By Shea Howell
Detroit Mayor Duggan is playing a dangerous game. He is fostering division and divisiveness. He decided to continue aggressive water shut offs. He made this decision in spite of the international outcry against this inhuman practice and the opposition of public health leaders and community organizations. He has been unmoved by court testimony demanding a halt to the shut offs. He has refused to discuss the Water Affordability Plan that would charge a percentage of income to support the infrastructure while making water accessible to all. He has not acknowledged the recent congressional hearings where Water Affordability proponents explained how it would keep both water and revenue flowing.
Instead of dealing with this human disaster of his own making, the Mayor decided to put his faith in corrosive public relations ploys. This strategy is an age-old tactic to down play the extent of the problem by creating false divisions. He is labeling some 8,000 of the nearly 40,000 homes slated for shut off as “thieves.” In other words, people who had the audacity to turn their water back on will be labeled criminal. Their valve boxes will be dug up to further punish them and they will be charged more than $2000 to get reconnected. The Mayor thinks that such labeling removes any obligation to acknowledge people as full human beings or to protect their human rights.
People who cannot afford to pay their bills are not likely to afford thousands more to become reconnected. Most likely this tactic will lead to more abandoned homes for the Mayor’s blight task force to knock down.
This kind of criminal labeling is an effort to turn people against one another. It is dangerous and indefensible. It encourages public values of shame and blame at the very time when we should be finding ways to be compassionate and supportive.
This strategy reveals a crass disregard for the people of Detroit, especially if we are poor. It is an effort to call upon on the worst instincts of people. It is a deliberate effort to reinforce racist attitudes to justify an abusive policy.
In order to manipulate public perception and diminish the outrage at the nearly 40,000 impending shut offs, the Mayor is encouraging anger and indifference toward others.
This will not work. Most people know that resistance to injustice is essential for progress. Those who support unjust laws are the real criminals. Every progressive advance in this country has depended on people willing to respond to a law higher than those instituted to protect profit and privilege. The values of respect for one another, resistance to dehumanization and sharing of resources evident in communities where people are sharing water and resources are the values we need for the future.
These water shut offs are unjust. They violate human rights. They were instituted to placate banks and the worst of suburban racist perceptions. Respect for humanity, for the earth, and for our common life demands resistance to them.
The Mayor cannot hide behind public relations ploys. His 10 point plan to solve the crisis is an obvious failure. Thousands face shut offs. This plan was doomed from the start. There was never enough money to cover all of the outstanding bills and the process of “eligibility” was ineffective. It was a public relations stunt to evade a deep structural problem. At the time the plan was launched critics asked what would happen when people fell behind again? Now according to Deputy Director Darryl Latimer, an undisclosed number of the 25,000 homes currently in payment plans are in default. He said he doesn’t know the exact number.
We in Detroit have the opportunity to create a city based on values of respect and care for one another. A real water affordability plan is central to this. As beloved community activist Charity Hicks said after being jailed for trying to warn her neighbors of shut offs, it is time to “wage love.”