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Protesters Gain Detroit Water Shut-Off Moratorium, Demand Investigation of Suspected Rampant Corruption

Activists successfully forced a moratorium to the water shut-offs after thousands protested and rallied in downtown Detroit. New actions are planned for late August to protest discrimination and the privatization of Detroit in Bankruptcy Court.

Detroit activists march for restoring local democracy and economic justice, and an end to the water shut-offs, July 18, 2014. (Photo: Victoria Collier)

A new mass rally in Detroit is planned for Tuesday, September 2, the day the state-enforced city bankruptcy trial begins. Democracy activists throughout the Midwest are again urged to come demonstrate against the water shut-offs and the hostile takeover of Detroit’s assets.

In this period of mass despair over rampant political corruption and economic injustice in America, many people ask, “Does protest really make a difference?” The answer is yes, and it is being proven right now in Detroit, the frontline battleground in the growing resistance movement against the hostile corporate takeover and looting of American cities nationwide.

Detroit is the model for a nascent democracy mass movement. On July 18, thousands of demonstrators from around the country linked arms and marched in downtown Detroit, past the City Emergency Manager’s office and the JP Morgan Chase Bank, in a show of solidarity against the ongoing corporate-led assault on city worker’s pensions and most recently, the indiscriminate shut-off of water, without notice, to more than 15,000 families, mostly African American.

While businesses, large corporations and banks – 55 percent of which were in arrears on water bills – were exempted from the shut-offs, service to 40,000 homes was reportedly on the chopping block. Thousands had already been left without clean water, with no concern shown for infants and children, pregnant women, the sick, elderly or handicapped. Many Detroit activists and civic leaders, including Congressman John Conyers, attended the rally at Hart Plaza and decried the water shut-offs as a human rights violation and a public health crisis.

As one prominent sign at the front of the rally stated, “WHERE DO YOU EXPECT US TO SH*T?”

On the same morning that the protest rally exploded, civil disobedience was used to block private company trucks performing the shut-offs from leaving their garage. Nine activists were arrested, including three clergy members and Baxter Jones, an activist with a disability who uses a wheelchair for mobility. Pastor Bill Wylie-Kellermann stated after his arrest: “Detroit is under assault by lawless and illegitimate authority. It’s a moral issue. As religious leaders and allies, we are upping the ante, spiritually and politically, by putting our bodies in the way. We pray to intensify the struggle with civil disobedience, even as it is broadened with mass action and legal challenge. As one of our fallen mentors Charity Hicks urged, we are seeking to ‘wage love’ in the face of death. Such deeds can sometimes break the dreadful silence of our occupied corporate media.”

While businesses, large corporations and banks – 55% of which were in arrears on water bills – were exempted from the shut-offs, service to 40,000 homes was reportedly on the chopping block.

The protest actions, following an admonition from the United Nations that Detroit’s water shut-off was indeed a human rights violation, embarrassed both Governor Rick Snyder and his appointed “Emergency Manager,” Kevin Orr. Within three days, Orr announced a 15-day moratorium of the shut-offs; a respite later extended to August 24. Soon after, Orr relinquished administration of the Water Department to the city.

The demonstrations may ultimately serve to deter a planned privatization of the city’s water system: a Detroit asset estimated to be worth many billions of dollars that sits adjacent to 21 percent of the world’s freshwater supply in the Great Lakes.

Also clearly irritated by the attention on the shut-offs was Federal Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who demanded an explanation from the city, stating that the water issue was hurting Detroit’s reputation in the world community. The mass actions turned a powerful national spotlight on Detroit’s controversial bankruptcy, including full coverage of the resulting water war on major TV and cable networks, and in printed press ranging from the Detroit Free Press to the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Thousands had already been left without clean water, with no concern shown for infants and children, pregnant women, the sick, elderly or handicapped.

Detroit activists “felt the love” as the media and internet were lit up and news of the protests went viral; thousands of blogs and social media communications spread the word, and within days, perhaps millions became aware of Detroit’s crisis. The coverage illuminated the role of criminal banks and real estate moguls, as well as the attacks on pension funds and attempted privatization of the water system.

Overnight, this local crisis emerged as an example of the national “shock doctrine” strategy being spread like a plague by the Tea Party and ALEC; exposing their “emergency management” laws as facilitating a strategy to undermine democracy and pave the path for surreptitious privatization of public assets.

The rally shed light on the complicity of the major Wall Street banks in Detroit’s economic spiral, banks whose investors continue to thrive while Main Street takes the brunt of the financial losses they caused. “Detroit is just the canary in the mine” was a refrain often repeated by the rally speakers.

