By Glen Ford
Black Agenda Report

October 22, 2014

The two United Nations Special Rapporteurs have seen human rights violations around the world, but Detroit’s massive water shut-offs are uniquely upsetting. “We were deeply disturbed to observe the indignity people have faced and continue to live with in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and in a city that was a symbol of America’s prosperity,” said Catarina de Albuquerque and Leilani Farha, in a joint statement.

An “unprecedented” 27,000 households have been disconnected from the pipes that sustain life and dignity – most of them Black and poor, according to the rapporteurs’ observations, although the city doesn’t bother to maintain records on the race and income of those it casts into purgatory. The water department is deliberately blind to the shut-offs’ “disproportionate impact on low-income African Americans.”

Detroit, an 82 percent Black city, run for four decades by Black mayors and Black city councils, and presided over for the past year and a half by a Black state-appointed emergency financial manager, may well be in violation of the United Nations Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, “which explicitly prohibits and calls for the elimination of racial discrimination in relation to several human rights directly affected by water disconnections, including the right to housing and the right to public health,” wrote Albuquerque and Farha.

The poor are not asking for a free ride, said Albuquerque. “In the three days we were here, nobody asked us for free water. People want to pay their bills within their possibilities…they want affordable and fair bills.” However, the water department is determined to solve its financial problems – and change the city’s demographics – by ejecting the poor from the grid. Albuquerque was compelled to remind Detroit that the city’s bankruptcy drama “doesn’t exempt it from human rights obligations.”

High water bills and cascading shut-offs have added to the flood of forced evictions. “Our conclusion is that you have here in Detroit a man-made perfect storm,” said the UN officials.

More precisely, a corporate-made vortex of ethnic and class cleansing, to make way for a new, gentrified city. Just as the water shut-offs are “unprecedented,” so too is the pace of county home foreclosures, which have now targeted one of every five properties in Detroit. Wayne County is notifying 70,000 Detroit households that they have been caught up in the foreclosure frenzy. “We have decided to foreclose on everything,” said Wayne County chief deputy treasurer David Szymanski. He claims the foreclosure proceedings are for the occupants own good, since they might then be eligible for federal housing aid.

It is obvious that the water disconnections and housing foreclosures are coordinated prongs of a hyper-aggressive gentrification pincer movement. While emergency manager Kevyn Orr completes the financial restructuring of the city under bankruptcy proceedings, the bureaucracy clears the land of unwanted populations. Back in September, the mayor and city council could have peremptorily dismissed Orr, whose term of authority under the emergency manager law had expired. Instead, they kept him on, so that he can complete the corporate handover of the city in bankruptcy court. The city council reclaimed its powers to award contracts and Mayor Mike Duggan, the first white person to occupy that office since 1974, took responsibility for the day-to-day duties of pushing out the poor.

Mayor Duggan resents the two young UN rapporteurs’ interference with Detroit’s race and class makeover project. Aid Alexis Wiley claims the city is in possession of facts that were not taken into account. “It’s disappointing but it’s kind of scary that you can have such a heavy name of the United Nations — that is such a responsibility — and to not live up to that responsibility, to come really without an interest in information,” said Wiley. “No one’s saying we’re perfect. But if you want to work together, let’s work together and make sure policy is built on facts. It’s not built on an agenda.”

Certainly, not on a human rights agenda. One wouldn’t want that, would one?. After all, Detroit still has big dreams – it’s just that poor Black people have no place in the plan.

Albuquerque and Farha recommended “that the Federal Government immediately undertake an investigation into the water shut-offs to determine if they are having a disproportionate impact on African Americans and other groups protected against discrimination” – an idea that will be flushed into the nearest Oval Office toilet. The Obama administration is a full partner in transforming Detroit into the model for urban “renaissance” across the country, having signed off on the city’s financial restructuring and acquiesced in the effective disenfranchisement of Detroit – and half of all Black voters in Michigan – under the emergency manager regime.

The Great Black Urban Dispersal is set to accelerate.