The people of Detroit are vowing resistance after a federal bankruptcy judge on Monday ruled that the city can continue shutting off water to its poorest residents if their bills cannot be paid.
Judge Steven W. Rhodes at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan declared that citizens have no implicit right to water, that he lacked the authority to issue a restraining order to stop the shutoffs and that doing so would be a financial hit to the city already in the throes of bankruptcy. "There is no such right or law," Rhodes said.
Advocacy groups had filed for a temporary restraining order against the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to stem the shutoffs until a plan is put into place to ensure that Detroiters can afford access to clean water.
The plaintiffs—which include the National Action Network, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Moratorium Now and the Peoples Water Board—argued that the city implemented shutoffs unfairly, without adequate notice and with little financial assistance for poor people who lack the means to pay.
The Detroit Water Brigade, which has spearheaded relief efforts for households where the water has been shut off, issued a statement following the ruling saying they "strongly condemn" the decision.
"Each day, hundreds of our neighbors and friends are losing access to life’s most essential ingredient for the simple fact that they are unable to pay," the statement reads.
"This affront to dignity and human rights will not continue on our watch: today we pledge our voices and our bodies to protect each other when the legal system will not," it continues. The volunteer group has vowed to undertake a "sustained and escalating campaign of nonviolent direct action" and risk arrest in order to "protect and uphold the human right to water in Detroit."
"This affront to dignity and human rights will not continue on our watch: today we pledge our voices and our bodies to protect each other when the legal system will not."
—Detroit Water Brigade
Plaintiff Attorney Alice Jennings said Monday that the group will look to appeal the decision. "We have demonstrated, and the judge agreed, that a family without water faces risk of irreparable harm," Jennings said. "We believe there is a right to water and there is a right to affordable water."
During the two days of hearings last week, Detroit residents and experts took the stand to testify about the hardships that stemmed from a lack of access to clean water.
Speaking before the courtroom, one witness reportedly "became teary" after describing how she had to buy bottles of water from the dollar store to bathe herself. "It doesn't make me feel good," she said, according to an account by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Social worker and city resident Maureen Taylor, who also chairs the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, described her visits to hundreds of homes deprived of running water. "It’s beyond sad," Taylor said, adding that there are often empty bottles of water all over the place. "People are scared. It’s a horrible thing to see."
During her testimony, DWSD head Sue McCormick said that she has no clue how many of the over 19,000 homes where water was shut off this year were occupied or home to kids or disabled residents. Further, McCormick admitted that, despite being DWSD policy, utilities representatives were not knocking on doors to see if a bill was in dispute before shutting off the water supply.
"Thousands of people in Detroit remain without water service, including the elderly, the disabled, and families with small children," said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director, in a statement following a ruling. "Without a clear plan for helping people afford their bills or appeal incorrect bills, the water department shouldn’t be in the business of turning off anyone else's water."
During his ruling, Rhodes touted a new city plan to create an independent regional body, the Great Lakes Water Authority, that will lease the city's water pipelines to suburban towns in order to recoup funds for DWSD. However, opponents have criticized the plan saying it's a clear step towards water privatization.
On September 19, the Detroit City Council voted 7-2 in favor of the plan and the surrounding municipalities are currently in the approval process.