The Detroit Water Struggle: A Story

By Bill Wylie-Kellermann

Think of Charity Hicks as the Rosa Parks of the Detroit Water Struggle. She was arrested in Detroit early on May 16 for resisting the shut off of her own water. The private contractor came early in the morning, but she was up. Since he was hitting a bunch of people on her block she went door to door rousing people to say: “He’s coming; fill your tub, fill pots and pans!” Then, because Charity still had two more days to settle her bill, she demanded to see the shut off order. He had none; only a list of addresses. When the altercation turned physical she called the police. Let it be said that Charity was a forceful, even loud when required, black woman. She has a large persona. The white cops who arrived averred that she “needed to be taught a lesson” and instead arrested her. They left her house open and threw her phone and keys on the front lawn. She was essentially disappeared.

Because of the situation in Detroit, arrestees are no longer taken to the precinct. They go directly to a Central Detention Center run by the State of Michigan in a former prison within city boundaries. Still barefoot and bleeding she was put into a holding area with 30 other women. One toilet. No benches. Find a place on the floor not covered with blood or vomit. It’s the weekend so you’ll be arraigned by video to a Court in Romulus.

When her husband returned home and saw the remains of the situation he began calling local hospitals to try and find her. Eventually he went to the police station to file a missing persons report. They said: We have her.

Visits and bond attempts were turned away. Because she is a diabetic and was going into sugar shock, frantic lawyers were able to get her out on a habeas corpus motion. But, truth be told, they had arrested the wrong person. Charity Hicks was a food, water, and environmental justice activist in Detroit. Strong and articulate. A woman not to be messed with.

Two days later she told this story at St Peter’s Episcopal Church. She urged the gathered activists, in a now famous phrase, to “wage love” in the water struggle for justice. The occasion was the presence of Nelson and Joyce Johnson, two faith-rooted activists from North Carolina. Nelson had been wounded by Klan members in the 1979 Greensboro Massacre. Since then they have, among other things, founded the Beloved Community Center and shepherded the first Truth and Reconciliation process on US soil. They were also instrumental in the recent Moral Mondays campaign where week after week groups have been arrested at the State House in Raleigh resisting to the right-wing assault to all social programs and budgets. They were here to discuss the connections between the North Carolina efforts and the struggle in Detroit against Emergency Management.

An Emergency Manager appointed by Governor Snyder (See Jan/Feb 2014) has all the powers of government and more in his or her person: He or she can write ordinances, repeal laws, fire employees, set budgets, privatize departments, sell city assets, break union contracts, re-write the city charter, and file for bankruptcy. Or so we are told. The law justifying this was repealed in a ballot measure be Michigan citizens, but the lame-duck Republican legislature re-passed a worse version within months. At this point every black city in the state is under the emergency manager law. Over half the black citizens of Michigan are under non-elected governments. Seventy-five percent of the black elected officials have been replaced by emergency managers. The Detroit Public Schools has had an Emergency Manager for five years and they have been successfully dismantled, privatized, and destroyed a la New Orleans.

Under the Emergency Manager the Detroit Water and Sewage Department announced in March that it was beginning to shut off water to anyone more than two months or $150 dollars behind in their bill. A hundred and twenty thousand homes. They were shooting for something like 3,000 per week. A couple years back, $500 million in bond money for infrastructure repairs had been turned over to the banks to buy out the banks from predatory and illegal credit swaps into which the Department had entered. Now in the effort to privatize Detroit water, poor people were going to have to pay up or be expelled. At the same time, this comported with the reorganizing of Detroit neighborhoods, resourcing some and pulling the plug on others. People not expelled by mortgage and tax foreclosures, or by the disappearance of schools, precincts, and fire stations, could now be sent packing by water shut-offs.

Neslon and Joyce thought something like this might be planned for North Carolina as well. When Nelson heard Charity’s story, he said: “This is it.” In the picture of a child or elder holding a cup at an empty faucet, all the connections can be made. He said this is the thing that can both deepen and broaden the Detroit movement. He drew a map of campaign on a paper plate. He was prophetic in every sense of the word. What he mapped and foresaw has come to be.

