The Common Good

Why I Choose to Block Detroit's Water Shutoff Trucks

Water was created by none of us—just like air and earth and fire. It was not made to be enslaved in a market price or bottled into a "good," yielding ownership and power. Water is a commons, a precious gift given by the creator. But today, water is becoming the subject of war.  

Here in the City of “the Strait”—(“de-troit”), linking two of the Great Lakes that together contain one fifth of the world’s fresh water—we now face a cruel irony. By summer’s end, half of Detroit’s residents may be without  access. And most of those are the most vulnerable among us. As the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) initiates a draconian campaign of intensified shutoffs, 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 eastside lot to close the taps.   

Promised $5.6 million for two years’ effort, 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. Amazingly, Michigan law also names denial of water to dogs and cats a crime, but codifies no such protection for humans. So we now have 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 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, letters to authorities and debates on TV, and even a UN complaint naming the shutoffs a human rights violation have not succeeded, we have turned to direct action.   

On July 10, a new front of resistance to this water take-over was opened. The driveway in front of Homrich Inc. became the site of arrests of ten concerned citizens doing what we might to increase the decibel level of our demand: Halt the shutoffs! Restore the service! Engage the Water Affordability Plan, long ago developed to deal with non-payment and arrearage!   

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.”   

Or, “Water purification, delivery and disposal are not free.”  

Period.   

On a recent 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 [for help],” he said. “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 that 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. The racist disparagement could not be more evident.   

But the situation is much more complex than mainstream media typically discusses. 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, 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 indeed 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 that it so often now needs filtration is not primarily because ordinary people have polluted it. The fact that the average Detroit bill is nearly twice the national average is not the fault of neighborhood folk who remain in the city. The fact that 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 that 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 that 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 may well serve such plans rather nicely—is not a vision hatched on inner-city porches. The fact that Kevin Orr and the Governor are likely eager to clear bad debt from the Detroit Water and Sewer Department (DWSD) books to entice a private investor to buy the system to turn a profit—likely to increase rates three-fold—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.   

So in addition to monitoring a water crisis hotline, canvassing neighborhoods for needs, and then delivering water, some of us have taken to the streets. Not because we think that that alone changes anything. But we do it to give punctuation to our demand: Don’t throw brothers and sisters under the bus (or rather, truck)!   

In the event of a job loss or other personal financial emergency, the next shutoff could be your own. And then—who would speak for you?

James W. Perkinson is Professor of Social Ethics at Ecumenical Theological Seminary. A longer version of this post ran at the Michigan Citizen.

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