Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
Waters of New Orleans and Detroit
August 15, 2015
Detroit and New Orleans have deep bonds. Both cities were given life by the rivers that shape them. Both were home to enduring indigenous cultures, saw the coming of French fur traders in the late 1600’s and permanent settlements in 1701. The cities share the names of Cadillac and Ponchartrain, the sounds of France echoing in street names and neighborhoods. Both cites played a role in the development of slavery in the US and the resistance to it. African American’s define the culture and vitality of both cities. The crises of waters they share have helped us think more deeply about truths ignored and possibilities of a different future.
This month marks a decade since the levees broke in New Orleans. The rising flood waters forced the world to look squarely at the vulnerability of black life in America.
It is one year since the United Nations proclaimed the city of Detroit in violation of basic human rights for withholding water from people who could not afford to pay their bills.
Melissa Harris-Perry and James Perry have an important article in the Nation reflecting on Katrina. Remind us of the the willful decisions that created the devastation of African American life:
The city would have recovered swiftly from the extensive but manageable damage caused by winds and rain alone. But in the hours after the storm hit, several critical levees failed as powerful storm surges swept against decades of inadequate infrastructure. This part of the Katrina story is old and simple: By refusing to invest adequately in the public infrastructure needed to protect the most economically vulnerable and racially marginalized communities, the federal, state, and local governments left New Orleans open to massive devastation and long-term economic losses that affected every single neighborhood.
We in Detroit are dealing with a similar blindness fostered by the corporate power structure. Sometimes it emerges in the overt and ugly tone of Brooks Patterson saying we should build a fence around Detroit and through in the blankets and corn. Sometimes it is in the play on deeply embedded racist stereotypes by our own Mayor Duggan who insists that the international humanitarian crisis he has created is because people don’t want to pay their bills and want free water.
Detroiters, like New Orleans are raising fundamental questions about what kind of country we are and what kind of people we want to become. James and Melissa’s comments about the resilience of New Orleans applies as well to Detroit.
New Orleans has been ground zero for some of the nation’s most innovative, community-led examples of problem-solving. Asset-based thinking is inherent to the city. During these years, community-based nonprofit organizations, political activists, residents, students, and elders have created strategies for urban farming, housing and hospital construction, education reform (albeit controversial), neighborhood renewal, and artistic revitalization.
However, 10 years later, it takes no more than a 10-minute tour of the Lower Ninth Ward or a short drive through New Orleans East to know that success remains elusive.
We in Detroit have the opportunity to put in place practical, simple policies that will establish a basic respect for life. As the Great Lakes Water Authority takes shape, everyone in the region should recognize that affordable, safe water is something we need to guarantee to all people.
By responding to this water crisis in a just and thoughtful way, we can take an important step in shifting our public culture toward a deeper understanding of our common humanity. Stop all shut offs. Restore all service. Adopt an affordable plan based on income. This is the only way to prevent disaster. Anything less is like ignoring people clinging to rooftops as flood waters rise.