Judge rebuffs struggle to stop Detroit water shut-offs

Thousands demand water in Detroit, July 18.WW photo: Kris Hamel

Thousands demand water in Detroit, July 18.
WW photo: Kris Hamel

Federal bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes has continued his anti-people legal reasoning by denying a motion to reconsider his earlier decision not to halt water shut-offs in Detroit.

Since January, some 31,000 households have been subjected to a concerted policy of massive termination of water services. Even though officials of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department claim that most customers have been allowed reconnection of service after paying their designated arrears, an undetermined number of people are still living without water or have been forced to relocate.

Earlier in June, a spokesperson for Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr told the Detroit Free Press that the termination of water services was an integral part of the city of Detroit’s restructuring. For weeks, officials at the DWSD denied there was a problem until protests and a public outcry drew global attention to the abysmal conditions prevailing in the majority African-American municipality.

In fact, this policy of large-scale termination of water services was the subject of demonstrations from June through late August. The Moratorium NOW! Coalition held weekly pickets and marches, known as Freedom Friday, outside the DWSD headquarters.

The weekly marches gained nationwide support and drew participation from people across the southeast Michigan region, as well as those coming to the city for conferences and solidarity work. In late July, during its national gathering at Wayne State University, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom hired a bus to travel downtown and participate in the Freedom Friday protests.

These efforts peaked on July 18 when thousands rallied and marched across downtown during a conference of the Netroots Nation at Cobo Center. Members of National Nurses United, in town for the Netroots summit, assisted in mobilizing conference delegates. The gathering of bloggers and various types of social media activists joined the struggle in the streets for water and against emergency management.

Three days earlier, an objections hearing to the so-called “plan of adjustment” was held in federal bankruptcy court. Over 50 people out of over 600 objectors — representing retirees, homeowners, city workers and community residents — spoke out in opposition to the bankers’ plan to further exploit and oppress the people of Detroit.

Kris Hamel, representing the Moratorium NOW! Coalition, condemned Emergency Manager Orr and the federal courts for letting thousands of households be subjected to shut-offs even as financial institutions, which took $537 million out of the DWSD system through interest rate swaps, remained untouched.

Following the week of objections in federal court and mass demonstrations, DWSD officials, under the direction of the emergency manager, declared a 15-day moratorium on shut-offs. This was extended after a class-action lawsuit was filed on July 21 seeking relief on behalf of victims of the shut-offs. Four community organizations were involved: the Moratorium NOW! Coalition, the People’s Water Board, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and the local chapter of the National Action Network.

Judge favors bankers’ rule

A people’s legal team working on behalf of victims of the shut-offs and the four concerned organizations found that the DWSD system was broken as a result of the usurious and predatory lending policies of four major financial institutions: Loop Financial, Chase Bank, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley.

When industrial, commercial and residential structures in Detroit were abandoned, water pipes decayed, broke and were scavenged as scrap metal. Because of lack of resources and poor management, water main leaks and broken pipes led to massive amounts of water being wasted. The people of Detroit have been forced to pay for this dysfunctional system.

Judge Rhodes claimed there is no legal right in U.S. law to affordable water. His statement speaks volumes about the character of modern-day capitalist society.

The judge said that Mayor Mike Duggan’s 10-point plan to allow payment for water service on a purportedly more affordable basis was insufficient to solve the problem because “the poverty rate in the city is about 40 percent.” (Metro Times, Nov. 21)

Millions for consultants, no water for the people

The political engineers of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history have charged Detroit $200 million in consultancy fees, even before the full exit from bankruptcy. The Jones Day law firm alone, Emergency Manager Orr’s former employer, has billed the city over $52 million in legal fees.

Rhodes has ordered mediation sessions on Dec. 3-4 about the high cost of unnecessary bankruptcy proceedings. Meanwhile, as cold weather creates harsh conditions for Detroit residents, water shut-offs and tax foreclosure notices are continuing to threaten thousands of households, further undermining the basic survival of the majority African-American and working-class population.

Even if the city of Detroit is allowed to exit bankruptcy by the end of the year, austerity and increasing impoverishment of the people will continue. The Moratorium NOW! Coalition is preparing for the next phase of the struggle, aimed at fighting the budget and service cuts that will continue to be imposed on the people.