The war on the have-nots: How Detroit resembles Ukraine

The powers that be are using water as a weapon against the people of Detroit

You may have read recently about the daily struggle for survival in parts of Ukraine and Crimea, where warring pro- and anti-Russian forces are using basic necessities of life, such as water, as weapons against the civilian population. The consequences shock the world's conscience. 

There's no need to travel that far to have your conscience shocked. The same thing is happening in Detroit, where city officials have subjected the civilian population to mass shutoffs of water for past-due bills, then placed bureaucratic obstacles in the way getting service restored. 

The story is laid out in a recent appeal to United Nations human rights officials by four Detroit citizen advocacy groups. As my colleague Alana Semuels reported this week, U.N. officials believe the groups have a case.

The citizen groups' petition lays out the facts. Of the 179,000 residential water accounts in Detroit, 83,000 were past due as of the end of April. The average amount of arrears was $540. The water and sewer department had started making good on its intention to shut off 3,000 households per week, with the goal of ending water delivery by the end of the summer to all residences owing money.

One reason for the debts, of course, is the wretched condition of the Detroit economy, which has been hollowed out by decades of corporate neglect, official incompetence, and corruption and connivance at all levels. 

The city's water system is an outstanding example of how these trends feed on one another. Without even minimal preventive maintenance, the water and sewage infrastructure has been deteriorating for years, spewing sewage into the Detroit River.

"Every winter," the advocates' petition says, "hundreds of aging pipes spewed water from leaks as the water had not been turned off in thousands of abandoned houses and boarded-up businesses." As residents and businesses fled, the cost of this system fell on those left behind, mostly poor, jobless and African American. Over the last decade their water rates more than doubled.

Even those who brought their bills current haven't been able to get service restored -- one resident reported that the city demanded "a deed to the property, lease agreement-notarized, mortgage documents, tax records, driver’s license, social security cards, notarized statements from the owners of the property, " etc., etc.

Meanwhile, the petition said, "sick people have been left without running water and working toilets. People recovering from surgery cannot wash and change bandages. Children cannot bathe and parents cannot cook."

Who will benefit from this? Sooner or later, Detroit will have fallen so low that the profiteers will sweep in -- banks, investors, developers all buying low with the expectation of selling higher. Between now and then, lives will be ruined and lost, and real American values of community and equality trampled.

What is happening to the people of Detroit is criminal; it's just not illegal. Is there anything more shameful than for American citizens to have to appeal to the U.N. to demand basic human services?

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