Within the week, Charity was at a conference planned by the Peoples’ Water Board in Detroit with Maude Barlowe, a Canadian writer and water activist who had been instrumental in getting the United Nations to declare access to potable water as a human right. When she heard Charity’s story, she said: “This is it. We need to file a complaint with the United Nations.” Within weeks UN representatives had announced that cutting off water to people because they were unable to pay was indeed a violation of basic human rights. That got a lot of international attention and soon local Detroit papers and TV stations were forced to cover the story themselves.

Charity had been invited to North Carolina to tell the story, but first she went to New York City to speak about the crisis at the Left Forum. While waiting at a bus stop, on her way to speak, she was hit by a car that jumped the curb and struck her down. A hit and run. She was in a coma for weeks. In early July she crossed over to God and the ancestors.

A group of religious leaders and allies began circulating a letter against the shut-offs and privatization and in support of the Peoples Affordability Plan of 2005 which would set water prices according to ability to pay. Drawing from interfaith tradition they said water is a grace, a gift of the Creator, beneath everything. It is the lifeblood of the planet circulating in river and rain. As a gift of God it belongs to all creatures equally. In tradition it is part of the commons for which we are stewards. This view is represented legally in the idea that water is not a utility or a commodity, but a public trust, held for all the people. It is represented in the idea that you can’t own a body of water, even if you own the land around it. Any high school kid knows if you are walking on the beach and someone tells you to get off their property, you step into the water and you’re off. It is also represented in the idea that water is a human right–it belongs accessibly to everyone. The faith letter was signed by 5 bishops and 80 religious leaders in the city, plus many more in the region and nationally. It was hand delivered to the Water Board, the Detroit City Council and to the shut-off contractor.

Meanwhile people started protesting every Friday at the Detroit Water Board. They called it Freedom Fridays, echoing the Moral Monday’s movement in North Carolina. In the days that followed Charity’s death a group of ten people decided to take direct action and block the trucks from going out to shut the water off. They went to the gates of Homrich Wrecking, the private contractor with a $5.6 million contract to turn off the water. The company is paid by the shut-off, so they are incentivized to do as many as they can, as fast as they can. We dedicated our action to the memory and spirit of Charity Hicks. For two hours we blocked the gates. In a very physical confrontation, we were arrested and taken to the Central Detention Facility. So far, this was how Nelson Johnson had diagramed it on his paper plate.

The following week ten more people went back. This time we blocked the drive and stopped the trucks for 7 hours before being arrested. The same day downtown, more than a thousand people marched from Cobo Hall to Bank of America to City Hall to Hart Plaza to protest the shut-offs. National Nurses United came forward to support the march and declare the situation in Detroit a public health crisis. People can’t cook, wash, or flush toilets when their water is s hut off. On top of that sometimes they lose their children to Protective Services because the situation is made unhealthy and unsafe.

In response We the People of Detroit set up a hotline for folks who have been shut-off to call (844-42WATER) and began to organize stations around the city to provide emergency water and information. Our church, where the Worker’s Kitchen resides, is one of them. On July 24 the council of Canadians, led by Maude Barlowe delivered 300 gallons of water to our water station in an act of solidarity. We stacked the water around our baptismal font at the back of the church and declared it a place of grace. A week later Keepers of the Mountain in West Virginia (where a chemical spill had left an entire town without water) delivered 1100 gallons of water. Another, even larger shipment, is expected from a UAW local in Chicago. The support is growing.

Hence, the Detroit Emergency Manager has a problem. The Federal Judge in Detroit’s Bankruptcy called in the Water Board to say, this has become an issue for the bankruptcy trial – it already was deeply embedded. You’re making the city look bad. So the Water Board declared a two week moratorium on shut-offs. Whereafter the Emergency Manager announced that he was giving administration of the Water Department over to Detroit’s mayor, Mike Duggan. Duggan is white and was “elected” in a landslide of write-in votes. He can’t do anything the Emergency Manager doesn’t permit and they work closely together. Think of it as good cop-bad cop. The mayor says things have been handled badly by the Emergency Manager, but now we’ll do them right. He has a 10 point plan to extend the shut-off moratorium, give people time to pay up, hold some informational events, and crack down on those “stealing” water.

There isn’t anything in it about the $29 million owed by commercial and industrial accounts, and not a word about the Water Affordability Plan. No one took Nelson’s paper plate and followed the design. It’s all just happened in a very decentralized and Spirit-led way. Charity Hicks walks among us and we are “waging love.” As this is written, the bankruptcy trial is scheduled to begin after Labor Day. More actions are being discerned. The story is not over yet.