Everyone should be outraged by Detroit’s water crisis

By Kerry Drake
— July 22, 2014

People in Wyoming recognize the value of water, especially in drought years when we don’t have enough for irrigation and recreational needs, and our forests quickly become tinderboxes.

Wyoming Campaign Finance
Kerry Drake

In Detroit this summer, the absence of water is having a huge impact — not because it isn’t available, but because it’s not affordable in the poverty-ravaged city. Becoming the largest municipality in the country to ever declare bankruptcy and have its government taken over by an emergency manager appointed by the governor were bad enough. But the water crisis has taken the city’s problems to a shocking new low.

Officials have shut off water to more than 17,000 households since June because of the residents’ inability to pay their bills on time. Those bills increased by nearly 120 percent in the past decade as unemployment soared. At the current rate, about 100,000 of Detroit’s 800,000 residents won’t have running water by September. That’s a disgrace the entire nation should be up in arms about.

What responsibility do people in Wyoming have to speak out against this outrage? Basic human decency, for starters. If this deplorable situation is allowed to happen in Detroit, what’s to prevent other cities across our land from doing exactly the same thing? Don’t we put enough handicaps on the poor’s chances to survive without taking away their water, too?

How could this happen in a major American city in 2014? And what is going to be done about it?

I spent last week in Detroit at Netroots Nation, along with about 3,000 progressive bloggers and activists from all across the country. The city has been an exceptional host to our group, and at the same time served as a microcosm of what can happen when there is incredible income inequality in an area.

The social consequences of extreme poverty that keynote speakers Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) fumed about on stage at Cobo Hall were easily seen on the battered streets of Detroit, where about 44 percent of the residents live below the poverty level.

“The game is rigged and the rich and the powerful have lobbyists and lawyers and plenty of friends in Congress … to protect every loophole and every privilege,” said Warren, who was greeted at Netroots by thunderous applause and chants imploring her to run for president in 2016. Democrats may fully expect Hillary Clinton to be the party’s nominee, but its liberal base clearly prefers the populist Warren to the former first lady.

Joan Ross of National Nurses United told the group, “Look at where you are in the country right now. Twenty-one percent of the world’s fresh water is here in the Great Lakes region. We can’t afford to waste that and not give it to people who need it.”

We should all be ashamed that the United Nations had to admonish our government and remind our leaders “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.”

The group Food and Water Rights has called on President Barack Obama to declare a public health emergency and get the water turned back on in Detroit. “We all need water for survival,” said its spokesman. It may indeed take federal intervention to keep Detroit from becoming a huge health hazard as the lack of water brings on disease. Obama needs to act quickly.

The clearest explanation I have read about this gross economic inequality was in an article by John Nichols in The Nation magazine, who quoted environmental writer Martin Lukacs. “The official rationale for the water shut-downs — the Detroit Water Department’s need to recoup millions — collapses on inspection,” he noted. “Detroit’s high-end golf club, the Red Wings’ hockey arena, the Ford football stadium, and more than half of the city’s commercial and industrial users [also owe] a sum totaling $30 million. But no contractors [to shut off their water] have showed up on their doorstep.”

Lukacs said the targeting of poor Detroit families is about something else. “It is a ruthless case of the shock doctrine — the exploitation of natural or unnatural shocks of crisis to push through pro-corporate policies that couldn’t happen in any other circumstance,” he correctly charged.

Yet even in the city hit so hard by this, we have heartless, conservative commentators like Detroit News columnist Nolan Finley, who blamed the poor for the water shutoffs and wants to punish them because he’s convinced they would rather have cable service than water. “Charitable-minded citizens have never objected to helping care for neighbors who are unable to care for themselves,” he wrote. “But they understandably don’t have much appetite for carrying on their backs those who choose to indulge their wants before their needs.”

But Finley gladly carries corporations that fail to pay their bills on his back, and expects the rest of us to happily help him toady up to big-money interests, too. What he failed to mention is that the major auto manufacturers callously put Detroit into an economic tailspin when it began sending hundreds of thousands of jobs overseas.

Like many Netroots Nation participants, I joined the protest march through downtown Detroit last Thursday, and carried a sign that declared “Water = Life,” which is undeniably true. It was organized by National Nurses United and included a lot of members of the Service Employees International Union, but the vast majority of the walkers were Detroit residents. Young and old, black and white, and some in wheelchairs, we were united for a brief time to call national attention to this American tragedy.

“What does democracy look like?” leaders shouted into megaphones. “This is what democracy looks like!” was the loud response. It was the biggest protest over Detroit’s water crisis to date, but I don’t expect it to be the last. Looking at their faces and hearing their voices, many protestors were clearly frustrated by their predicament. It was pretty obvious which of us were there to lend support to the cause and which protesters have had their water shut off.

Unless the people running the city come to their senses and stop attacking the poor while allowing corporations to rack up huge water debts, I doubt this will be the last protest Detroit sees on this issue. As more people are added to the rolls of residents whose homes have been marked by the blue lines on the curbs that indicate their water has been shut off — and also to publicly humiliate them — the more intense these protests are likely to become.

While the latest round of shut-offs began last month, some poor residents have been without running water for more than a year. Maureen Taylor, a courageous activist with Michigan Welfare Rights who organized the march, had it exactly right when she told a Netroots Nation panel Saturday, “We can’t keep looking at these mothers who are crying. … This is insane.”

We live in a time when our Supreme Court has regrettably and foolishly declared that corporations are people, and the court’s conservative core has decided the more money these companies have to spend to gain access to politicians, the more rights they have.

If we’re going to act as if corporations have all of the inherent rights guaranteed to individuals under the Constitution, why can’t we as a nation at least treat real people like human beings?

— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.

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Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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