Fighting the austerity program behind Detroit water shutoffs

Massive water shutoffs have drawn attention to the humanitarian crisis in the city of Detroit. Even though the United Nations commission dealing with water resources and access to potable water has condemned the conditions prevailing in the majority African-American municipality, the main response to the documentation of gross human rights violations has been a public relations campaign to distribute bottled water.

Gleaners Food Bank, a charitable agency that distributes food to low-income families throughout southeast Michigan, said in a July 2 press release that it “is making 6,000 gallons of fresh drinking water available to Detroit residents. In addition, Gleaners has secured an additional truckload of water from Nestle Waters North America and AmeriCares to make available to Detroiters who may need it.”

This same media advisory, which was virtually reprinted on the front page of the Detroit Free Press on July 2, said, “The drinking water will be available at designated Gleaners’ partner agencies located throughout the city. Residents must call 2-1-1, the United Way help line, to find a water distribution site near them.”

Shutoffs, austerity behind water crisis

Although this statement by Gleaners was lengthy, there was no mention of the thousands of water shutoffs carried out under the auspices of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) by a private corporation hired by the unelected emergency manager.

Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, appointed by right-wing Gov. Rick Snyder, has said very little about the mass terminations of water service to residents. However, a June 26 Detroit Free Press editorial made clear: “[Orr’s spokesperson] Bill Nowling said the shutoff policy is a necessary part of Detroit’s restructuring.”

Nestles Waters of North America is the largest bottled water corporation in the U.S. The parent company is a worldwide operation cited by many as a major proponent of the privatization of waterways and services.

A major challenge to Nestles in Michigan, which is surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes, revolves around their efforts to retrieve and bottle water for profit, a process that causes environmental damage. The involvement of such a corporation in the current crisis in Detroit should be assessed from the history of the company as well as the role of AmeriCares.

AmeriCares was formed in conjunction with the collapse of U.S. imperialist intervention in Vietnam during 1975. The group says it provides humanitarian and disaster relief to people in 90 countries.

The intervention of both Nestles and AmeriCares indicates the way in which the ruling class is responding to the international attention centered on Detroit. Instead of viewing it as a crisis of poverty, dictatorial political rule and economic exploitation caused by the banks and corporations, the crisis is portrayed as a humanitarian project.

Although there is no question that the situation in Detroit represents a humanitarian disaster, the crisis stems from the systematic corporate devastation of the city through job losses, predatory home mortgage and municipal lending, and institutional racism. The ruling class and its media refuse to address the problems at the root of the crisis they created.

Over $560 million was paid out in 2012 to four major banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, to terminate interest-rate swaps imposed on the DWSD. The emergency manager through the bankruptcy court is not pursuing restitution for the financial crimes committed against the residents of the city, but instead is attacking the assets, jobs, health care programs, pensions and water resources that belong to the people.

No water, no peace

Activists in Detroit have been confronting the bank-imposed austerity plaguing the city. Every week there are Freedom Friday demonstrations beginning at the DWSD and spreading through downtown to confront and expose the real criminals behind the crisis.

A press conference organized by the Stop the Theft of Our Pensions Committee took place July 3 in front of the federal courthouse. City of Detroit retirees from Moratorium NOW! Coalition, STOP and the Concerned Citizens and Retirees of Detroit spoke out against the emergency manager’s proposed austerity “plan of adjustment” and what they say is a rigged voting process that is pressuring retirees to vote yes on cutting their pensions and benefits.

Moratorium NOW! activists have been leafleting at DWSD payment centers. On July 2 and 3, hundreds of people received flyers on the west and east sides of the city. Residents told Moratorium NOW! organizers that their water had been shut off even though they owed no money. They refuted the official line from the emergency-manager-controlled DWSD that only those who owe more than $150 are being shut off.

Detroiters who said they owed as little as $30 and $40 have received shut-off notices. Those with disabilities or who are ill, children and seniors are not spared in the ruthless campaign to terminate services.

The leaflet circulated at the payment centers states that the emergency manager, at the behest of the banks, “wants to sell or lease the water department. To make the deal look better to groups who want to buy it, he is getting rid of bills owed to the department by shutting off people’s water.” It continues, “The people of Detroit own the water department. It is worth billions. When a private company owns a city’s water department, they only want profit. Water rates go up and quality goes down — they don’t know how to run it!”

Private corporations and the city-owned golf course owe hundreds of thousands in arrears, but their water services have not been shut off. Despite demands for a moratorium on shut-offs, there has been no announcement by the emergency manager that one will be enacted.

More demonstrations planned

On July 15 there will be a special hearing in federal bankruptcy court where 100 of the more than 600 people who filed objections to the so-called “plan of adjustment” will testify before federal bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes. The number of objections filed by rank-and-file workers and residents are a clear indication of widespread opposition to the banker-inspired restructuring scheme.

Outside the court that day, there will be a speak-out between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. for everyone opposed to the bankruptcy, its pension reduction threats and austerity plans. Objectors inside the court and those from the neighborhoods are being encouraged to speak to the crowd outside after testifying against the wholesale robbery of the city by the emergency-manager-led bankruptcy process.

On Friday, July 18, a national call, in conjunction with the Netroots Nation conference being held in Detroit, will appeal to the thousands attending the gathering at Cobo Conference Center to come into the streets and demonstrate in solidarity with the people of Detroit. A downtown rally is scheduled for 1 p.m. at Hart Plaza. Later there will be a march through the financial district and in front of the DWSD demanding an end to privatization and mass water shutoffs.

For more information on struggles against austerity and political dictatorship in Detroit, contact the Moratorium NOW! Coalition at or call 313-680-5508.