As Detroit’s water provider continues to carry out its plan to turn off the taps for tens of thousands of nonpaying customers across the city, activists are resorting to civil disobedience in an attempt to stop what they call a human rights violation.
Some 50 demonstrators on Thursday held a protest outside the offices of Homrich, a company contracted by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to stop the flow to residences at least two months past due on their accounts. At least nine of the activists were arrested by Detroit police and charged with disorderly conduct when they temporarily blocked trucks from leaving the company’s parking lot. They were released on bail hours later.
While the protest was relatively small, activists say it’s a sign of things to come if DWSD continues shutting off water lines. The activists say that in a city with a poverty rate of 44 percent, and where water bills are higher than in much of the country, Detroit should work out a solution with poor residents instead of leaving them dry. Otherwise, they say, they’ll have no other choice but to take to the streets.
“I warned the water department that if they did not immediately stop the shutoffs, these things will take place,” said Demeeko Williams, an activist with the Detroit Water Brigade. “People are mad. This is the first resistance, and there will be more.”
Critics say that DWSD has been unnecessarily aggressive in pursuing delinquent accounts since it began ramping up shutoffs in April. Williams said the department has shut off accounts of families with young children, as well as houses with the disabled and elderly residents.
The water department says it needs to shut off the water to recoup some $175 million in outstanding bills. But DWSD has also been accused of ignoring the debts of large entities — like a golf course that owes $437,000 and the state of Michigan itself, which owes $70,000 — while going after people who owe as little as $150 on their accounts.
DWSD says there are sufficient payment plans and assistance programs in place to help those who fall behind on their bills.
But nearly 50 percent of DWSD’s accounts are behind on payments, according to the department, and Detroit’s already-high water prices are on the rise, now averaging $75 a household — almost double the national average.
Activists say those high numbers give residents no choice but to protest.
Last month, Detroit activists successfully petitioned a U.N. panel to call the water shutoffs a violation of human rights.
“The households which suffered unjustified disconnections must be immediately reconnected,” the U.N. experts said.
Earlier this week, a group from Windsor, Ontario, crossed the border to deliver 1,000 liters of water in a display of support for Detroit residents. And protests have been held outside DWSD’s offices every Friday since the shutoffs began.
The pressure seems to be partially working: DWSD announced a $1 million fund on Tuesday for residents struggling to pay.
But even with the $1 million, activists say many others are likely to lose access to water over the summer. If the shutoffs continue, they say, DWSD can expect larger protests.
“We didn’t come out here as a symbolic gesture. This is serious. This is direct action, and it’s only the beginning,” said Elena Herrada, a Detroit school board member and candidate for the Michigan House of Representatives who was arrested during the protest on Thursday. “Nobody is coming to save us. This is what we have to do.”