Detroit’s Orwellian Water Crisis: Is Water Dept. Engaging in Selective Shutoffs?

waterWhen George Orwell wrote the book “Animal Farm,” decades ago that became a classic he did not specifically have in mind the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). Rather, it was a giant contribution to political literature, exposing once and for all the blatant repressive policies and inherent contradictions of not only the Soviet government at the time, but also the accompanying and subtle class warfare that is executed by those in government who claim to be overseeing the welfare of everybody who is paying taxes or yet still give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Those who claim that there must be shared sacrifice in times of difficulty, especially in the case of Detroit, going through a historic bankruptcy.

But decades after “Animal Farm” landed on bookshelves and listed as a must-read in school curriculums around the world, and influencing political thought on how governments and political units who claim to be working in the interest of the public must be held accountable, it appears that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department fits the moral bankruptcy story contained in Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” which any unit of government should avoid at all cost. And that moral bankruptcy is the indirect class warfare that seems to be the underpinning of recent water shutoffs in Detroit that have reached the attention of the United Nations. These shutoffs are threatening a public health crisis in a city that is still struggling to free itself from the shackles of decades of mismanagement.

As it is now, water officials feel like they can pick and choose who to go after for delinquent water bills. They avoid any draconian shutoffs or notices for the powerful and the connected who owe thousands of dollars in arrears, as is reported in the media but beat up and ridicule the financially disadvantaged even if the water bills of these residents is as low as $160.

The most famous quote in Orwell’s allegorical novel, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” brings the reality of DWSD’s disgraceful action to light more than anything else. It fosters the idea that Detroit’s water officials believe that certain people need to pay up quickly, and others can take their time to pay when its convenient to do, or after they are publicly shamed to address their delinquency.

The New York Times editorial page last week highlighted a story about the contradiction and selected enforcement of water bills in Detroit by DWSD. The story, written by Anna Clark, is all too familiar. But the reason why the story in the Times is resonating as a real issue is because the crisis of conscience at the water department landed on the pages of the world’s most influential newspaper.

But Clark’s story of a 90-year-old senior with bedsores and no water available to clean her up, or the family of five that went for days without water are just the tip of the iceberg in what longtime welfare rights advocates like Maureen Taylor and others have been demanding and calling our attention to.

For long, Taylor and others have been pricking the conscience of the powerful in government in a righteous indignation fashion calling attention to what the world now sees as unbearable and unacceptable.

Granted, those who are financially equipped need to pay up their bills forthwith. There should be no issue about that. But the problem as we have seen is that often it is generally the most disadvantaged who are put through the rigors of enforcement when there are bigger culprits walking away without paying a dime on their bill.

A case in point, as the New York Times correctly stated, Joe Louis Arena, the home of the Detroit Red Wings, owes an estimated $82,000 to the water department. Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play, owes $55,000. Golf courses in Detroit owe some $400,000. Guess what? As of June 2 when the Times wrote the story none of these powerfully connected businesses have paid up their bills.

The average monthly water bill in Detroit is $75. DWSD brags about its enforcement as reflected in some of the comments that its deputy director, Darryl Latimer, made in the press and at the same time he denied a selective enforcement method.

“Nobody’s been shut off without notice. By all means, we want to go after commercial properties. That’s where you get the most bang for your buck,” Latimer told the Detroit Free Press in May.

But the problem with Latimer’s explanation, which sounds like a convenient filibuster, is that it has yet to bear any results. His words have not matched is actions. He has not executed any shutoff on Joe Louis Arena, Ford Field and other businesses that owe and he is very well aware of it.

If you are going to apply the law, do so accordingly without fear or favor. You can’t have thousands of residents have their water shut off and then let those you say will give you “the most bang for your buck” off the hook.

Latimer and his team are playing “Animal Farm” politics with Detroit residents and it is hard to tell if he is the personification of Squealer or Napoleon in “Animal Farm.” At this point it doesn’t matter to me what character Latimer or other officials at the water department playing in this human crisis.

What matters is that Detroit has a human rights crisis. Access to water is a fundamental human right. If an estimated three thousand residents have their water shut off that is a real problem. Detroit’s civic leaders cannot be silent.

The United Nations, which the United States is a signatory of, recognizes the human right to water and sanitation, acknowledging that “clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights.”

The Detroit Water Brigade has been delivering gallons of water to residents whose water has been shut off.

“In the 21st Century, in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one should ever go without safe, clean water. These steps are just the beginning. We will ensure that this public health crisis is resolved and never repeated,” Congressman John Conyers said.

To the point raised by Conyers, it is a shame that we can even fathom that someone in Detroit is living without access to clean water and sanitation.

Where is the moral compass of our public officials?

Where is the political will of city leadership to demand a halt to an emerging public health crisis?

Where is the responsible civic leadership in Detroit that will call on DWSD to reconsider its actions especially in the case of those who are honestly in dire straits including some of our seniors?

DWSD officials keep telling us that there is a plan to help those who are financially challenged pay their bills. But what they have not told us is how many of those people are on the list of shutoff notices. How effective is this program? Is it just an other layer of bureaucracy?

All is not well in Detroit if a struggling family with children can sit home without access to clean water.

The city’s comeback is a fairy tale if the majority of the people who are still down on the economic ladder feel neglected and subjected to harsh water enforcement when powerful organizations that owe thousands in water bills are not doing what the poor are being required to do — pay up.

This is not the Soviet Union and we expect the water department to be cognizant of the double standard it is currently engaging in.

I would recommend that officials of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which centrally asserts that “every human being is born free, equal in dignity and right.” That right doesn’t belong to some. It belongs to everyone and no one should be made to feel less because of unfairness.

Those who serve the public good ought to know better and engage in ways that demonstrate goodwill and fair play.

I am not saying that those who owe should not pay their legitimate water bills. What I am saying is that Latimer and his team at the water department cannot act like dictators, choosing who they would enforce payment of bills on.

If the water department is badly in need of that money, then collect it from everyone who owes, and don’t skip certain businesses or buildings based on whose names are on the titles.

I am waiting to see if Latimer will face up to the challenge and implement the law across the board without first checking the Who’s Who list.

  After all, the water department officials serve in the interest of the public. And that is where their allegiance should lie, and not to anyone else when it comes to doing their job as required. Most importantly we all crave for a one Detroit that belongs to everyone not just to some. And government must take the lead to ensure fairness and it begins at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and author of a forthcoming book on Detroit. His most recent book, “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” deals with the politics of the religious right, Black theology and the president’s faith posture across a myriad of issues with an epilogue written by former White House spokesman Robert S. Weiner. He is a senior political analyst at WDET-101.9FM (Detroit Public Radio) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” Sunday roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York. Email or visit


From the Web