Tuesday, 04 November 2014 00:00

Pay Rent or Drink Water: The Human Rights Crisis in Detroit Escalates

Written by Ben Ptashnik, Truthout | News Analysis | Truthout
Pay Rent or Drink Water: The Human Rights Crisis in Detroit Escalates (Photo: Light Brigading / Flickr)

Despite mass protests, the emergency management water shutoffs in Detroit have resumed, even as UN experts publish a press release calling the water disconnects "contrary to human rights" and activists decry them as "genocide."

The corporate-led humanitarian crisis in Detroit is escalating, forcing local activists to appeal for international intervention. "The indignity suffered by people whose water was disconnected is unacceptable" according to Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, the special United Nations rapporteur on human right to water and sanitation, in apress release October 20.

The "unprecedented scale" of water shutoffs is targeting the "most vulnerable and poorest" of the city's population, including tens of thousands of African Americans, said Leilani Farha, UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has been disconnecting water services all spring and summer from households who have not paid bills for two months, and has sped up the process since early June. Now the number of disconnections is rising to around 3,000 customers per week. As a result, some 27,000 households have had their water services disconnected so far this year. Many activists have stated that Detroit's water system is being prepared for privatization by the 1 percent.  

Activists took the unprecedented decision to appeal to the United Nations after determining that the Republican Governor and Tea Party-dominated legislature would not come to the aid of Detroit. It was Governor Snyder who suspended democratic government in Detroit and initiated an Emergency Management decree, which led to the city's forced bankruptcy and water-service shutoffs.

The Republican-controlled legislature passed the Emergency Management bill in a December 2012 lame duck session, after a public referendum struck down the exact same legislation just months earlier in the 2012 elections.

To date, six of Michigan's cities have been driven into bankruptcy, using the same "Emergency Management" bill - in effect a hostile occupation. All have a predominantly African-American population and overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. Civil rights advocates have claimed this is a right-wing politically contrived method of vesting dictatorial powers in governor appointees, who can use the screen of bankruptcy to privatize public assets, enable union busting, and pillage public employees' pensions in bankruptcy court.

Bankruptcy and the Banks

The Wall Street banks involved in Detroit's bankruptcy proceedings - as providers of questionable and corrupt city loans and other financial instruments - were the same banks indicted by the US Justice Department for the fraudulent sub-prime mortgage scandal and housing bubble.

The 2008 financial crisis hit Detroit harder than any other US city, devastating its tax base and driving into poverty a large percentage of the already low-income and retiree population who were deceptively targeted for bank loans they could not afford. The banks passed on the responsibility to taxpayers through "guarantors" Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, or by packaging fraudulent "derivatives" sold to unsuspecting investors through stock markets worldwide.

Leaked emails between Governor Snyder, appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr and Jones Day, one of the largest law firms in the world, implicate the three parties in a plot to use federal bankruptcy as a way to circumvent Michigan's State Constitution.

Detroit is facing the largest Chapter 9 bankruptcy in US history, and retirees have faced off in Court against Jones Day and Orr, an African-American former employee of Jones Day. The retirees claim that Orr and Jones Day are representing Wall Street banks rather than Detroiters in their Bankruptcy Plan of Adjustment, which raids their pensions while Wall Street gets paid for questionable city loans.

Retiree Fredia Butler stated at the hearing that "This Plan of Adjustment will send many retirees into poverty, people who worked many years with the promise and hope they could live a decent life at the end.

"I am an African-American, and I know from our history that they always put someone who looks like us in charge. Kevyn Orr is the overseer. Synder is the master. Detroit did not have to be placed in bankruptcy. It is a power grab, taking our tax dollars to give to corporations for profit, a planned racist act, involving reductions in pensions, benefits and unjust claw-backs by Wall Street."

Former two-term city councilwoman JoAnn Watson stated in court that the emergency management protected default swaps favorable to the major banks, which cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars.

"The city of Detroit's executive and legislative branches never saw the bankruptcy filing, the most historic in the US," she said, and added that "over 2.3 million citizens repealed the emergency manager law in 2012, but the state re-enacted basically the same law. If the executive and legislative branches had an opportunity to deliberate on the bankruptcy, there might have been a decision to litigate the swaps and recoup some of that money."

