Detroit Water Shut Offs, Bankruptcy and Regional History

by Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management

United Nations human rights officials expressed serious concerns about Detroit hiring a demolition contractor in the spring of 2014, to shut water service off from 3000 families per week. This controversy made international headlines, and entered the city’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy court case.

The reasons for this crisis of water and human rights in Detroit, and its relationship to the bankruptcy, illustrate Detroit’s history and the regional dynamics of our metropolitan area. In brief, the abuse and exploitation of Detroit’s resources and People, by the dominant white, corporate power structure, was dramatically exposed by the water shut offs.

More than 40 years ago the civil rights movement reached its high tide in and around Detroit. In the landmark case of Milliken v Bradley, the US Supreme Court overturned a lower court order requiring busing between schools in Detroit and the suburbs. That was 20 years after Brown v Board of Education supposedly required school desegregation “with all deliberate speed”. Subsequent decades further isolated Detroit. Population and wealth declined, as white and middle class residents deserted the city for more prosperous suburbs.

Dissenting Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said then: “In the short run, it may seem to be the easier course to allow our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into two cities — one white, the other black — but it is a course, I predict, our people will ultimately regret.” (Vol. 418 U. S. Reports at page 815) 40 years later, as Detroit endures the cruel and economically violent spectacle of mass water shut offs to thousands who can’t afford to pay for these vital services, it may be time to ask again – loudly – whether or not we’ve reached the day that Marshall foresaw.

Detroit’s bankruptcy and the mass water shut offs are not the result of mismanagement, corruption, incompetence or crazy local politics. Rather, they were caused by regional policies and institutions. Detroit’s rise and fall in the 20th and 21st centuries is rooted in the economic system that shapes local quality of life across the metro Detroit region. The failures of court-ordered desegregated public education; of Detroit’s economic and population base as the auto industry globalized, southeast Michigan suburbanized, and the global economy financialized and computerized, led eventually to municipal bankruptcy and mass water shut offs of the poor. Why was this?

There are really at least three distinct “Detroits” today: First, the downtown commercial core receiving billions in investment for white corporate special interest exploitation; second, the city itself with its 90% people of color population of almost 700,000 being scapegoated for all the systems’ problems; and third, the Detroit region of about 4 million people – including the mostly white suburbs, many of them quite prosperous. The city is being restructured to suit the needs of the downtown corporate core and the dominant white parts of the region. The bankruptcy, and the regional takeover of the water and sewer systems for all 3 “Detroits” are essential parts of this intentional restructuring.

Detroit’s municipal government debts were refinanced in bankruptcy court. Debt was a weapon against the city’s continued ownership and operation of the regional water systems. They had to be taken over by the white regional and state power structure in order to achieve their objectives. The one truly regional system still functioning; a source of immense income for contractors; political power for those who decide where the community economic benefits of drainage and fresh water services will be provided and at what costs to whom; an absolute necessity for health and life itself. This crucial infrastructure could not be allowed by local elites to remain in the hands of the “old” Detroit, or the emergency management and bankruptcy would be incomplete.

Now this regional water system built and paid for by the city and its People is being spun off into a Great Lakes Water Authority under regional and state control. How People in Detroit – especially the poorest and most vulnerable elders, children, disabled and unemployed victims of society’s economic power dynamics – will receive fresh water and waste water services from these regional corporate elites who are using and reshaping the city in their own interests, provoked Detroit’s crisis of water and human rights. Hundreds of water shut offs per day against the poorest and most vulnerable members of our community sent an unmistakable message: We will take what we want away from you. Never mind the social or human consequences.

Water is a human right, not a commodity. Detroit’s People and community share the basic political rights of self-governance, social justice and economic fairness in the region’s prosperity. Instead, the regional, state and corporate elites driving the bankruptcy and water system takeover deny them the basic requirements for life.

These are the dramatic and historic stakes of the bankruptcy, restructuring of our government and water systems, and the global human rights struggle against shutting off water to Detroit’s poor, those who through no fault of their own can’t afford to pay whites controlling the system what they demand for it.

The future of community, democracy and sustainability in the heart of the Great Lakes bioregion, in the very midst of the greatest blessing of water on the planet are at stake. Whose water is it? Our water!

DWSD Waves of Uncertainty


  1. What do we do about it? We have protested, blocked trucks, even (as in the case of one of my dear friends) stood on top of the shut off valve in front of our homes. It does not seem like anyone is listening.

    • Frank X Murphy

      March 13, 2015 at 7:00 pm

      They’re listening. It takes a lot more than anything we’ve done so far to stop them from doing what they’re doing, with a billion dollar a year operation at stake! Peoples Water Board Coalition & Co. Join the fight

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