Thousands March in Detroit Against 'Heartless' Water Shut-Offs

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Thousands March in Detroit Against 'Heartless' Water Shut-Offs

As crisis deepens, so does local resistance, say organizers

One of the many community water stations that have emerged in response to the ongoing crisis in Detroit. (Photo: People's Water Brigade)

Thousands of people are expected to rally in Detroit Friday afternoon to demand a moratorium on the city's mass shut-offs of water to households, which they say has unleashed a public health emergency.

Dozens of local, national, and international organizations and unions are backing the march, which will call for an immediate renewal of water services to thousands of residences that have already been disconnected, with tens of thousands more slated to be next. "The more attention we can bring to this moment, the more likely we are to get action to alleviate a crisis that doesn't have to happen," Shea Howell of the communications working group for Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management and the People's Water Board told Common Dreams.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) announced last month it is implementing a plan to escalate the disconnection of water to households that have fallen behind on their bills to 3,000 a month. Nearly half of all residents are behind on their water payments—a pool that is likely to expand further as the city continues to increase its water rates and cut public services, including welfare and public pensions.

“Cutting off water to community residents is a disgraceful attack on the basic human right of access to safe, clean water,” —Jean Ross, National Nurses United

As a result, thousands of Detroit residents are going without water, despite its close proximity to the Great Lakes—which account for over one-fifth of the surface fresh water in the world.

The disconnections have been condemned as a "violation of human rights" by a UN panel, with the UN expert on the right to adequate housing warning they "may be discriminatory" against African Americans. Many residents suspect the shut-offs are part of a plan to get rid of bad debts to privatize water services, and ultimately, drive residents out of this majority-black city to make way for gentrification and corporate profits.

But organizers say Detroiters are finding creative ways to resist the water shut-offs and help each other get by.

Friday morning, residents blocked the entrance to Homrich Inc., the company contracted by the city to shut off water to homes. According to Howell, the civil disobedience is still ongoing, with a standoff between protesters and police. The direct action follows a similar protest earlier this month, which led to the arrest of ten residents.

Ann Rall of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and the People's Water Board told Common Dreams that "rapid response teams" have formed to warn residents when contractors enter their neighborhoods to shut off their water. Organizers are also going door-to-door in areas devastated by the shut-offs to connect residents to crisis resources, including a Water Rights Hotline. This is in addition to numerous "watering stations" set up across the city, which, according to Rall, constitute "central locations where people can access water and strategize how to organize."

"The more attention we can bring to this moment, the more likely we are to get action to alleviate a crisis that doesn't have to happen," —Shea Howell, Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, People's Water Board

At a DWSD "community meeting" in the Detroit neighborhood of Grandmont Rosedale Thursday night, activists and neighbors voiced anger about the water shut-offs. And in Detroit's North End, one resident on Monday physically stood over her water valve to prevent contractors from shutting it off, according to Rall.

Numerous local organizations are pressing the city to adopt a Water Affordability Plan, which was passed by the Detroit City Council in 2005 but disregarded by DWSD.

And later this month, the Council of Canadians will send a water convoy to Detroit to deliver water to residents in need in what they have declared is a "solidarity action."

Organizers express hope that Friday's protest will help lift the international profile of the water crisis in Detroit. “Cutting off water to community residents is a disgraceful attack on the basic human right of access to safe, clean water,” said Jean Ross, co-president of National Nurses United—which is playing a key role in organizing Friday's protest.

Rall emphasized that, amid the "calculated, very heartless, and very exploitative" actions the city is taking, local resistance appears to be on the rise. "There are amazing things happening in Detroit," she said.

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