Read: “A New Constitutive Commitment to Water” by Sharmila L. Murthy


Read: A New Constitutive Commitment to Water

Excerpts from Prof. Murthy’s paper below courtesy of Tom Stephens:

“The widespread and aggressive water shutoffs in Detroit have highlighted the critical need to reassess our laws and policies regarding affordable access to water for drinking, sanitation, and hygiene.”

“…[N]ational legislation needs to be enacted that ensures access to safe and affordable water for drinking, hygiene, and sanitation for all Americans. The massive water shutoffs in Detroit have revealed a critical gap in existing legal and policy frameworks. Although there are national programs to help low-income individuals access basic needs such as food, shelter, and medical care, as well as programs to assist with paying energy and telephone utility bills, no similar national program exists for household water.18 With water rates rising across the United States, Detroit is the proverbial canary in the coalmine. Ensuring that everyone has affordable access to water for drinking, sanitation, and hygiene makes moral and economic sense.

“Over the past decade, water rates in Detroit have climbed nearly 120 percent.”

“Detroit has been experiencing an enormous water crisis. Since 2013, DWSD has terminated water service to over 50,000 Detroit residents, targeting those households whose payments were sixty days late or who had at least $150 in arrears. The shutoff campaign became especially aggressive in 2014 as DWSD cut off water to as many as 3,000 households per week.  The city initially defended its widespread disconnection drive on the grounds that it was effective in improving payment rates.  However, of the 33,000 shutoffs that took place in 2014, approximately 15,000 households remained without water. By February 2015, more than forty-three percent of Detroit homes were at risk of termination because their payments were at least sixty days late.  After a winter hiatus, shutoffs resumed.  DWSD indicated in the spring of 2015 that it was planning to terminate water service to 28,000 additional households.  As this article was going to press in the spring of 2016, DWSD had begun spring shutoffs again. During the first week of May, over 1,860 households had their water service discontinued, but eighty-five percent had it restored within a day; however, another approximately 20,000 households remained at risk after defaulting on payment plans.  The city has also been prosecuting residents who have illegally reconnected their water, which is a felony under Michigan law.”

“This analysis suggests that the widespread household shutoffs that have occurred since 2013 are directly tied to Detroit’s efforts to create the GLWA and successfully emerge from bankruptcy. The neighboring counties were reluctant to enter into the GLWA because they were afraid of being saddled with Detroit’s unpaid water bills.  DWSD wanted to signal to bondholders that it was getting its books in order, which is also why it pushed the City Council to approve water rate increases.  In retrospect, the very public way in which DWSD terminated water to thousands of households was a terrible public relations move because it brought national and international condemnation. Yet, at the time, DWSD, which was under the control of the Emergency Manager, was trying to show neighboring counties and the bond market that it was serious about enforcing its collection policies.”

“A reliable source of water has been essential to all civilizations throughout history, including in the founding of the United States.”

“The recent economic water crisis in a water-rich area like Detroit and the drought in California highlight an often-overlooked fact: the founding and success of the United States has been intimately tied to water. In other words, water is “so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.”

Democracy Evolving by Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves
Shea Howell

Democracy evolving
August 21, 2016

shea25Democracy has always been more of an idea than a reality in America. Still, this election year reflects some of the worst aspects of our history. Full-throated campaign speeches spew hate, uttering comments once whispered sheepishly in private conversations. Corporate money flows, fostering cynicism.

But focusing on electoral politics misses the far more sinister efforts afoot to destroy democracy. This election is only one small piece of a larger, counter revolutionary effort to reassert white supremacy, refashion political processes to benefit private interests, and consolidate wealth in the hands of an ever-smaller minority.

It took the long, hard fought battles of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Women’s movements to push America closer to a country of, by, and for the people. These movements focused sustained effort on reshaping the political processes outlined in the US Constitution. That document originally legalized the idea that liberty for white men meant slavery, dispossession, and dehumanization for people of color, Indians, women, immigrants, and poor people. It was not about democracy, but economic liberty. But from the very beginning, people fought to expand whose lives mattered and to take responsibility for the direction of our country.

In response, the forces of counter-revolution have asserted themselves, finding new ways to control, distort, and destroy those who seek a world of justice, peace, and communities rooted in respect for life and love.

In Michigan these tactics of distortion and control are being refined on several fronts beyond voting. Over the last four decades, we have witnessed right wing legislators using economic sanctions to create crises, especially in cities reflecting African American and progressive political power. These crises become a pretext for setting aside all normal democratic processes and all effective local governmental controls. The Emergency Manager laws in Michigan, applied to both school districts and municipal governments, have been directly responsible for the dismantling of public education, the shifting of public functions to private corporations, and the poisoning of the people of Flint. They have disenfranchised more than 50% of African American voters.

