Detroit Is Ground Zero in the New Fight for Water Rights

Detroit Is Ground Zero in the New Fight for Water Rights

Detroit Is Ground Zero in the New Fight for Water Rights

As many as 25,000 families are at risk of having their water shut off. These activists are fighting back.


As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments. 

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On the morning of July 3, as dozens of people flocked to the center of Detroit to begin a seven-day, 70-mile walk from the Motor City to Flint, Michigan, Mona Stonefish, an indigenous elder with gray-streaked hair, blessed the group with the Anishinaabe water song. “If there’s no water, our children will not survive,” Stonefish said before breaking into song, keeping the beat by shaking a gum container filled with coins.

The group had gathered in front of City Hall in downtown Detroit, and all around them, the business district was revving to life. Young transplants were sipping coffee nearby, while employees from Quicken Loans, a mortgage-lending company whose owner, Dan Gilbert, is driving much of the city’s targeted gentrification, breezed to work. Here, it seemed, was a city experiencing an economic revival. Yet just outside this sliver of city, as many as 25,000 Detroit families were facing the threat of having their water turned off for lack of payment.

“When our water is under attack, what do we do?” shouted community organizer Monica Lewis-Patrick. “Stand up! Fight back!” people responded.

The crowd began to surge northward, as marchers took the first steps in a weeklong journey to demand clean, affordable water—not only for Detroit residents, but for people throughout Michigan and the states beyond.

The march, which harked back to this country’s long history of civil-rights treks, was the latest push by a band of Detroiters who have been literally thirsting for justice. Over the last year, as the city has waged an unprecedented campaign to shut off water to residents over unpaid bills, these activists have turned Detroit into the epicenter of a growing national struggle over whether water constitutes a human right. This struggle began in the spring of 2014, when a private company contracted by the city began abruptly turning off the water to up to 900 homes a day. At the time, nearly half of Detroit’s residents were behind on their bills—the result of the increasingly unaffordable costs of utilities in a city where nearly 40 percent of the population lives in poverty. Within months, more than 30,000 households were without water, sparking a public-health crisis, condemnation from the United Nations, and a surging struggle to ensure that access to clean, affordable water becomes a legally recognized right in the United States.

The rise of Detroit’s water movement comes none too soon. One year after the wave of disconnections began, the threat of mass shutoffs has spread to Baltimore, while the climate-related drought in California has forced the government to institute water-use restrictions. From coast to coast, the United States is careening into an age of widespread water instability. And once again, as so many times before, the Motor City is on the front lines of the resistance.

* * *

The first shot in Detroit’s water war was fired in the early-morning hours of May 16, 2014, when Detroit resident Charity Hicks spotted a large truck emblazoned with the word Homrich rumbling down her block. A longtime activist, Hicks knew exactly what the private company was up to: It was there to cut off the water. She dashed down the block knocking on doors, urging people to fill up their bathtubs, sinks, and water bottles until, in the street in front of her pregnant neighbor’s home, she encountered the contractor. He was impatient, and when Hicks demanded that he give the woman a few minutes to prepare for the shutoff, the man threw the truck in reverse and ran into her. When the police arrived, they arrested Hicks instead of the driver and transported her to a state-run prison.

Word of Hicks’s arrest spread quickly, and the story, later recounted by organizers Monica Lewis-Patrick and Tawana Petty, sparked a swift mobilization. “Within 24 hours, I attended six meetings,” Lewis-Patrick recalls.

Hicks’s stand thrust the water disconnections into the spotlight, galvanizing the city’s grassroots networks. Disparate groups of residents, lawyers, artists, and activists began flocking to the People’s Water Board, a coalition that advocates for “access, protection, and conservation of water.” Within weeks, hundreds of people packed the meetings. The group We the People of Detroit, which Lewis-Patrick works with, established a rapid-response water-delivery system. A team of lawyers, spearheaded by the formidable litigator Alice Jennings, began to draft a temporary injunction to force the city to stop cutting off the water.

Meanwhile, the number of shutoffs accelerated. One of the people threatened was Roslyn E. Walker, a longtime resident of the city’s east side. Known to friends as Dee Dee, Walker is an in-home care aide who describes herself as nosy, although the truth is that she’s just an old-school Detroit neighbor—willing to get up in your business if someone’s health or well-being requires it.

Walker’s 12-year-old son, Aldontez, has acute asthma and sometimes needs a nebulizer to help him breathe. This machine, in turn, requires water. Walker borrowed $300 to avoid a service shutoff. Then she began placing calls, looking for help with her nearly $600 bill. Through the grapevine, she heard about Jennings’s lawsuit, signed on as a plaintiff, and then called a half-dozen friends and relatives in search of more people to testify. She learned that her cousin, Nicole Cannon, had a water bill of more than $3,000 and convinced her to join the suit.

