It just goes to show you that sometimes when you fight for what’s right, and you fight hard, then good things begin to happen. In Detroit, there is no more important fight right now than the fight to prevent water shutoffs to poor and working families struggling to get by in a vicious and unforgiving economy.
On Friday morning, July 18, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) gave the keynote address for NN 14, and as she detailed each of the many issues where progressives should focus their activism, she repeated her now well-known rallying cry, “When We Fight, We Win!” with increasing intensity.
A couple of hours later, on the streets of downtown Detroit right outside of the Cobo Convention Center where NN14 was being held, over 1,000 people held a march and protest against the tens of thousands of shutoffs of water service. The City of Detroit has been turning off water service for residents and businesses with severely delinquent bills. Since July 2013, there have been over 42,000 water service shutoffs, leading to widespread local, national, and international criticism of the policies of the Detroit Water Department. Many smaller protests in Detroit and elsewhere followed the lead of the larger rally. The United Nations declared that the water shutoffs created a public health issue. Even Judge Steven W. Rhodes, who is tasked with overseeing the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings for the City of Detroit, issued a statement that led to a temporary 15-day moratorium on water shutoffs beginning July 21.
Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder issued a statement claiming that the number of people truly affected by the water shutoffs was relatively small, and Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr alleged that assistance was available for those truly in need. Officials at the Detroit Water Department issued a statement that many of those whose water had been shut off promptly paid their bills and had their water service restored. But the protests and negative press coverage continued, and so did the fight.
Finally, on Tuesday, July 29, because we fought, we won! Orr, the unelected emergency manager who was appointed by Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder, issued an order relinquishing some of his control over the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) and giving that authority back to the duly elected Mayor Mike Duggan, who has not been in charge of the Detroit Water Department during this crisis. According to the order, which takes effect immediately, Mayor Duggan now has the authority to manage the DWSD and make appoints to its board. Partial power has been restored to the people.
Mayor Duggan immediately issued a statement, saying in part that the mass shutoffs have not only hurt the residents and businesses affected, but also that the way the delinquencies have been handled has hurt the reputation of the City of Detroit. Mr. Duggan continued that he might extend the moratorium on shutoffs as he meets with officials of the DWSD to work out equitable solutions, even as he made it clear that the water department customers must pay their bills. In his statement, Mayor Duggan explained:
“When some Detroit residents don’t pay their bills, those bills have to be paid by other Detroiters. These unpaid water bills are Detroit’s alone. So all bills that remain uncollected this year must be paid for by higher rates on all Detroiters next year.”
The plans to address the issues going forward include ensuring that policies and procedures to make it easier for people to actually pay their bills are put in place while also supporting those who are truly needy. Mayor Duggan stated:
“We will be developing a plan that allows those who are truly needy to access financial help and allows those who want to make payment arrangements to do so with shorter wait times. As for those who can pay and choose not to, we won’t force other Detroiters to pay their bills.”
Yes, residents and businesses must pay their water bills, but there also must be provisions to assist those in financial difficulty short of denying them the human right of water service. While some actually blame the poor for being poor, others protest and fight for equitable solutions, and show that when we fight the powers that be, we win.
Thank you, Senator Warren. And an even more special thank you to all the frontline activists and protesters who refused to give up on this fight. This is how we do it in Detroit, because this is who we are.