When Cities Shut the Water Off

In 2014, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department started its most recent egregious campaign of mass water shutoffs that targeted low-income, residential customers who were behind in payments. In June of that year, rumors started to surface about poisoned public water in Flint, Michigan. Both issues marked the start of long nights of terror for blue-collar workers, a terror that has not yet ended. Concerns over water were not new to those in the American Rust Belt, but never before had their ferocity and scale reached such depths.

Since the start of this crisis, Detroit has seen upwards of 100,000 water disconnections over a period of just a few years. We have been left with no choice but to fight for our lives as we try to envision what a different kind of world might look like – a world that won’t punish poor people because they are poor.

To be threatened with shutoff, a household has to be two months behind in payments, or $150 in arrears. And when the city turns off the water, more neighborhood issues surface. Children can be removed from their homes and placed in foster care. Infectious diseases connected to the build-up of surface algae and other contaminants inside of water pipes are passed from household to household.

Despite multi-level battles to stop these draconian practices and their vicious side effects, residents have not been able to demonstrate the moral bankruptcy of water shutoffs or water poisonings. Attempts to privatize what has always been a public common may have been slowed. But the city is still focused on treating clean water and sanitation as a commodity to be bought and sold. It’s scandalous to support the notion that if you can’t pay for water, you can’t have it.

Highland Park, a suburb of Detroit, was first to feel the pain of water privatization attempts, which came after the community lost more than 50 percent of its population. The standard of living for working…

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