The City of Detroit Withheld Water From 40,000 People–So Activists Tapped The Mayor’s Mansion


Activists Steal Water From Detroit Mayor And Give It To Residents ( Photo from )

By  Lauren Gaynor 

In These Times (9/9/15)

On the morning of August 3, volunteers from the Michigan and Detroit Coalitions Against Tar Sands (MICATS/DCATS) gathered at Detroit’s Manoogian Mansion, wearing shirts that read “Water Is Life” and carrying large, empty jugs.

The 4,000-square-foot residence on the Detroit River is the home of Mayor Mike Duggan. The volunteers were there with a simple goal: Force the mayor to share his water with the some 40,000 Detroit residents whose water has been shut off in the past year because they can’t pay their bills.

Because the mansion is city-owned, they reasoned, Detroiters lacking access to water in their own homes should be able to share in its resources. So activists attached hoses to the water taps on the side of the mansion and began to fill up their jugs, taking about 12 gallons in what they hoped would be a wake-up call to the city.

“Denying tens of thousands of people the right to water ought to be criminal; doing it while living in a city-owned mansion is just despicable,” said organizer Valerie Jean Blakely.

Detroit’s water wars are connected to the larger fight over controversial reforms implemented in the wake of the city’s 2013 bankruptcy. In addition to slashing pensions and privatizing several key municipal services, the city’s bankruptcy plan handed control of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to a new regional authority run by unelected officials. As part of this reorganization, DWSD has intensified efforts to collect debts, announcing in March 2014 that it would shut off water services to 1,500 to 3,000 customers each week if their bills remained unpaid.

Corruption, bad investments and a shrinking customer base have contributed to DWSD’s growing deficit, which stands at $22 million, according to officials. The department has repeatedly raised rates in an attempt to pay off its debts, hitting residents with an 8.7 percent rate increase for water and sewage in June 2014, followed one year later by a 7.5 percent rate hike. Prior to these hikes, the average monthly water bill in Detroit for a family of four was already nearly double the national average.

Environmental organizers say that while Detroit’s citizens suffer through a manmade drought, public resources are flowing freely to corporations. Detroit businesses such as the Chrysler Group collectively owe more than $20 million in back payments to the water department, but their taps have not been turned off. And Detroit’s Marathon Refinery received $175 million in tax breaks from the city for an expansion of its operations, including the water-intensive process of refining Canadian tar sands oil.

MICATS and DCATS are among dozens of other groups that have sprung up to protest the wave of water shutoffs threatening Detroit’s most vulnerable residents.

DeMeeko Williams, co-founder of the Detroit Water Brigade (DWB), a nonprofit dedicated to providing water access, says the shutoffs are having another devastating effect: They’re exacerbating the city’s foreclosure crisis. Many residents have racked up thousands of dollars in back payments they must meet in order to get their water turned back on. Some take that money out of their rent or mortgage payments. That, in turn, makes them vulnerable to losing their homes to foreclosure, or if they can’t afford upkeep, to condemnation.

So volunteers are taking matters into their own hands. “We couldn’t let the city go without water,” says Williams. The DWB has helped thousands of residents access water through a number of innovative schemes. In addition to the relief stations, it has solicited water donations for those in need, distributed barrels to collect rainwater, and helped create a water affordability fund, which covers 10 percent of residents’ past-due bills using private donations. …

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