Bill of Rights for Detroiters could be first change to city charter in 8 years

Nushrat Rahman, Detroit Free Press July 29, 2020

Two Detroit City Council members and a coalition of community organizations on Wednesday announced a package of policy recommendations they call the Detroiters’ Bill of Rights, and want to see the provisions in the city’s charter. 

Council President Pro Tempore Mary Sheffield and Councilwoman  Raquel Castañeda-López held a news conference Wednesday alongside representatives from community organizations including the Detroit Community Technology Project, Black Lives Matter Detroit, Sierra Club Michigan and several others, seeking to address issues at the intersection of inequity, survival and quality of life, including water access, safety, recreation and affordable housing. More than 90 organizations have signed on to the recommendations. 

“This really came together in response to George Floyd’s murder and the civil unrest and the demands from community groups across the city saying we need systemic change,” Castañeda-López said. “Our struggle has been rooted in oppression and in racism and in discriminatory policies, and now’s the time to have bold leadership to step up and change and embed these values and principles into our charter.” 

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The group wants the city’s Charter Revision Commission to “embed certain unalienable rights” as amendments and revisions in the charter including eight core values: the right to water and sanitation, the right to environmental health, the right to safety, to right to live free from discrimination, the right to recreation, the right to access and mobility, the right to housing and the right to “the fulfillment of basic needs” like food and utilities. 

Among these recommendations are calls to establish commissions and offices for environmental justice, immigrant and refugee affairs and disability rights. The group seeks a water affordability program, public health fund and a low-income fare for people who use public transit. 

The proposal also includes “budgeting principles,” or recommendations for funding needed to support these rights and ensure residents “have a good quality of life,” Castañeda-López said. 

“We are dedicated to creating systems that dismantle anti-Blackness, center Black Detroiters, and create equitable access to and distribution of resources for the most vulnerable people in Detroit,” said Tawana Petty, data director of the Community Technology Project, adding that “the conflation between surveillance and safety has created inequitable policies, like facial recognition, that we must resist.” 

Jennifer Disla, organizing director with Detroit Action, said the coalition is also focused on affordable housing for vulnerable residents. 

“We have a charter amendment calling for affordable housing. It’s a start. We’re looking for other solutions such as rental assistance. Detroit residents are deciding between food, rent, child care and medical expenses and this is not a new story,” she said. 

On the heels of the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, “Baba” Baxter Jones, a disability rights activist, said there’s a long way to go to fully accommodate people with disabilities. 

“People have to understand what it’s like to need accommodations. We are not a asking for equality, we’re asking for equity. We’re not just hoping, we’re demanding that the rights and understanding for people with disabilities are considered as part of the foundation of this city,” he said. 

Tristan Taylor, a lead organizer of Detroit’s anti-police brutality protests, said “it’s important that these rights be enshrined … so that they’re not taken away.”

The proposal — a 20-page document detailing their policy recommendations — will be submitted to the Charter Revision Commission this week for consideration by the commission before a Friday deadline to submit proposed changes to the charter. If approved, voters would have their say on the proposed amendments next year. 

The group called for Detroiters to reach out to members of Charter Revision Commission and express their support for the proposals.   

In 2018, Sheffield  unveiled several ordinances and resolutions called the People’s Bills, which aimed to address some of the issues the coalition raised Wednesday. Codifying human rights issues in the the charter, she said, will ensure they’re priorities for city officials far into the future. 

“The creation of various departments, we thought should not be based on who’s sitting in office, from the administration or council side,” she said about the new recommendations for charter. “This should go in our charter, which means whoever comes has to have these fundamental values as they govern the city of Detroit.”

Detroit’s City Charter, sometimes referred to as its constitution, provides the framework for how city government is organized. In 2018, voters elected nine charter commissioners to serve on a Charter Revision Commission, which is authorized to consider changes to the document. 

Denzel McCampbell, a commissioner, said he fully supports the Detroiters’ Bill of Rights and said that many of his colleagues on the commission do as well, adding that he looks forward to “pushing this as we continue the revision process.”

“This process is about uplifting the priorities of residents so that everyone can have their ability to have a good quality of life. What we heard today echoes what we heard from residents around the city.” 

The last charter revision was adopted by voters in 2012. Changes included instituting districts for Detroit City Council, requiring the council to approve mayoral appointments and strengthening some accountability and oversight provisions. 

“We look forward to working with them,” said Carol Weaver, who chairs the commission. “We want this process to be open and transparent. We’ve heard from the community. … We are open to hear revisions from everyone. This is the only one we’ve received from council and we welcome it.”

