Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Detroit: Distorted Reality

Democracy Shut Off -
Week 70 of the Occupation
By Shea Howell

The human toll of living under Emergency Management was made clear through the water crisis. Detroiters have endured an unprecedented assault on our basic human right to water for nearly 6 months before any action was taken.

The decision to aggressively pursue nearly half the city for being behind in water bills of $150 while ignoring corporate scofflaws who owed thousands was made by the Emergency Manager. The decision to sacrifice the well being of people in order to make the sale of the water department more attractive to investors was made by the Emergency Manager. The decision to persist in the shut off policy in spite of outcry from local activists was made by the Emergency Manager. The decision to continue shut offs in spite of escalating demonstrations, civil disobedience, and the condemnation of the United Nations was made by the Emergency Manger.

The decision to dump the problem on the Mayor after the Judge pointed out that the fiasco was negatively impacting bankruptcy was made by the Emergency Manager.

This abuse of the human right to water has visible consequences. The violation of our human rights to self-determination and to democratic participation in the decisions that affect our lives is less visible. But its effects are felt in every aspect of our common life. Under the Emergency Manager we witness the sale or give away of public lands to corporate interests. From the new Red Wings Stadium to Lipke Park, pieces of Detroit are moving out to the public domain and into the hands of corporate interests.

Public conversations about priorities, development that includes all of our people, and renewal of basic infrastructure have been eliminated.

One of the best examples of how the city is suffering from a lack of basic democracy happened just after the announcement of the first moratorium on shut offs.
Monica Lewis Patrick, a leading voice in demanding the city respect the right to water for all people, went to the Detroit City Council to enlist them in taking a stand against the shut offs.

In prepared remarks, Ms. Patrick briefly outlined the history of the water department, the urgency of the crisis, and encouraged the City Council to be wary of those of who would tell them that there was a moratorium on shut offs.

Ms. Lewis Patrick has been walking the neighborhoods for weeks helping people understand what is happening and where they can get emergency water. She has also been central in setting up volunteer hotlines. She has a vivid grasp of how horrific these shut offs are. In fact she shared the story of a phone call she had received early that morning from a 98-year-old citizen who had just been shut off, in spite of the moratorium.

Council President Brenda Jones became agitated with Ms. Lewis Patrick who challenged the Council’s silence on the water shut off issue. Jones began banging the gavel to say Patrick’s time was up. President Jones said, “Miss Patrick obviously you do not know what is going on because we are addressing these issues... I will be in conversations with the Mayor and Emergency Manager.  I don't know if you know it or not but neither the Council nor the Mayor have charge of the Water Department. That is the Emergency Managers jurisdiction, but we are not sitting idly by. …You don't know what’s going on behind the scenes.”

That is of course the problem. None of us know what is going on “behind the scenes.” From the fate of the water department to backroom deals for land give aways and crony corporate contracts, decisions about Detroit’s wealth and future are being made behind closed doors. We have seen whose interests matter to Emergency Manager Orr. The shut offs of water are only possible because of the shut off of democracy.

AUDIO: Water Activism in Detroit, Michigan - Metta Center

Shut Off Pause
Week 68 of the Occupation, by Shea Howell

On Monday July 21, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department announced a moratorium on water shut offs for 15 days. This announcement came after widespread outrage over their policy of aggressively shutting off the water to people who cannot afford to pay their bills.

Mounting local, national and international criticism of the DWSD finally broke through the walls of the bankruptcy court room, causing Judge Steven Rhodes to acknowledge something needed to be done about the situation. Last week began with the announcement of a “pause” in shut offs.

While this announcement provides some immediate relief, it is little more than a hasty effort to satisfy the Judge. It does nothing to address the depth of the problems. Nor does it do anything for those who are already shut off.

Along with the announcement of the “pause” in shut offs, Attorney Alice Jennings filed a suit on behalf of people who have been shut off.  Jennings argued that the DWSD’s aggressive shut-offs are designed to help lure a private company to Detroit to either buy or operate the sprawling metropolitan water system. “It’s our position that the payments are being taken off the backs of the poor customers to make it look like we’re a candidate to be privatized or sold,” Jennings said. “They never did the hard work that it took and instead they just willy-nilly started turning off water.”

This view of the chaos created by the Water Department was supported by a new intuitive by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the NAACP-Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Together, they issued a letter asking for a meeting with Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Mayor Duggan, and the Water Department. They are urging an immediate moratorium on shut-offs so that “a fair, humane and meaningful review process can be evaluated and implemented to help indigent residents.” The current brief pause does not come close to meeting this objective.

