Protests, arrests, and spin sessions mark shutoff battle

July 15, 2014
By
A group of anti-shutoff protesters pose for a shot after their release from Mound Correctional Facility.

A group of anti-shutoff protesters pose for a shot after their release from Mound Correctional Facility.

On Friday, July 11, protesters gathered in front of the Water Board headquarters on Randolph Street in downtown Detroit to protest water shutoffs — and a number of arrests made at their protest the day before.

“Coleman Young warned us — they’re gonna come for the water!” activist Elena Herrada declared to a crowd of 50 protesters gathered at the corner of Randolph and East Lafayette streets. “We have diabolical forces taking over Detroit, who say we don’t care where you get that money — you pay it!”

Herrada is a part of a coalition of activists broadly opposed to privatization of Detroit’s water system, now engaged in a fight to end the residential water shutoffs that began last month. The coalition calls its actions Freedom Friday — and the group has vowed to protest at 600 Randolph St. every Friday until the shutoffs end.

The group’s actions, however, are not limited to Fridays. The day before, Herrada was one of several protesters handcuffed and arrested outside the transfer and processing facility of Homrich Wrecking, a company awarded a $5.9 million contract in April 2014 to execute the shutoffs, according to data obtained by the Detroit Water Brigade.

A spokesperson from the Detroit Police Department confirmed that police arrested eight protesters for blocking the driveway at 2660 East Grand Blvd. by holding a banner that read “STOP THE WATER SHUT-OFFS.” Those arrested were charged with a misdemeanor and were between the ages of 68 and 71.

Mary Ellen Howard, a public policy advocate and one of those arrested, recounted the experience on her Facebook profile.

Public policy advocate Mary Ellen Howard was arrested at the July 10 protest.

Public policy advocate Mary Ellen Howard was arrested at the July 10 protest.

Howard said a group, including Herrada, arrived at Homrich Wrecking at 6:45 a.m. and the arrests were made around 8 a.m. Howard and the others were then escorted to the Mound Correctional Facility. Howard arrived home by noon, after another arrested activist paid her $100 bail.

“In the waiting room, we were singing ‘Wade in the Water.’ They [police officers] threatened to jail us until our hearing on July 21, if we didn’t stop singing.”

Of the arrest, Howard’s first, she explained in her post that she hoped her actions would help raise awareness of the water shutoffs and inspire others to join the fight against them.

Activist and Detroit Board of Education member Elena Herrada was one of those arrested.

Activist and Detroit Board of Education member Elena Herrada was one of those arrested.

Another arrested protester, Elena Herrada, joined WJBK FOX 2’s “Let It Rip” segment just hours after being arrested. No stranger to activism, Herrada has been arrested at protests before. Though she’s a member of Detroit Public Schools’ Board of Education, she doesn’t shy away from activism. On the segment, Herrada offered criticisms of the controversial shutoff program, detailing how some customers had service shut off without any notification, and therefore no chance to square their account before losing service to their home.

Karen Dumas, former chief communications officer to former Mayor Dave Bing, weighed in on Herrada’s statement during the segment, saying, “If you’re going to collect, you’ve gotta collect from everybody. It’s like having a parking ticket and the parking meters don’t work.”

 

MANAGING THE FLOW

For their part, officials at the water department are doing their best to control and clarify their message. The official Facebook page of the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department posted a link to a Detroit Free Press article with the caption, “If you’re stealing water, we’re coming after you.”

 

This ominous water department status update appeared at 1:05 pm. July 13.

This ominous water department status update appeared at 1:05 pm. July 13.

The article explained a new initiative spearheaded by the Water Department — going after customers who are stealing water. Over a three-day period, the department claims it found 79 customers stealing water and slapped them with $21,750 in fees. Fees are $250 for a first offense and can be as high as $660; fees must be paid in full before customers can even enter a payment plan to regain water service.

The department also started a Detroit Resident Water Assistance program in collaboration with the Heat and Warmth Fund. The program, endowed with $1 million, is tasked with lending as much as $1,500 to customers in shutoff status who qualify. That said, it can take as long as seven to 10 business days after application to be enrolled, and many residents — such as tenants in multi-unit properties such as apartment buildings — will not qualify. (Direct inquiries to 313-267-8000).

Darryl Latimer, the water department’s deputy director, said there are about 90,000 delinquent accounts in Detroit, and 79,000 of those are residential. As of today, about 15,000 Detroit residential accounts have been issued shut-off notices.

Latimer also said that the department is mobilizing to shut off water on bigger accounts, such as Ford Field, and it could take more than a week to do so. Latimer explained that residents are being shut off first because so many of them meet the requirements for shutoff — $150 or 60 days past due — whichever comes first.

 

FIGHTING THE TIDE

Although there are many activists and progressive groups involved, they united behind one message — the water shutoffs disproportionately affect the poor and racial minorities. The activists have urged emergency manager Kevyn Orr to stop the shutoffs and work with the water department to develop a plan that makes water affordable for all.

The Detroit Water Brigade encourages those without water to seek assistance through resources on the group’s website: detroitwaterbrigade.org. People can also donate money or volunteer to help those in need via the website as well.

An action is also planned for the Netroots Nation Progressive Conference at Cobo Hall — billed as the largest annual gathering of progressives — which will draw such Democratic party luminaries as Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. A group of progressives scheduled to attend has organized a march and rally for at 12:30 p.m. Friday, July 18, in front of the hall to support the local coalition’s effort to end the shutoffs. We at MT will follow this story closely as it develops.

 

Gionni Crawford is a Metro Times editorial intern.

Updated Monday, June 30, 8:30 p.m.: A previous version of this story did not include the total number of shut-offs conducted since March of this year.