As Jennings and her legal team prepared the case, residents moved to enact a more immediate moratorium: On July 11, nearly a dozen people entered the Homrich parking lot, assembled near the massive trucks, and refused to move. Seven days later, as more than 1,000 medical providers and residents marched through the streets, decrying what the president of the nurses’ union had called “a dangerous public-health crisis,” nine more people blocked the trucks with their bodies until the police hauled them away.

As the crisis spread, the city came together. Residents began snaking water hoses from house to house. School principals opened locker rooms early to allow students to shower, while parents pitched in to wash children’s clothes in the schools’ washers and dryers. At night, teams of people—including some former water department workers—slipped through neighborhoods with long metal rods and turned families’ water back on. Freshly spray-painted declarations on walls and vacant buildings proclaimed: The Water Belongs to the People.

Throughout the summer, donations and calls of support flooded in from across the country, and caravans loaded with water arrived from Canada and West Virginia. Detroit’s water shutoffs were no longer just the isolated burden of a struggling city but had become an international symbol of the need for government to check the destruction that accompanies economic collapse. Affordability, not austerity, was the rallying cry.

It was an ideological battle that had already raged in Detroit for decades, as the city weathered mass foreclosures, layoffs, pension cuts, and school closings. But the city’s move to turn off the tap united Detroit’s activist community like nothing in recent history—and after Charity Hicks died suddenly in an accident in New York, many redoubled their efforts. Come fall, even the soaring Highland Park water tower would bear the message—Free the Water—in massive letters.

On July 21, Jennings’s team rushed to court to file a temporary restraining order, arguing that her clients faced irreparable harm if the shutoff regimen continued. At the time, the city was under state-declared emergency management and in the throes of protracted bankruptcy negotiations. It was unclear whether the lawyers would even be allowed to file a lawsuit; there was a hold at the time on non-bankruptcy-related cases. When they appeared in court, “the defendants were just flabbergasted,” Jennings recalled.

A media frenzy ensued, and hours later, the city announced a halt to the shutoffs.

* * *

Detroit’s identity has always been tied to water. The city’s name, meaning “strait,” originated with French settlers marveling at the way the Detroit River slices through the landmass that later became the United States and Canada. To the Anishinaabe nation, the region is known as ZagaaJibiiSing: “the place that sticks out of the river.”

Geographically, downtown Detroit hugs the banks of the Detroit River, which empties into Lake St. Clair on the one side and Lake Erie on the other. Farther east is Lake Ontario, while to the northwest lie Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, curled around the mitten-shaped state, and then the expansive Lake Superior. Combined, the Great Lakes hold more than 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.

Yet over the last two decades, residents have found water increasingly inaccessible. The struggle actually began in the mid-1990s, when Maureen Taylor and Marian Kramer of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization met with the concerned mayor of Highland Park, who turned over a stack of pages filled with the addresses of homes where the water had already been turned off or soon would be. Now in her 60s, Taylor is a woman with such a sense of urgency that she recounts past events in the present tense. The problem, she explained, was that the water department had been doubling and tripling the rates as Highland Park’s population plummeted from more than 50,000 residents to fewer than 20,000. In response, she and Kramer had launched a series of marches and demonstrations and a boycott of the water department itself, with residents refusing to pay their bills until the rates were reduced.

But just as Highland Park was backing off from its policy of aggressive service disconnections, the crisis spread to Detroit. In the early 2000s, the city began carrying out tens of thousands of water shutoffs. “It is just madness,” Taylor says of that first round of disconnections. “Factories are closing all over Detroit. People are leaving…. The tax problems are starting to creep up. Everything is falling at the same time.”

Over the next few years, Michigan Welfare Rights pulled together a team of advocates, lawyers, and residents living without water to draft an affordability plan. The plan was approved by the City Council, but the water department has so far refused to implement it. Still, that early battle prepared the organizers for the spring of 2014, when Michigan Welfare Rights received another list of planned shutoffs—this time with nearly 60,000 addresses.

* * *

In sEptember 2014, Alice Jennings, Roslyn Walker, and over two dozen lawyers and plaintiffs arrived at the Theodore Levin US Courthouse for the opening arguments of the lawsuit demanding a temporary restraining order to stop the disconnections. By this time, nearly 20,000 households had seen their water turned off. An estimated 5,000 families were without service at that very moment.

Nicole Cannon, Roslyn Walker’s cousin, arrived with an oxygen tank. She was battling sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the lungs and other organs. Before Cannon rose to testify, Jennings asked if she was sure that she wanted to speak. “I wouldn’t miss this for anything in the world,” Jennings recalls her saying.

At the end of the proceedings, Judge Steven Rhodes rejected the request for a temporary restraining order, ruling that Detroit residents “do not have a right to water service, they do not have the right to water based on the ability to pay.” The shutoffs resumed.

The ruling sparked outrage—not just in Detroit but internationally. Only days earlier, the United Nations had announced a fact-finding mission to the city to determine whether the scale of the disconnections violated international human-rights law. To quell the fervor, Detroit promoted a payment plan for residents who were behind on their water bills. Thousands flocked to the water department to sign up, but the city’s scheme was so disastrously designed that, six months later, an exposé by investigative reporter Curt Guyette showed that of the more than 24,000 people who enrolled in the program, fewer than 300 were current on their bills.

