MCHR Cosigns Powerful Message on Water Crisis to President, HHS Secretary Burwell

President Barack H. Obama
The White House
Washington, DC  20500
Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell
Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, DC  20201

August 5, 2014

Dear President Obama and Secretary Burwell,
 
We, the undersigned organizations, call on you to take urgent action to stop the growing public health crisis in Detroit, Michigan. Right now, during the heat of summer, thousands of Detroit residents are living without running water in their homes; they do not have water to drink, cook food, bathe, wash their hands or flush their toilets. This could lead to disease outbreaks and pandemics. Based on statistics compiled by the CDC, more than 700,000 young children worldwide die each year from diarrheal diseases related to inadequate water for drinking, hygiene and sanitation. This preventable loss of life in underdeveloped countries is deplorable, and it is unconscionable that children in Detroit, who live in the wealthiest country in the world, should be placed at such risk. This is a public health emergency, and you have the power to stop it.
Secretary Burwell, we ask that you use your authority under section 319 of the Public Health Service Act to declare that a public health emergency exists as a consequence of widespread water service disconnections in Detroit, Michigan. Upon such declaration, we implore you to make funding available from the Public Health Emergency Fund to provide economic relief to restore water service to Detroit residents. We further request that your department investigate the circumstances and policies leading to the crisis, hold public hearings to provide a venue for Detroiters to speak to the causes, consequences and solutions to the crisis, and identify changes necessary to prevent such a crisis from occurring again. A substantive remedy would be the full implementation of the 2005 Water Affordability Program previously adopted by the Detroit city council.
In March, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, under the direction of state-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, announced an aggressive campaign to disconnect the water service of thousands of households that are either $150 or 60 days behind on their water bills. In Detroit, 38.1 percent of residents, including more than half of children, are living in poverty. Over the last decade, residential water charges have more than doubled. Many Detroit households simply cannot afford to pay their water bills.  This inhumane and unjust policy, which was adopted in the course of Orr’s and Governor Rick Snyder’s efforts to “restructure” Detroit, disproportionately affects African Americans and exposes issues of racial discrimination and the undemocratic suppression of local government accountability in Michigan.
By mid-July, the department had disconnected the water service of around 17,000 households, affecting more than 46,000 people. Only about 55 percent of households are reconnected within 24 hours. The remaining 21,000 or so people may still lack running water in their homes. On July 21, following large protests, widespread media scrutiny and a lawsuit challenging the shutoffs, the water department announced a 15-day suspension on new service disconnections. During this period, however, the department continued to disconnect customers including dozens of households in a 44-unit apartment complex. Upon the expiration of the limited respite, which was extended for an additional 10 days, the department will again shut off water service to as many as 3,000 households a week. About 90,000 customers are at risk of losing water service.
Now is the time to act to prevent a public health calamity. We urge you to declare a public health emergency to immediately stop the water shutoffs and restore water service to Detroit residents.
Sincerely,
BankACT
Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership
Capuchin Soup Kitchen
Center for Media and Democracy/The Progressive Inc.
CMU Student Environmental Alliance
CMU Take Back the Tap
CODEPINK
Corporate Accountability International
Council of Canadians
Covenant 5 (Community of Diocesan Ministries Working for Justice & Peace), Episcopal Diocese of Michigan
Daily Kos
DARE-Detroit Active & Retired Employees
Democracy for America
Democratic Socialists of America
Detroit Center for Community Advancement
Detroit Green Party
Detroit Music Teachers Collective
Detroit People’s Platform
Detroit Youth Volume
Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management
Divest CMU
East Michigan Environmental Action Council
Economic Justice Alliance of Michigan (EJAM is a collaboration of Center for Progressive Leadership, Mothering Justice, Building Movement Project/Detroit People’s Platform, MOSES and ROC-MI)
Food & Water Watch
Free Clinics of Michigan
Free Detroit No Consent
Global Exchange
Gray Panthers of Metro Detroit
Greenpeace
Learn With Detroit
Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation
Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands
Michigan Coalition for Human Rights
Michigan Welfare Rights Organization
Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shutoffs
National Economic & Social Rights Initiative
National Lawyers Guild, Detroit/Michigan Chapter
National Nurses United
Netroots Nation
People’s Water Board
Progressive Democrats of America
Projects for Environmental Health, Knowledge, & Action, Inc.
Public Science Project
RH Reality Check
Sierra Club, Great Lakes Program
Sisters of Mercy West Midwest Community Justice Team
Street Democracy
Strong&Beautiful Girls Group, Capuchin Soup Kitchen
Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice
Water Defense
Wayne Association for Collective Housing
We the People of Detroit
Working Families Organization

Kim Redigan: An Open Letter to My Students After My Arrest for Disorderly Conduct

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Dear students:

Some of you have contacted me after seeing news of my arrest for a nonviolent action around the water shutoffs here in Detroit. While I am touched by your concern, I implore you to reserve your support for those being affected by the shutoffs and your own generation, which, unless things change, is on track to inherit a commodified world in which beauty, nature, life itself will be sold off to the lowest corporate bidder, an affront to all that is good, decent and human.

