Numerous protests, courageous blockades and arrests, bring 15-day ‘pause’ with conditions, not ban on shut-offs of life’s necessity
“Water should be free”–Homrich security guard
Orr hand-off of Water Dept. to Duggan meaningless; U.S. District Judge Sean Cox severed city’s control in 2011
Bankruptcy mediation on privatization/sale of Dept. proceeds; water bondholders will reap over $5 billion from Plan of Adjustment
By Diane Bukowski
August 1, 2014
UPDATE: The Detroit Water & Sewerage Department has announced it is extending the “freeze” on shut-offs from Aug. 6 to Aug. 24, to allow for customers to pay their grossly inflated bills.
DETROIT – The water wars here continue unabated, despite declarations of at least partial victory by some advocates and media.
The issue has been brought to the United Nations. International protests against thousands of shut-offs to poor families, seniors, and disabled people have included deliveries of water by a Canadian caravan and by West Virginia coal miners, a rally of thousands in Hart Plaza led by the National Nurses Union, and the first discussion of the water shut-offs in Bankruptcy Court.
Courageous protesters have twice blockaded the gates at Homrich Wrecking, putting their bodies on the line to stop the shut-off trucks from rolling. Water brigades have established community water supply hubs, going door to door in the neighborhoods.
Most recently Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr said he was handing control of the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department (DWSD) over to Mayor Mike Duggan. Along with DWSD’s 15-day “pause” in shut-offs and a “water fair,” some have declared significant progress.
In an article titled, “Water warriors say Orr’s hand off to Duggan is a victory,” the Michigan Citizen quoted Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. She termed Orr’s announcement a “pretty good victory . . . [the EM] dropped the water issue like a hot potato. It was a smart move.”
The paper did qualify the story, citing doubts about Duggan’s stance.
“We need to change a number of things in the way we have approached the delinquent payment issues and I expect us to have a new plan shortly,” Duggan said. “There are funds available to support those who cannot afford their bills — we need to do a much better job in community outreach to tell our residents how to access those funds.”
But he still blamed customers delinquent in their payments, which can be as high as $70 a month, and offered no solution for lower rates. The original Water Affordability Plan, never approved in that form, mandated rates calculated according to a customer’s income.
“When some Detroit residents don’t pay their bills, those bills have to be paid by other Detroiters,” Duggan said. “So all bills that remain uncollected this year must be paid for by higher rates on all Detroiters next year.”
In fact, DWSD has long charged Detroiters higher sewerage rates to compensate for delinquencies, and additionally attached the delinquencies to property tax bills, meaning Detroiters can lose not only their water and children (to Child Protective Services), but also their homes.
The daily media including the UK-based Guardian have also claimed Orr turned complete control of DWSD over to Duggan. (Ironically, the UK and other countries forbid water shut-offs, period, even by privately-owned water companies like Thames Water.)
“Control of Detroit’s massive municipal water department, which has been widely criticized by the United Nations and others for widespread service shutoffs to thousands of customers, has been returned to the mayor’s office,” trumpeted the Guardian.
That report is a blatant falsehood. As a state-appointed official, Orr has no authority to countermand the severance of mayoral and city control over DWSD by U.S. District Court Judge Sean Cox in 2011.
Orr’s order #30 says, “Consistent with Emergency Manager Order No. 20, the EM has determined that, at the present time, it is in the best interests of the city that the Mayor be granted the power and authority that the Mayor would have had with respect to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and the Board of Water Commissioners for DWSD absent PA 436 in order to aid the EM in providing necessary governmental services essential to the public health, safety and welfare . . .” (emphasis by author).
Detroit lost control of DWSD well before the enactment of Public Act 436 in Dec. 2012.
“We first lost control way back in 1977, when [U.S. District Court] Judge John Feikens put the Wastewater Treatment Plant under federal oversight while Coleman Young was mayor,” city retiree Cornell Squires recalled.
U.S. District Court Judge Sean Cox, a member of the reactionary Federalist Society, declared an end to the oversight in 2011, but not before axing Detroit’s control of the $6 billion, six-county system the city built and financed through the previous century, in the face of suburban refusal to pay for it themselves.
In Feb. and Nov. of 2011, Cox issued two orders. He reconstituted the seven-member Board of Water Commissioners, giving veto power over DWSD contracts and rates to the three members from Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties, by requiring a supermajority vote of 5-2. He appointed Wayne County’s Water Board member Walter Fausone, who has ties with water contractors, as chair of the Board, replacing Mary Blackmon of Detroit.
Flouting Detroit’s City Charter, he eliminated Detroit residents’ right to vote on the sale of DWSD assets, as well as the city’s privatization ordinance limiting the bid-out of public work.
Bypassing Detroit’s mayor, he vested most executive control of DWSD in its director. The Water Board later appointed Sue McCormick of Ann Arbor to that position. McCormick and the Water Board contracted with Toronto-based EMA, which recommended the elimination of 80 percent of DWSD’s workers. Large numbers have already been laid off.