As the protestors marched, filling the street for blocks, chanting, “The banks got bailed out, we got sold out,” they were joined by at least 500 participants from the annual NetRoots Nation Conference, who held signs while shouting, “Water is a human right.” The Netroots organizers had generously revised their schedule at the last minute to encourage conference participants to join the march.

Detroit’s bankruptcy was precipitated by Governor Snyder . . . Activists are now demanding an investigation of the “default swap” obligation foisted on the city by the governor and the major banks.

The successful and morale-building protest actions were coordinated by a coalition from the Detroit community including the People’s Water Board, Moratorium Now Michigan, the Freedom Fridays Coalition, the Detroit chapter of the National Action Network, with superb support and coordination from the National Nurses Union and local Michigan and Ontario, Canada, Nurses Union chapters.

In a spirited pre-rally meeting of about 40 activists and civic leaders, local organizers were eloquent in expressing that Detroit need not be “rescued” by outsiders, but rather recognized for the important national work its citizen-activists are already performing on the front lines of the struggle for democracy. The meeting ended with a prayer circle led by former City Council member JoAnn Watson.

Activists Demand Investigation of Governor

One factor clearly exposed during the protests was that Detroit’s bankruptcy was precipitated by Governor Snyder, who merely feigned concern for Detroit’s “insolvency,” while advancing a corporatist agenda. Activists are now demanding an investigation of the “default swap” obligation foisted on the city by the governor and the major banks. Attorney Jerry Goldberg, who has been helping Detroit foreclosure victims for years, is part of the Moratorium Now Coalition. He points to reports in Bloomberg News, showing that the minute Governor Snyder announced that the state was planning a financial review of Detroit, the city entered a “credit event” that precipitously forced Detroit to immediately pay off the default swaps and created a crippling cash-flow crisis.

In fact, the declaration of the financial review set into motion a massive, automatic $536 million dollar payment by the Detroit Water Department to the Wall Street banks; a questionable and perhaps fraudulent pay-out that added zero dollars to needed Water Department capital improvements and forced the utility to fire 80 percent of its employees.

“The money used to unwind the swaps would almost cover the utility’s $571.7 million in planned capital spending for the five years through June 2016,” said the Bloomberg report.

Monica Lewis Patrick, an activist with We the People of Detroit, points out that the ubiquitous right-wing racist attacks vilifying Detroiters as the cause of the water department’s long-term financial problems conveniently skirts the role of the banks, the governor and the legislature in triggering the credit default swaps payments.

Democracy has been attacked on multiple fronts in Michigan. Today over 50 percent of Michigan’s African- American population live in 6 cities without democratic representation.

After Emergency Manager Orr relinquished administration of the Water and Sewage Department back to the city of Detroit, activists were also quick to note that the move was clearly aimed at distancing the politically vulnerable Governor Snyder from the embarrassment of an emerging scandal in the months preceding his November bid for reelection. Snyder’s Democratic opponent Mark Schauer had already caught up with Snyder in polls taken before the protest.

The city administration quickly announced the renewal of a program to help financially strapped Detroiters pay off their water bills. However, local activists report that thousands who were shut off in spring and early summer are still without water, and some believe that this new program is a political smoke screen aimed at protecting the larger economic austerity Plan of Adjustment for Detroit, forwarded by the emergency manager.

Many advocates quickly exposed the fact that a democratic, citizen-driven water affordability plan to help strapped utility customers had been previously ignored.

Michael Shane of the Freedom Fridays Coalition also pointed out that although the city was given day-to-day operational management, the emergency manager still has the power to privatize or “regionalize” the water department in bankruptcy court.

Many local activists also believe that Mayor Mike Duggan is part of the corrupt regional power cabal, and that he was foisted on Detroit in a political coup – a fraudulent election – simply to enable the bankruptcy.

Democracy has been attacked on multiple fronts in Michigan. Today over 50 percent of Michigan’s African- American population lives in 6 cities without democratic representation. The Emergency Management Law promoted and passed in 2011 by the Tea Party-dominated legislature had been rescinded by Michigan citizens in a public referendum vote in the election of 2012. But the right-wing power brokers in Lansing ignored the will of the people. In a lame-duck session, they deviously passed a new, nearly identical law, and coupled it with an appropriation of funds, rendering it referendum-proof.

Detroit’s Democracy Eliminated

Within months, Detroit’s democracy was eliminated by a “declaration of financial emergency” by the Governor. Elected officials were summarily stripped of executive powers, and soon after, the new Emergency Manager Orr unilaterally filed for bankruptcy in Federal Court, without a vote of the Detroit City Council, a move ostensibly unconstitutional in Michigan. In a controversial ruling, Federal Judge Rhodes accepted the filing.

Tom Barrow, a Detroit civic leader, CPA and mayoral candidate, argued that the city did not ever default on a bill or a pension obligation, and therefore Detroit did not need to file bankruptcy. He stated vociferously that Detroit could have resolved its long-term debt if the Governor had not intervened.