The commission has been meeting online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The commission will review proposals for revisions, vote on them and then send to the governor and attorney general. Proposals, if approved, will be on the ballot in August 2021.


Letter to Detroit Charter Commissioners: Adopt the Detroiters’ Bill of Rights, embed our values into the City Charter.Dear Honorable Charter Commissioners,

We, the undersigned, support the package of proposed charter amendments known as the Detroiters’ Bill of Rights. We call on you to adopt them into the recommendations sent to the ballot in 2021.

The Offices of Council Member Raquel Castañeda-López and President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield worked with racial, environmental, immigrant, and disability justice advocates, as well as housing, water, and transit content experts to put forth this package of Detroiters’ Bill of Rights in response to the decades long struggle for racial equity and social justice.

The Detroiters’ Bill of Rights is rooted in our country’s value of opportunity — the opportunity to achieve our fullest potential as human beings — with the recognition that opportunity must be based on the following principles of racial equity and social justice:

– RACIAL EQUITY: Racial equity is the condition where one’s racial identity no longer influences how one fares in society. This includes the creation of racially just policies, practices, attitudes and cultural messages, and the elimination of structures that reinforce differential experiences and outcomes by race.
– SOCIAL JUSTICE: The principle that everyone deserves equitable economic, political and social rights. We advance social justice by removing barriers people face because of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture, disability, or sexual orientation or gender identity, and promoting their rights.

Detroit’s struggle is rooted in systemic racism, oppression, and economic inequality. For decades, Detroiters have fought for access to water, affordable and safe housing, reliable public transit, and access to economic opportunities. In Detroit, the promise of the “American Dream” is just that, a dream, with 35% of residents living in poverty and more than 50% of Detroit’s children living in poverty. In the movement for Black lives, we know that the effects of colonization, slavery, and Jim Crow are everpresent. Today, they have different names and take different forms: school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, mass surveillance, and more, permeating every aspect of our lives.

We must be dedicated to creating systems that dismantle anti-blackness, center Black Detroiters, and create equitable access to and distribution of resources for the most vulnerable people in Detroit. We must join the global struggle against colonization, white supremacy and brutality, in defense of Black lives and to win our collective liberation.

Detroit has always risen above adversity and given birth to movements for social justice. The Detroiters’ Bill of Rights continues this legacy by embedding in the city’s charter the principles of racial equity and social justice to protect residents’ basic human and civil rights.

While we all play a role in upholding these values and principles, as Charter Commissioners you have a unique responsibility in advancing these principles. We ask you to embed these basic human rights into our City Charter and adopt the Detroiters’ Bill of Rights:

Detroiters’ Bill of Rights

1. Right to Water and Sanitation: Every Detroit resident has the right to clean and affordable water and sanitation for personal and domestic use.
– Prohibit water shut-offs
– Establish a water affordability program

2. Right to Environmental Health: Every Detroit resident, regardless of their zip code is entitled to live in an environment with clean air, soil and water.
– Establish an Environmental Justice Commission, Office of Environmental Justice & Sustainability & Public Health Fund

3. Right to Safety: Every Detroit resident is entitled to live in safe communities and has the right to live free of threat or harm from one another and city agencies.
– Demilitarize the police, restrict surveillance and immigration enforcement/partnerships.

4. Right to Live Free from Discrimination:
– Immigrant Communities: Every Detroit resident, regardless of their immigration status, is guaranteed the same fundamental rights and protection of the law from discriminatory practices.
–Establish an Immigrants Affairs Commission, Office of Immigrant Affairs and adopt a language access policy.
– Disabled Communities: Every person with disabilities in Detroit, regardless of their ability status, is entitled to the same rights and freedoms as able-bodied peoples in the City.
–Establish an Disability Rights Commission, Office of Disability Affairs and adopt a language access policy.

5. Right to Recreation: Every Detroit resident is entitled to access to parks, recreational opportunities and urban green spaces to protect and enhance their health and well-being.
– Adopt the WHO standards for creation of urban green space and a plan.

6. Right to Access and Mobility: Every Detroit resident, regardless of their zip code, has the right to safe, accessible and affordable public transit options whether walking, biking, driving, rideshare, or using public transit
– Create a low-income fare, motorized/non-motorized transit plans & strengthen the transit advisory commission.

7. Right to Housing: Every Detroit resident is entitled to affordable, habitable, safe and accessible housing.
– Define affordability based on the City’s AMI, establish the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and require annual reporting.

8. Right to Fulfillment of Basic Needs: Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and of their family, including food, utilities and water and sanitation, clothing, affordable housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to care in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond their control.
– Create budgeting principles to invest in health, housing, transit, recreation and certain departments.