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A magical mystery tour of American austerity politics in Michigan

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The fugitive task force

The next day, as 2,000 soldiers from the 175th Infantry Regiment of the National Guard fanned out across Baltimore, we head for Detroit's west side where, only 24 hours earlier, a law enforcement officer shot and killed a 20-year-old man in his living room.

A crowd has already gathered near his house in the early summer heat, exchanging condolences, waving signs, and jostling for position as news crews set up cameras and microphones for a press conference to come. Versions of what happened quickly spread: Terrance Kellom was fatally shot when officers swarmed his house to deliver an arrest warrant. The authorities claim he grabbed a hammer, prompting the shooting; his father, Kevin, contends Terrance was unarmed and kneeling in front of him when he was shot several times, including once in the back.

Kellom is just one of the 529 people killed in 2015 in the United States by law enforcement officers, according to The Counted, a database by The Guardian that tracks people killed by police. There is, however, a disturbing twist to Kellom's case. He was not, in fact, killed by the police but by a federal agent working with a little known multi-jurisdictional interagency task force coordinated by the U.S. Marshals.

Similar task forces are deployed across the country and they all share the same sordid history: the Marshals have been hunting people ever since the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act compelled the agency to capture slaves fleeing north for freedom. One 19th century newspaper account, celebrating the use of bloodhounds in such hunts, wrote: "The Cuban dog would frequently pull down his game and tear the runaway to pieces before the officers could come up."

These days, Detroit's task force has grown particularly active as budget cuts have decimated the local police department. Made up of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, police from half a dozen local departments, and even employees of the Social Security Administration office, the Detroit Fugitive Apprehension Team has nabbed more than 15,000 people. Arrest rates have soared since 2012, the same year the local police budget was chopped by 20 percent. Even beyond the task force, the number of federal agents patrolling the city has risen as well. The Border Patrol, for example, has increased its presence in the region by tenfold over the last decade and just two weeks ago announced the launch of a new $14 million Detroit station.

Kevin Kellom approaches the barricade of microphones and begins speaking so quietly that the gathered newscasters crush into each other in an effort to catch what's he's saying. "They assassinated my son," he whispers. "I want justice and I'm going to get justice."

Yet today, more than two months after Terrance's death, no charges have been brought against the ICE agent who fired the fatal shot. Other law enforcement officers who have killed Michigan residents in recent years have similarly escaped punishment. Detroit police Officer Joseph Weekley was videotaped killing 7-year-old Aiyana Jones with a submachine gun during a SWAT team raid on her home in 2010. He remains a member of the department. Ann Arbor police officer David Reid is also back on duty after fatally shooting 40-year-old artist and mother Aura Rosser in November 2014. The Ann Arbor Police Department ruled that a "justifiable homicide" because Rosser was holding a small kitchen knife during the encounter, a ruling that Rosser's family members and city residents are contesting with an ongoing campaign calling for an independent investigation into her death.

And such deadly incidents continue. Since Kellom's death, law enforcement officers have fatally shot at least three more Michigan residents — one outside the city of Kalamazoo, another near Lansing, and a third in Battle Creek.


The unprofitable all-charter school district

Our final stop is Muskegon Heights, a small city on the banks of Lake Michigan, home to perhaps the most spectacular educational debacle in recent history.

Here's the SparkNotes version. In 2012, members of the Muskegon Heights public school board were given two options: Dissolve the district entirely or succumb to an emergency manager's rule. On arrival, the manager announced that he was dissolving the public school district and forming a new system to be run by the New York-based for-profit charter school management company Mosaica Education. Two years later, that company broke its five-year contract and fled because, according to the emergency manager, "the profit just simply wasn't there."

And here's a grim footnote to this saga: In 2012, in preparation for the new charter school district, cryptically named the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System, the emergency manager laid off every single school employee.

"We knew it was coming," says one of the city's longtime elementary schoolteachers. She asked not to be identified, so I'll call her Susan. "We received letters in the mail."

Then, around 1 a.m. the night before the new charter school district was slated to open, she received a voicemail asking if she could teach the following morning. She agreed, arriving at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School for what would be the worst year in her more than two-decade career.

When we visit that school, a single-story brick building on the east side of town, the glass of the front door had been smashed and the halls were empty, save for two people removing air conditioning units. But in the fall of 2012, when Susan was summoned, the school was still filled with students — and chaos. Schedules were in disarray. Student computers were broken. There were supply shortages of just about everything, even rolls of toilet paper. The district's already barebones special education program had been further gutted. The "new," non-unionized teaching staff — about 10 percent of whom initially did not have valid teaching certificates — were overwhelmingly young, inexperienced, and white.

(Approximately 75 percent of the town's residents are African-American.)

"Everything was about money, I felt, and everyone else felt it too," Susan says.

With her salary slashed to less than $30,000, she picked up a second job at a nearby after-school program. Her health faltered. Instructed by the new administration never to sit down during class, a back condition worsened until surgery was required. The stress began to affect her short-term memory. Finally, in the spring, Susan sought medical leave and never came back.

She was part of a mass exodus. Advocates say that more than half the teachers were either fired, quit, or took medical leave before the 2012-2013 school year ended. Mosaica wasn't far behind, breaking its contract at the end of the 2014 school year. The emergency manager said he understood the company's financial assessment, comparing the school system to "a broke-down car." That spring, Snyder visited and called the district "a work in progress."

Across the state, the education trend has been toward privatization and increased control over local districts by the governor's office, with results that are, to say the least, underwhelming. This spring, a report from the Education Trust, an independent national education nonprofit, warned that the state's system had gone "from bad to worse."

"We're now on track to perform lower than the nation's lowest-performing states," the report's author, Amber Arellano, told the local news.

Later that afternoon, we visited the city's James Jackson Museum of African American History, where we sat with James Jackson, a family physician and longtime advocate of community-controlled public education in the city.

He says the city's now-failing struggle for local control and quality education is part of a significantly longer history. Most of the town's families originally arrived here in the first half of the 20th century from the Jim Crow South, where public schools for black students were not only abysmally underfunded, but also thwarted by censorship and outside governance, as historian Carter Godwin Woodson explained in his groundbreaking 1933 study, The Mis-Education of the Negro. Well into the 20th century, for example, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were barred from grade-school textbooks for being too aspirational. "When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions," Woodson wrote back then.

More than eight decades later, Jackson offered similar thoughts about the Muskegon Heights takeover as he led us through the museum, his bright yellow T-shirt reminding us to "honor black history every day 24/7 365."

"We have to control our own education," Jackson said, as we passed sepia newspaper clippings of civil rights marches and an 1825 bill of sale for Peggy and her son Jonathan, purchased for $371 by James Aiken of Warren County, Georgia. "Until we control our own school system, we can't be properly educated."

As we leave, we stop a moment to take in an electronic sign hanging in the museum's window that, between announcements about upcoming book club meetings and the establishment's hours, flashed a refrain in red letters — one that referred to Muskegon Heights, undoubtedly, but whose spirit also summed up the sentiment we'd heard from hundreds of residents throughout our journey:

The education of
Muskegon Heights
Belongs to the People
Not the governor

This article was originally published by Tom Dispatch. It is reprinted here with permission.

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