Many local activists also believe that Mayor Mike Duggan is part of the corrupt regional power cabal, and that he was foisted on Detroit in a political coup – a fraudulent election – simply to enable the bankruptcy. In 2013, Duggan was elected as a write-in candidate in an election featuring a multitude of infractions, including unsealed ballot boxes and duplicate ballots with what appears to be identical handwriting.

Jean Vortkamp, a member of the Freedom Fridays coalition, held up copies of the duplicate ballots at the July 18 rally, as she did in bankruptcy court. She asked how Duggan, who just prior to the election moved to Detroit from Livonia, the whitest of white surrounding enclaves, managed to garner 52 percent of the vote as a write-in candidate, in a city 83 percent African-American. She points out that Duggan was a classmate of both Snyder and Orr at University of Michigan Law School, and that as CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, Duggan led the hospital into privatization. Vortkamp is white, but deeply distrusts the state’s white power structure.

Detroit advocates also object to the intrusive right-wing forces of ALEC, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and Business Leaders for Michigan (BLM), which includes as a member Dan Gilbert, a politically connected billionaire who made his fortune as the owner of Quicken Loans Corporation, and who is now a major casino owner and landowner in downtown Detroit. Gilbert is accused by some Detroit activists of being an unabashed opportunist who snapped up abandoned real estate properties and homes for “nickels on the dollar” after the 2008 crisis. Although Quicken was not directly implicated in the fraudulent sub-prime mortgage scandal, Gilbert clearly profited from the housing bubble. Now as many of the subprime loans in Detroit have defaulted, Gilbert is cashing in on the crisis to become the largest real estate mogul in Detroit and a leader in the gentrification of the downtown.

Bundling of campaign contributions from Gilbert’s empire to Duggan are evident: Records filed by the Michael Duggan for Mayor Committee confirm the Quicken Loans PAC donated $34,000 to Duggan’s committee. The records also show 18 people identified as employees of Quicken Loans donated the maximum $3,400 allowed under Michigan law. Combined with other Quicken employees who donated smaller amounts, Gilbert’s workers donated at least $61,375 directly to Duggan’s mayoral committee. Altogether, cash from Quicken workers and the Quicken PAC made up the largest bloc of Duggan’s financial supporters, according to campaign records.

In the early 20th century, Detroit was a city of 1.5 million, with a black ghetto of a few hundred thousand souls confined to 60 teeming square blocks downtown. Racism in Michigan was rampant, with crippling housing and employment discrimination, and with 30,000 members of the KKK in Detroit alone. In those days, the few black police officers hired to patrol Afro-American communities were forbidden to arrest whites. “White flight” reduced the city’s population and tax base drastically. Today Detroit is a city of just over 700,000 citizens, struggling to maintain the integrity of their communities and the right to decide their own future.

City water bills are now at twice the rates of the wealthier surrounding suburbs and towns, white enclaves that utilize and benefit from Detroit’s water system.

These factors are not a visible part of the mainstream media narrative about Motor City, nor in the state capital, where the conversations often focus or devolve to how Detroit politicians and deadbeats are the main cause for the downward economic spiral of this battleground city. These attitudes are blatantly racist, but they are also clearly the overarching background to the unfolding drama in bankruptcy court.

Major Media Misses the Story

Casting Detroit’s minority population in derogatory and inflammatory language has become commonplace. Municipal leaders claim it is deliberately aimed at inflaming latent racism and fear among Michigan’s working- and middle-class whites, in a classic reworking of the Willy Horton ads of the Bush Senior presidential campaign of 1988.

Also not reported in the mainstream press is the cold hard fact that tens of thousands of Detroiters have to choose monthly between paying their water bills, keeping the heat and electricity service in their houses, or feeding their children. Nor that their economic crisis was exacerbated this winter by the polar vortex, which dropped temperatures to record lows in the Midwest, costing dearly in heating bills. Those who deride Detroiters as merely “unwilling to pay their water bills” also fail to acknowledge that city water bills are now at twice the rates of the wealthier surrounding suburbs and towns, white enclaves who utilize and benefit from Detroit’s water system.

The controversial bankruptcy trial has been repeatedly delayed, but is slated to begin at the end of August. The new schedule allows for 29 days of trial over seven weeks.

The Detroit community has been reinvigorated by the victories of last month, and it is ready to do battle at the bankruptcy court trial set to start on August 29. A team of activist lawyers, led by Attorney Alice Jennings, are filing various motions aimed at contesting the bankruptcy and exposing the injustices perpetrated by the right wing and racist attacks on Detroit.

The Detroit community is urging activists to come to the mass demonstration on September 2 and take a stand in solidarity for justice and democracy.

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