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Thursday, 28 August 2014 14:59

Racist Detroit Policies Lead to Lawsuit Against Water Shut-Offs

Written by  Ben Ptashnik, Victoria Collier | DemocracyMovements.Us - The National Election Integrity Coalition
Racism does not only come in the form of bullets fired by a police officer. Detroit’s socio-political problems are furthered by blatantly racist, ALEC sponsored, Koch brothers–backed Tea Party candidates and legislation, which have lead to gentrification and cutting off of water to minority residents in predominantly African American communities.
Since May, tens of thousands of Detroit’s African American residents have been subjected to their water being shut off without notice as part of the hostile takeover and privatization of Detroit by the right-wing State Legislature and Governor Rick Snyder, who suspended democratic government and forced the city into bankruptcy.

In place of elected government, a state-appointed corporate Emergency Management regime is engaged in a plan to raid city workers pensions, and to sell off city assets, including the city Water Department. Aggressively shutting off water is part of this racist privatization effort. Local activists point out that, although 55% of the Water Department ’s commercial customers were behind on their bills, none of these customers were targeted for shut offs. Millions of dollars owed by sports stadiums, golf courses, bank-owned and state-owned properties were allowed to slide, while Detroit’s 83% African American residential customers were forced to bear the brunt of the cities attempt to collect overdue bills.

In July over two thousand demonstrators protested in downtown Detroit demanding the end to the water shut-offs. Nine activists, including clergy, were arrested for civil disobedience for blocking the private company trucks commissioned to carry out the shut-offs, which the UN decried as a human rights violation and public health crisis. The international publicity forced the city to place a moratorium on the shut-offs until August 25th.

Lawyers representing minority residents are filing a lawsuit to prevent the ending of the moratorium. New protests are planned for Sept 2nd, when the bankruptcy trial of Detroit begins.

The following Press release was issued Monday August 25th by the activist legal team in Detroit:

“DETROIT – In an effort to preserve a moratorium on water shut-offs, a group of Detroit residents and civil rights attorneys filed court documents over the weekend asking a judge to immediately block the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) from terminating water service to any occupied residence, and to require the restoration of service to occupied residences without water.

The moratorium is currently scheduled to end today. The ACLU of Michigan and NAACP Legal Defense fund are serving as expert consultants in the ongoing litigation.

“Without a continued moratorium on water shutoffs, thousands more Detroiters, mostly low income children, seniors, and disabled, will immediately be at risk for shutoff,” says Alice Jennings of Edwards & Jennings, P.C., counsel in the lawsuit, “A comprehensive water affordability plan, a viable bill dispute process, specific polices for landlord-tenant bills and a sustainable mechanism for evaluating the number of families in shutoff status or at risk for shutoff, is necessary prior to lifting the DWSD water shutoff moratorium.”

The motion for a temporary restraining order filed yesterday is part of a class action lawsuit, Lyda et.al v. City of Detroit, on behalf of Detroit residents affected by the mass shut-off campaign of DWSD, as well as organizations active in the fight for the restoration of and affordable access to water including Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, People’s Water Board, National Action Network-Michigan Chapter and Moratorium Now!. This suit is currently in bankruptcy court before Judge Stephen Rhodes as part of the city’s bankruptcy proceedings.

The lawsuit argues that that the DWSD began water shutoffs without adequate notice and against the most vulnerable residents, while commercial entities with delinquent accounts were left alone. The suit also argues that this violates the plaintiffs’ due process and equal protection rights.

“More than 17,000 homes have had their water cut off and water bills in Detroit are among the highest in the country and unaffordable to many Detroit residents,” says Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director. “The rush to resume shut offs when there are serious questions about the affordability plan, accuracy of bills, and issues with the water department's ability to process disputes, means that the City of Detroit should get its house in order before turning off anyone else's water.”

In March, DWSD began dispatching private contractors to begin shutting off water service to residents who are more than 60 days delinquent, or owe more than $150. Despite the fact that 38 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, the shut-offs began without a plan to help those who cannot pay.

After public outcry and this lawsuit, the city implemented a moratorium and announced a 10-point plan to address the dysfunctions raised by the lawsuit and civil rights groups.

"The mayor's plan only consists of proposals and temporary fixes,” said Rev. Charles Williams of the National Action Network-Michigan Chapter. “Until actual policies are in place to ensure that residents have access to affordable water, the water shut-offs cannot be resumed. The current proposal for residents to enter into non-negotiable payment plans is only a short-term solution."

Last month, the ACLU of Michigan and NAACP LDF wrote a letter to city officials arguing that that the poorly implemented and uneven DWSD shut-off policy violates the civil and human rights, as well as the due process rights of residents because it often fails to provide them with adequate notice and a hearing that takes into account whether they actually have the ability to pay.

“DWSD must immediately restore water to all its customers,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. “In addition, they should create a reasonable timetable for a hearing and appeals process, pending resolution of these issues."

Attorneys for residents are calling on Judge Rhodes to order DWSD to extend the moratorium to ensure that the most vulnerable Detroiters are not left without water. The moratorium on shut offs should be extended until DWSD has policies in place to ensure that collections are done in a way that doesn’t violate residents constitutional rights.

Tawana Petty, an activist with the People’s Water Board Coalition, echoed these sentiments. "We are asking the Governor, Mayor, Emergency Manager and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to stop their assault on the citizens of Detroit and restore all water to residents. Water is life and without it, we perish.”

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