Water, Dispossession and Resistance By Shea Howell – Week 62 of the occupation

backroundThinking for ourselves

By Shea Howell

Water, Dispossession and Resistance

Week 62 of the occupation

June 10, 2014


Water is a basic human right. That was the strong message sent to the Detroit Works/Detroit Future project during the environmental session held as part of their community conversations. These are the orchestrated conversations that Detroit Future claims give it legitimacy to reshape our city. The message that water is a human right was ignored. Neither the subsequent  “Strategic Framework” nor current practices reflect this deeply held community value.

The failure of Detroit Future, the Blight Elimination Task Force, or any of our elected officials to demand a moratorium on water shut offs reveals their complicity in the effort to remove people from their homes. They do not challenge the takeover of our city by corporate powers.

Let’s be clear. These water shut offs are not about unpaid bills. This is about dispossession of the people. These shutoffs are intended to drive people from their homes. Water is the wedge. People are being targeted at the rate of 1500 to 3000 homes a week.


One of the ways we know this is not about unpaid bills is the glaring contradiction between the treatment of homeowners and corporate clients. DPS, under its emergency manger, owes $2.2 million in outstanding bills. Palmer Park Golf Club owes $200,000, Joe Louis Arena/Red Wings Hockey owes $80,000 and Ford Field $55,000. The struggling city of Highland Park, also under emergency management, owes $17.4 million.

Last month, Flint severed its connection to DWSD. Under its Emergency Manager it is constructing a new pipeline, to be placed right next to the DWSD pipeline, to get water from Lake Huron, 65 miles away. The Karegnondi Water Authority was established with the blessings of the State Legislature in 2010 to carry out this unnecessary, quarter-billion-dollar project. It is a loss of $22 million for Detroit, annually.

Most likely the water shut offs would have happened quietly, except that “aggressive action” was required to convince suburban powers and private speculators that the Detroit Water System is a viable asset. Viability in this case required making a public show of shut offs. This aggressive action is a source of money making for yet another corporation. The Board of Water Commissioners has signed a two year contract with Homrich, a favorite of Dan Gilbert, for $5.6 million to accelerate shut offs.

The response on the part of the people has been swift. Community meetings are springing up as homes, churches, and small businesses face shut offs. People are teaching each other how to turn water on.  Some are parking cars over shut off valves. Environmental activist Charity Hicks was arrested for having the audacity to ask that people be allowed to fill up water jugs before the turn off. International water rights activist Maud Barlow was in town and is taking a human rights charge against the city to the United Nations. Clergy nationally are lending support to this effort.

These water shut offs are coming on the heels of a less publicized but equally inhuman series of shut offs of heat and light. Between January and September of 2013 DTE and Consumer Energy disconnected 169,407 households. These shut offs were before the worst winter on record.

For more than a decade community groups and thoughtful public officials have moved the city toward policies and practices that assure access to the essentials of life. Rates based on ability to pay, not usage, are the foundation of this shift. Programs like THAW have long held that access to protect people, public health, and safety is our primary value. In 2005 a more conscious City Council passed resolutions extending this principle to water.

The Emergency Manger and corporate powers are using water bills to accelerate the dispossession of those who stand in the way of their plans for Detroit. Resistance to this is our right.