Daily Kos readers had the opportunity to learn earlier this week about a domestic human rights catastrophe -- the impending shutoff of water to nearly half the Detroit residential customers of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department -- thanks to the diaries earlier this week by Joan McCarter, David Harris Gershon, and rlegro.
TOMORROW, FRIDAY, June 27th: Please join the Protest planned to take place in front of the Detroit Water Board, 735 Randolph St., from 4:00-6:00 PM!
For the full text of the statement, please click here. It is well worth reading the Context section, pages 3-6, for descriptions of
--the chronic decline of the city's water and sewage infrastructure, requiring billions of dollars to upgrade;
--the apprehensions founded on prior acts and current policies that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is being readied for privatization;
--the lack of remedies for people who are being billed for water used by previous tenants, or former neighbors in now-abandoned houses;
--the barriers people are placing when they attempt to act in good faith to address their arrearages;
--the real consequences befalling Detroit residents who have been struggling in some cases to survive without water for months.
According to the joint statement released by the petitioners,
"When delinquent corporate water lines are still running without collection of funds, it demonstrates a level of intentional disparity that devalues the lives of the people struggling financially. Where is our compassion? Where is our humanity?" asked Lila Cabbil, President Emeritus of the Rosa Parks Institute.On Monday, Maureen Taylor, the head of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization -- and a panelist at Netroots Nation 14 next month to talk about resistance to Emergency Management in Michigan -- appeared on the Rev. Al Sharpton's show, PoliticsNation, to discuss the situation:
In 2013, Detroit declared bankruptcy and appointed Kevyn Orr as emergency manager, giving him a mandate to get the city back on its feet financially. Orr has since taken steps to privatize the DWSD, and many now believe that the water shut-offs are an attempt to appeal to potential investors. In the Great Lakes region, large, private water companies charge households on average more than twice as much as rates charged by comparable publicly-controlled systems. Moreover, private operation has been linked to poor service, workforce reductions, maintenance backlogs, water leaks and sewage spills.
Ms. Maureen minces no words (at approximately 3:53):
"We're not a bankrupt city. We're living in a city that's being bankrupted by banks and their hoochie mama girlfriends that we call corporations."
Yesterday, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner responded with a statement emphatically condemning the shutoffs taking place in Detroit.
“Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights,” the experts said.More analysis and context after the fleur-de-Kos.
“Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, the expert on the human right to water and sanitation....
"When I conducted an official country mission to the US in 2011, I encouraged the US Government to adopt a federal minimum standard on affordability for water and sanitation and a standard to provide protection against disconnections for vulnerable groups and people living in poverty. I also urged the Government to ensure due process guarantees in relation to water disconnection,” said de Albuquerque, renewing her call to the federal Government to take action.
According to international human rights law, it is the State’s obligation to provide urgent measures, including financial assistance, to ensure access to essential water and sanitation. “The households which suffered unjustified disconnections must be immediately reconnected,” the experts said.
Today, June 26th, two other water-rights activists --Tom Stephens, one of the coordinators of the communications working group for Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM) and a long-time environmental justice activist, and Emily Wurth, the Food & Water Watch's Water Program Director -- were interviewed on The Real News by Anton Woronczuk about this human rights disaster.
Of note, from the interview transcript (available here):
Well, this problem goes back a long way. In the '90s, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which has been something of a political football in the state and in the region for well over a century, actually, was cutting off a whole lot of people. And several activists, leading them the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, which you mentioned one of the complainants here, organized a proactive response and proposed with the help of a consultant a water affordability plan, which was adopted in some form and used for a while to subsidize some of the folks who were falling behind to try to prevent cutoffs. And that went on for some years.
But as the continuing predatory lending of Wall Street, the recession, the subprime mortgage scandal, the derivatives mortgage scandal, and then, ultimately, the 2008 crash began to affect Detroit, it affected the Water Affordability Program too, and those funds are no longer available.
Most recently, in the context of the bankruptcy begun by the emergency manager, we see an even more blatant level of what--I call it structural economic violence. I mean, what's happening now is, under the auspices of the bankruptcy court, the regional leaders are trying to negotiate and mediate a new governance structure for the Water Department. Part of that is, okay, who's going to assume the debt. So what this is is the imposition of a corporate for-profit model on this vital public health institution that provides drinking water for, like, 4 million people, and sewage services, and they're saying, well, we need to get rid of some of these bad accounts. So they're just going out and en masse, to the tune of 1,500 to 3,000 a week, cutting people off their water services. They say they're going to apply this to everybody that's more than $150 behind and two months behind. And that applies to over half of their accounts, over 150,000 residential accounts....
Absolutely race and class [are] at the center of the whole thing. I mean, you're talking about a city of about 700,000 people, 90 percent plus being working-class African-American/Latino. And, you know, this is basically the situation, right, is: does this department view itself as something like a for-profit entity that wants to maximize its value to be purchased by some multinational water conglomerate or to become a public-private partnership, so-called P3, regionally, or whatever they're going to do with it and just maximize its economic value? Or is it going to provide service for these people? And if there's a conflict between the two, push comes to shove, what are they going to do? We found out this summer what they're going to do. You know, they're coming and they're saying, let's just cut people off, just go out there. And they're now, in response to this complaint, it's just absolutely incredible. They're saying, well, no, this has been great, because now people are coming in and paying. So, in other words, you know, yeah, maybe it's a human rights violation, but it's a commercially successful one.
Wurth:For the meta-analysis of this particular moment of crisis, let us consider the words of Judge Damon J. Keith appearing in an op-ed in the Detroit News today. Judge Keith, who has served on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals since 1977, is one of the finest judges of our time, a man who has authored more than one brilliant and courageous decision.
You know, the shutoffs here we see at Food & Water Watch are very linked to this effort now by the emergency financial manager. He's actually put out bids for companies to enter into some kind of public-private partnership arrangement, we believe, to manage and operate the Detroit water and sewer, and we're expecting any day now to hear if he's selected one of these companies.
One thing that we should note is that by shutting off the water system and forcing residents to pay, it's making it more desirable for a private operator to come in now that these delinquent accounts are being addressed. And so what we see now is the actions of the Detroit water and sewer department as feeding into this potential privatization, and because of the bankruptcy issue, information that otherwise would be disclosed to the public, like who is bidding on the system and what is the arrangement of this contract, is not being made available to the public or even, from my understanding, the city council members. And so that's a real transparency issue that we're facing here.
So this is a very severe case, and we haven't seen something like this before. What we've seen is private operators taking over smaller [incompr.] rural communities, aggressively increasing rates, fixed-income, many times elderly residents simply not being able to afford the increased rates, and water being shut off when it's privately operated. And so, you know, this is something we've seen before, but not at this scale that I know of. And we're very concerned that this is a major human rights issue in Detroit right now. And the shutoffs really need to stop. And the public needs to be made aware of what's happening and what this emergency financial manager is planning to do with what is a real asset to this city and should be something that's maintained for public control.
The best rejoinder to the pretention that race no longer matters is the present reality of Detroit. Fifty years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, we live in one of the most racially and economically segregated regions of the country. We are far more segregated and divided today than we were 50 years ago. This racial division and spatial segregation lies at the heart of each of Detroit’s current problems — bankruptcy, blight, emergency management, the lack of regional transportation and the failed state of public education. The problems today in cities like Detroit are civil rights problems.TOMORROW, FRIDAY, June 27th: Please join the Protest planned to take place in front of the Detroit Water Board from 4:00-6:00 PM!
I hope to see you at the demo tomorrow. If you're there, look for me; I'll be wearing an orange straw hat.
EDITED to clarify the opening sentence and the location of the demonstration.