At least a thousand people, including local residents, activists, and clergy and attendees of the progressive Netroots Nation political conference, filled the streets of Detroit on Friday to protest water service shutoffs to thousands of low-income residents.
On Monday morning, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) announced that it will suspend water shutoffs for 15 days in order to allow struggling residents more time to make arrangements to pay their bill. A DWSD spokesperson said the move was unrelated to the protest.
Actor Mark Ruffalo, who called the shutoffs an “absolute travesty,” addressed the crowd before the march with a “mic check” in the style of Occupy Wall Street. “We will join together to tell this city that we are human beings, that we have a right to our water,” he said.
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The crowd chanted slogans like “Water is a human right! Fight, fight, fight!” and held signs demanding to make banks pay rather than make people suffer. There was anger at Wall Street for causing the financial crisis that crippled Detroit, and at city officials for alleged corruption and callous behavior toward their citizens.
According to activists, Detroit residents pay twice as much for water as they should, and the shutoffs disproportionately affect low-income residents of color. They also say the city shows misplaced priorities when it pays a private contractor millions of dollars to shut off, one at a time, water to individual houses that each owe only a few hundred dollars.
“There is no democracy in Detroit,” said Kathy Russell, a local activist. “The people voted for a mayor, but he has no authority. There’s an emergency manager appointed by the governor. It’s a dictatorship.”
The new 15-day suspension announced Monday only affects new potential shutoffs, which won’t help residents whose water has already been shut off.
At the rally on Friday, Patrick Curieo told Rewire that he has been trying to help an elderly friend of his, Karen Conn, resolve a water billing issue since November. He said Conn had been given the run-around by several different government agencies when she tried to apply for assistance with paying her bill, and that the DWSD shut off her water without notice on July 16. Conn paid off the minimum balance, which should have gotten her water turned on within 24 hours, Curieo said—but Conn’s water was still not turned back on as of Friday because she was told she had to show proof of ownership of her home. She had not been told this before she paid her balance, Curieo said.
“It’s a con game,” he said. “They’re looking for naive people.”
DWSD spokesperson Curtrise Garner told Rewire that the decision to suspend new shutoffs came after officials looked at the high volume of calls both to their offices and to public assistance centers. “We decided on this pause to be sure that those really in need have the opportunity to get the assistance they need,” she said.
About 17,000 residents have had their water shut off since March, when budget issues motivated the city to start shutting off accounts that are more than 60 days overdue and owe more than $150. There were 7,210 shutoffs in June alone, and more than 2,185 in the first ten days of July, Garner said, but there were also 3,118 water turn ons in June and 1,408 in July. Garner said some of those turn ons represented new customers but that most were a reversal of shutoffs, and that half of shutoffs were paid and turned back on within 24 hours.
The rally was organized by National Nurses United, which declared the shutoffs a public health emergency. It garnered widespread media attention, with write-ups in large outlets like the New York Times.
“As excited as I am about the 15-day moratorium, I am under no illusion that the struggle has been won,” said Tawana Petty, an organizer with the People’s Water Board Coalition. “Next up, let’s get the people’s water turned back on.”