The crowd spills onto Lafayette Blvd., which the police closed, in front of the Federal courthouse on Wednesday. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Detroit— Outside the courtroom, a few hundred protesters chanted “hands off our pensions” and waved pickets. Inside, lawyers jockeyed in a borrowed courtroom as a judge shepherded arguments in the largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.
It was a tale of contrasts at U.S. District Court on Wednesday, during opening arguments of a five-day hearing to determine whether Detroit is eligible for Chapter 9 bankruptcy to restructure some $18 billion in long-term debt.
Long before arguments began at 9 a.m., protesters and dozens of media representatives descended upon the Lafayette Boulevard courthouse. Early risers were greeted with a message beamed onto its outside walls: “Free Detroit Fire Snyder.” The message was cast upon several buildings downtown by the group Detroit Light Brigade.
The 200 protesters included a contingent carrying a banner from Occupy Wall Street and a woman in a papier-mâché costume depicting Gov. Rick Snyder. They had a clear message: Don’t cut pensions to repay banks holding Detroit’s debt.
“It’s rotten they’re trying to take away our pensions. We earned it,” said Robert Smith, 68, who worked for the city for 29 years and has several health problems.
“We’re not asking for anything, just give us what we earned,” Smith said.
Denise Griebler, 54, dressed as Snyder. “This shows the undermining of democracy, with Snyder pulling the strings of the city,” Griebler said. “The voters of Michigan voted against emergency management and what do we have? Snyder, by decree, gave us emergency management anyway.”
Before attending a debate with mayoral challenger Mike Duggan, candidate Benny Napoleon joined the protesters for about 20 minutes.
“This is a very serious issue,” said Napoleon, who is Wayne County sheriff. “The retirees and workers have committed a lifetime to the city.”
Inside a borrowed courtroom — his is too small — U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes mixed frustration with amusement while stressing simplicity before about three dozen lawyers.
“Who are you?” he said when a union lawyer failed to introduce himself.
“Why should I let you argue?” he said to another lawyer not involved in a narrow legal issue.
Later, he playfully corrected UAW lawyer Babette Ceccotti, who accused the city of a “lack of bad faith” during negotiations.
“You mean good faith?” Rhodes asked. Yes, Ceccotti said. She blamed the misstep on sleep deprivation.
Rhodes tried to cut through financial jargon as the afternoon wore on, pressing city financial consultant Gaurav Malhotra to define terms such as “cash burn” and the acronym POC, or pension obligation certificates.
Speak in “plain English,” the judge prodded.
At the end of the day, Rhodes invited lawyers to leave their paperwork and belongings in the courtroom.
Many declined and left with bulging briefcases.
The National Action Network and retirees plan to protest at noon Monday during Snyder’s testimony, the group announced Wednesday.
“We will not stop protesting,” said the Rev. Charles Williams II, president of the network’s Detroit chapter.