In Detroit and Flint (USA), no more water for the poor

I am Justin Wedes, a co-founder of Detroit Water Brigade, a non-profit advocacy and rapid relief organization responding to the city’s aggressive water shut-off program. I work on water issues with low-income families, the homeless, and unemployed people in Detroit and Flint.

In Detroit and Flint, people have been facing multiple ongoing crises that arise ultimately from inequality, bad state governance, and a lack of representation of people living in poverty in their local government. People are being denied access to clean water. Under a state emergency management, a city manager ruled over the city and decided to switch the source of water. That corroded the pipes in the municipal water and sent heavy metals, such as lead and cooper, into the homes of mostly people with low incomes. Thousands of people were exposed to toxic substances and affected children will have irreparable damage to their physical and psychological development. Furthermore, the city of Detroit continues to shut water off on thousands of people who can’t afford the water bills.

What does it mean for democracy when a city manager, appointed by a governor with no democratic input, has a full control over the city? I think it’s really important to unpack the term state of emergency; yes, when there is an urgent crisis we need relief and support, but emergencies are also declared under false pretenses and with the intention of doing harm to people (e.g. busting up unions and taking away people’s rights). When these conditions are imposed upon people, does it make the natural system of checks and balances then unable to confront issues that come up?

I cannot imagine that this decision would have been made under a democratic, self-governing municipality. In fact, when the recent mayoral election came up and the city moved out of the emergency management, a new mayor was elected on the platform of ending this emergency by calling in federal resources and fixing the infrastructure. This shows that democracy, the idea that people can govern themselves and that they can provide the oversight needed to ensure that public services are provided to meet people’s needs, works. But when you take it away from people, there are all of these perverse incentives that prioritize profits and political ambition over the needs of regular people, particularly people living in poverty.

We live in a country that is so heavy in corporate rule and power that it’s impossible to disentangle the role of corporations from that of politics. Corporations are the largest funders of our governors and the elected officials’ campaigns that the influence our government yields is directed and controlled largely by corporate interests.

It doesn’t make sense that thousands of people in Michigan don’t have access to clean water, when they are surrounded by 20% of the world’s potable fresh water in the Great Lakes. One of the ways to explain it is that the emergency city manager subverted the will of the people in favor of the interests of those who don’t even live in the region. Flint is a poor, majority African American city that did not vote for this governor, who was a Republican and did not come from the party that traditionally had a lot of African American support. So many people saw this as a punishment for not voting for him. Now that is a very cynical view, but the perception is real and I don’t think it’s entirely inaccurate.

Michigan has very few protections on campaign finance. We have the governor’s top aide, whose wife is a spokesperson for Nestlé Waters, a large bottled water company. Nestlé has many, very poorly negotiated contracts with the state of Michigan to extract water from the Great Lakes. The sad, cruel irony of this is that they are actually profiting from this crisis by selling more bottles of water to people who can’t access clean, affordable, public, municipal water. This is the epidemic of privatization, when people cannot get water from the tap but have to buy it by the bottle.

Many people I’ve known also have strived for dignity. This community in Northwest Detroit raised funds to help a barber who had the water cut off at his barbershop wrongfully. Although he was not overdue on his bill, they cut his water off anyway, claiming that his barbershop has the same water line as a business next door that had been closed for a month. A barbershop in African American communities in the US is in many ways a town hall; it’s the center of the community. We raised funds to help him recoup the cost of days without water and he gave free haircuts to all the kids in the community.

Flint residents visit a local fire station to pick up donated water being distributed by the Michigan National Guard. Photo: Justin Wedes, 1/16/16

Flint residents visit a local fire station to pick up donated water being distributed by the Michigan National Guard. Photo: Justin Wedes, 1/16/16

Then we met his pastor, who was trying to acquire an abandoned elementary school in the neighborhood to turn it into a community center. We learned that so many people in the community had their water cut off and people were coming to his church for water. He was distributing water bottles and letting people fill water up in his bathroom for them to bathe and cook. Then he was overdue on his bill and the church, a non-profit church that served many people in the community, had its water and lights cut off. So we campaigned with him. I remember him passionately speaking outside of the district court house on the morning of the big trial that challenged water shut off: “We have a God-given right to water. Water is our human right. We need water to live.” Water is not a privilege. It’s not a private good you receive as a fruit of your labor; you need water to work. To cut water off shows negligence, a careless disregard for the needs of people.

We have to defend people. It’s not enough to deliver water bottles; it’s not enough to send water filters because those filters don’t even work at the high lead concentration that we’ve been seeing in homes. You have to be an advocate; you have to speak up for people who don’t have a voice. Isn’t that the lesson about poverty we’ve learned in this country: that you can’t eradicate poverty just with money? Whether it’s from a religious perspective or a civic perspective, we have an obligation to protect each other.

An article written by Justin, “The Flint Crisis is Not Just About the Water. It’s About Poverty”

Justin’s Twitter:

One thought on “In Detroit and Flint (USA), no more water for the poor

  1. I shall be using this post as a starting point for discussion in the settlement in Klipheuwel, South Africa where we have a learning circle. It is so very relevant because we are heading for municipal elections later this year. As anywhere, water is a concern. Municipal services are a concern. Hearing the insider version of faraway communities who struggle as we do, helps us to think in a clearer manner about our own situation and what to do about it. Thank you.


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