DETROIT, Michigan — A new homeowner comes to the city eager to buy a house only to find that she must pay $8,000 for a former resident’s delinquent water bills. Entire families have went without water for over a week, unable to decide between depriving themselves a basic necessity or shaming themselves by seeking a neighbor for help. A pastor, his wife and eight others were arrested on the charge of disorderly conduct for holding a peaceful gathering outside a water truck building.
While these stories may sound like they come from a corrupt, impoverished developing country, they instead come out of Detroit, a major city in one of world’s richest countries. Detroit is currently experiencing an emergency water shutdown. With protests rising in Detroit’s streets, the United Nations is describing Detroit’s water shutdown as a human rights violation, and with an emergency convoy bringing water to Detroit residents, some locals and experts have drawn a startling, controversial comparison between Detroit and the Arab Spring.
The Detroit water shutdown started in March when the city’s water department found its total unpaid bills rising to $43 million. Kevin Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, argued that paying off the water bill was necessary to lowering Detroit’s total debt of $18 billion. To pay down the water bill, city officials raised water prices by 8.7 percent to a rate double the national average.
The combination of the price increase and extra water usage during a particularly harsh winter led to over 80,000 late payments. During March, government officials announced that Detroit’s water department would begin cutting off 3,000 residents from water per week until more residents applied for a long-term payment plan or paid off their bills. Over 125,000 residents have experienced some degree of water shutdown and experts foresee up to 300,000 residents losing access to water if shutdown rates continue through August.
Experts doubt that Detroit’s impoverished population can muster up the payment necessary to present further shutdowns from occurring and expect anywhere from 30,000 to 90,000 of the city’s residents to be cut off from water. Government officials agreed to a 15-day pause in shutoffs, but are unlikely to extend the pause period even further.
In response to the shutdowns, Detroit residents have launched a resistance movement. Many residents have locked or parked their cars in front of their water mains to prevent city officials from shutting them off, risking fines of $500 or a permanent water shutdown.
Over 1,000 protestors took to the streets, including high-profile Detroit residents such as United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams and Congressman John Conyers. Reverend Bill Wylie-Kellerman, pastor of Detroit’s St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, was arrested along with nine other protestors dubbed the “Detroit Ten” for sitting in front of a building holding trucks needed to conduct water shutdowns.
Members of the international community have begun to express their outrage at the plight of Detroit’s residents. Shortly after the water shutdowns started, the U.N. received an appeal from residents calling for their support.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon announced the U.N.’s position that the Detroit’s water shutdown constituted a human rights violation, saying preventing people’s access to safe water is a “denial of a fundamental human right.” He added, “Deliberate targeting of civilians and depriving them of essential supplies is a clear breach of international humanitarian and human rights law.”
Maude Barlow, national chairwoman of the Council of Canadians, a social advocacy group, heard of the water crisis in Detroit and responded by delivering 750 gallons of water via a seven-vehicle convoy to Detroit residents through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.
“Every country in the world is responsible for looking after their most vulnerable people,” said Barlow in an address to Detroit residents. “It means that every country in the world is not allowed to turn the tap off of water that is already being delivered, and it means that nobody has the right to say no to water for people who cannot afford it.”
Some Detroit residents such as Reverend Wylie-Kellerman used Arab Spring-inspired rhetoric to inspire Detroit’s protestors. In a St. Peters’ church blog post, Rev. Wylie-Kellerman called his congregation to protest:
“Disaster capitalism, shock doctrine, corporate state occupation, emergency management is coming to Detroit. It’s time to declare yourself. We will need to make this city creatively ungovernable even as we create forms of democracy in exile, democracy from below. We are past due….Detroit Spring is just beginning.”
Although some experts regard Rev. Wylie-Kellerman’s comparison between Detroit’s water protests and the Arab Spring as simplistic and inaccurate, others find the comparison to be convincing. Major Arab Spring participants such as Egypt and Tunisia both experienced over ten percent poverty and unemployment rates, which are comparable to those in Detroit. In both the Detroit protests and the Arab Spring, long-term dissatisfaction with poor economic conditions and an unresponsive public sector was accentuated by specific short-term human rights violations, launching grassroots pro-democracy movements.
In any case, despite being one of the world’s wealthiest countries, the U.S. risks damaging its reputation as a model for developing countries to aspire toward as long as major cities such as Detroit maintain a poverty rate upwards of 40 percent and experience human rights violations.
– Nathan Slauer
Sources: Opening of Detroit, The Star Press, Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, Gulf News, NY Times, Al Jazeera