Savior Complexities 3: Dan Gilbert

By Kim Hunter

Detroit has had some serious setbacks when it comes to regular people, especially those who’ve been historically disenfranchised, having a fair shake. Even a local conservative pundit has taken notice of the racial inequalities within the city.

While the unelected Emergency Manager is gone and some, but not all, voting rights have been restored, we still live with the economic austerity of the bankruptcy and with that, the engaged billionaires who seek and are given even more power than they’d have ordinarily. They have been enabled largely because of desperation people feel based on slashed public services and the fact that many can’t find work to say nothing of livable wages. Previously examined in this series, Matty Maroun and Mike Ilitch are among the select members of the “1%” that have stepped in to privatize public space or use public resources to earn substantial private profit at the expense of the community.

Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures and touted by the media as “Detroit’s savior,” rounds out the trio of billionaires examined in this series. While it’s not surprising that Gilbert has shunned the savior label, he has been able to work his will in the political and economic vacuum of “post-bankruptcy” Detroit.

Private Eyes and Public Security

Accountability and transparency often suffer when private corporate interests take over the jobs of public workers. That is certainly the case as private security firms have stepped in after the Detroit Police Department was forced to make budget cuts along with every other city department. Gilbert’s private security team is but one of many in downtown Detroit and, while Gilbert’s team was not directly sued by peaceful protesters for violating their civil rights, Rock Ventures security was cited for gathering data on the group via social media and turning it over to the Detroit 300 Conservancy, plaintiffs in the suit.

When Free Press columnists Nancy Kaffer made a request for info to various private firms with security details she got useful information from all except Dan Gilbert, who owns most of the buildings in downtown Detroit. That’s because private entities don’t have to tell us anything even when they operate in the public sphere.

Where’s the “Public” in Public Transit?

Daily, about 100,000 people in Detroit depend on the city’s woeful bus system, the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT), for their transportation needs. The inadequate service has suffered due to major cuts and the transferring of $7 million dollars to the suburban bus system.

When private foundations led by Dan Gilbert decided to take the unprecedented move to form a private entity to pony up $140 million to match federal money for “public transportation” it was not to help the failing DDOT system. It was to create a “development” project: the M1 Rail, a 3.3-mile trolley with an average speed of 11 mph – a glorified People Mover. It’s designed not to get thousands of transit-dependent people where they have to go but rather to bolster businesses in the areas and corridors where Gilbert and other wealthy people have invested. It’s Gilbert’s ever-expanding list of properties that stands to gain the most from the M1 development, not the residents seeking a reliable way to get to work, school, and medical appointments.

Some may find it hard to worry about the likes of Dan Gilbert given Detroit’s devastation by Gov. Snyder’s Emergency Manager, the bankruptcy, thousands of families in danger of having their homes taken and thousands that have already had water service shutoff.

But most are probable unaware of some disturbing connections.

There is no grand conspiracy and as Noam Chomsky once noted, you don’t need a conspiracy when everyone thinks the same. Despite whatever differences exist between the Governor, Kevyn Orr, and the three billionaires covered in this series, they come together in support of false solutions imposed on the community with little or no input from the folks most affected and they have the power to make their decisions stick.

Moreover, just as the region suffered by having all or most of its eggs in one basket (the auto industry) can Detroit thrive when it relies so heavily on the business deals and “acumen” of a few billionaires to say nothing of one billionaire? I think not. As TV host Tavis Smiley put it in an interview with WDET, “I just wonder about one person being the ‘savior’ of a city.”

Regular people having access to jobs with living wages is what built Detroit and by extension, much of Michigan. Millions of workers banding together and fighting for their rights are what have kept the city alive. Detroit is not defined by who owns the buildings downtown but by families who continue to go about the business of survival without much fanfare. There are also those fighting to bring transparency and fairness to the mega development deals that affect the lives of thousands of residents and with which all three of the billionaires chronicled here have been involved.

A trio of billionaires can buy a lot of influence. But just as Henry Ford’s empire was utterly dependent upon the workers who built it, Detroit is sustained by tens of thousands of regular folks working together to overcome massive challenges.