Water fight

News Hits was reminded anew last Saturday what a great film Liz Miller's documentary The Water Front is. The flick was used to kick off what was billed as a "truth commission" hearing regarding the issue of water rights in the metro Detroit area.

Miller's film (which we first wrote about in our May 23, 2007, story "Water Wars") chronicles Highland Park residents' fight to keep the city's publicly owned water plant from being handed over to private interests. It also provided a look at what happens when water is treated as just another commodity, and the consequences of denying people access to something they can't live without.

As one of the folks featured in the film said, "People should not be making no profit off of the necessities of life."

The truth commission, held at that bastion of liberalism known as Detroit's Central United Methodist Church, was convened by area welfare rights activists outraged by the fact that 45,000 Detroiters had their water shut off last year. Without water, a home can be condemned. Without water, the state can step in and take children from their parents. And, now that water bills are being attached to property taxes, people who don't pay up can have their homes seized.

A water affordability plan passed by the Detroit City Council in 2006 was supposed to alleviate these problems, but activists say that hasn't been the case. With absolutely no pun intended, these same activists are claiming the measure has been so "watered down," they are left wondering where all the money that was supposed to help poor people keep the taps turned on is actually going.

That's just one of the things they'd like to see investigated.

About 100 people attended the daylong event that featured former Georgia Congresswoman and current Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney as one of the commissioners hearing testimony.

Among the people McKinney and nine other commissioners heard testify was Marian Kramer, founder and co-president of the Michigan-based National Welfare Rights Union.

"It is a sad day when we have to come here and talk about water being a human right," said Kramer.

"We want you to witness and tell the truth about what is happening here," Kramer told the commissioners.

There is no small irony in the fact that this is an issue in an area surrounded by the world's largest supply of fresh water. If it can happen here, where water is plentiful, what does the future hold for poor people in areas where it isn't?

"Welcome to Detroit, which is a microcosm of what's happening in America," Maureen Taylor, chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, told the commissioners.

Both Taylor and Kramer noted the relatively small turnout at the event.

"The way our phones have been ringing off the hook, I expected this room to be packed," said Kramer.

Taylor, employing the fire and brimstone tone of a Pentecostal preacher, talked about people being too scared or too demoralized or too embarrassed to show up at an event like this and talk about what it's like having their water shut off because they can't afford to pay.

"People get ashamed that their water has been cut off, and their clothes aren't clean," Taylor said. "And they internalize that."

The depression and stress that result when the economy fails and bills start piling up causes people to shut down emotionally, the commission was told.

But there is another reaction beginning to foment, said Taylor. Not everyone is shrinking away. Pressures on poor people are becoming so intense that the stage is being set for what has been a protest movement to become one of active resistance. Taylor said she's already seeing examples of people forced from their homes moving right back in and refusing to leave.

One of the bottom lines emphasized repeatedly during the event was the increasing likelihood that multinational corporations will try and buy up and privatize publicly owned water works. With fresh water supplies expected to dwindle in many parts of the country as a result of overuse and global warming, water from areas like the Great Lakes region is expected to become ever more valuable. "Water will be more valuable than gold," was a phrase uttered more than once.

Detroit, with the world's largest water plant, could be particularly vulnerable to this sort of attempted takeover, warned John Riehl, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 207, which has more than 900 members and represents workers at Detroit's Department of Water & Sewerage.

A statement forged by the truth commissioners behind closed doors after hearing the day's testimony set a goal of replicating Saturday's event across the state, and then throughout the country. After that, the plan is to take the information gathered and present it to the United Nations in the hopes that international body will define the United States as a "human rights abuser."

There's good cause to take this issue to the U.N., said Taylor, "because this is a crisis of international magnitude." And at the heart of the crisis is a chilling question: "Is there a place for poor people anywhere?"

We'll see.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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