Fighting back in Detroit

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The tension began to rise in the Detroit courtroom of federal bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes on July 15. More than eighty workers, retirees, homeowners, and community residents submitted statements to the court decrying the draconian “plan of adjustment” ostensibly designed to provide an economic roadmap for exiting the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Kris Hamel, a Detroit homeowner and member of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, and Utility Shutoffs, urged Judge Rhodes to halt the thousands of water shutoffs taking place per week.

Rhodes noted that the policy of mass termination of water services was indeed “bad for the bankruptcy.” And he added that the shutoffs have created adverse publicity for the city worldwide.

That was putting it mildly. Experts cited by the United Nations said the policy of large-scale terminations enacted by the emergency manager was a possible violation of human rights.

The struggle for water in Detroit is a struggle about human rights, democratic control, and a just economy.


Beginning in July of 2013, Detroit cut off water to more than 42,000 residents who were behind on their water bills.

One year later, Darryl Latimer, deputy director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, under the administrative control of the unelected emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, announced a fifteen-day suspension of the massive water shutoffs.

On July 29, Orr granted more power to the mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, to manage the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. This appeared to be another concession to protesters, but Duggan has indicated that he has no plans to turn people’s water back on. And when he was CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, he privatized it. He might do the same with the Water and Sewerage Department.

The weekly “Freedom Friday” demonstrations, modeled somewhat on the “Moral Mondays” in North Carolina, have been picketing the Water and Sewerage headquarters in downtown Detroit for more than two months.

On July 10, protesters blockaded the entrance to Homrich, the firm hired by the emergency manager to conduct the water shutoffs. Ten people were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

Then, on July 18, thousands of people from Detroit and around the country gathered in the streets and marched through the financial district to denounce the water shutoffs and the privatization of the city.

The march took place in conjunction with the Net-roots National Conference, which was being held in downtown Detroit. Through the efforts of National Nurses United and the Moratorium NOW! Coalition, a broad spectrum of labor and community organizations endorsed the July 18 actions. These included the local affiliates of the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Communication Workers of America, Detroit Metro AFL-CIO, the People’s Water Board, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, the Stop the Theft of Our Pensions Committee, Concerned Citizens and Retirees of Detroit, and UAW Local 600, among others.

National Nurses United declared a public health emergency in Detroit at the rally due to the water shutoffs.

One of the key slogans advanced by the Moratorium NOW! Coalition and picked up by other organizations was “Make the Banks Pay!” This slogan grew out of the devastating impact of predatory lending in housing and municipal funding that has left the city in financial ruin.

Detroit has paid billions to banks for bad loans and termination fees. Many of the financial institutions now holding the city liable, such as Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Union Bank of Switzerland, and Barclays, have been cited for unscrupulous or illegal activities. Yet the emergency manager has failed to take legal action against these banks while forcing the termination of health care coverage and proposed pension cuts to more than 32,000 retirees and their families.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a former venture capitalist, looks at the municipal crisis as he would any financially distressed corporation he wanted to buy. He and Orr are not interested in preserving public institutions; they want to privatize them. This is the reasoning behind the attacks on the Detroit Public Lighting, Belle Isle Park, the Detroit Institute of the Arts, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, public pension funds, and health care programs for retirees.

Even before the banks looted Detroit, the city was suffering from a process of deindustrialization that began decades ago. To balance the budget on the backs of seniors, workers, and poor residents now cannot provide solutions to the crisis in Detroit. And all of these decisions are being made without any consideration of the popular will.

Nor will the city revitalize itself through more “prestige” projects such as stadiums, arenas, entertainment districts, and exclusive housing complexes where the rents and mortgage payments are far out of the range of the median income levels of the majority of the people who currently reside in the city. This approach has failed repeatedly over the last two decades to revive the city and its population.

During the 1990s, Detroit residents were encouraged to approve bond proposals for the construction of both Ford Field, home of the Lions football team, and Comerica Park, where the Tigers play their home baseball games. In addition to these monumental initiatives, voters approved the development of three casino hotels: Greektown, MotorCity, and MGM Grand.

However, the city continued to lose jobs and income. The wave of predatory mortgage lending during the late 1990s and the last decade drove 237,000 people from the city.

The much-trumpeted tax revenues from the casino hotels are now caught up in the bankruptcy proceeding, as Syncora Guarantee, Inc., a bond issuer, has laid claim to the revenue even before any of it is deposited in the city’s general fund.

In the July 20 edition of the Sunday Free Press, a macabre and utopian blueprint for an entertainment district between downtown and midtown was plastered on the front page as the lead story. Pushing the blueprint is multibillionaire Mike Ilitch, Sr., the owner of Comerica Park and Joe Louis Arena, the home of the Redwings hockey team. Ilitch has already gained rubber-stamped approval from the Detroit City Council to construct a new arena for a stated $650 million, while the city is in bankruptcy.


City tax dollars will be utilized for a substantial portion of the construction. The land was turned over to Ilitch Holdings for one dollar. There are no real guarantees that the hundreds of thousands of unemployed and underemployed Detroit residents will have any hope of good-paying jobs from this project.

The new blueprint is more of the same obsolete approach to urban development. It will only benefit the rich and drive even more working and poor people from the core of the central city and continue the decay of the outlying neighborhoods and local business districts.

What is actually needed in Detroit is the rebuilding of neighborhoods and the creations of tens of thousands of reliable and good-paying jobs.

This can be done only by taxing corporations and banks that are the root cause of the current crisis.

But the mayor and city council members are not advocating this. Under emergency management, the elected officials work at the pleasure of the emergency manager, who represents the interests of the corporations and banks.

An alliance of popular forces committed to decent employment, access to utilities and water services, quality housing and education, and the democratic governance of public institutions is at the core of the struggle for a livable future–not only in Detroit but across the United States.

Abayomi Azikiwe is editor of the Pan-African News Wire and a member of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition.