By Deonte Osayande
We Americans like to point a finger at the world, announcing how terrible it is out there, and how much better life is here. The truth of the matter is that there is a lot of pain and sorrow abroad, but the same is true of our own home nation. I never thought I would ask how it is possible to be deserted when in the center of an oasis, to be thirsty when surrounded by water. I reside in a city on the front lines of America’s tomorrow. Here in Detroit, a war is being waged on racial and class lines. Days ago there was a protest downtown over the mass shut off of residential water in the city. Although the city is facing a bankruptcy crisis, the privatization of water, the cutting of pensions and social services shows where the disparity is coming alive. Many are left questioning how an American metropolis, especially one by the world’s largest source of fresh water, is unable to provide water services to so many of its citizens. The answer to that question is that it is a deliberate act to remove the citizens physically to force restriction on a region for profit. It is a different form of imperialism instituted by those in power on the people they are supposed to serve.
Joe Lewis Arena, where the Detroit Red Wings currently play hockey, isn’t shut off and they owe over $80,000 to the water company. Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play football, isn’t shut off and they owe over $55,000 to the water company and golf courses across the city aren’t shut off when they owe more than $400,000 to the water company. The state of Michigan owes over $5,000,000 at the state fairgrounds within the city and they too aren’t shut off.
All of this is within weeks of the Emergency Financial Manager granting raises to city council members and a mayor that had done next to nothing for the citizens during this crisis. As of June 30th and effective July 1st pay raises of 5% were granted to these officials. It is true that Detroit has a financial crisis but it has also become clear that those in power are choosing economic gains over human beings, business interests over citizens and that is where the underlying problem comes to fruition.
Currently, I’m lucky to live in a midtown apartment, where things are always lively and vibrant. There is always something going on and as such, city services are always on call and working. I’m also one of the minorities that lives in this gradually changing pocket of town. I visit my parents on Detroit’s Westside almost daily. In these areas, where I grew up, there isn’t a strong police presence, definitely nothing like what I have seen in midtown. It takes them up to an hour to show up when called on and that is if they ever arrive at all. It has been that way for years now so it doesn’t surprise us anymore. What does surprise us is how they are suddenly so capable in areas like midtown and downtown where the people that have lived in Detroit their whole lives don’t frequent, but where suburbanites and newer residents do.
More than the city becoming a haven for business interests, it has become a location where we can plainly see American democracy has failed. Despite the people of the city of Detroit voting against the law that would provide an Emergency Financial Manager in November of 2012, in March of 2013 Kevin Orr was appointed the position after Governor Rick Snyder signed a revised version into law. Although the city had and still has a mayor and city council, this law gives Orr authority over the city’s finances and to an extent even gives him more power than the municipal authorities. The next step of questionable politics comes into play with the new mayor.
Mike Duggan was elected mayor over Detroit under heavily questionable circumstances. He moved from the suburb of Livonia to Detroit in 2012 but not in time to be able to have himself on the mayoral ballet. He continued to run as a write in candidate and received 52% of the vote in the primary and 55% in the mayoral run off. The controversy comes from there being such a narrow margin in his victory as mayor while there were reports of fraudulent votes and potential ballet tampering. Issues arose with the report of higher number of registered voters in the city than there are actual adults within the city. There was also a discrepancy in how many write in votes was actually counted in the election.
Five years before the current crisis, Former Emergency Financial Manager for Detroit Public Schools Robert Bobb attempted to improve the financial situation of the school system by closing twenty-nine schools and scheduled many others to be outsourced to charter school interests. Charter school systems are known to be a system that statistically performs either on par or just as poorly as many public schools. During this time, Former Police Chief Ralph Godbee reengineered the police precincts and for a period of time had the police stations working for only certain hours, mostly during the daytime.
Education and protection are human rights that a given government is supposed to provide for its citizens. This brings us back to the most villainous violation — the current water crisis. Although much of it is undrinkable our planet is over 70% water. It’s meant to be something that everyone can have. The current regime in power is aiming to privatize the water industry and capitalize off of the fresh water of the Great Lakes to supposedly improve Detroit’s financial situation but really more than likely make a profit off of it. When the cost of living in the area is growing anyway, it’s criminal to try to privatize the cost of water, something that falls from the sky for free. Even the statement that they are privatizing it is merely a shade, as many of the locations that owe the largest bills are presumably able to pay it aren’t being shut off, whereas the households of struggling citizens are. This is just one of many moves to get the original citizens of the city out.
All of this has come to show what may be the next American conflict in this century, a conflict of neo national imperialism. Detroit isn’t the only city in America currently going through a gentrification process but the aggressive means by which it is being forced into the city exemplifies where the issue lies. Population and demographic change is a part of any city but strategically forcing out certain citizens to make room for others is a new form of invading land and claiming it as your own.
My only hope is that citizens that have supported, lived in and stood by their cities for generations aren’t left behind as an afterthought in the process. Detroit is a city of very resilient residents but it has been that way for so long and the current challenge is a takeover that hasn’t been confronted in a place like this since colonial times. No matter what happens to the population here, I hope the citizens of other cities are paying attention. It only takes one instance of an idea working for it to become a trend. If Detroit is successfully forced into the hands of capitalist interests, pushing gentrification for profit, then it is only a matter of time before other cities see the same absurd attempts at privatizing and profiting off of what every human being has the right to have. If all goes through it is only a matter of time before people have to pay for sunlight in Phoenix, air in Oakland, or rain in Seattle. Detroit didn’t ask to be the sneak preview of the future, but what happens here could set the tone for how America is run for the next few generations on the municipal level. The very things our hometowns hold pride in may now start becoming too expensive for the residents to even have the opportunity to enjoy.
Deonte Osayande is a poet and writer from Detroit, Mi. His works have appeared in over a dozen journals and publications. He recently finished his Masters of Liberal Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy and proudly represents his hometown in many poetry competitions and slams. He is currently on the staff of the Adroit Journal and is a writer in residence with the Inside Out Literary Arts Project.