home Human Rights, North America, Politics Water is a Human Right: Detroit Turns Off the Faucets On Poor People

Water is a Human Right: Detroit Turns Off the Faucets On Poor People

It’s not easy to explain what is going on in Detroit right now. The city is in the depths of complicated bankruptcy proceedings to solve financial situation that goes back decades, and is currently controlled by what’s known as an “emergency manager.” Or: a financial “advisor” that has complete control over every financial decision made by the city, including honoring union contracts, deciding how much utilities will be and what is going to happen to local school districts.

When I try to break down these huge situations and explain them in a simple way to friends who ask about the latest news report they’ve read in the media, things often don’t go very well. They will say something like “Hey, I heard about the emergency manager, what do you think?” and I sit there stuck, trying to figure out how to explain the 60 years of Detroit history (if not longer) that led to the current situation where emergency management seems to make sense but really doesn’t. How do you easily explain devastated post-industrial economies that were made all the worse by first white flight and then predatory lending to the poor and working class communities of color that were left behind? How do you easily explain that EM is controlled by corporate interests and they were the ones who caused all the problems to begin with?

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about what is going on with the water shut offs as well. If you haven’t heard, Detroit’s Water and Sewage Department (currently under the control of the emergency manager), recently announced that they would be implementing a large scale shut off program that would target anybody more than $150 past due on their water bills with shut off. While this may not seem like a big deal, in a city with astronomical rates of unemployment and subsequently, very high poverty levels, what this plan means is that upwards of 40% of the city (or, hundreds of thousands of people) wouls see their water shut off.

The Water Department, city officials, and the media asserted that these shut offs were necessary because a “culture of non-payment” had flourished throughout the years with people not paying their bills simply because nobody made them see they had to. There were no consequences to non-payment, the various officials argued, and these massive shut off efforts (which include $5.6 million to contract out water shut off services to a company) were an attempt to make consequences routine. This, the argument went, would then make more and more people pay their bills regularly once they saw they could no longer “get away” with non-payment.

Representative John Conyers said, the “culture of non-payment” is really more adequately described as poverty. For example, a part of the bankruptcy proceedings includes the cutting of retirees pensions and the gutting of their health care. When retirees were already on average only receiving about 19,000 a year from their pensions, any cuts or newly required expenses (like paying for health care they didn’t usually have to pay for), would make people even more unable to afford basic utilities.

Long time Detroit organizer, Maureen Taylor from the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization in Detroit further explains that it’s not that people won’t pay their bills, but that they can’t. After the water department asserted people were “stealing” water, Taylor stated, “I’m certain if there are people who have resorted to this situation, they were forced to. They didn’t have a choice.”

But the narrative of culture non-payment refuses to die. Go to any article about the shut offs, and you’ll find endless comments that flow along the line of “If you want water, pay your bill. Oroblem solved.” More often than not, these comments are followed by increasingly hostile condemnations of the “laziness” and “entitled nature” of the black community. Of course, there’s not much difference between these blatantly hostile and racist comments from the comments section and the explanation on why water shut offs are necessary put forth by the Water Department, city officials and media. And that right there is where the problem rests.

I’ve been asked repeatedly by people across the board “what can I do to help?” In the face of such overwhelming devastation and human injustice, it is a natural question–but one that is often as difficult to answer as “What is going on in Detroit?” There’s a lot of work to be done and a lot of needs that need to be met. But by the nature of our social media world, that wants easy 140 character sound bites and a donation button to click on or petition to sign, it’s near impossible to break “responses” down into the easy soundbites people want. But as community organizer, Lou Novak says, “money’ is an unsustainable response to the injustice of resource hoarding and control.

What would happen if we social media users start thinking in ways that are not so focused on donations or petitions and start thinking about what we do best–that is: communicate. What would a more sustainable type of media organizing look like?

What if we started addressing the narratives swirling around these shut offs, like: black people are lazy and don’t want to pay their bills, or pay your bill, problem solved! Could we begin to not only challenge, but rewrite the white supremacist narrative of black laziness? Could we redirect the hyper intense gaze of white supremacy off the choices and lives of black communities and onto the corporate and bank selfishness and irresponsibility? Could we make sure “Water is a Human Right” is the normal response to human needs, and “pay your bill!” a response that sickens every single one of us so deeply, nobody dares utter it again? Could we help get the world to a place where instead of asking “Who is this person that wants water and does he deserve it?” We say, “He is a human being, and so water will be there”?

This isn’t a wild dream of an idealist. It is a change of narrative that can happen over the course of time, if we’re willing to work at it. In the end, it may not provide the instant gratification that 4000 signatures on your petition often provides. But as long as existing wide spread narratives around basic human needs like water or clean air consistently justify some people not getting those human needs, it is deeply necessary work–and it’s work that all of us can do.

Photo by Steve Johnson, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license