More than 1,000 people demonstrate in downtown against Detroit water shutoffs

More than 1,000 people demonstrated in the streets of downtown Detroit against the city's ongoing water shutoffs on July 18, 2014. The protest was organized by the National Nurses United. (Ryan Felton/Metro Times)

More than 1,000 people took to the streets of downtown Detroit to protest against the city's ongoing water shutoff initiative, while a number of civil rights organizations formally called for a moratorium on the practice.

The protest came at a time Detroit's water shutoffs have attracted considerable international attention, as well as the bankruptcy judge overseeing the city's Chapter 9 case.

"Water is a basic right," said Desiree Conyers, 59, a nurse of Ann Arbor.

Calling the shutoffs "ridiculous," Conyers, a member of the Michigan Nurses Association, the state's branch of protest-organizer National Nurses United, said her group would like to see a federal tax implemented on all financial transactions that would flow states, and then cities.

The Detroit Water & Sewerage Department has been shutting off residential customers who are 60 days delinquent or more than $150 in arrears; commercial customers who are 60 days past-due could face shutoffs. An average of 1,500 residential accounts have been shutoff per week. An estimated 15,000 have been cut since the program began in March, 65 percent of which had service restored.

Numerous people today during the protest shared stories with one another about residents who lost their water without ever receiving a shut-off notice from DWSD. The department has said all customers would receive a 10-day warning. Others have reported extended wait times to speak with someone from the department to discuss their bill, drawing criticism from state legislators.

More than 1,000 people demonstrated in the streets of downtown Detroit against the city's ongoing water shutoffs on July 18, 2014. The protest was organized by the National Nurses United. (Ryan Felton/Metro Times)

Wallace Turbeville, of the Demos Institute, said the shutoffs are likely connected to Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr's proposal to regionalize the water department or privatize it. Even though DWSD officials have said the aggressive campaign isn't tied to the ongoing bankruptcy, Turbeville said there's no other clear reason for the move.

"They're trying to fluff up the system ... in order to sell it," said Turbeville, author of a detailed report on Detroit's bankruptcy and a speaker at the Netroots Nation Convention, a three-day gathering liberals and Democratic Party members happening this weekend at Cobo Hall.

"I've been in finance for 40 years ... I feel pretty confident this is the reason," he said, adding, "They're trying to...get it in a good enough convention to create a regional authority ... or bring in a private company."

A number of protesters also today were reportedly arrested for blocking trucks the exit of a firm DWSD contracted to shutoff water. The city entered into a contract with demolition firm Homrich to perform shutoffs last year.

Following the protest, which ended at Hart Plaza, Orr released a statement saying residents who need financial assistance to keep the tap running can call DWSD. The department has said it's "investigating" what happens to account holders who haven't had service restore -- to date, roughly 5,000.

"The most important thing residents can do is contact the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department if they are experiencing financial difficulty and the department will hep them into a payment plan or program that keeps their water on," Orr said. The department has said it offers payment plans to those who can make a payment of at least 30 percent. Customers can visit the department’s three payment stations at 735 Randolph Street, 13303 E. McNichols, and 15600 Grand River or call DWSD at 313-267-800.   

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund sent a letter to the city, calling for an end to the shutoffs while "a fair, humane and meaningful review process can be evaluated and implemented to help indigent residents."

Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director, said in a statement that it's "unconscionable" for city officials to deny water to residents.

“The problems facing the city’s water department go far deeper than those created by individual residents," Moss said in a statement. "City officials are misrepresenting a complex situation and perpetuating harmful stereotypes that are a disservice to the City. Low-income city residents should not be forced to pay the mounting cost of disastrous bond deals, crumbling infrastructure, and a dwindling population.”