DETROIT – It was early morning, and Valerie Blakely was enjoying the day’s first cup of coffee when the men came to eliminate her family’s water supply.
She met them out on the sidewalk. There were two of them, and they came from Homrich, Inc., the company hired by the city of Detroit to administer its aggressive water cutoff policy. Blakely knew they would be coming at some point – right now she owes a little more than $1,000 to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) – and so she came out to greet them, camera in hand. When she refused to let them pass, they turned away and began shutting off the water for Blakely’s neighbors, while she followed and snapped photos. Then they left.
“Once they shut it off, they want it all to turn it back on,” Blakely, a community organizer and mother of five (four of whom currently live in her household), told msnbc. “So I probably would have been displaced until I came up with the little over a grand that I owe. I would have had to leave my home. I won’t jeopardize my children, so I would have had to leave my home.”
Instead, she got to work collecting water and baby wipes for her North Detroit neighbors, many of whom she says are elderly people or single mothers. Other community activists chipped in. That was on Monday.
Four days later, Blakely is still struggling to keep her neighborhood supplied with basic necessities, and she’s still turning to other community groups for support. But on Friday afternoon, she left her block and merged with a much larger crowd, for a different form of community action. That was when she marched through the streets, with over 1,000 allies, demanding an end to the water shutoffs.
The march was preceded by a smaller protest at the Hormich facilities, where a small group of community activists physically blocked the entrance in order to prevent the company’s trucks from going out and shutting off any water that day. Police arrested nine protesters, including wheelchair-bound activist Baxter Jones.
Friday’s action was not the first anti-shutoff protest to take place over the last few weeks, but it was undoubtedly the largest. It was also the first rally to include supporters from around the nation, most of whom had turned out for the Netroots Nation conference being held in the city. Supporters from the conference, members of the national labor movement, politicians, clergy members, and even actor Mark Ruffalo, all walked from the convention center to Hart Plaza, along the Detroit River. Neither local police nor organizers have released estimates for the number of attendees, but the headcount was almost certainly in the low four digits.
“As of this moment, you have been deputized as formal citizens of the city of Detroit,” local community activist Monica Lewis-Patrick told the assembled Netroots Nation attendees near the beginning of the march. When she called, “Who are you?” to the audience, the yelled back, “I am Detroit!”
The union National Nurses United (NNU) was one of the national groups involved in organizing the rally. Nurses from the group told msnbc that the water shutoffs, which have thus far directly affected thousands of residents, present a direct threat to public health.“Water is one of the most basic human needs that we all require,” said NNU official Bonnie Castillo. “And we know that it will result in a public health emergency. Not only for individual health, but community health, in terms of infectious diseases. Individuals can only live without water for a couple of days.”
Although the rally was focused on the specific issue of water access, people were marching for a number of reasons. Several attendees expressed anger at Gov. Rick Snyder and Kevyn Orr, the city’s Emergency Manager, over public pension cuts and other reductions in public services.
“Some people will not get a pension check. They’ve already taken away our health care, and a lot of people are dying,” said Dorothea Harris, a retired public employee in Detroit. “So it’s not only the water. You’ve got your retirees, we’ve been out here and fighting too.”
Last month, a coalition of local groups such as the Detroit People’s Water Board and national organizations like Food and Water Watch issued a report [PDF] on the water crisis, alleging that the shutoffs are just a prelude to the selling off of Detroit’s water supply. By closing delinquent accounts en masse, the report’s authors write, city is aiming to “sweeten the pot for a private investor by imposing even more of the costs of the system on those least able to bear them.” Several protesters argued the same thing could eventually happen in other cities around the country.
“This is a national crisis,” said Rev. Charles Williams II, president of the National Action Network of Michigan. “Today in Detroit, tomorrow in Cleveland.”
Mark Ruffalo echoed that sentiment when he took the stage at Netroots Nation and invited attendees to the protest.
“The future of America is Detroit,” he said. “And it’s the choice between our America and the 0.001%’s America.”