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Detroit Residents Appeal to United Nations to Save Their Access to Water

Cynthia-McKinneyCynthia McKinney
21st Century Wire
Guest Columnist

The City of Detroit is shutting off water taps for its residents. Yet, corporations are not forced to pay.

First, My History With Detroit…

I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. I am a child of the Southern part of the United States. I participated in civil rights demonstrations, and I witnessed the Ku Klux Klan, armed and ready to fight—me! And because of my campaign for Congress, I got outside of Atlanta and had the opportunity to experience the rest of my beloved, though sometimes troubled, State of Georgia. However, it was not until my 2008 campaign for President that I toured—really toured—the geography of the United States outside of Georgia.

One of the cities that I visited was Detroit, Michigan: celebrated in U.S. lore as “Motown” and “The Motor City.” Detroit was the home of cultural icons like Aretha Franklin, the Cadillac car, and the Thanksgiving Day football team, the Detroit Lions. And that is how I knew Detroit—until I actually went there to visit and learned that, instead of being the shining City on a Hill, it was the exposed underbelly of the United States.

Next, A Little Detroit History

In 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as a result of a conspiracy that involved the United States government (1), cities that went up in flames. Only one year earlier, it had gone up in flames and it took authorities five days to quell the incident—pent up fatigue from police harassment and apartheid-like conditions that one would expect to find in the South. Almost fifty years later, I could still see the burned out buildings, still untouched, from those hot and devastating nights. House after house, block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood. I was shocked. The Motor City had become a grotesque caricature of its once grander self.

Despite rampant anti-Black prejudice and discrimination, Detroit was the place where Black people could work hard and enter the middle class—largely through working for one of the big three automobile manufacturers headquartered there. And drive the biggest, finest Cadillacs that General Motors made! That was the Detroit that I knew, but by 2008, it was just a memory.

By 1974, Blacks had organized themselves in order to improve their access to opportunity and that organization resulted in the election of Detroit’s first Black mayor, Coleman Young (1918 – 1997). This spurred an exodus of Detroit’s White residents. This exodus, called “White Flight,” occurred all over the U.S. as Blacks became organized and politically active after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This White Flight continued until Detroit was the city with the highest percentage of Black residents in the United States: 82.7% (2), representing the pristine City on the Hill, had abandoned Detroit and it had become a “liberated zone” from the U.S.A. version of internal colonialism. This abandonment resulted in nominal Black political control of the City, but not in its Black economic control.

While it is probably true that different strategies could have been pursued by those now with political power, Black elected officials in Detroit found themselves pretty much like Kwame Nkrumah found himself with “independent” Ghana: political colonialism had died, but neocolonialism still ruled. (3) Political freedom did not automatically beget economic self-determination. (4)

The City’s new Black political class could not jump start Detroit’s drained battery. Detroit became a metaphor for once-proud misery, with its inner city neighborhoods noted as food deserts. That was the state of Detroit as I found it in 2008. Voters, sick and tired of the old-fashioned politics that had failed to deliver on its promises to them, began to look at other options and I became one of those options—until Barack Obama won the nod as the Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States.

Detroit’s residents are waging a valiant fight against a water authority that has decided to wage war against them. When I was in Detroit in 2008, the war was full blown. Now, it is at a fever pitch and some Canadians refused to be inactive bystanders and filed charges against the United States for racial discrimination because of the disparate treatment accorded to Detroit residents (Black) and corporations (White). The Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, led by Maureen Taylor, is and has been at the forefront of this fight.

Can you imagine that a city in the United States is shutting off its residents’ access to water and this just happens to be a city in a state that abuts the planet’s largest group of fresh water lakes?

One major problem is that the City has failed to invest in infrastructure and so the pipes are leaky. I witnessed residents with thousand dollar water bills due to no fault of their own. Yet, they were being asked to pay up—or else. The situation has gotten worse. and just in this past month of June, over seven thousand people had their water shut off. 7,000 people! Estimates are that some forty percent of Detroit Water customers will lose their service by the end of the summer. But that figure does not include corporate water bills. In fact, the corporations remain largely untouched. Anna Clark, writing in a New York Times op ed exposes that the hockey arena, home to the Detroit Red Wings, owes more than $82,000; the football field, home to the Detroit Lions, owes more than $55,000.(5)

According to The Guardian, corporations owe some $30 million in water bill arrears.(6)

Economic elites, represented by the unelected emergency City Manager, Kevyn Orr, believe, on the other hand, that the City shutoffs are justified. Orr, strikingly demonstrating internalized racism, recently characterized those who were so victimized as “drug addicts, illegal squatters, scofflaws and people gaming the system.” (7)

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Detroit’s tax dollars are being swallowed by a gigantic debt to U.S. private banks that it is struggling to pay off. Workers are losing their jobs and their pensions are being used to pay off the debt to banks like J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America.(8)

This led to a very large demonstration that brought out the Congressman, John Conyers, and his opponent, Reverend Horace Sheffield, Jr. Just last week at least one thousand people took to the streets to stop the water shut offs (photo, above).

