Here's Why Detroit's Water Shutoff Isn't Just About Folks Not Paying Their Bills

Melissa Harris-Perry breaks down the democratic disenfranchisement and greed at play in the Motor City.

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at GOOD.


Despite the United Nations' declaration last month that Detroit's move to disconnect water services for 50,000 impoverished residents is a human rights violation, the taps are still dry in the Motor City. On the surface, the situation might seem open-and-shut: You don't pay your bill, your H2O gets shut off. But what's going on in the city might have more to do with greed and the destruction of our democracy.  

In the video clip above, scholar and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry expertly gets us up to speed on what's happened so far with the water crisis. Things really get interesting at the 4:35 mark when she notes that the people of Detroit have no political agency to contest the shutoff because the city is not governed by an elected mayor or a city council. Instead, the decision to disconnect the water came directly from an emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder. That means locals can't do anything about what's happening.

"There's no democracy in the city of Detroit," Pastor David Alexander Bullock, the spokesperson for the Change Agent Consortium, a national coalition of faith, labor, and civil rights organizations and citizens, told Harris-Perry.

Bullock also said what's going on in the Motor City not only has roots in democratic disenfranchisement, but there's a profit motive too. He claims that Orr wants to sell off Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department to private entities. "And of course nobody's going to buy it unless he can show that it's a moneymaker," said Bullock. The only way that Orr can sell the department, Bullock said, is to prove that he can collect the money owed it by the city's impoverished residents. 

In the meantime, Bullock said, people have even been being arrested for "stealing" water and trying to help their neighbors. In a decidedly embarrassing international turn of events, Canada is stepping in to deliver water to Detroiters who have none to bathe with, cook with, or drink.

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