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Glen Ford Report: Detroit sits on the Great Lakes system that is the biggest source of fresh water on the planet and yet it is shutting off water of the poor, while providing deferrals to corporations

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

The City of Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings are now hearing testimony on the mass water shutoffs. Detroit’s water department defended its shutoff policy on Monday and warned that free service to people with unpaid bills could be very devastating to the bottom line of the city. What about the bottom line of the citizens? Whose side is the city on?

Now joining us to provide his report is Glen Ford. Glen Ford is the executive editor of the Black Agenda Report.

And, Glen, thank you for joining us today.


PERIES: So, Glen, what’s in your notebook today on Detroit?

FORD: Well, you said that the city is speaking on behalf of its citizens before that federal bankruptcy judge. And everybody uses that language. But we must remind everyone as well that the emergency manager of Detroit, imposed on the city, appointed by the Republican governor, is acting as the city. So even the fundamentals of the story are confusing and in many ways have people looking in the wrong direction.

The city, that is, the emergency financial manager, says that if they were to halt the cutoffs of water to thousands of poorer Detroiters, it wouldn’t be fair. It would be fair to the bondholders of the city water department. In other words, the city’s water department is more beholden to the rich individuals and institutions that hold the bonds than it is to its own citizens, even in the case of a vital life-giving resource such as water.

And that really, I think, is where the battle line has been drawn, and not just in Detroit, but across the nation and across the entire planet in this late stage of capitalism that some people call neoliberalism, in which the corporations are trying to swallow up all the resources of the world, public and private, for their own use. And so this story goes beyond the basic inequities in Detroit regarding water. The fact that although thousands–and tens of thousands, in fact–of poor households have been targeted for cutoff of their water, mainly businesses have been left alone, businesses that own millions of dollars in back water bills. But they’re not threatened.

And I think what we’re actually seeing in the guise of defending the bottom line of the Detroit water department is a continuation of the ethnic cleansing of Detroit, the ethnic and economic cleansing of the city, trying to get rid of all these poor people in Detroit so that a better business environment can be created.

PERIES: Glen, hold on for second. Are you saying that there’s businesses with unpaid water bills that are getting away with not paying, and their businesses aren’t being shut down?

FORD: Yes. Chrysler owns about owes about half a million dollars. Lots of other big businesses also have huge bills. And the state of Michigan, the state that appointed to the emergency financial manager who is speaking on behalf of Detroit, the state of Michigan owes more than $4 million to the Detroit water department. So these cutoffs are quite selective in terms of the class of customer that’s being cut off.

Also, in thousands of cases, the water leaks that are just draining away the resource are actually emanating from the foreclosed homes, homes that were–in which the people who live in them were put out because they couldn’t keep up with their mortgages, and so those homes were foreclosed, but often with water still running. The city of Detroit, or the emergency financial manager, did not see fit when they were doing their much vaunted blight survey to go into those houses and turn off the water. So we kept on draining the precious resource. Now, obviously, the water is not so important as the mission of getting rid of these poor people.

But back again to the fundamental problem that underlies all of this: if the water department in Detroit, which is still public, is actually accountable to the people who own the bonds, then it’s really not public. It has already, in the most fundamental sense, been privatized. And that goes for any public agency that operates on the same philosophy, that the bondholder comes first. And it goes for all the cities–and all cities float bonds–it all goes for all cities that have that philosophy, that the interests of the bondholder are supreme.

You know, the people in Detroit wonder out loud all the time why water should be so expensive when Detroit sits on the Great Lakes, which is the biggest reservoir of fresh water on the entire planet. But if all of these agencies, most of them public, that process the water to bring it to households are more accountable to bondholders, as Detroit’s water department is, more accountable to the rich capitalists who hold these financial instruments than they are to the people at the end of the faucet, then the Great Lakes themselves have actually been privatized. And I think that if we look at it that way, then we see that this irrational capitalism in this age that people call neoliberalism is actually accelerating and creating the same kinds of scarcities that we associate with climate change. And it’s very difficult to separate those symptoms, those consequences between what happens under capitalism and what happens under a climate change that is largely produced by capitalism.

PERIES: Glen, if Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola can get free water, why can’t ordinary citizens?

FORD: Well, that is the fundamental question. And if water can’t be free and we know that we need that with regularity for life, I guess air should not be free either. Nothing that human beings, just by virtue of being human beings, not just citizens of a country, but human beings, are owed nothing by their fellow human beings. In other words, there is no social compact among people whatsoever. And that in fact is the philosophy that underlies capitalism.

PERIES: Perhaps there is a solution. I mean, in a place like Bolivia, Evo Morales was very involved in the water wars there, and now he’s elected president of Bolivia. Maybe the Detroit people could look at a solution of that sort.

FORD: That certainly should be one of our demands. However, on Sunday, with this giant march in New York City, the organizers of it made no demands it all. So we should start making demands that apply to not just climate change but the scarcities that result from neoliberal swallowing up of resources as well, and free water ought to be at the top, right along with free air.

PERIES: Thank you so much for joining us, Glen.

FORD: And thank you for the opportunity.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Glen Ford is a distinguished radio-show host and commentator. In 1977, Ford co-launched, produced and hosted America's Black Forum, the first nationally syndicated Black news interview program on commercial television. In 1987, Ford launched Rap It Up, the first nationally syndicated Hip Hop music show, broadcast on 65 radio stations. Ford co-founded the Black Commentator in 2002 and in 2006 he launched the Black Agenda Report. Ford is also the author of The Big Lie: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of the Grenada Invasion.