by Rasheed Shabazz
Detroit, Mich. – Hundreds marched in the streets of downtown Detroit on July 18 to protest water services being shut off for thousands of residents too poor to pay their utility bills. Nurses organizing the demonstration declared a public health emergency and called for a moratorium on the water shutoffs, a violation of human rights.
Three days after the largest demonstration since the shut-offs began, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department announced a brief reprieve. It suspended all water shut-offs for the next 15 days “to give residents another chance to prove they are unable to pay their bills,” according to the Detroit Free Press.
Since March, DWSD has shut off water service to over 15,000 homes. Nearly 100,000 more families are either late or unable to pay at least $150, putting them at risk of having their water shut off.
Over 82 percent of Detroiters are Black. Over 38 percent of residents live at or below the poverty line.
On Friday, at least 500 people marched from the Cobo Center to Chase Bank and Hart Plaza near the Detroit River. From a flatbed truck, actor Mark Ruffalo noted the strange irony of the U.S. sending aid abroad yet this rich nation is unable to ensure the poor here at home have access to water. As the hundreds marched, protesters chanted, “Water is a human right. Fight! Fight! Fight!” and “Whose water?” to responses of “Our water.”
“The lack of water directly undermines the health and safety of Detroit residents and their families,” said Jean Ross, a registered nurse and co-president of National Nurses United. Water is essential to human life, Ross noted, adding water is needed for hygiene and food preparation, and people are susceptible to diseases without access to this basic human need.
Dennis Williams, president of the United Auto Workers, added: “The government did not give us water. It is a natural resource.” Neither corporations nor City Hall owns water. “It is the people’s resource.”
Maureen Taylor, chair of Michigan’s Welfare Rights Organization, said the fight was bigger than the two major political parties or elections. “This is a fight about whether or not you have the right to have water in your house. The bottom line, if you don’t have any money, do you have a right to water? The answer,” she said, “Hell, yeah!”
Hundreds marched in the streets of downtown Detroit on July 18 to protest water services being shut off for thousands of residents too poor to pay their utility bills.
Taylor called on corporations to be held accountable for their role in this most recent crisis. “(Corporations) took the money we paid and invested it. Now they want to use the water system to pay the general fund.”
Taylor called for a moment of silence for Charity Hicks, a Detroit food justice activist and researcher who succumbed to injuries from a recent accident. Hicks was the first to be arrested protesting the state’s water shut-offs back in May.
As the hundreds marched, protesters chanted, “Water is a human right. Fight! Fight! Fight!” and “Whose water?” to responses of “Our water.”
Elected officials also addressed the crowd. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison called for taxing corporations instead of cutting off the water of the people. Rep. John Conyers said the Water Department must, “Keep their paws off our water.”
Journalist John Nichols called the shut-off a part of the attacks against Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. He also noted that Detroiters voted against both having an emergency manager and right-wing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who created the emergency management system after forcing Detroit into the largest municipal bankruptcy in the country.
“Let’s be clear: Detroit is not bankrupt,” said John Armellegos, president of the Michigan Nurses Association. “Denying citizens their fundamental right to water is yet another sign of a bankrupt system.” He said a “bankrupt system” encourages predatory lending and cuts to retirees’ health insurance and pensions.
“There was a time when they tried to stop us by turning the water on us,” said Pastor David Bullock in reference to the use of fire hoses against civil rights activists. “Now they try to stop us by shutting the water off on us.” He added, “This is about destroying the middle class, a war on the poor, an attack on labor.”
Wantaz Davis of Flint, Mich., and Rev. Edward Pinkney of Benton Harbor, Mich., also addressed the crowd, calling for solidarity across Michigan to fight the governor and his Wall Street corporate backers.
“This issue is beyond Detroit,” said Monica Lewis-Patrick, co-founder of We the People of Detroit. “Detroit is the tip of the spear. It’s not about one thing; it’s everything,” she said, quoting Pinkney. “As goes Detroit, as goes Michigan, so goes the nation. Stop the privatization!”
In another water-related protest, nine people were arrested Friday blocking the trucks of private contractors being paid to shut off residents’ water. Last week, 10 others were arrested in a similar direct action targeting the private firm. According to Pan-African News Wire, the company has received $6 million to shut off the water of the dispossessed.
Detroit Emergency Manager Kevin Orr, appointed by Gov. Snyder, said all Detroit residents who “demonstrate financial need” would receive help from state and local programs to keep their water on. “The most important thing residents can do is contact the DSWD if they are experiencing financial difficulty, and the department will help them into a payment plan or program that helps them keep their water on.”
Detroiters oppose the emergency management system. Many residents see the water crisis as part of the larger scheme to not only gentrify Detroit, but sell off its assets. Many retirees attended Friday’s demonstration.
“There was a time when they tried to stop us by turning the water on us,” said Pastor David Bullock in reference to the use of fire hoses against civil rights activists. “Now they try to stop us by shutting the water off on us.”
Yvonne Jones, who retired after 30 years with a city workforce training program, opposed the water shut-offs and also attacks on retired employees. She also criticized those who promote the narrative that Detroiters are inept and public employees are to blame for the problems created by greedy corporations.
“In this whole equation, (public workers) are the only ones who did the right thing,” Jones said. “We got up every day. We did our jobs. We fulfilled our contracts. Most of us are responsible citizens. We still live in the city of Detroit. We pay taxes. We raised our children here. We’re still supportive. “
In recent years, retirees have seen cuts to their health care benefits and now are being scapegoated as pensioners.
For more information about the efforts to fight the water crisis, stop the foreclosures and restore democracy in Detroit, visit Moratorium Michigan, http://moratorium-mi.org.
Rasheed Shabazz (Reginald L. James) is editor-in-chief of The ABC Movement, the publication of the African Black Coalition, a statewide alliance of Black college students in California. Visit http://afrikanblackcoalition.org for more information. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.