Activists Mobilize to Fight

On July 18, a few months after the water shutoffs began in earnest, over 3,000 activists, including nurses from the National Nurses United, took to the streets in downtown Detroit. Actor Mark Ruffalo joined the march, and nine protestors - including clergy and an activist in a wheelchair - were arrested in a parallel action blocking the trucks of a private contractor hired to perform the shutoffs.

The protest's extensive media coverage created a political embarrassment for Governor Snyder (now locked in a tight re-election battle), and Kevyn Orr. Chided by the bankruptcy judge because of the negative international media attention created by the mass protests, the Water Department declared a moratorium on shutoffs, which lasted only a month. The shutoffs have since resumed.

De Albuquerque urged that the city restore services to the mostly African-American residents, who have an impossible choice "to pay their water bills or pay their rent."

"Once again, the international spotlight was on Detroiters trying to carve out dignified lives while being denied basic necessities of life," said Maureen Taylor, spokeswoman for the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and the Detroit People's Water Board, after a Town Hall meeting attended by the UN envoys and hundreds of city employees and affected residents Sunday Oct 19.

In a passionate plea for relief for her fellow citizens, Monica Lewis Patrick described the water shutoffs as "genocide." Ms Patrick is an activist with We the People of Detroit, which has been delivering potable water to beleaguered Detroit families.

After touring the city, the rapporteurs stated in their report: "In line with the mandates entrusted to us by the Human Rights Council, we would like to underline that the United States is bound by international human rights law and principles, including the right to life as well as the right to nondiscrimination with respect to housing, water and sanitation and the highest attainable standard of health.

Due to high poverty and unemployment rates, relatively expensive water bills are unaffordable for a significant portion of the population. Repeated cases of gross errors on water bills have been reported which are also used as a ground for disconnections.

Many residents were not provided with advance warning before their water was shut off and were left without any possibility for administrative recourse.

"In practice, people have no means to prove the errors, and hence the bills are impossible to challenge," Ms. de Albuquerque declared. In other instances, she heard mothers who "feared losing their children" because their houses are subject to being declared unsanitary by the Welfare Department when their water is shut off.

City managers have failed to maintain any data on how many people have been living without tap water, according to the UN envoys. They called for the establishment of a mandatory federal water and sewerage affordability standard along with the introduction of "special policies and tailored support for people in particularly vulnerable circumstances."

"Every effort should be made by all levels of government to ensure that the most vulnerable are not evicted from or lose their housing as a result of water shutoffs or water bill arrears," stated Ms. Farha. "Where an individual or family is rendered homeless due to water shutoffs, the City of Detroit must have in place emergency services to ensure alternate accommodation with running water is available."

Rigged Detroit Elections

After the protests in July, the emergency manager returned control of the Water Department to the mayor, Mike Duggan, a Democrat, considered by many in African-American community to be a collaborator with the upstate Michigan political power elite. Duggan's 2013 election was marked by apparent fraud, as thousands of duplicate ballots with identical signatures flooded the mayor's Democratic primary race, in unsealed ballot enclosures.

Prominent activists in Detroit believe that Duggan was rigged into the mayor's position by the 1 percent to enable and protect the bankruptcy. Local election integrity activist, Jean VortKamp, submitted evidence of election fraud in Duggan's race to the UN envoys at the town meeting October 19.

In fact, Duggan was not legally eligible to be initially listed on the ballot in Detroit because he was a resident for less than one year: He won election under suspicious circumstances as a write-in candidate from a mostly white suburb, in a city that is 83 percent African American.

Detroit is the canary in the mine. As the bankruptcy proceeds in federal court into November, Detroit's activists have warned that their city should be viewed as the prototype for the looting of other minority communities' assets by the multinational banks and their right-wing allies. If we do not fight back in Detroit, they said, this type of seizure of municipal assets and attacks on city workers' pensions will soon "come to a community near you."

Copyright, Truthout. Reprinted with permission

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