Why I chose to block water shutoff trucks
James W. Perkinson
Water was created by none of us — just like air and earth and fire. Indeed, like the universe. It flows and freezes and breathes into the atmosphere as mist, without permission or legal backing. It is no one’s “machine.” It was not made to be enslaved in a market price or bottled into a “good” yielding “ownership” and power. Water is a commons — commonly shared as abundant and precious “gift” given by the creator. Such are my reflections as a seminary professor. But today, water is becoming the subject of war.
Here in the city “of the strait” (in French “de-troit”) linking two of the large bodies of the Great Lakes Basin where one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water pools and courses back to the ocean, we now face a cruel irony. By summer’s end, as many as half of Detroit’s residents may be without access to this wet abundance that flows just blocks or miles from their doorsteps. And most of those are the most vulnerable among us. As the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department continues its draconian campaign of intensified shutoffs, first announced in March of this year, the anguish mounts. A sudden move to clear the books of $90 million of “bad debt” has resulted in a lucrative deal for Homrich Wrecking Inc., whose trucks daily roll out of their main lot on East Grand Blvd to close the taps on neighborhood blocks.
Promised $5.6 million for two years of work, Homrich aims at cutting off water to as many as 150,000 residences by this summer’s end alone. Two-thirds of those are households with children, facing family break-up once the flow stops, as Michigan law mandates that no child shall be raised in a house without water, and social service workers may show up at any moment. Amazingly, Michigan law also names denial of water to dogs and cats a crime, but codifies no such protection for humans. Those of us involved trying to remediate the situation are discovering homes with kids who can’t drink, homes with elders who can’t bathe, homes with patients unable to change wound dressings. Some of them have been without access for as long as a year now.
But the trucks continue to roll, the steel-pole water keys turn on the front lawn, the taps run dry. So some of us have now resorted to putting bodies in the way of those trucks. Since news articles and weekly demonstrations in front of the Water Board downtown, debates on TV, letters to authorities at every level, and even a UN complaint, naming the shutoffs a human rights violation, have not succeeded, we have turned to direct action. Vulnerable bodies in front of truck chasses as a way to try to underscore the “No”!
On July 10, a new front of resistance to this water take-over was opened. The driveway in front of Homrich became the site of arrests, 10 concerned citizens doing what they might to increase the decibel level of the demand. Halt the shutoffs! Restore the service! Engage the plan long ago (2005) developed to deal with non-payment and arrearage! This mess didn’t have to be. It does not have to continue.
Much of the vitriol galvanized in reaction to our outcry against the policy has taken the form of, “If you can’t pay, you can’t play.” “Water purification, delivery and disposal are not free.” “If you want water service, pay your bill.” Period. The head of DWSD even recently told Charity Hicks — a long time water advocate and food justice activist whose own tap was shut down along with those of her neighbors —”go get your water from the creek!” As if there are any above-ground creeks left inside the City of Cars!
But the provocation deserves clear response. Not long after that “official” admonition, on a national newscast, MSNBC commentator Hank Winchester gave voice to the sentiment so readily evident in mainstream talk about the shutoffs: “Some of these people have a desperate need,” he said. “They need help from state agencies …. But there are other people (and this is where it gets controversial) who simply don’t want to pay the water bill, who’d rather spend money on cable.”
Controversial indeed! But perhaps not the way Winchester intended. The comment carries layers of assumption. Did Winchester have a single factual story at hand to back up his claim? What we do know is there are corporations who would rather make money on cable broadcasts of their events than pay their water bills — such as Joe Louis Arena (home of the Red Wings) or Ford Field (home of the Lions) who owe respectively $80,000 and $55,000. And who at the time of the national broadcast were not facing shutoff. When white-owned corporations don’t pay, there is no mention of the fact and no rebuke. But if poor people of color struggle with bills, then all manner of stereotype and indignant excoriation come rolling to the surface. What may be true of a few cases gets readily cast across entire communities as the rationale for shutting down core city neighborhoods almost en masse. The racist disparagement could not be more evident.
The situation is much more complex — but complexity is not a reality mainstream media have much capacity for. Why might a city whose unemployment is near 50 percent, whose history is one of de facto “plundering” as white populations and corporations took jobs, assets, and taxes to suburbs, rang up laws, threw down covenants, and mobilized police to keep “the Black hordes” at bay, whose newspapers were taken over by outside interests in the 1990s, whose houses were subjected to subprime swindles and foreclosures throughout the new millennium, whose banks negotiated fraudulent “swaps” to transfer public assets and monies to private coffers, whose compromised officials and “emergency managers” are collaborating with privatizers and lawyers to further “jack” the city jewels into state and corporate control — why would such a city house so many ordinary folk who struggle to pay bills?
Water is a gift given by the creator. All living beings are its beneficiaries. None of us created it. None of us can produce it in a factory. The fact it so often now needs “cleansing” is not primarily because ordinary people have polluted it. The fact the average Detroit bill is nearly twice the national average is not the fault of neighborhood folk who remain in the city. The fact its assessment has been increased 119 percent over the last decade and 8.7 percent over recent months is not due to mismanagement in the average household. The fact over $500 million in bonds raised for infrastructure improvements have been siphoned off to banks making record profits over recent years is not due to decisions made by citizens. The fact Detroit Future City articulates a plan, long in the making, to “triage” some city neighborhoods for re-design in the image of the suburb and that a decade of foreclosures and now “ethnic cleansing by water shutoff” may well serve such plans rather nicely, is not a vision hatched on inner city porches. The fact Kevin Orr and the governor are likely eager to clear bad debt from the DWSD books to entice a private investor to buy the system to turn a profit — research shows rates are likely to increase three-fold when privatization takes over — is not a motive much explored in media coverage of the moment. But none of this comes up for discussion, when DWSD announces the increased shutoffs and Homrich begins turning the keys. Instead, the racist certainty poor people of color are “free-loading with their bills” and “showering for three hours every day” (as one recently interviewed white frolicker at Campus Martius blithely ventured), instantly take over the mainstream mind like a national demon returning home to its most familiar haunt.
So some of us have taken to the streets and put bodies in the way of trucks. Not because we think that alone changes anything. But to give punctuation to the communication. Halt the shutoffs and restore service! There is a better way to handle the bad debt! The Water Affordability Plan of 2005 developed by citizen collaboration under the leadership of Michigan Welfare Rights Organization would be a great place to start. We are also organizing on our own time and with personal resources to set up water delivery stations in neighborhoods of need, to canvas blocks to clarify priorities, to create and maintain a hotline for ready response to water crises. All of those activities need volunteer support. The direct action is simply part of a much broader effort to raise the stakes, address the real need, and create a future for the city that embraces all of us.
What the blockage says is simply this: Stop and think! These are human beings who are facing impossible circumstances made monstrously worse by a cynical policy. Don’t throw brothers and sisters under the bus (or rather “truck”). Given a job loss or other personal financial emergency, the next shutoff could be your own. And then, who would speak for you?