Editorial: A Dispatch from the Front: Detroit – A Fight For Affordable and Clean Water

by Dr. M Thandabantu Iverson
“Front:” A geographical area where two armies are deployed to engage in conflict; a line of battle formed by the convergence of opposing political forces and the existing terrain.
“Race is a way of ‘making up people.’ The very act of defining racial groups is a process of ‘othering.’ Defining groups of people as ‘other’ is obviously not restricted to distinctions based on race. Gender, class, sexuality, religion, culture, language, nationality, and age, among other perceived distinctions, are frequently evoked to justify structures of inequality, differential treatment, subordinate status, and in some cases violent conflict and war.”[1] 
Valerie Jean - Water Reclamation from Mayor Duggan’s mansion!

Valerie Jean –
Water Reclamation from Mayor Duggan’s mansion!

In political warfare, the “front” indicates where the battle(s) must be fought, where contentious matters are most hotly contested, where the liberation fighters must deploy to oppose (and eventually defeat) unjust systems of power. By carefully examining the front(s) in a war, we can better understand the real meaning of unequal power relations; how the adversary is situated; and how to most effectively organize education and actions in opposing that adversary.
A close look at conditions in Detroit and Charleston, S.C. provides stark revelations regarding the range and gravity of African American perils. Such examinations also underscore the need to better understand how systemic factors converge to produce the unconscionable acts of organizations as well as individuals.
In “The Motor City,” where about 80 percent of the residents are Black, and 40.7 percent of the population subsists below the poverty line; some 33,000 households have been denied adequate water and sanitation during 2014. As the city has cut off water service to many, raised the price of water to many others, and refused to honestly acknowledge “gross errors” in assessing water bills; no fewer than 90,000 residents have been cut off from services for late payment or delinquent payment of water bills.[2]
City authorities have continually maligned residents as simply unwilling and refusing to pay their bills. Yet local and regional activists such as those within the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization have roundly refuted this narrative, explaining how about one million workers have been forced to leave Detroit since major corporations in the auto industry began down-sizing and computerizing their workplaces between the late 1970s and 1986. Corporate decisions to reduce workforces, to use technology to expand production, and to establish two-tier” remuneration have resulted in the loss of at least 700,000 jobs; the re-organization of work and remaining workplaces; and the strengthening of unequal power relations of employers against workers. In turn, Detroit’s economy has lost many of its former taxpayers and much of its former revenue. Black auto workers who had not only built the auto industry, but also stable and close-knit communities, have been forced to reinvent their lives elsewhere. The remaining members of a new generation of workers are now forced to labor in workplaces with drastically lowered wages, less secure benefits and more precarious work conditions.[3]
The loss of jobs, workers and much-needed revenue in Detroit have been compounded within the hamlet of Highland Park, a separate, smaller and once-vibrant enclave located in the heart of Detroit. Residents note that for years they have experienced “dysfunctional service”–faulty meters, inconsistent billing, and continual turnover in staff. In an enclave in which the median income is estimated at $19,311, this history of dysfunctional service adds insult to injury, as recent bills, for some, have skyrocketed to as much as $11,000.[4]
In addition to the economic and social havoc wreaked by water department and city officials, state and local officials have colluded politically since 2011 to establish emergency management within Metropolitan Detroit, under Public Act 4.[5] Under emergency management, the existing political channels previously open to workers for redress of grievances–city council meetings, lobbying of elected city and state officials (including the mayor and governor)–have been effectively closed. A single appointed official–an “emergency manager”–wields sole political and economic control. Thus, workers who have been incapable of shouldering the burdensome costs of maintaining and improving the city’s aging infrastructure and continuing public services, have also been increasingly denied political means of opposing current injustices. More to the point, the abject denial of basic human needs has now been exacerbated by the racist denial of hard-won political rights of Black citizens. This denial constitutes a sweeping structural violation of the human rights affirmed within the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD, ICERD). In the face of such denials, beleaguered residents have been gravely undermined in fighting for adequate legal and political remedies. Moreover, the widely-promoted notion that Black workers are balking on their bills is patently untenable, and obscures the fact that the decisions of economic and political elites lie at the root of Detroit’s current administrative, financial, and human rights crises.

3rd annual Rooting Resistance action camp, people from both Detroit and Michigan Coalitions Against Tar Sands (DCATS/MICATS) took water from Mayor Duggan’s residence

3rd annual Rooting Resistance action camp, people from both Detroit and Michigan Coalitions Against Tar Sands (DCATS/MICATS) took water from Mayor Duggan’s residence

