Detroit gets the Daily Show treatment, looks stupid for shutting off water to the poor while keeping it flowing to non-bill-paying golf courses and professional sports franchises

Earlier this year, as I’m sure you’ll all remember, a decision was made by the powers-that-be in Detroit to terminate water service at several thousand residences. This, we were told, was absolutely necessary, given the fact that the City was insolvent, and could no longer afford to provide services, even critical ones, to those who refused to pay their bills. And, with that, an international shit storm was born. The United Nations opened a human rights investigation, and news crews from around the world descended upon the City, where people had literally taken to the streets in protest of a policy that not only deprived Detroit’s most vulnerable citizens of clean drinking water, but also threatened to bring about a public health emergency as toilets across the City began overflowing. Well, it would seem the national media, after a bit of a hiatus, is showing renewed interest in the story. The following appeared last night on the Daily Show.

For what it’s worth, the shut-offs haven’t ended. There was a brief reprieve once the story first went national, but it didn’t last long, and, according to the Lansing State Journal, there were 5,100 new shut-offs in September, and another 4,200 in October, bringing the total since January 1, 2014 to 31,300.

There are three things I liked about the above Daily Show piece quite a bit. First, I liked that they pointed out the hypocrisy of cutting water to Detroit’s poorest citizens while allowing it to keep flowing to private golf courses, and the homes of the Red Wings and Lions, in spite of the fact that they owe hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Water Department. Second, I liked the old white guy demonstrating how he needed water on the golf course in order to wash his balls. And, third, I loved the following exchange between the Daily Show’s Jessica Williams and Nolan Finley, the Detroit News editorial page editor.

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Finley, to his credit, pretty much admitted that he came across badly in the segment, saying a few days ago on Twitter that he was just happy not to have fallen for their trick and accepted the water they kept offering him over the course of the 90-minute interview.

If you have a moment, and would like to know more about the ongoing water crisis in Detroit, I’d suggest that you watch the video I shared earlier this summer from the Netroots Nation conference in Detroit featuring Abayomi Azikiwe of Moratorium Now!, Meredith Begin of Food and Water Watch, Monica Lewis-Patrick of We the People Detroit, Jean Ross of National Nurses United, and Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, who, by the way, was leading a petition drive in 2009 to “make water affordable and stop shutting off the water of low-income people” in Detroit. (The session, titled Turn on the Water! How Locals are Fighting Back Against the Shutoffs, was moderated by Peter Hammer, the director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University.)

I know there’s a temptation to see this as something other than a civil rights issue. It’s easy, I know, to see this as an example of lazy Detroiters, once again, looking to game the system. I’d argue, however, that it has more to do with the cost of being poor in America than anything else. Wages are dropping. Cost of living is rising. And utilities, especially in rapidly-depopulating urban communities like Detroit, are becoming more costly to those who remain. It’s a proverbial perfect storm. I know people like to look at Detroit with scorn and horror, but I really do think that we’ll eventually begin to see this everywhere, as the American middle class slowly disappears.

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9 Comments

  1. 734
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Here’s an interesting idea. What if this isn’t about money at all, but about driving poor black people out of the city so that rich white developers can move in.

  2. Matt
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I used to see Detroit as a down on it’s luck go-getter with a hard working population trying it’s best to turn things around. Now that I’ve been an outsider for a few years, I see Detroit as a city destroyed by greed with new a plan in place to eliminate the poor and create a new arena of wealth for corporations. Dan Gilbert and six other rich people are going to own all of Detroit pretty soon and I assume their focus will be making more money, not making sure poor people have water.

  3. Lynne
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    I loved the piece! It was hilarious and it made a good point.

    What bothers me is that it was one of the better pieces I have seen on the subject. The reason is that because they are a comedy show, they don’t have any real obligation to uphold any standards of journalistic integrity but yet, they have become a primary source for news because they are willing to go out on a limb to cover issues like this. I guess I see this as something that should more of a supplement to the news rather than the news itself.

  4. Tony
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Having worked with the City of Detroit in my past, I can tell you that it’s a bit more nuanced than this. I still think what’s happening is hypocritical, but imagine you’re the mayor and you get a call from Mike Illitch angry as hell because he got a water shutoff notice and if you shut off his water, he’s going to bury the city even deeper by moving the Red Wings out of Joe Louis. Finley did come across as an A-class butthole in the piece, but there’s also a lot to be said about entitlement. It’s true that no one has “said” they want free water, but go and ask the City how much of their property taxes get paid. The City has a collections problem, plain and simple. It’s providing city services using some infrastructure built in the 1800’s across a geographic footprint that’s not sustainable to a dwindling population that either is unwilling to pay its bills or can’t. That’s not a good situation.

