By Ruth Conniff on July 18, 2014

Update: The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department announced Monday, July 21 that it is suspending water shutoffs for fifteen days to give residents another chance to prove they are unable to pay their bills.

On Friday, July 18, thousands of people marched through downtown Detroit to call attention to a major public health crisis as the city shuts off the water for residents who are behind on their bills.

Chanting, “Fight! Fight! Fight! Water is a human right!” and “Whose water? Our water!” about 5,000 Detroit residents and allies from across the country—including many who were in town for the annual Netroots Nation blogger conference—marched from the Cobo convention center to Hart Plaza near the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

Old R&B tuned blared from a mobile sound truck hired by National Nurses United, as a large, multiracial crowd gathered, carrying signs that said “Water is a human right” “Turn on the Water” and “Tax Wall Street”.

Actor Mark Ruffalo jumped onto the flatbed truck to address the crowd as the march began.

“The reason I’m here is for you,” Ruffalo told the crowd, praising Detroiters’ “resistance and resilience.”

“What’s happening in Detroit is a model for what’s happening in the nation,” Ruffalo declared. “Instead of a nation for the 0.1 percent, it should be a nation for all humanity.”

Located near two great lakes and the Detroit River, Detroit has access to the largest fresh water supply in the nation. But thousands of the city’s poorest residents no longer have water for drinking, bathing, cooking, or flushing the toilet, since the city’s unelected emergency manager began seeking to reduce the Water and Sewerage Department’s debt, cutting off residents who don’t keep current on their payments.

Meanwhile, General Motors and the city’s two sports arenas, which owe millions in unpaid water bills, have not had their water turned off.

The United Nations has called Detroit’s actions “a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.”

One marcher, Janice McKinney, described herself as a “pissed-off grandma.”

“We’re not under democracy in Detroit, we’re under dictatorship,” she said.

McKinney said she got involved in the water battle after she received a $600 water bill for one month, she said.

“I saw four different representatives of the water and sewer department, and each gave me a different story,” she said.

(Detroit residents’ water bills have gone up dramatically since emergency management was imposed on the city, and many residents have complained about overcharges and wrongful cut-offs.)

McKinney joined the People’s Water Board, which is fighting to wrest back democratic control over the water supply.

“If you don’t pay your water bill, there’s a lien put on your house,” McKinney explained. “In my exercise class, four seniors received $300 water bills. They were all told it was because of a January bill that was past due, which means they could be shut off. If it’s happening in a small group like my senior exercise class, how many others are there?”

“They are finding a way to steal money and bully you,” she added.

One of McKinney’s biggest concerns was represented on her hand-made sign by a picture of a little girl holding up an empty cup. The city has begun removing children from households that have had their water cut off, she explained.

In a flyer handed out at the march, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization accused Detroit officials of “torture” designed to drive poor people out of the city.

“My children left the city when they started ruining the schools, so their children could have an education,” McKinney said. “We used to have a great school system before emergency management . . . my children all graduated from college summa cum laude.”

As the march reached Hart Plaza, police confiscated the sound truck, leaving 85-year-old Congressman John Conyers to climb gingerly up the pedestal of a park monument, where speakers perched to deliver their remarks by passing around a bullhorn.

“We’re all in this together,” Conyers rasped into the bullhorn. “My message to Detroit Water and Sewer is: ‘Keep your paws off the water!’ Water is a human right.”

The crowd booed when organizers announced that the sound truck had been taken, and that nine protesters were arrested.

Maureen Taylor, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization state chair, told the crowd: “We live in the Great Lakes. All around us is water. We are not going to let their tricks take it away.”

“We are under occupation here,” said Abayomi Azikiwe of the Moratorium Now Coalition. “They’ve taken our homes, taken our public institutions and privatized them, and now they’re taking our water. Soon enough, it will be coming to a city near you.”

The nine people arrested were trying to form a blockade in front of Homrich, a private contractor being paid over $5 million to turn off water to Detroiters whose overdue bills exceed $150.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is a public asset valued at $6.4 billion.Forty-five percent of the utility's annual budget goes to Wall Street banks to service its debt —a debt the emergency manager has the power to re-negotiate.

Detroit activists worry that their water utility, like other public services, will be privatized.