Is Access to Clean Water a Human Right?

Many residents of Detroit certainly think so, and apparently, they are not alone. Maude Barlow, National Chairwoman of The Council of Canadians, joined with Detroit residents, the Detroit People’s Water Board, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, and asked President Obama to intervene by declaring a state of emergency because of the human suffering brought about by the water shut offs.

IMAGE: Kevyn Orr (center), Detroit Emergency City Manager called water shut off victims “drug addicts, illegal squatters, scofflaws and people gaming the system.” (Photo Credit: Detroit Hub)

Barlow, joining with these and other Canadian and Detroit groups, appealed to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. Not only that, the Canadians support the notion that the master plan of Michigan’s economic elites is to rid Detroit of its Black population by way of the water shut offs in order to make way for gentrification—a kind of systematic ethnic cleansing that several U.S. cities are currently undergoing. The submission to the United Nations Special Rapporteur states that the poorest in the Motor City are being dislodged by the actions of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSP). Further, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization described the water shut offs as a “ploy to drive poor people of color out of the city to facilitate gentrification.”(9)

It is alleged that some people could even lose their homes as a result of the unpaid water bills. The fear that the Black community is being targeted for removal due to unpaid water bills is not as farfetched as some would rather believe. One need look no further than the political situation of the City of New Orleans today for an unpleasant reminder of the politics of water woes in the U.S.

Water Woes at the Center of The Politics of Two Cities:Detroit and New Orleans

Water figures in Detroit’s woes, but it was not hit by a deluge as was New Orleans.

In 2005, New Orleans experienced Hurricane Katrina and some of the ugly racisms for which the U.S. South is noted came out. One Member of Congress, Richard Baker (R-LA) was caught saying, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” Blacks were discouraged from returning to their homes in New Orleans and today the political environment has changed such that the New Orleans mayor is now White, and struggling to maintain a Black majority on the City Council.

The New Orleans mayor during Hurricane Katrina, Ray Nagin, who had labeled New Orleans “Chocolate City,” was recently sent to prison for corruption, despite the judge acknowledging that Nagin did not personally benefit from that corruption. Nagin is, however, permanently removed from the future politics of a city that has almost completed its gentrification process. In short, water was a means by which the politics of both the City of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana was changed. And now, Detroit residents are fighting the inevitability of a similar fate.


It is hard to believe that citizens of the United States have to battle for access to water. Water is necessary for life, itself, and to cut off water is to cut off life.

Blacks in the United States began their existence here as enslaved Africans whose status was upgraded to second-class citizens. The lesson of the Civil Rights Movement is their domination by Whites can no longer be taken for granted. Thus, collaborators in the continued oppression of Blacks must be found… from within the Black community. Kevyn Orr is one such collaborator.

It was like this on the slave plantations and so it is today. But the actions of the Council of Canadians proves that people can come together and bridge the orchestrated racial divide for justice.

Copyright: Cynthia McKinney

1. Please see the transcript of the 1999 Memphis, Tennessee trial here: http://www.thekingcenter.org/assassination-conspiracy-trial
2. According to the 2010 U.S. Census.
3. Neocolonialism is defined as a form of imperialism that sees the exercise of complete power over another country by indirect policy means such as globalization and neoliberalism.
4. See Kwame Nkrumah, Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1965).
5. Anna Clark, “Going Without Water in Detroit,” The New York Times (July 3, 2014) located at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/04/opinion/going-without-water-in-detroit.html accessed on July 21, 2014.
6. Martin Lukacs, Detroit’s Water War: a tap shut-off that could impact 300,000 people,” The Guardian (June 25, 2014) located at http://www.theguardian.com/environment/true-north/2014/jun/25/detroits-water-war-a-tap-shut-off-that-could-impact-300000-people accessed on July 21, 2014.
 7. Kevyn Orr quoted in an interview with The Detroit News. Christine Ferretti and Steve Pardo, “Orr ‘very supportive’ of Detroit water shut-offs for non-payment,” The Detroit News located at http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20140716/METRO01/307160105/ accessed on July 21, 2014.
8. Katrina vanden Heuvel, “No water for Motown: Why Detroit is denying its citizens This Basic Human Right,” The Nation, July 11, 2014 located at http://www.thenation.com/blog/180603/no-water-motown-why-detroit-denying-its-citizens-basic-human-right accessed on July 21, 2014.
9. Submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation Regarding Water Cut-offs in the City of Detroit, Michigan (June 18, 2014), 4.

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