As the economic assault on water rights has spread to other municipalities in Michigan, activists have been educating and mobilizing their neighbors. Their efforts have included the creation of a documentary called “The Water Front,” which can now be viewed on Netflix. Organized residents have continually pressed for explanations and relief; reaching out to city officials and attempting to use existing legal and governmental channels regarding the exorbitant rate hikes and the unconscionable shut-offs. Yet organized residents have experienced little more than legalistic and administrative disregard from city authorities. In response to this institutional disregard, residents have continued to organize and mobilize, reaching out to the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Adequate Housing and the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. Following their consultative mission to Detroit in October 2014, these rapporteurs responded with statements condemning the “denial of access to sufficient quantity of water” that “threatens the rights to adequate housing, life, health, adequate food, integrity of the family.” The rapporteurs further emphasized that “The human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation and to adequate housing both derive from the right to an adequate standard of living which is protected under…article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is fully applicable to the United States. In addition, adequate housing and access to safe water are clearly essential to maintain life and health, and the right to life is found in treaties the United States has ratified, including the International Covenant on civil and Political Rights.”
Most importantly, the rapporteurs jointly called for the City of Detroit to “restore water connections to residents unable to pay and vulnerable groups of people, stop further disconnections of water when residents are unable to pay, and provide them the opportunity to seek assistance that must be made available through social assistance schemes.” Also, the rapporteurs urged “the City of Detroit, the state of Michigan and the national government to adopt a mandatory affordability threshold.”[6]
Organizing themselves within a “People’s Water Board,” Michigan activists have continued to build the momentum of their struggle, recently hosting an International Gathering of Social Movements on the Right to Water and Sanitation, May 29-31 in Detroit. They have also recently conducted a Unity March, walking from Detroit to Flint, to further educate and win Michigan workers to the fight for economic justice and democracy.
Since the brazen and heinous execution of nine African Americans by a white male supremacist in Charleston, S.C., electronic and print media have been crackling, abuzz with repetitive and alternating narratives denouncing the assassin, extolling the peace-making initiatives of the city, and generally obscuring the material conditions placing Black lives at risk on a daily basis. In a state that remains a bulwark of “old South” conditions veiled in ‘new South” rhetoric; working-class Blacks (and other residents) are still being denied access to affordable and quality health care because Medicaid monies are being refused because of opposition to the Affordable Care Act. The viability of state hospitals–and thus, the viability of healthcare jobs–is still threatened, despite the recent removal of the flag of white supremacy from the statehouse grounds. In a June 20comment on genocidal practices in South Carolina, Rev. Jesse Jackson noted that African Americans in South Carolina still remain among the unconscionable number of those in the South and the country with the “highest rates of infant mortality, unemployment, imprisonment, segregated housing and home foreclosures, segregated and underfunded public schools, poverty, heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, mental health issues, HIV/AIDS, and denial of access to bank loans and capital.”[7]
In both Michigan and South Carolina, such denigrating and debilitating conditions maintain the institutional foundations for structural violence–the indirect, normalized, impersonal consequences that insure the impairment and underdevelopment of Black lives, so that they can never truly matter as those of “White” elites. This continuum of institutionalized conditions forms the “front” of the impending struggles between those in who want to end oppression(s) and those who, for the sake of power and privilege, prefer to maintain the present status quo. This context of consequences (which often cannot be clearly and simply attributed to the intentional actions of individuals) maintains and reproduces the daily denials of Black humanity that unerringly and intermittently erupt in the intentional and unintentional, generally terror-inducing actions of individuals such as Dylan Roof, as well as police empowered to shoot and kill human beings whose lives do not matter. It is this dehumanizing institutional context–and not merely the intergenerational symbols of animus, such as the Confederate Flag-that must be challenged and overcome through social movement(s). This was, in fact, the objective at which Dr. Martin Luther King was arriving in the years prior to his assassination. Today, forty-seven years after the murder of Dr. King, the denial of the humanity of African American workers, and Black people generally, remains a fundamental U.S. principle that is firmly established within the institutions of this nation. The patterned practices and policies that are regularly reproduced in such illiberal and retrogressive contexts cannot be adequately addressed unless existing systems are confronted. As activists and advocates of change continue proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter,” the institutionalized and systemic nature of human rights violations must be recognized more widely; and powerful social movements for human rights must continually be built. Without the self-determining movements of those most affected by structural and systemic oppressions, Black lives will never truly matter! What is equally clear is that as existing U.S. systems continue to imperil residents who are Black and working-class, the lives of the majority of workers and “othered” groups will also remain endangered.

[1] Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States (Third Edition), Routledge, 2015, Chapter 4.
[2] Testimonies of Human Rights at Home: Documenting Injustice in the United States, A Report by the US Human Rights Network on Human Rights Hearings, pp. 28-29.
[3] Information provided by tour guide Maureen Taylor, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, on Saturday, May 30, 2015; during the International Gathering of Social Movements on the Right to Water & Housing; Detroit, Michigan.
[4] “Not Just Detroit: Residents of Nearby Michigan City Face $11,ooo Water Bills,” The Guardian, Monday, July 6, 2015.
[5] “Michigan’s ‘Emergency Manager Law’ Epitomizes State-Level ‘Shock Doctrine’,” Michigan Messenger, March 16, 2011.
[6] Joint Press Statement by Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing as a Component of the Right to an Adequate Standard of Living and to Right of Non-Discrimination in this context, and Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation; Visit to City of Detroit (United States of America); 18-21 October 2104.
[7] Rev. Jesse Jackson, Comment, “Charleston Shooting: We Need Prayer, but also an End to This Political Genocide,” The Guardian, Saturday, June 20, 2015.
Article by: Dr. M. Thandabantu Iverson

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