Detroit Water War

James R McQuaid, Rise! Magazine

Corresponding Video/Article Inspiration at:

I Do Mind Dying

On March first, the Spencer M Partrich Auditorium at Wayne State University was filled with students, workers, and activists brought together to determine how the residents of Detroit would continue to resist the capitalist policies under an increasingly virulent and aggressive government under the incoming Trump administration. Specifically, the event centered around the screening of a documentary in progress titled I Do Mind Dying, that focuses on the water shutoffs systemically targeting low income African-Americans and other people of color in the city. The City of Detroit, which has continued a massive water termination campaign since its inception in 2013 in the name of settling the DWSD’s budget, has at the same time provided massive grants and tax breaks to developers operating in the gentrified downtown area. While the city itself has spent massive amounts of money on these development initiatives, it has wholeheartedly resisted calls for providing water assistance to those in need, routinely leveling attacks on them as fiscally irresponsible welfare queens; not as victims of the consistent shortcomings of the capitalist system. While the Trump administration by no means instigated the ongoing water crisis in Detroit—it was actually a bipartisan effort by Democratic and Republican officials—the increasingly bombastic rhetoric from the administration coupled with the continuing inadequacies of state and municipal governments has had many in Detroit bracing for worst possible scenarios. How Detroit as a community is going to stand against the misapplication of public utilities, the ongoing militarization of the police forces, and the consistent attack on human rights of city residents under a regime which has continued to voice its contempt of peaceful protest movements is a question that should be examined in depth, as it has much wider national implications.

Water Shutoffs are Not a Problem Endemic to Detroit

The now long-term issue of water shutoffs has been and continues to be used by the city government as a means of profit. This profit is dependent directly on the misfortunes of the people of Detroit, who have no dependable alternative to the city water system. Among other disturbing statistics is that the average Detroit resident can expect to pay upwards of 20% of their annual income on water utilities alone. [1] This is thanks mainly to the strategy of the government, which has used excessively high water servicing fees to pay off ballooning municipal debt. The city accrued this debt by handing out lucrative business contracts and grants to construction and investment consortia in a bid to revitalize downtown. These rising costs for essential utilities mean the city is able to raise greater profits from the population. Funds do not go into providing better service or greater levels of accessibility for the general population however; instead, the proceeds from these price hikes are handed off directly to the corporations investing in the redevelopment of the immediate downtown area. At its core, this trend is a symptom of unleashed individualism; the social elite of the city who benefit from these municipal corporate welfare initiatives have no desire to engage in any kind of symbiotic relationship of mutual reciprocity with Detroit’s overwhelming majority. Despite how the upper class may laud their bourgeois morals over the rest of the working class, they have no qualms in taking from the population without providing any services or social welfare initiative in return.

It is thievery; the high cost in the price of water has been made under a deliberate program of artificial scarcity by the city. While the city fails to act on busted waterlines that flood homes outside the downtown area, and does not charge businesses for their own water consumption, [2] the ever-present threat of water shutoffs have been used as a scare tactic against city residents as the principal means extracting wealth. Debts accrued by water use and service fees have increasingly been levied against the homes of Detroiters as part of their property taxes, meaning that failure to pay existing bills (even with the water shut off) allows the government to foreclose on people’s homes, a practice that has already led to thousands of foreclosures and evictions within city limits. These thousands of foreclosures by the city alone speak volumes to the concerted attack on Detroit families, but the true level of economic violence targeting the population of Detroit becomes apparent once it is acknowledged that since the water shutoff program began in 2013, well over 100,000 people [3] have had their water services terminated (roughly 15% of the city’s population). While some residents may have their water restored after a month or two without service, many have their services terminated indefinitely. [4]


Profits made by the city government have been funneled into breaks and grants for projects benefitting downtown at the cost of not upgrading or maintaining city infrastructure outside the downtown area. The Little Caesars Arena, scheduled to open in September of this year, was funded in part by $285 million of public funds. [5]

