By Shea Howell
November 21, 2015
The drive to establish safe, affordable water in Michigan intensified over this past week. Through direct action, public education, legal initiatives, public testimony, and court trials, people are pressuring federal, state and local governments to live up to their responsibilities of providing safe, affordable water while protecting our Great Lakes.
On Friday, the jury was seated in the trial of two members of the Homrich 9, who blocked water shut off trucks from leaving their garages in July of 2014. The Reverend Bill Wylie-Kellerman, Pastor of St Peter’s Episcopal Church, and Marian Kramer of Michigan Welfare Rights Organization explained their decision to stop the trucks at a press conference on Wednesday. They said their decision was necessary. All other avenues were blocked because of the limitation on democratic rights under the bankruptcy process and emergency management. “It was, at the time, the last vestige of democracy in the city,” Wylie-Kellermann said. Protesters acted out of necessity to defended “the rights of Detroiters to have water in their homes.”
“What we did, we understood to be preventing harm,” Wylie-Kellermann said. “Water is a human right, and that’s why we’re here.”
Defendant Marian Kramer spoke to the hypocrisy in the city. The City is criminally charging and prosecuting defendants for nonviolent defense of Detroiters’ right to water. “The true crime is that thousands of people who are struggling to pay their water bills are being deprived of a basic necessity of life. Instead of implementing the Water Affordability Plan, which would tie water rates to income and which Detroit City Council supports, the Mayor chooses to shut off the water of thousands of Detroiters. Who is the real criminal?”
Detroit announced last month it has already cut off water to more than 16,000 residences and warned another 49,000 that their water will be shut off soon. People whose water has been shutoff are living in homes using buckets of water from neighbors and family.
Meanwhile Flint mother and water warrior Melissa Mays joined a group of lawmakers in Lansing who introduced a package of bills dealing with concerns from water testing to preventing water shut offs to our most vulnerable citizens. Representative Stephanie Chang, who introduced the legislation said about the shut offs in Detroit and Highland Park, “What happened in our cities could happen in others.” They already are in Flint.
The legislation would require water utilities to disclose shut-off statistics, provide clearer notices about shutoffs, prohibit shutoffs for vulnerable residents, provide more payment options and make illegal water reconnections a misdemeanor instead of felony.
Ms. Mays framed the essential reason for the legislative initiatives, “Something that is supposed to nourish us and keep us alive was treated as a commodity — the quality was ignored, the signs were ignored. What we’re seeing is a complete disregard for human life, human safety and the future of our children.”
This “disregard for human life and human safety” was vividly chronicled in a screening of Detroit Does Mind Dying, a new film by Kate Levy. Levy’s work has been hailed as critical in bringing the human costs of the state’s water policies to light. Over 60 people gathered at the Detroit Public Library to watch the film and talk about how they could become more involved.
On Thursday evening the Detroit Active and Retired Employees Association gathered at the DIA to protest the decision by the Michigan Bar to honor bankruptcy judges Steven Rhodes and Gerald Rosen with the Archer Award for public service. Judge Rhodes refused to stop the water shut offs or restore services to thousands, saying there was no right to water in Michigan law.
Such narrow, callous thinking cannot be sustained. It is being challenged on every front.