Meet The Activists Fighting Detroit’s Water Shutoffs

Protesters at a rally against Detroit’s water shutoffs last year CREDIT: BRYCE COVERT/THINKPROGRESS
Protesters at a rally against Detroit’s water shutoffs last year CREDIT: BRYCE COVERT/THINKPROGRESS

DETROIT, MI — “I feel like I’m in a nightmare.”

Wanda Hill, who worked for the city of Detroit for 30 years, held a sign up at a rally on Friday to protest the massive water shutoffs roiling the city’s low-income residents. “I’m a native Detroiter,” she told ThinkProgress. “I never thought I’d see this.”

In March, Detroit’s water department announced that it would start shutting off water service to 1,500 to 3,000 customers every week if they hadn’t paid their bills as the city moves through a bankruptcy process. Nearly half of the accounts are delinquent. In response, activists have appealed to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights to intervene in recognition of the fact that water is a human right, and the UN has backed them up.

CREDIT: Bryce Covert/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Bryce Covert/ThinkProgress

“The water rate goes up every year but income is not rising,” Hill said. “You can never catch up.” The cost of water for the city’s residents has shot up 119 percent over the past decade and another 8.7 percent hike was approved for this year.

On Friday morning, about a dozen people blocked the entrance of one of the private contractors that has been doing some of the shutoffs for more than six hours. Police arrested nine of them, including Baxter Jones, a 65-year-old pensioner who uses a wheelchair. “The bravest souls are putting their bodies in front of trucks” going to shut off water, said Monica Lewis-Patrick, a candidate for the Detroit city council.

Lewis-Patrick spoke at a panel at Netroots Nation, a progressive conference that was also the site of the start of Friday’s rally and march later in the day. She described seniors who have gone without water for six months or even a year. Residents are trying to help each other out, providing bottled water and food to those going without water. Lewis-Patrick recalled one many this week who paid water bills for six of his neighbors “because he didn’t want them to hang their heads.”

She also noted that women have been at the forefront of the movement. A delegation of women “fought and have continuously been the guard against the privatization of Detroit,” she told the panel audience. Later in an interview with ThinkProgress, she added, “It’s basically been women that have led this fight for decades now, on issues of water, food, and land justice.” And they’ve been at it for a long time. “I’m one of the younger members,” she said. There are other women in their 60s and 70s fighting these fights.

According to Shae Howell, an activist of 40 years and resident of the city who was at Friday’s rally, activists have three simple demands: “We want an immediate turn on [of water service] for every single person, a moratorium on shutoffs, and the people’s plan enacted,” or the Water Affordability Program that was approved by the city council in 2006 but never implemented. She noted that “nearly half of the city was in arrears,” and “when half of the city can’t do something, it tells you it’s a systemic problem.”

CREDIT: Bryce Covert/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Bryce Covert/ThinkProgress

And activists are fighting against more than just the shutoffs. “The water issue is the tip of the spear,” Lewis-Patrick said. “The crisis is a systemic shutting people off from jobs, health care, and education.”

“There’s a lot of issues,” Wanda Hill said at the rally. “The water shutoff is one, the bankruptcy and Detroit retirees is another.” She’s equally concerned about what the bankruptcy agreement will end up meaning for her as a pensioner. “Personally I’m the matriarch of my household,” she said. She has three grandchildren. “They depend on us for financial support, mental support, knowledge, and wisdom. I have the wisdom and knowledge, but I can’t help financially.” She added, “At this point I’m concerned about sustaining my own lifestyle.”

“To balance the problems on the backs of pensioners is unconscionable,” she said.

Tijuana Morris, a 59-year-old retiree from the police department, is also worried. “When I went to the police department, I had a contract. They said pensions were guaranteed,” she said. Now, “they cut everybody’s insurance.” She has a disability and has to buy drugs for it. “We are between a rock and a hard part.”

And she’s just as upset about the water shutoffs. “What gives them the right to take water from people?” she asked. “Why do we have to go to the UN to get recognition? That’s wrong.”

Vera Magee, another pensioner who worked for the city for 33 years, also felt the issues are related. “You tried to take away our pensions, now you’re trying to take away our water,” she said. She voted to reject the bankruptcy agreement. “We’ll have to wait and see.”