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Detroit's Fight for Water Rights Is Showing How to Battle (and Beat) Austerity | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Detroit's Fight for Water Rights Is Showing How to Battle (and Beat) Austerity

Detroit water

Protesters rallying outside Detroit’s water department in May 2014. (KTLA)

The austerity agenda as it plays out on the ground in American cities is often so relentless in demanding cuts in public services that it is easy to imagine that it cannot be upended. And that goes double for Detroit, where Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has given his appointed “emergency manager”—rather than local elected officials—control over critical decisions regarding city operations.

But that does not mean that austerity always wins.

Last week, protests by Detroiters and allies from across the country focused local, national and international attention on the Detroit Water and Sewage Department’s program of shutting off water service for thousands of low-income families that have fallen behind in paying bills. On Friday, religious leaders and community activists were arrested after blocking trucks operated by the private contractor that was responsible for the shutoffs. At the same time, a mass march filled the streets of downtown Detroit with protesters arguing that the most vulnerable citizens of a city hard hit by deindustrialization ought not be further harmed by the loss of a basic necessity that the United Nations deems a human right.

Members of National Nurses United and the Michigan Nurses Association declared the city to be “a public health emergency zone.” And Congressman John Conyers, D-Detroit, told the crowd, “Water should be available to everybody. It shouldn’t be something that only people who can afford it can get.”

On Monday, the Water and Sewerage Department announced that it was suspending water shutoffs for fifteen days. The department says it is merely “pausing” to do more education about what it refers to as a “collection campaign” to get payment for unpaid bills from residents of a city that is itself in the midst of a bankruptcy process. Activists with the People’s Water Board coalition say, “We have a little over two weeks to make [the halt to shutoffs] permanent.”

There is actually a great deal that must be done. “The city of Detroit’s fifteen-day moratorium on water shut-offs, announced [Monday] nearly four months after the shut-offs began, is welcomed but inadequate relief for a city in which thousands of residents either have lost or face the continuing threat of losing access to water,” announced the ACLU of Michigan and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, both of which have argued that the water shutoffs violate both civil and human rights.

That focus on civil and human rights has been central to what has developed into a powerful challenge to to a specific manifestation of austerity in Detroit—a challenge that could serve as a model for other fights on the local, state and national levels.

The decision to suspend shutoffs came just three days after the arrests and the mass march brought the issues into clear focus—as was duly noted in local media. “The decision comes after the city has put into national spotlight for a policy that has been framed as a human rights issue for low-income residents who can’t afford to pay their bills,” the Detroit Free Press explained Monday. “It also was announced on the same day that a group of Detroit residents filed a lawsuit in the city’s bankruptcy case asking U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to restore water service to residential customers.”

Last week, Judge Rhodes told a representative of the Water and Sewage Department at a hearing, “Your residential shutoff program has caused not only a lot of anger in the city and also a lot of hardship”— adding, “It’s caused a lot of bad publicity for the city it doesn’t need right now.”

Those statements came before Friday’s march and rally, which garnered significant media attention and featured an appearance by actor and water rights activist Mark Ruffalo, who said, “The American people have got to know that this is wrong, and that it’s happening here and that it should be stopped.”

At Friday’s rally, Jean Ross, RN, co-president of National Nurses United, read an NNU declaration that warned, “We need clean water for proper sanitation to combat the growth and spread of multiple infectious diseases and pandemics. We need clean water for a safe and healthy environment. We demand the guarantee that all Detroit residents have immediate and full access to clean water.”

That message echoed the demands of local groups such as Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, People’s Water Board and the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network and Moratorium Now!—all of which are supporting the lawsuit—for an end to the shutoffs that have left some families without water while forcing others to sacrifice other necessities in order to pay what critics decry as excessive water fees.

Friday’s protests in Detroit also addressed the broader question of how cities, states and the nation should respond to financial turbulence. At several Detroit events over the weekend (when Netroots Nation met in Detroit) this writer joined Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, in discussions that focused attention on the unfairness of austerity responses that put too much pressure on low-income families while paying too little attention to the role of financial speculators. This continues to be the case, despite the fact that a recent Demos study concluded, “Detroit’s financial expenses have increased significantly, and that is a direct result of the complex financial deals Wall Street banks urged on the city over the last several years, even though its precarious cash flow position meant these deals posed a great threat to the city.”

Ellison, the author of legislation to create a “Robin Hood Tax” on financial speculation, asked Friday’s rally, “Instead of shutting peoples water off why don’t we raise the taxes on these corporations? We have a bill that would tax the transactions on stocks, bonds and derivatives so people can meet their basic needs like water.”

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Making that connection is important. What is happening in Detroit is part of a much broader scenario, in which decisions about how to pay bills and cover costs are too frequently made with little attention to human needs.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that when those human needs are brought into focus, the policymakers start to pay attention—and sometimes, they start to change the policies.

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