Detroit Water Crisis – A Prelude to the Privatization of Water: activism with passion, creativity and a positive attitude

Dutch Merrick, “Detroit Water Crisis: A Prelude to the Privatization of Water” (Acronym TV, 21 August 2014)

For a major part of the 20th century, the city of Detroit was one of the richest if not the richest city in the United States thanks to its being the epicentre of US automobile manufacturing . The city was a major focus for labour union activity as a result of the dominance of car manufacturing; the famous labour union leader Jimmy Hoffa was a native of Detroit. The city was a magnet for immigrants attracted by the work in car-making factories which paid well and offered great working conditions, and in time a distinctive culture of art and music arose: Motown Records was based in Detroit, the city produced many famous musicians, singers and song-writers, and techno, originally a fusion of electronic-based music, disco and African-American forms of pop music, originated in Detroit.

Since 1970, and maybe even well before then, Detroit has seen a long decline in its fortunes as the US auto industry has had to yield to competing manufacturers in Europe and Asia, and the economy of the US and in particular of the US Midwest has declined. At the same time, successive US governments have succumbed to the lure of monetarist / neoliberal economic policies which over time have gutted social and economic infrastructures across America and driven the slow death of the US middle class. As a primarily car-making town, Detroit has borne the brunt of deindustrialisation and the result is that in recent years the city has shrunk alarmingly with the consequence that its taxpayer base has also dwindled, families have been forced out of their homes by bank foreclosures in the wake of the subprime mortgage bubble bust, and neighbourhoods have become ghost towns. The city government has now commenced cutting off necessarily utilities in many suburbs and one of these is water.

The Acronym TV program focuses in the main on Dennis Trainor Jr’s interview with Atpeace Makita, an activist volunteer working with the Detroit Water Brigade alerting people to the city’s decision to cut off water supplies to areas where poor people live. Makita herself has had her water supply stopped as a result of being unable to pay her water bills (she is a single parent of five children) and faces a very real possibility of losing her children to foster care.

In the interview, after a brief video by Detroit Water Brigade is shown, Makita details what can happen to families whose water is cut off as a result of falling delinquent on their water bills. Articulate and passionate about the cause she is fighting for, Makita talks about the problems households face when they have no water and the mental stress that lack of access brings. Families also suffer discrimination and censure from other people for apparently bringing water shut-offs on themselves because they could not pay the water bills. She goes on to emphasise how access to water is a basic human right due to the nature of our biology (our bodies are 70% water) and how she counters opinions that if people don’t pay their water bills, they deserve to have their water cut off.

Makita talks about her work as a volunteer Creative Director with Detroit Water Brigade and what the organisation is doing to create public awareness of water access issues. The culture of the organisation is important in generating and maintaining a positive, vibrant attitude in a struggle that faces enormous obstacles and opposition from government and corporations. To that end, Makita discusses the way in which DWB encourages an inclusive, warm approach in recruiting activists and conducting its activities which include arts campaigns and other creative events. The message within DWB’s drive is to change people’s attitudes about how their society currently functions and how it could function, and to instill a positive, energetic outlook that inspires people to respect one another, look out and care for one another, and to create a new society based on compassion and an awareness that everyone and everything is connected.

The interview is very wide-ranging and Makita comes across as a very dynamic and fast-talking (maybe a little too fast-talking!) advocate for social justice. Interviewer Trainor is sympathetic towards Makita which in a way isn’t good in that he does not ask her very challenging questions about how DWB confronts the powers that took away people’s access to water in the first place. How does DWB deal with government and corporations, how does it help people who stand to lose their homes or even be charged with and convicted of child neglect because they have had their water cut off, what would happen if DWB activists were persecuted or jailed for their campaigning: these are some issues that Trainor might have raised. Educating people to see that access to water and other basics of life should not be dependent on their ability to pay (and attacking the neoliberal ideology that underpins such an attitude) but instead should be free or provided by communities or collective institutions is another hurdle.

After the interview ends, I come away with the belief that if Makita is representative of mainstream America, Detroit may again lead the rest of the country in a very different direction, one not based on particular technology and the culture that grew up around it but a direction based on authentic human values of care for one’s fellow humans and other creatures, and a new culture resulting from that.

The interview can be viewed at this Youtube link.

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