Meanwhile, residents began mobilizing to enforce the right to water themselves: canvassing neighborhoods, establishing an emergency water hotline, and delivering thousands of gallons to families whose service had been shut off. One of the leaders of this effort was Monica Lewis-Patrick. As she and the rest of the volunteers crisscrossed the city, they found that some people had been living for months—even years—without water.

On one rainy afternoon, Lewis-Patrick arrived at the home of an elderly man who had just returned from the hospital. His utilities had been off for three years, he explained, so he’d been paying a neighbor to bring him water every few days. She handed him a flier and offered to set up a regular delivery to his house. But before she could finish, a younger man came out onto his porch and called across the street: “Hey, G, I’ve got water!”

Many of the parents that the organizers encountered were terrified that Child Protective Services would remove their children because of the lack of water. This fear was pervasive—and not without justification. Documents on initial child-removal proceedings are not public, but a Nation review of hundreds of appellate-level cases found more than two dozen instances statewide in which utility shutoffs were a factor in the state’s decision to remove children. These include almost a dozen cases in which there were no allegations of abuse, and the lack of utilities was one of the main reasons for removal.

* * *

In December 2014, just two months after UN officials declared that Detroit was violating international human-rights law, the city ramped up its mass shutoffs. Donna, who asked to be identified only by her first name, watched the Homrich contractors arrive at her house early one December morning. She didn’t qualify for any of the city’s assistance programs because she had no income. Instead, she relied on Lewis-Patrick’s delivery program and a strict rationing system.

“Instead of being able to wash your face or brush your teeth on a regular basis,” she explained, “you conserve water for the important hygiene. It’s more important to wash your hands after you go to the bathroom…. But if I know I haven’t brushed my teeth in two weeks, and I’m going out for some type of errand, I’ll brush my teeth so I’m not offending someone.”

As the months stretched on and Donna’s water remained off, Detroit organizers set their sights outside the city limits. In February, Alice Jennings joined a four-person team of experts to testify at a congressional panel in Washington on the growing water emergency nationwide. “Detroit, Michigan, is experiencing a humanitarian and public-health crisis,” she began. “Over 53,000 Detroiters…have had their water and sewerage abruptly terminated.”

As the panel revealed, the crisis extended far beyond the Motor City. The director of the US Conference of Mayors testified that municipal budgets across the country were buckling under the cost of the necessary upgrades to aging water and sewer infrastructure. Panelist Roger Colton, a leading economist from Boston, highlighted numerous cities in which poor residents were being asked to pay 10 to 15 percent of their income for water and sewerage.

Piecemeal assistance programs rarely met the needs of these families, Colton explained. Instead, the only model that truly works is a citywide affordability plan, in which water bills are calibrated so as to never exceed a certain percentage of a ratepayer’s income (as opposed to billing everyone at the same rate, regardless of income, and then allowing people to apply for small amounts of financial assistance—for which they may not even qualify). Other cities, he noted, including Philadelphia, have already embraced promising affordability plans.

Detroit activists have begun working toward precisely this goal. For decades, the city had its own water department, which had been wrested from local control in the previous year’s heated bankruptcy negotiations. The move had sparked an intense backlash among Detroit residents, but now the water-justice advocates decided to turn the shake-up into an opportunity. Led by organizer Sylvia Orduño, the People’s Water Board Coalition has begun pushing the newly created regional water authority to adopt an affordability program similar to the one that Michigan Welfare Rights developed a decade earlier.

Meanwhile, on the legal front, Alice Jennings is appealing the ruling against her class-action lawsuit against the water shutoffs, and she hopes that a victory will help to establish an enforceable civil right to water in the United States. As she awaits a court date, the evidence continues to mount that the shutoffs have caused irreparable harm: Nicole Cannon, one of the lawsuit’s key plaintiffs, died in January at the age of 44.

Cannon’s last months had been agonizing, as she struggled to save her water service—and her life. She’d entered into the city’s payment plan, only to find that her fixed income made it impossible to keep up with the terms. On her doctor’s advice, she had been trying to move, because her rental bungalow was filled with mold that exacerbated her sarcoidosis, but she couldn’t because she was unable to transfer her Section 8 rent subsidy to another apartment while she still had $3,000 outstanding on her water bill. And she had to keep the water on—both for her own health, and because if the service was cut, she would lose her Section 8 subsidy.

Ultimately, Cannon passed away. Her death was sudden and surprising, even to her three children. Not a single local newspaper ran an obituary.

“Because she was low income, because she was disabled and low income, because she was a woman, disabled and low income, she had to fight to stay alive,” Maureen Taylor wrote in an e-mail to organizers in the days following Cannon’s death. “Now what? Who pays for this murder, the first of probably more to come? How much longer will this treachery go on? Sleep well, Ms. Nicole.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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