    Cutting off water can be life-threatening and it’s a shame there isn’t a program in place so when people are really in need, it doesn’t come to this, but I think the story was presented somewhat one-sided.

    Finally, driving poor black people out of Detroit isn’t going to work. Where would they go? You think they don’t want to leave? They interview a few folks that have loud, screechy voices about never wanting to leave Detroit, but behind closed doors, when you talk to black folks trying to make an honest living barely scraping by…and you ask them, “Do you want to leave Detroit?” They will look you square in the eye and say, “Are you kidding? My house has been broken into 3 times in the past 3 months. I’m afraid for my kids everyday. As soon as I have enough saved up, I’m outta here.”

  5. Kirk Westphal
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    The sad fact is that water, gas, and power shut-offs are happening around the country, every day. People are being evicted for property tax nonpayment every day. Does the number of people being shut off in Detroit even come close to the rest of the Midwest, let alone the country? I have’t seen the numbers, but I doubt it. These are more concentrated in Detroit for obvious reasons and “diffuse” issues don’t get as much attention. Detroit has, by a landslide, more problems than every other American city. They also need to make sure they collect their bills more than every other American city.

    I like the Daily Show. Yes, they found a dude who tosses around the lovely “those people” and “freeloader” phrases. But the overall argument that Detroit is targeting poor people or that water is a right or that Detroit hasn’t enforced payment from sports arenas first are a distraction and, to me, kind of a lot to heap onto a city than can’t even respond to 911.

    It’s like saying, “Evictions target poor people, so stop doing it” or “Why don’t you collect income taxes from offshore Wall Street firms before me?” These are all valid, nationwide social concerns, but are we going to make Detroit—probably in the weakest position to tackle them—solve them? Maybe Detroit has an opportunity to be a place where we initiate social policy that can inform the rest of the country. I’d love that, but I doubt their staff has time to do studies on it.

    Judging from segments like this, it’s hard to tell if the problem is that they’re being too slow to invent a payment plan, if payment plans are even possible or feasible for people with a given income level, why previous efforts have failed, how other cities do this, etc. That seems to be more constructive—but obviously not great fodder for comedians.

  6. Cartman
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    “Where will they go?” Tony, did you read this article on the flood of homeless making their way into Ann Arbor?

    http://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2014/11/ann_arbor_homeless_shelter_rep.html

  7. Chaely Chartier
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know, call me naive but I think it’s pretty ignorant to assume that it would require a dream team of people studying the social impact of folks trying to live without utilities while they attempt to carry on with life in order to be able to pay back unpaid bills, before the city can decide if it’s better to put them or a local business who already receives other funding & tax breaks from the city & state into a hardship situation. We can keep acting like this is the first time we’ve seen a bailout situation play out & that it’s going to take years of strategic planning to determine the best course of action, but I remember what happened every other time someone threw the handouts at the top of the food chain & waited for them to trickle down… I’m still waiting for someone to explain how allowing big businesses to evade taxes & bills benefits the rest of us.

  8. Tony
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Cartman, appalling article and valid point.

    Perhaps I spoke with too much optimism that the conditions in Detroit wouldn’t get so bad to take people who are barely scraping by and turn them into homeless people where their only choice would be to panhandle at Main and Liberty in Ann Arbor.

    If this really happens on a large scale, then Detroit pretty much starts looking like Syria and Ann Arbor looks like Jordan.

  9. Jeff Hayner
    Posted September 29, 2015 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    Know this is an old post, but it is disturbing to think that that is actually a comment from current Ann Arbor City Council Member Westphal. coming to the defense of Detroit’s abhorrent strategy of selective shut-offs. Also, no mention of the fact that all of the water shut-off programs were initiated under the watchful eye of Ann Arbor’s former director of public works, Sue McCormick, who is took her Ann Arbor pension, and doubled down with a Detroit city salary in her new job as Director of Detroit Water and Sewage Department.

    Once she took hold in Detroit, the fix was in:

    http://voiceofdetroit.net/2013/03/12/grand-theft-of-detroits-water-dept-imminent-water-board-mtg-wed-march-13-2pm/

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