Members of the crowd were asked to text the word “Detroit” to the phone number 69866 to sign a petition asking the Obama Administration to declare a public health emergency in Detroit and turn the water back on.

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Comments

Thanks for the excellent report. I learned 4 things: 1. When "Emergency Mgmt." takes over a city, the price of everything goes up. 2. The Powers That Be have created a new way for officials to take away your children (cut off water, declare home unsafe, take children). 3. The police don't like R&B! (maybe if the Sound Truck had boxes of KrispyKreme donuts aboard the cops would have looked the other way!) 4. Sports Arenas are more important than the people they were built to serve. Loved the "Tax Wall Street" sign! Sympathies to the residents, & the Seniors being walloped w/$600 water bills! (outrageous since Seniors likely use less water than most people). Keep us informed!
Why won't you allow readers to copy and paste this article to send to a friend. I don't want to sign in through Facebook and give you access to a lot of information that is none of your business. Come on, your magazine is called The Progressive. Let information flow freely.
The emergency manager has no conscience and a stone for a heart. I greatly hope that President Obama will take action to see that the people have water and that the cost of it is lowered--that the debts so far are completely forgiven.
People must have water to survive!! This is criminal!
You are aware of the fact that "Detroit" is adjacent (next to) to a "Major" waterway aren't you?? That would mean that, "Detroit" and it's citizenry (and not their crooked Elected profiteers) should "Champion",, "Desalination Plants". For those who don't understand,, Desalination Plants are like the filters you use in your home except on a larger scale and it doesn't matter how polluted our water is or can get, because these plants can, "Remove" these toxins and what ever else has been, Dumped" into it for decades and these same toxins can be, "Packaged" and mailed back to the industries, business and let's not forget, the crooked elected individuals, Past and Present, who put them there in the first place. By the way these plants can be paid for by,, "Selling" water to other States or better yet,, back to your crooked elected governmental officials who are doing such a, Marvelous job of, "Taking care of you and your well being",,, Good luck Detroit Citizens...
"We are not going to let their tricks take it away" What in the world are they talking about? If anybody in Detroit wants free water they're more than welcome to drive to the river and take it for themselves. Of course that won't happen because they want water of a minimum quality that's been treated.... and they don't want to pay for that. What's wrong with these people?
Water and sewer systems don't build and maintain themselves and the fees for them are paid by the users.
The people of Detroit have had their water rates raised 160 % over the past decade, and consistently they have been told that these hikes were to cover the folks who did not pay. So it is clear that the water department has been recompensed through rate hikes for the people who were either unable to pay, or chose not to, for reasons that vary from family to family. The extensive attacks, such as by FOX news and the Tea Party, on the character of Detroit citizens, 83% of whom are Afro American, are basically an appeal to the worst elements of bigoted society. And this was a political ploy as deliberate as the Willey Horton adds vilifying blacks by the Bush Senior campaign decades ago, in order to gain votes by fearful and bigoted whites. Years ago activists and City Counselors proposed and passed a water affordability plan, which created a sliding scale for poorer residents and retirees on fixed income. But this was never implemented. Now the emergency manager has been shutting off water without notice , claiming it is needed to cover shortfalls. This is essentially double-dipping to cover the same financial shortfalls that have already been supposedly covered by water rates which have more than doubled. So the excuse that the city water department had to "get tough" is a smokescreen for a racist policy that unevenly penalizes the Afro American community. It is hypocritical. Millions are owed the city by the corporations and businesses of Detroit. If these scofflaws, who can afford to pay, clean up their debt, the city could implement the affordability plan with little fanfare or hardship. Unfortunately, doing the "right thing" is not part of the gentrification plan. So it took thousands of demonstrators, lawsuits, appeals to the UN, and non-violent civil disobedience to finally put a stop to the shut offs. I urge you all not listen to racists who try to paint the suffering residents of Detroit as a bunch of dead- beats. The real cause of the problems of Detroit are much more complex, and have more to do with "banksters" and their hired lawyers and paid-off politicians. The water bills are just unaffordable for many hard working elderly residents already unable to cover their other utility bills. This sudden rush to turn off the water supply for thousands, is a travesty, and is born of greed on the part of Wall Street and ideological extremists, and not the communities of Detroit.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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