Detroit residents on Thursday launched a direct action to halt the city's mass shut-off of water to thousands of households, physically blocking a private corporation from turning off the tap.
Carrying a banner that read "Stop the Water Shut-offs," ten city residents nonviolently obstructed the entrance to Homrich Inc.—the private company that was handed a $5.6 million deal from the city to shut off water services to residences that are behind on their bills, according to the protest organizers. They were surrounded during the civil disobedience by a crowd of over 40 supporters chanting "If the water don't flow, the trucks don't go."
The protesters held the entrance for more than an hour and a half before all ten were arrested, Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a Detroit pastor who was among the arrestees, told Common Dreams. "We feel that it's really time to intensify and escalate the resistance to the water shutoffs and emergency management," Wylie-Kellermann declared.
"The only reason they are getting away with this is because this is a majority black city." —Sarah Coffey, People's Water Board Coalition & Water Rights Hotline
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) announced in June that it is escalating its disconnections of water services to residences that have fallen behind on their bills to 3,000 a month. In a city devastated by unemployment and foreclosure crises, nearly half of all residents are unable to pay, and the city's continual increase in water rates is not helping. Thousands of people have already had their water turned off, including many who were disconnected long before this June escalation, and tens of thousands more are next.
Concerned organizations say that the shut-offs have so far unleashed a human rights crisis that devastates low-income communities of color. UN experts agree: in response to a complaint from a coalition of organizations, a UN panel condemned the city last month for violating the "human right to water," with the UN expert on the right to adequate housing warning the shut-offs "may be discriminatory" against African Americans.
Sarah Coffey of the People's Water Board and Water Rights Hotline put it succinctly in an interview with Common Dreams: "The only reason they are getting away with this is because this is a majority black city."
According to Coffey, the disconnections are likely part of a plan, driven by emergency manager Kevyn Orr, to get rid of bad debt in order to privatize the DWSD. Orr's rush to declare bankruptcy for the city, impose austerity, and gut public services including schools—all backed by republican Governor Rick Snyder—has left many residents convinced the water shut-offs are just one more step in a plan to displace Detroit communities and gentrify the city.
Coffey said that the Thursday morning protest was met with a "spirit of solidarity" from supporters yet violence from the police, who injured two of the arrestees, who hail from organizations including the People's Water Board, Michigan Welfare Rights, Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, and the Detroit Water Brigade. All of those arrested have since been released.
This is not the first protest of its kind in Detroit. Wylie-Kellermann credited Charity Hicks, long-time Detroit organizer for food, water, and racial justice, for 'sparking' the protest and said the action was "in her honor." Hicks, who passed away this week, was arrested this spring for resisting the shut-off of her home's water.
Wylie-Kellermann said he is hopeful mass protests will grow from here, including a July 18 rally expected by organizers to draw thousands of people from across the state and country. "We are hoping this is really just the first step in a series of nonviolent direct actions that intensify and broaden the resistance," he said.
According to Coffey, the outcome of the struggle for the "human right to water" has broad implications because "Wall Street is using Detroit to create a blueprint for future cities." Coffey added, "The issue of whether water should be a commodity or part of the commons raises the question of what kind of future we want."
The Detroit Water Brigade released a video of the Thursday's protest: