“I am my community, and we are thirsty.” – Antonio Cosme
In January of this year, the contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan made national headlines and dominated social media feeds for weeks. The situation, eventually declared a man-made state of emergency by President Obama, was not new at the time (and is still ongoing) but the questions that were raised opened many Americans’ eyes yet again to the wanton disregard for the health and wellbeing of our nation’s most vulnerable people.
Today, about an hour south of Flint, Michigan’s largest city is suffering from water issues of its own. For the past few years, the City of Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) has been shutting off water to people’s homes–leaving tens of thousands of residents without access–in response to back-owed water bills. In 2014, artist and activist Antonio Cosme was arrested for allegedly climbing the water tower overlooking the Highland Park area of Detroit and painting a mural that read “FREE THE WATER” in large black letters with a fist outlined next to it. Now, two years later, Cosme and his colleague, William Lucka, are facing felony charges for painting the mural, legal action which could result in over $75,000 in fines and even possible jail time. (Cosme isn’t the only one to publicly condemn the cutoffs; in 2014 a UN panel called the DWSD’s actions a violation of human rights.)
“For me as an artist, I am motivated by the reality of my community. I just don’t see it any other way,” says Cosme in interview with Okayplayer. Born and raised in the Southwest Detroit, Cosme feels an inextricable link between his work as an artist and these current crises facing people in his city. His Raiz Up Collective uses art and hip hop to organize and mobilize the black, Chicano and indigenous communities of Detroit to support and design community-based actions, and in their words, “decolonize” the city.
As such, a major part in any decolonization movement must be to dismantle the institutions that maintain and support the colonial order, as the FREE THE WATER mural pointed out for Highland Park residents. Even if you believe it to be fair for those with unpaid bills to have their water turned off, the DWSD hasn’t been enforcing this policy equally, revealing a specific targeting of residents. According to city statistics, residential delinquencies total $26 million, while non-residential delinquencies – meaning businesses and other institutions – total an estimated $41 million, almost twice as much. And what are the resultant shut off rates? Last year alone, there were 23,300 residential shut offs and only 680 non-residential shut offs. Since the shut off plan began in 2014, an estimated 50,000 homes have lost access to water.
In order to fully grasp what’s happening in Detroit, and what Cosme and The Raiz Up are speaking out against, context is key. By relative population, Detroit is the blackest city in America, and one of the most segregated. As a metro area, it contains the highest concentration of urban poverty in the United States. In 2013, the entire city filed for bankruptcy. The well-documented “decline of Detroit” narrative shrouds the city in its former shadow; where once stood a shining testament to American manufacturing and cultural power (Motown, anyone?), the Detroit of today represents the unequal failure of the so-called American dream, and a closer look at the power relations in the fight over water reveals just who that dream hits hardest when it comes crashing down.
When cities get bad, people leave – but not everyone is able to do so with equal opportunity (or even want to, for that matter). Once a record-high recipient of federal funds, the remaining black and brown population of Detroit was expected disproportionately to pick up the bill of the US financial crisis, as predominantly white regulators at the state level attempted to balance their own books by starving the city of its fair share of state tax revenues. Though under-reported, these political games were a major contributor to the city’s bankruptcy, which allowed many of those same-level politicians to step in and relieve the city’s elected officials of decision-making power. Not surprisingly they also left schools, libraries, and other civic institutions abandoned, homes foreclosed on, and people in dire poverty. Says Cosme, “Northern industrial cities like Detroit have been ignored for the last 20 to 30 years, and allowed to sit in these fucked up conditions, and now the government wants to take [them] back. The water shut offs, the foreclosures, they are all part of an agenda to rid the city of poor black people. It’s pretty standard ‘urban renewal’ policy: remove the poor people, remove their water, their houses, and push them out.”
Why would the city want to push these people out, if the city itself is already so depleted?