Rather, the organizations question the ability of the Water Department to implement emergency relief.  They point out that it took the City until July to offer any assistance. This limited and highly restricted assistance came only after intense criticism. Further, the program they are relying on to provide help has been proven ineffective in the past. Nothing has been done to change that.

The ACLU and NAACP-LDF noted that  the revived Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program had been investigated and criticized in 2010 by the Office of the Auditor General for a host of deficiencies. Among the concerns cited by the Auditor General were that the DWSD did not post payments in a timely fashion, it billed people after they had paid, did not acknowledge when customers were enrolled in payment plans, and did not post the donations to the relief program.

These deficiencies are compounded by reports now of the inability of people to get through to the water department by phone, delays in having water turned on after bills are paid, and by the limited amount of money available. This is the program that officials of DWSD are now going to “aggressively communicate.”

The letter frames the primary limitation of this kind of short term, stop gap approach when it points out that it only helps a few people after a shut off. “An essential feature of an effective assistance program, that ameliorates public health and human rights concerns, is that it assists customers before a shut off happens.”
The callousness and short sightedness of the Emergency Manager and the water department are evident in this “pause.” Orr, Snyder and company need to stop playing with the lives of people and the future of our city.

Stop the shut offs. Turn everyone back on. Implement the 2005 People’s Water affordability Plan. Anything else is a farce.

Week 67 of the Occupation, by Shea Howell
One year ago Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr filed for bankruptcy. It has been a brutal year for the people of Detroit. Step by step we have seen long cherished rights and values trampled on in the name of financial necessity.

Public lands have been given away. Generous tax breaks have been handed to developers, while elders have seen their pensions taxed and slashed. People have been threatened. Many have lost livelihood, home, and health care. Schools have been closed. Classrooms are packed. Political cronies line their pockets while abusing our children in academies designed to deaden imagination, connection, and creativity.

We the people have been lied to. Kevyn Orr, Jones Day, Rick Snyder and the right wing forces in our country have long been thinking about how bankruptcy can be used to attack pensions, privatize services, and destroy the political power of cities. As early as 2011, Jones Day lawyers were considering how bankruptcy could be used to eliminate pension obligations. Emails released in Court over this year document the secret plotting to move the city toward bankruptcy. Meanwhile Jones Day is collecting millions from Detroit while they peddle their expertize to Puerto Rico.

Orr/Snyder and their corporate sponsors claim cities are just administrative units. Concerns for public health and welfare are reduced to simple equations and potential markets. Political choices, balancing costs and benefits, to whom and for what purpose, are decided behind closed doors, with no public explanation or accountability.

Thus we are faced with decisions that defy rationality. We are presented with conclusions that benefit bankers, businesses, and a small financial elite.

This assault on Detroit includes a form of psychological warfare.  The first shot of this battle was in August of last year. EM Orr told the Wall Street Journal the people of Detroit are “dumb, lazy, happy and rich.’

A storm of protest forced Orr to distance himself from the crudeness of his comment. But its essence guides his thinking. It is the same thinking invoked to justify the aggressive shut offs of water to thousands of Detroiters who cannot meet their bills.

Daniel Howes of the Detroit News reflected it last week when he wrote about “scofflaws.” These are the people of Detroit, he says, who think we “could ignore bills without fear of a shut-off, plead poverty, blame accounting snafus in their books, run to City Hall in search of political intervention, or petition the United Nations in the name of human rights violations. Howes argued that Detroiters are living in a “culture marked by entitlement and abandonment."

Echoing the dumb, lazy happy and rich image, Howes explains that the recent increase in water costs of nearly 9% in a year is “driven by the disproportionately high number of water customers in Detroit who consume water they do not pay for. The result: higher percentage rate increases for Detroiters who do pay than for overall users of the system.”

This effort to demonize and divide people in the city is an old tactic. It ignores basic facts: most notable among them is that since 2005 there have been efforts to tie the cost of water to the ability to pay. This would be both financially sound and ensure the right of all to water.

Because the city has not implemented the Water Affordability Plan, approved by Council in 2006, Detroiters are paying twice the national average for water. In the last decade, our bills have increased 119%. Most residents pay 20% of their pretax income for water, nearly ten times the EPA recommendation.

Howes, Orr, Snyder, Duggan, most of the city council and administrators at the water department know nothing of the people in this city.  They make decisions based on myths, supported by a right wing ideology. Then they repeat the myths over and over again, to try to get the rest of us to believe in their distorted reality.

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