Insomuch as these tactics to raise funds for the city have been successful despite dedicated opposition from community organizers, religious institutions, as well as national and international advocacy groups, communities across the country can expect to see similar tactics used to raise funds in their own localities. Detroit has largely been a testing ground for hardline capitalist privatization efforts, and their successes have already been duplicated in other areas of the country. The ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan will likely be co-opted by the capitalist elite as a justification for raising water rates and service fees there; the argument that there exists no public funds to fix Flint’s pipe system, so for corrections to be made, funds must come from higher rates and taxes on a population already struggling to maintain a decent standard of living. This is a false narrative so long as there exist massive amounts of corporate grants and tax cuts being issued by the same cities that hike water rates on citizens who cannot afford to buy politicians and legislation. In Lansing, a systemically underfunded public utility company, the Board of Water and Light (BWL), will continue to be the target of ongoing privatization campaigns under another false narrative that public utilities are incapable of servicing the needs of the people in Lansing, but this is only due to unnecessary budget cuts in its operational funding [6]. The predatory state (a government which preys on its citizens for its own exclusive economic benefit) will continue to decrease and eliminate the public assets and utilities that make life in Detroit and other urban areas in the country affordable. When across-the-board privatization is not a readily available option, as is the case in Detroit, the price of water and other utilities will continue to see price hikes; Detroit residents currently pay more per month for water than twice the US national average. [7]

Building the Case Against Detroit’s Right to Water

The municipal governments know these policies are unpopular nationally, reviled by city residents, and condemned by international organizations as a violation of human rights (including but not limited to the United Nations); in response, they have taken on an immense propaganda campaign against Detroiters, claiming that in lieu of paying their water bills, they are buying unnecessary consumer goods en masse. The propagation of this lie on the national stage not only by Republican lawmakers, but by Democratic party administrators of the city, demonstrates their complete lack of interest in the hardships of Detroit’s working class. With a median household income at nearly half of the already low state average (approximately 26,000 in 2015 in comparison to over 56,000 nationally that same year), [8] a complete lack of adequate transportation infrastructure, and an unemployment rate nearly double the national average (9.8% versus 4.8% nationally)[9], Detroit residents are increasingly having to decide between food, medicine, rent, and now, water. When pushed to acknowledge the fiscal constraints on city residents, and that the entire 100,000+ people who have had their water shut off or are under threat of having services terminated cannot possibly all be fiscally irresponsible citizens who “just don’t want to pay their bill,” news services and city officials will commonly tout a list of agencies and government programs that are designed to help assist residents with water payments; the contact numbers for these organizations are almost always disconnected when calls are placed to them, however. [10]

The propaganda pushed forward by the city government is tantamount to a conquest ideology used to justify the actions taken by the administration to absolve them of any guilt; that the hardships seen by Detroiters is due to their own fiscal irresponsibility, and not the overwhelming failures of the neoliberal capitalist system. The reality is that the current situation for most city residents does not allow for unnecessary expenditures on their part, a situation administrators like Mike Duggan gleefully ignore, when touting the economic recovery of the city when he says that Detroit is “coming back.” What Detroit is coming back from should be explored here. As public funds are increasingly drawn away from public utilities and municipal infrastructure to be siphoned off towards massive privatized projects for corporate owners, the hardships faced by the remaining 90% of the city outside the immediate downtown area grow more insurmountable. The policy of deliberately financed gentrification by the city government amounts to an economic ethnic cleansing of the city’s majority African-American population who are seen by the social elite as undesirable in their vision of a corporatist trophy city of high rise condominiums and Whole Foods retail chains. In light of such an extensive public campaign against basic rights and human decency, actual Detroiters are left with little public agency for a redress of their grievances in comparison to the national attention that their opponents in the government are afforded.


Water shutoffs have disproportionately targeted the northeast and west sides of the city, while affluent businesses downtown remain unaffected. The map above lists shutoffs per ZIP code over a three month period in Detroit.

In a 2014 altercation between protestors and security at the Water Department Headquarters, Greg Eno (a spokesman for the DWSD) was asked, “How has the department been responding to this [protests]?” He responded that it was “the status quo [and] business as usual.” [11] The lack of sympathy or willingness to engage in dialogue with the protesting opposition demonstrates that if battles are to be won for a more equitable and affordable water system, activists are going to have to reach out to outlets beyond the City of Detroit; insomuch as Detroit’s municipal government is not representative of the people it controls.

