By Shea Howell
Special to The Michigan Citizen
Week 69 of the Occupation
The move toward bankruptcy in Detroit is complicated and complex. The most direct way to understand what is happening is a slogan being used by some local community advocates. “First they shut off our democracy, and then they shut off our water.”
The continuing crisis in the lives of people caused by the willful pursuit of shutoffs in spite of a massive national and international outcry shows the real values and motives behind those who support emergency mangers. They are determined to reshape the city by driving out many of those who have lived here and created a culturally vibrant, radically inclusive community.
Under the direction of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, the leadership of the water department told a federal judge, the people of Detroit and the world there would be a “pause” in the draconian water shut off policy. Neither the Water Department nor the emergency manager has the capacity or the will to make this claim a reality. Instead, they said what they needed to placate the judge and the media, and continued to assault neighborhoods. They manipulate media symbols and avoid substantive solutions.
When I heard DWSD spokesman Bill Johnson explain they were not establishing a “moratorium but a pause.” I thought of asking him what he thought a moratorium meant. Now, nearly half way through the grace period presented as an opportunity to allow those who cannot pay to make arrangements, I find DWSD doesn’t know what “pause” means.
Within a day of the announced pause, the volunteer hotlines around the city reported shutoffs were continuing. Water shutoffs in neighborhoods reflected the same confusion as those the day before the pause. Some people reported being shut off after making payments on bills, some received no notice, and some said landlords had not paid, even though rent had been forwarded in full.
Meanwhile,DWSD made much of the fact they are using this “pause” to go back and check up on people who should not have water, because they were shut off before. The DWSD thinks that criminalizing desperation is a good thing. They are charging people $250 as a penalty for the first time they are “caught” with water that was somehow restored, and another $500 for a second offense.
It seems exceptionally cruel to place such exorbitant fees on people who could not come up with the cash to pay the bill in the first place. Moreover, there is absolutely no connection between the fee assessed and what it costs to perform the task. The blatant use of an outlandish fee structure to wring more money out of people least able to afford it continues the same thinking that refuses to acknowledge the water system is broken.
Also within a day of the “pause” it became clear that DWSD could not handle efforts by people to use their services. The phone numbers for customer service lines didn’t work. If people were actually able to get through, they reported being placed on hold for hours, only to be given numbers that didn’t work.
No one in the DWSD seems to have any idea of what will happen when the $1 million is gone. Nor do they offer any thinking about what will happen to those who do not fit into the overly restrictive guidelines that the DWSD has established for help, but still cannot pay.
Instead of using this time to meet with the People’s Water Board to talk about a serious affordability plan, the DWSD has continued to justify its shutoffs and disregard its obligations to its citizens. They persist in demonizing people rather than looking at the structural defects of a system that has collapsed. An emergency manager concerned with protecting banks and increasing corporate profits at the expense of our most vulnerable neighbors protects this callous incompetence.