers-by.
This frankly infuriated me.
On the same day, the city announced it’s awarding billionaire Dan Gilbert federally subsidized land at the Eastern Market for a private housing project.
These two weekends are among only three that remain in the 60-day period that we have to gather hundreds of thousands of signatures statewide to get a proposal to recall Snyder on the ballot. And the crowds are exactly why I wanted to be there at the market. But oops, suddenly the rules were changed.
The recall is a gargantuan uphill effort. Last year, the Republican-controlled legislature passed new rules specifying that each city, township, or village has to have its own separate petition sheet, rather than voters in each county being able to share the same page. You can only imagine how much more difficult this makes our task. I carry my own folding file holding the 100 or more sheets that correspond to all the municipalities people at gathering places in metropolitan Detroit are registered to vote in.
Despite this logistical nightmare, people are eager to sign the recall petition. I have done this type of work for other political purposes, and the positive response rate for this petition is many times greater than any other cause I’ve ever worked on. It’s easy to get people to sign, but you have to get to them – and the Legislature has also raised the number of signatures needed to reach a nearly impossible target. Nonetheless, I think it’s worth doing. I think it’s important for the people of Michigan to have a way to demonstrate their outrage over what Snyder has wrought.
But what happened to me at Eastern Market fits right in with what the new business-first politics has done to this state and this city. The previous day I had to leave a sidewalk outside of a Secretary of State office because that office – a government facility – was located in a privately owned small shopping center on Mack. And at Eastern Market I learned that our great meeting place for people, food, flowers, and crafts doesn’t belong to the citizens of Detroit and Michigan. It’s also run by a private corporation, as Chief Operating Officer Emma Velasco explained to me after she was summoned to help security guards persuade me to leave. She also had bogus arguments about public safety and big crowds threatened by an old man with a clipboard offering market customers a service they’re eager to have. She also said the recall campaign can’t buy any space to set up a table, though “community groups” like the Girl Scouts can. Cookies before democracy, you see.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit Velasco and her security team turned me into a raving lunatic shouting about how I was being deprived of my constitutional rights to free speech and to petition fellow citizens to redress my grievances. In a city where the most precious and beautiful – dare I say sacred? – piece of public land has been turned into a seasonal Grand Prix race track under state government control, it’s clear to me that the public isn’t going to have any public space much longer. It’s all being sold off to private interests so that corporations can exercise money – their own free speech.
I’ll be at the market next weekend somewhere, even if it’s on a public sidewalk. That is, unless someone purchases the sidewalk by then. And I’ll be back between the sheds again on the 21st – unless by some unimaginable coincidence the rules happen to change once again without notice. You never know, because democracy is on sale these days. It’s a hot item. Its increasing scarcity adds a lot to its value.
Michael Betzold is a former Free Press reporter and longtime area freelance journalist. He wrote Queen of Diamonds, a history of Tiger Stadium. He lives on Detroit’s east side.