MWRO Statement on UN visit to Detroit to investigate massive water shutoffs–Part 1

U.N. Special Rapporteurs, photo credit:

This is the first of a two-part statement from MWRO on the United Nations visit to Detroit by two Special Rapporteurs on Detroit water shutoffs.

On Oct. 20th, 2014, United Nations representatives Catarina de Albuquerque and Leilani Farha met with Mayor Mike Duggan and part of his staff to discuss the recent mass water shutoffs plaguing Detroit.

The meeting was very frank and at times contentious with the Special Rapporteurs (SR) asking questions based on citizen/resident reports they had received from what they refer to as “civil society” organizations and direct visits to residential homes. The premise of the meeting was itself historic in that this was a session to discuss best practices, pilule shared by the SRs, relative to how decreasing revenues might impact water access, distribution and sanitation specifically in low-income households. The two special investigators have amassed a myriad of expertise over the years after visiting many countries that have faced dwindling economies and transient populations.

Amid a flurry of “denials” and veiled attempts to discredit the intention(s) of these two specialists, the SRs continued to press for answers about recent water shutoffs. The session went back and forth until Mayor Duggan stepped up and suggested he would be interested in receiving detailed information about any current residents without water. The Mayor placed a call at the suggestion of the MWRO rep to the phone center and was able to get right through to someone without a long wait. This single act proved the City’s case that new practices are being put in place to address resident complaints — the problem is that these procedures aren’t reaching the poorest and most vulnerable residents. Long waits on the phone to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Dept. have been a frequent complaint and we hope, at least in this instance, progress is being made. In the end, what was suggested is that specific account information would be needed to examine any claims of denied water and the City would look into each case that was submitted.

Duggan and Wiley
Detroit Mayor Duggan with Alexis Wiley.

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Since that historic session, several things have occurred. The City has issued statements that paint the Special Rapporteur’s visit as “nothing but a show.” One city employee, Alexis Wiley, the Mayor’s chief of staff, labeled their initial report as “sad” suggesting they were following a separate agenda that did not reflect the truth about water shutoffs in Detroit. Another City employee suggested that information gathered by talking with a few residents did not rise to actual truth, and that only through talks with the City were facts able to be put forward. Residential interpretations were not credible, in other words, and were not to be validated. There are none so blind than those who refuse to see!

In 2005, 2006, and 2007 — the Water Affordability Plan was submitted to the DWSD after is was tweaked and then accepted by the City Council and the then Mayor. Always, it is said there are legal reasons why this wonderfully crafted document can’t be implemented. And always when we ask, “Why not?” no credible answers are shared. The corporate interests that have lined up in great anticipation of receiving mega-infusions of cash is the logical place to search for the financial support needed to help shore up the City. Revenue sharing, unpaid commercial and corporate water accounts, so many places to look for untapped resources yet the then Emergency Manager’s only goal, it appears, was to inflict economic and physical pain on the most marginalized, most vulnerable, the poorest.

Over and over again, the City has suggested that those unable to find resources to help prevent shutoff or restore water already shut off were not truthful or that they were too dumb to find simple information. The old, tired, “people want free water” message was dragged out, a phrase that is repeated even though no one ever asked for that. It was revealed that the City has always practiced water shutoffs, and that was an established practice never before challenged. It was admitted that some 300,000 water shutoffs have happened over a period of years, a fact the City was not ashamed to admit. Must have felt the same rage and shock like those in the room in Nuremberg during that trial, listening to soldiers talking about how they were just following orders….

Shutting off water in Detroit.

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The Special Rapporteurs’ questions and the session ended in about 90 minutes, after which they traveled back to their hotel to prepare the press release for the media. Their specific UN conclusions are online, which include a strong recommendation that all residential water accounts be restored, which allows the City to investigate each address to determine if there are low-income families with children, the disabled, the elderly, or veterans living there who need supportive programs that structure payments they can afford. There are other recommendations the SRs offered, that have been published far and wide that address other ways of managing delinquent water payments that other nations routinely employ.

In closing, MWRO agrees with the basic, fundamental conclusion offered by our international guests. Because the population of Detroit has dropped, because the unemployment numbers have risen, because the good paying auto-industrial jobs have disappeared, and because many of the jobs available today are low-paying, the City still has a legal obligation to supply clean water and sanitation to all — even if only one resident is left! It is in fact a violation of international law to deprive residents of water if they are too poor to pay in the regular way. Ms. de Albuquerque and Ms. Farha were not daunted by Mayor Duggan and his staffs comments. Clearly, they don’t understand the UN reps’ mission.

This is not a popularity contest that is directed by who we like and who we don’t. It is patently wrong to disconnect water where low-income people live, and no amount of “American Exceptionalism” can alter that fact. There are millions of poor Americans who live in horrible conditions that are ignored daily while we act as if all is well; and Detroit has a large share of those families.

The responses coming from the City are at best shallow, defensive, ignorant, and at least, devoid of compassion. What kind of city is this and what kind of people are in charge who would countenance such demonic practices? Are our elected officials so drunk with power that they would choose not to find a way to keep the poorest residents safe and clean? Why didn’t someone in city government stand up when the emergency manager made this life-threatening recommendation and scream to the highest star how wrong it is and that as duly-elected officials, you would not force-march masses of Detroit residents into the crematoriums of poverty and torture?

Thousands march in Detroit against water shutoffs.

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Why did it take strangers, trained in recognizing violations against humanity, to shine a light on these dark-age practices and call them out for what they are?
This is the best example of how the recognition of class differences have surfaced because we have different ethnic races of administrators, both men and women, both young and old who have been part of this sorry episode of residential infliction of pain. Our elected city officials would have found continued comfort in the torture of low-income people had they not had the covers of gross negligence pulled from them exposing what all knew but few had the courage to declare.

Along with our city officials stand many of the members of the clergy from all denominations, who have stood in silence while the torture of the most vulnerable has unfolded. The Spirit that many profess to serve has been waiting for you all to discover your courage or your voice or at least your crippled-hand gripped around a pen where you could author an anonymous note decrying what has been happening relative to these water shutoffs. I try daily to forgive your cowardice and hope only that when you make your transition to the afterlife, that the fires of “hell” are unkind to you.

We hope the legal violations identified by the two Special Rapporteurs find their way sooner as written charges to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, and also to the U.S

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. State Dept. All nations should be alerted about these international violations so that sanctions might be discussed and even levied to make this practice stop. The U.S. government is ultimately responsible to secure the human rights of the most vulnerable and that task lies first with our ‘beloved’ mayor, then with the county executive, then with the governor, and lastly with all presidents.

As a field general in the army of social justice for vulnerable, low-income populations, it falls to me and mine to keep this battle in the face of all humanity and to take every opportunity to convince those in power that their salvation lies in distancing themselves from the “dark” side in favor of protecting, serving, and advancing the quality of life for all.

Maureen D. Taylor
State Chairperson, MI Welfare Rights Organization

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