At the same time processes central to advancing direct democracy are undermined. The right to petition has been attacked. Everything from the font size to the methods of certification has been challenged. Counter petitions, using the same language are routinely introduced to confuse voters. Legislation is crafted to reverse the will of the people and to preclude further petition efforts.

Actions, initiated by people at the city level are made “illegal” by these same right wing legislators. Catching rain water, making honey, and limits on developers who use public money are all targets for state actions.

Courts are no better. They wrap themselves in procedural maneuvers so that those who take action against unjust laws are mired in years of court-delayed rules. Currently the 9 people arrested for blocking water shut off trucks have spent more time awaiting a trial, than the city spent in the bankruptcy process. The people who dared paint “Free the Water” on a defunct water tower face felony charges, while the police officers who shot a young girl sleeping on her couch walk the streets.

Democracy, as constructed by the power elites, is increasingly reduced to “managed engagement.”

Yet across the country, the energy for a different America is clearly emerging. It is emerging in neighborhoods, community gardens, cooperative businesses, and artist projects as people struggle together to make decisions about their lives.

Drawing on many of these community based experiences, the Movement 4 Black Lives has issued a broad vision to transform our country. Taking up the call of for a radical revolution in values against racism, materialism, and militarism, this vision reflects a renewed commitment to authentic democracy. Rooted in intense collaborative discussion and debate, it reflects the kind of community driven democracy that is emerging across the country as people create new ways of living together. Democracy is evolving in ways that cannot be as easily controlled as the ballot box. This is our best hope.

Separate and Unequal by Shea Howell


Thinking for ourselves
Shea Howell

Separate and Unequal
August 14, 2016

This week the New York Times published yet another story about the reality of two separate and unequal Detroits. With the title “In Detroit’s 2-Speed Recovery, Downtown Roars and Neighborhoods Sputter,” Peter Applebome points to critical questions the Mayor and his administration would like to avoid.

After a brief sketch of downtown, Midtown and Corktown development, Applebome raises the question of what development means to neighborhoods. He says, “But what that means for the rest of the city and who is benefiting have set in motion a layered conversation about development, equity, race and class. It is playing out with particular force here in what was once the nation’s fourth-largest city and is now a place at once grappling with poverty, crime and failing schools, but also still animated by the bones of its former glory.”

This is a conversation the Mayor avoids. Yet even a transient observe like Applebome concludes, “The lack of progress is just as noticeable in the sprawl of often dilapidated neighborhoods, baking in the summer heat.”

Many are baking in that heat without water. No where is the lack of progress and the denial by the Mayor and his administration clearer than in the water shut off crisis. The day before the New York Times article appeared, a group of community based researchers issued an important report. Mapping the Water Crisis: The Dismantling of African American Neighborhoods in Detroit: Volume 1 is the result of an18 month study documenting water shut offs in the city. The report demonstrates in clear and specific detail that neighborhoods are suffering from a combination of foreclosures and shut offs, diminishing the quality of life for everyone in the community. Last year 23,000 homes were shut off from water. Over the last decade the city has endured 110,000 foreclosures.

Underscoring the growing divide in our city, Monica Lewis-Patrick, a guiding force in the research collaborative, said, “There is a renaissance downtown full of newcomers, while they are shutting off water for those who stayed and paid” their bills for years.

The impact of these shut offs in a city where 40% of the people live in poverty and many are paying more than 10% of their income for water is to actively drive people out of their homes. Dr. Gloria House, Professor Emerita of the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Wayne State University explained that the mapping documents that

“The incidents of shutoffs, foreclosures and school closures are not random, but intentional and specific… We believe it’s about the dismantling of neighborhoods.”

The Mayor continues to deny this reality. He refuses to consider the consequences of his policies in the lives of people in neighborhoods. Instead he chooses to pretend his water assistance plan (WRAP) is solving the problem. No one but the Mayor and his administration believes this. No one who sees the shut off trucks moving through neighborhoods on a daily basis believes this.

The objective statistics do not support this. The WRAP is a failure. It has a waiting list of 3,000 customers and the majority of people who have been signed up simply cannot keep up with the monthly payments.

The work of the We the People Detroit Community Research Collective documents in stark terms that our city is devolving into two separate, unequal, and unhealthy realities.

It does not have to be this way. Community activists and researchers have consistently advocated plans to make water available to all at affordable prices. They have developed programs to keep people in their homes and to stop foreclosures. The real choice we face is about whose lives matter in our city.

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