Prospects for Detroit Activists

What options are left to advocacy groups and community organizers are increasingly limited. While the United Nations can condemn the water shutoffs of homes; including those housing children, the elderly on fixed incomes, and those with chronic illnesses and disabilities; these international condemnations have not stopped the shutoffs. [12] Activist groups may turn towards direct action, which has much more tangible effects, but depending on how said direct action manifests, opponents of the shutoffs may be targeted for litigation by the city, the companies they represent, or both. The incoming Trump administration has not worked to instill confidence in political opponents, having hinted (if not outright stated), their general intolerance towards peaceful protest and acts of civil disobedience. Any forms of legal challenges, direct action, or community-based cooperative efforts will be seen by the state as an affront to the liberated capitalist structures they promote; as such, activists should expect to see wholehearted state opposition to any campaign that seeks to run counter to exclusive capitalist development.

Likely the most well-known case involving direct action over shutoffs is the Homrich 9, who blocked the entryway to Homrich Inc. for a single day, preventing nearly 400 water shutoffs.[13] The Homrich 9 were arrested for this action, and eight were subsequently charged. While members of the activist group who participated in civil disobedience were given criminal records, the city has not allowed a trial to determine their guilt or innocence since their arrest in 2014 [14], simply based on the knowledge that a jury would likely acquit them of charges. Tactics employed by the legal apparatus to forestall a decision have been varied and numerous, but the end goal is consistent, the city is actively working to make an example of the Homrich 9 to deter other activists from taking part in similar direct actions. It is in the blatant unconstitutional treatment of the Homrich 9 that future organizers and activists can expect to grapple with as the fight for accessible and affordable water continues to gain popular support.


The Homrich 9 have been fighting since 2014 for a trial, which the city has stalled on consistently. Not allowing the case to go to trial means that the eight who have been formally charged must go on carrying a criminal record.

Alternatives to direct confrontation with the city have been successful with groups like We the People of Detroit, the Detroit Water Brigade, and the People’s Water Board who have worked to man neighborhood water stations and distribution centers to ensure those who are facing water shutoffs can still have some limited accessibility to water. Hotlines established by these and other groups work to connect those struggling to access water with other community resources; though these are minimal and receive little to no support from the city. Legal groups have worked to pressure the municipal government to work towards a comprehensive water affordability plan, but as the crisis in Detroit enters its third year with few prospects for a resolution (and as the treatment of the Homrich 9 demonstrates), legal avenues have thus far not yielded amicable results for the people of Detroit.

Perhaps it is fitting in some bizarre sense of irony that the day before the screening of I Do Mind Dying at Wayne State University, the city of Detroit saw the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) issue a boil water advisory that covered much of the city, as well as the Hamtramck and Highland Park enclaves. Open discussion during the later half of the meeting swirled around the effects of privatization and austerity measures enforced on the city by Snyder’s appointed emergency manager, whose policies have largely been extended by the current mayor Duggan. These austerity measures—namely the cutbacks on city employees (as well as the pay and pensions of those who have not yet been laid off), lead to the inability of the city to maintain its infrastructure—inevitably, this caused failures in the city’s water distribution system and water pressure. The lack of water pressure made conditions amicable to the growth of bacteria which, once in the water supply, are harmful not only to drink, but to cook, brush teeth, wash dishes, and prepare food with. [15] What the citizens of Detroit are left with is an overpriced and under-equipped water distribution system that they are not only unable to use on fair terms, but may lose their homes for not buying into. These overwhelming shortcomings on the part of the city government are not accidental, but rather are deliberate and criminal in their profitability and scope. It is a program that Detroit as a community has continued to resist since its implementation, and will have to continue fighting if any semblance of justice is to be achieved in the future, not just for the residents of Detroit, but for anyone who now faces an assault on a right to the necessity of water and life.


Sources Cited










[10] (See Video 4:30)

[11] ibid (See Video 19:00)


[13] (See Video 27:30)




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