While disenfranchising residents, Cox executed a broad-ranging attack on workers’ rights guaranteed by union contracts, Civil Service, and state law. He also targeted Black-owned Detroit-based businesses and resident workers, limiting their access to DWSD work by reducing or eliminating previously guaranteed credits in contract selection. He axed provisions of the Charter requiring DWSD contractors to be current in their city taxes before approval.
The work begun by Cox now continues in secret mediation sessions with water bondholders. U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gerald Rosen, also a Federalist Society member, is the mediator, appointed by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes.
The Plan of Adjustment includes payment of over $5 billion in uncontested debt to water bondholders, with more to be considered during the trial on the “Plan of Adjustment.” Some bondholders whose claims were considered “impaired” voted “NO” on the plan.
The false perceptions of some that protests have attained significant victories in the water wars do not negate the courage in particular of those who put their bodies on the line at Homrich Wrecking’s terminal twice.
VOD covered the second blockade July 18, which lasted from 6 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. It took place as thousands from the Roots.net convention, including the National Nurses Union, rallied against the shut-offs downtown. Several of the blockade protesters repeatedly called downtown for reinforcements, but sadly, they were offered pizzas, not people.
Several protesters holding the main banner and two beautiful auxiliary banners depicting children brushing their teeth and taking a bath stood on the line without relief for the entire seven hours.
News trucks from all the major Detroit stations, along with reporters from many sources, stood vigil with the protesters for the entire time.
The blockaders chanted, “If the water don’t flow, the trucks won’t go,” and “Water is a human right, fight, fight, fight.”
They paraphrased the classic spiritual, singing, “Wade in the water, wade in the water, children, wade in the water, God’s a-going to trouble the water. See that host all dressed in white, God’s a-going to trouble the water, it must be the ones saying water is a human right; who are the ones all dressed in red, must be the ones that Charity led. God’s a-going to trouble the water.”
The reference was to Charity Hicks, a nationally-renowned human rights organizer. She was the first to be arrested and subjected to brutal conditions in the Mound Road prison for two days, as she advocated for her neighbors during one of Homrich’s first shut-0ff assaults. Shortly afterwards, while attending a convention in New York City, she was hit by a car that kept on going. She lingered in a coma for weeks before passing July 8. (See obituary below.)
“Charity was unruly and unrulable,” Pastor Bill Wylie-Kellerman, a leader of the blockade, told the crowd. “She told them, ‘Not on this block, not in this city.’ Her actions embodied and signaled the movement.”
Numerous others paid tribute to Charity as well, including Nelson Massen, a leader of the “Moral Mondays” protests in Greenwood, N.C.
Valerie Jean recounted her own neighborhood protest in the North End against the water shut-offs.
“We need to organize the neighborhoods to stop the shut-offs,” she said. “When they came to my house, I told him numerous times not to shut off my water. I took pictures. Eventually they left me alone. I advocated for my neighbors as well. Now we’ve established a water hub and a food hub there. The whole neighborhood is participating. Along with water, people brought baby wipes to help those without water keep clean.”
Protester Sheena Crenshaw, a Detroit Public Schools teacher, said, “It’s a travesty in this American society that we can’t figure out how to get people access to a human right.”
Jaron Garza, a member of UAW Local 160, said a friend had called him for assistance as he was headed downtown to the “big” protest, and he came instead to the blockade, bringing bottled water for the protesters.
Even a Homrich security guard, going off-duty, told VOD, “I think water should be free.”
Those eventually arrested, with police threatening they would hold them “as long as possible,” included young people bravely experiencing their first arrest.
Baxter Jones, arrested during the first blockade, placed his wheelchair in front of the banner as police finally arrived at 1:30 pm. He was first to be arrested and hauled into a special, broken-down, allegedly wheelchair accessible truck police had brought for him.
“Water is sacred to us,” Jones told a local TV news reporter. “They are depriving people of water instead of finding a way around this. It seems like their only motivation is greed. I cannot stand by and not speak out. An injustice to one is an injustice to all.”
Marian Kramer of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, still grieving the recent death of her husband and comrade General Baker, a co-founder of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, stood strong as she was handcuffed and led aboard the police bus.
Seven others were arrested, as Detroit police watched gleefully, and the blockade was broken. Dozens of Homrich workers drove into the facility to start their work in the streets of Detroit. As shown in the video at top, this reporter and Kate Levy trailed one worker, seeking to counter false allegations that the workers were going to cut water back on.
The arrested protesters were released shortly afterwards from the Detroit Detention Center at the back of the Mound Road facility, likely to keep them from long-term detainment, during which they would have witnessed the barbaric conditions in the state holding tank which Charity Hicks described to VOD after her arrest.
There is clearly a long way to go in the battle for Detroit residents’ right to water. That battle, however, must NOT be divorced from the battle against the bankruptcy takeover of the entire city. EM Kevyn Orr declared that the water shut-offs are only part of the re-structuring of Detroit.
It will also include the demolition of 70,000 homes under the direction of the Blight Task Force headed by billionaire Dan Gilbert, many of which could be rehabbed by Detroit’s youth trained to be skilled trades workers, the removal of 40,000 streetlights under the Public Lighting Authority, and the severance of other services to wide swaths of the city’s neighborhoods.
Earlier VOD stories on Judge Sean Cox’s takeover of DWSD: