In the past four months, more than 15,000 Detroit households have had their water shut off, generating a crisis the United Nations calls “a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.” “When there is genuine inability to pay,” says the UN, “human rights simply forbids disconnections.” Water rates have more than doubled over the past decade while the city’s poverty rate rose to nearly 40 percent, making the cost of basic running water unaffordable for tens of thousands of families.
Yesterday, as volunteers helped unload 1,000 gallons of water brought on a truck by West Virginians to support Detroiters impacted by the shut offs, the “hot mess” was turned over to the Mayor of Detroit because, in the words of Detroit People’s Water Board representative Tawana Petty, “thousands of people have embarrassed the [emergency city manager] and Governor Snyder by standing with the people of Detroit, protesting in the streets and rallying with Canadians who stood up for families in need.”
If you’re not freaked out by what’s going on in Detroit, you should be. The Detroit water shut offs are gentrification on steroids. (“Gentrification is a profit-driven racial and class reconfiguration of urban, working-class and communities of color that have suffered from a history of disinvestment and abandonment,” explains a recent report.)
The Detroit water shut offs are where all our cities are headed unless we wake up and see the larger pattern, take our own local action, and powerfully connect all our local action together.
To understand more about the Detroit water shut offs and what all of us can do, Let’s Talk spoke by phone with Tawana Petty, mother/organizer/author/poet/activist , representative of the People’s Water Board, and an organizer with the Boggs Center and for the upcoming New Work New Culture Conference in Detroit.
Let’s Talk: What created this situation in Detroit?
Tawana Petty: The water shut offs are part of an intentional, strategic plan by bankers and corporations to uproot poor, predominantly black people from Detroit. It is a direct result of emergency management, what Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management calls a “siege of financial dispossession, massive unemployment, elimination of basic welfare supports, and suspension of democratic rights.”
Criminalizing people is key to all this: we see it in how people who are behind on water bills are being treated. We see it our schools where state-controlled schools punish thousands each year with out of school suspensions. Everywhere we turn we are being funneled into an increasingly privatized prison system.
LT: A 15-day moratorium on shut offs was announced last week. What’s happening with that?
TP: There is no moratorium. Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) is continuing to pursue 9,000 families whose water has been turned off during what they are conveniently calling a pause. Two days ago, they shutoff a 40 unit apartment complex, Historic Palmer Park Apartments, and were forced to turn the water back on after public and activist outcry. They are also using the media to paint families as criminals and accusing most people they intended to shut off of stealing water.
Additionally, they are co-opting the words of grassroots organizers and duping the public with “water affordability fairs.” DWSD set up a water hotline with very little staffing, which keeps residents on hold for over an hour before they reach an operator, then tells people they have to go into the office to get their water turned back on.
I recently did a radio program with Darryl Latimer, Deputy Director of DWSD, and I asked him how an 80 year old, disabled woman is supposed to go stand in line at the DWSD? He couldn’t provide an answer, because he has no solution.
LT: The water department had been controlled by the city’s Emergency Manager, but was turned over to the Mayor yesterday. Can you tell me about that?
TP: Because of the constant media scrutiny and the global spotlight on the inhumane treatment of Detroiters by the Governor and Emergency Manager, the DWSD was turned over to the Mayor. Many have celebrated this as a victory for Detroit, but those on the ground working tirelessly to prevent privatization of the city’s water under emergency management see through the sleight of hand. Our demands remain the same.
LT: What needs to happen?
TP: We need immediate restoration of water to thousands of Detroiters who have had their water service cut off. We need an end to all the water shut offs.
We need immediate enforcement of the People’s Water Affordability Plan that was put forth by Michigan Welfare Right’s Organization in 2005 and adopted by the City Council in 2006. The Water Affordability Plan caps water rates based on income.
LT: What can people outside of Detroit do to help?
TP: People can sign on to the Color of Change petition: Tell Detroit to Turn the Water Taps Back On!
Organizations can sign on to the letter to Barak Obama and Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Sylvia Mathews Burwell.
People can use social media like twitter to generate public outcry: #PeoplesWaterBoard #WageLove #StopTheShutoffs
And people can donate to the People’s Water Board Coalition!
LT: What gives you hope?
TP: If there was ever a silver lining to this, it has been the world’s opportunity to witness the resilience of Detroiters, as we combat the narrative of our city, and struggle to become more self-determinate. This has definitely been an opportunity to “grow our souls”, as Detroiter and revolutionary activist Grace Lee Boggs would say. And the support of national and international allies during this process has been invaluable.