Privatization, Public Health, and the Detroit Water Crisis

Story Transcript

ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

At least 100,000 Detroit residents have had their water shut off since the city’s water and sewage department began mass shutoffs in April and May for residents who were delinquent on their bill. This comes weeks after a coalition of human rights groups submitted a report to the UN special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, calling on authorities to take immediate action to restore water services and stop further the cutoffs. As the crisis continues, Detroit labor, community, clergy, and environmental activists are planning to march and rally on Friday, July 18, to call for an immediate moratorium on the water shutoffs.

With us to bring us up to date on the Detroit water crisis are our two guests.

Bonnie Castillo is a registered nurse and director of the Registered Nurse Response Network, a project of National Nurses United, which is one of the groups participating in Friday’s protest. She also served as the government relations director for the California Nurses Association.

Also joining us is Monica Lewis Patrick. She’s a member of the People’s Water Board and We the People of Detroit.

Thank you both for joining us.

MONICA LEWIS PATRICK, COFOUNDER, WE THE PEOPLE OF DETROIT: Thank you for having me.

BONNIE CASTILLO, DIR., REGISTERED NURSE RESPONSE NETWORK, NNU: Thank you.

WORONCZUK: So, Monica, let’s begin with you. You worked on one of the groups that supported the report to the UN concerning the water shutoffs in Detroit. Give us an update on what has happened since you submitted the report.

LEWIS PATRICK: Yes. Well, there was a coalition of groups. It was the People’s Water Board, then Michigan Welfare Rights, as well as the see Sierra Club, Food & Water Watch. So it was a delegation of groups. And under the leadership of the amazing Maude Barlow, who is an international water guru, who is an expert at helping and assisting with filing these types of complaints, she was able to guide us through the process. And successfully we were able to get a ruling from the United Nations.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And, Bonnie, can you put the current situation in the context of public health? That is, what are the public health issues that you see here?

CASTILLO: Yes, absolutely. I mean, as registered nurses, we understand that this is really a public health emergency. Water is the most basic need for all human beings. It is the–it sustains life. And to be without it, ultimately to have the water shut off, really it forces patients and communities, families, out of their house to seek the very basic need that we all have as human beings, and that is water. As with regards to public health implications, it has vast implications in terms of not only sustaining, you know, oneself, but also in terms of maintaining health and preventing the spread of disease. And especially this is really–we have real concern for our most vulnerable, and specifically children and seniors.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And, Monica, in the mainstream media, you might see that this issue is represented simply as a matter of people who haven’t paid their bills on time, and therefore they don’t deserve water service. What would you say to that?

LEWIS PATRICK: Well, what I would say to that is that this is a matter of vulture capitalism at its best. There is a small portion of millionaires and billionaires in the state of Michigan that have decided that they want to commandeer and control a private asset that is so essential as the Detroit Water and Sewage Department. We provide water to 4.3 million Michiganders. We provide water to 128 municipalities and townships. So this has never been about Detroiters not willing to share their asset. We have maintained the water system, the infrastructure. We bear the brunt of the debt. There’s over $537 million of bad bond debt that’s attached to our water system.

So the thing that I think is so egregious is–a lot of people don’t know–is that we do not have full democracy in operation in the state of Michigan. We have a reptilian law known as emergency management, where the governor can actually manufacture a crisis, use that crisis to justify putting in a dictator over a municipality or school system, and therefore that one individual, who is unelected and unaccountable to the people, has total dictator rulership, total ability to bust unions, privatize, sell off, spin off major assets of the city of Detroit.

So it’s not that people don’t want to pay. You’ve got to look at the fact that over 40 percent of the citizens of Detroit live at or below the poverty level. They’re living off of less than $15,000 a year. Also mixed into that is that we are this week starting to go through bankruptcy, where a large portion of our pensioners are going to go from being middle-class citizens to forced into poverty as well if this contrived bankruptcy is allowed to move forward. It will ratchet down 60- and 70- and 80-year-old members of our community, who have paid and earned a pension, into poverty.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Bonnie. And the press release from National Nurses United calls calls to, quote, “Turn on the water! Tax Wall Street!” What’s the connection between the two?

CASTILLO: Well, you know, as Monica has indicated, I mean, the fact of the matter is that the citizens of Detroit have paid more than their fair share and have made many sacrifices. And to literally drive people from their homes in search of water is just immoral.

And so what we’re calling for is for the banks to be held accountable to stop these shady deals, which, you know, we understand. We’ve been watching what’s been happening with the bankruptcy, and what we do know is that there’s a whole lot of backdoor shady deals in which it really appears that this is a move to enforce a mass migration and push people out of their homes. So what we’re saying is tax Wall Street. And we are calling for the enactment of the Robin Hood tax and to hold the people that are responsible for this, really what is a man-made crisis.

WORONCZUK: And explain briefly for our audience the Robin Hood tax.

CASTILLO: The Robin Hood tax is a small, tiny tax on the most volatile kinds of trading that occurs in nanoseconds on Wall Street. And it is really a very minimal tax that would generate up to $350 billion in revenue yearly, more than enough–more than enough to address not only the water situation, but certainly public health in general, which is privatized here in Detroit, as well as education, and have plenty left over to fight, also, disease and build infrastructure, something that is really badly needed in Detroit and in many cities across the United States.

WORONCZUK: And, Monica, in the report that was submitted to the UN, it was said that African Americans in Detroit have been hit disproportionately by the water crisis. Can you talk about that?

LEWIS PATRICK: Yes. Well, to deal with all the particulars of this issue is that you’ve got to look at the systemic pieces of it. There has been a definite targeting of privatizing public education in the city of Detroit that definitely it is tie-barred to the fact that the majority of the persons in this state that own the charter schools also own a large portion of stock in the privatized prison system. You have to also look at the fact that as they have gone to the table, unions have come to the table in the city of Detroit and attempted to negotiate in good faith, actually giving up about $180 million a year, and you had the governor of this state stop that action because his agenda was to privatize everything in Detroit.

And then you have another piece of it that relates to what I believe is a most egregious part of it is the fact that we are seeing repeatedly that the social policies of Rick Snyder are bad for black people in Michigan, black and brown and poor people, because what he has done, he’s reduced the number of weeks that you can receive unemployment from 24 weeks down to 20. He’s reduced the services to low-income families. He has actually created a three-tier school system in Detroit that is definitely separate and unequal. He has made sure that he is taxing the pensions, so a lot of our working class and elderly are actually seeing less money come home and more money go out. I’m a knocking on doors, Anton, of 70- and 80-year-old citizens that are actually retirees of the city of Detroit who have not had water, not for days or months, but for six months to a year, because they have lost their health care, and with losing their health care, what it means is that they do not fall into the category of being able to qualify for the affordable health care plan. And so they’ve gone from paying $150 for their health care to paying about anywhere from $500 to $1300. They’ve gone from paying $50 for their medications to paying $350. So I don’t know about you, but I don’t know too many people that could bear that kind of weight of financial debt when their money is not increasing but all of these attacks are coming.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Bonnie Castillo and Monica Lewis Patrick, thank you both for joining us.

CASTILLO: Thank you.

LEWIS PATRICK: Thank you.

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

End

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