The action in which I and several others engaged was only a small gesture of loving resistance, a humble offering of our own bodies against the dehumanizing and democracy-crushing effects of life under Detroit’s state-appointed emergency manager. Pope Paul VI once said the world needs witnesses more than it needs teachers, and in times like these, to be a teacher may mean to move the classroom to the street in order to bear witness to the grave injustices that are harming our neighbors.

The glaring disparity between the rich and the poor in Detroit and the breathtaking rapidity with which that gap is widening is downright biblical. With its adult sandboxes, whimsically painted street-side pianos, and upscale lofts, downtown Detroit has become a glittering playground for the pioneers of the “new” Detroit while blocks away, children are unable to brush their teeth or flush their toilets.

To put it plainly, this is sin. “I was thirsty, and you … shut off my water.”

While I know that for some of you, the image of one of your teachers being led off in handcuffs is jarring, you should not be surprised. As discussed in class, we plant our feet on the good soil of a biblical tradition and body of social teachings that demand justice and a preferential option for the poor. If we fail to incarnate these teachings, they remain dry as dust. How can we study the prophets, the Gospels, the encyclicals, and the saints and not act? As it has been said, “To know and not to do is not yet to know.”

After witnessing home after home being shut off in the early-morning hours where contractors mark their work with a bold streak of blue spray paint (an action that suggests a sort of reverse Passover ritual), after listening to stories of people trying to stave off the inevitable (life is always complicated when money is tight), and after stuffing towelettes into baggies for elders to use as bathing kits, I had to act.

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When I joined others in blocking the contracted shutoff trucks from leaving that morning, I acted as a mother, teacher and follower of Jesus, conscious of the privilege I carry, a privilege not afforded those who are so often casualties of a soul-numbing legal system that discriminates against the poor and people of color.

In light of those whose very existence in the face of brutal and unrelenting injustice is a daily act of resistance, our action was a mere crumb, a tiny ripple, an embarrassingly small gesture of solidarity. A way of trying to bring some decency and order to a disordered situation.

Ironically, we were arrested for disorderly conduct, an interesting charge for a teacher whose daily life of bells, schedules, and respectful classroom conversation is predicated on good order. There is another kind of order, however, that throughout history has been used to keep the boots of brutes and empires on the backs of people, especially the poor and vulnerable.

This was the so-called order of the day that prompted the prophets to raise their voices to the high heavens over the ruthless exploitation of widows and orphans and the oppressive order of the day that compelled Jesus to turn over tables in the temple.

And this is the gut-wrenching, heartbreaking order of the day here in Detroit, where tens of thousands of people are having their water shut off despite the protestations of local citizens, nurses from around the country, the United Nations, and people of goodwill from around the globe.

No, if anything is disorderly, it is an imposed system of governance that is disenfranchising citizens (especially in African-American communities), uprooting the poor and working class, privatizing the commons, and denying babies and elders the human right to water.

In biblical terms, the disorder of the present moment can best be understood as an aggressive assault by the powers and principalities, rapacious (dare I say demonic) economic and social forces that are crushing the poor in gross violation of the law of love articulated in Matthew 25 and the beatitudes.

This is a time for both lamentation and action. A time to wage love, as the mother of Detroit’s water movement, Charity Hicks, counseled, with all the courage and compassion we can muster.

There is much more I want to say, but when I see you in class in a few weeks, we will discuss these things.

You are scholars — do the research and then take to heart the words of Pope Francis who rails against the idolatry of money, the “new tyranny,” as he calls it.

When we get back to school, we will sit quietly with Francis’ question: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” One of the first things we’ll do upon our return is discuss the core principle of Catholic social teaching — the dignity of the human person — something worth pondering in times such as these.

For now, turn your attention to those around you and your own future. Know that there are elders in the community who have given their lives to this struggle for a very long time and come to this sacred work with hard-fought wisdom. Listen to them. Respect them. Learn from them. Stand in solidarity with the good and graced work already going on.

Study the historical context of the present moment, do social analysis in concert with others, and then decide where to place your feet.

Jesus chose to stand with the least among us. Where will you choose to stand?

What will you do to bring good order to a disordered world that needs you to wage love with everything you’ve got?

As published August 6th, 2014 in National Catholic Reporter

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Kim Redigan is the Vice-Chair of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, Secretary of
Pax Christi Michigan’s State Council, and on the Coordinating Committee of the Detroit Area
Peace and Justice Network, where she represents Meta Peace Team (formerly Michigan Peace
Team), and the Detroit Catholic Worker. Kim spends most of her time working with Meta Peace
Team where she volunteers as a nonviolence trainer and serves on domestic and international
peace teams, including teams in the West Bank and Egypt. Kim has a Master’s degree in
Religious Studies from the University of Detroit Mercy, a B.A. in English from the University of
Michigan-Dearborn, and a Master of Arts in Social Justice from Marygrove College. Over the
past nine years, Kim has taught courses in World Religions, Catholic Social Teaching, and
Spiritual Biography at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School. Prior to that, Kim taught
English for ten years at Holy Redeemer High School in southwest Detroit. She is also involved
in Women in Black – Detroit and represents Pax Christi as a Jobs with Justice affiliate. Kim and
her husband Matt are parents of four children.