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Water trials

Jackie Euper at UMW Water Rally in Portland 2016

World Water Day was observed March 22, 2019. The Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann spoke at a Water Day event in Detroit that addressed Michigan’s water concerns.

Michigan Conference Board of Justice

In January I was acquitted, by a Detroit jury, of blocking the QLine, a Woodward Avenue street car that exclusively serves downtown development at the expense of city neighborhoods. It was an act of civil disobedience with the Michigan Poor Peoples Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (of which the General Board of Church and Society is an endorsing partner).

Called by some the “Gilbert 7,” we argued that what we did was justified by the imminent harm being done to Detroit residents, who are being expelled from neighborhoods and city by foreclosures, school closings, and water shut-offs. The latter represents not just commodification of water, but its weaponization, assaulting human life. It is an aggression against low income Black and Brown people.

We were able to present expert testimony that stopping shut-offs and implementing the water affordability plan of 2005 (which has since been enacted in Baltimore and Philadelphia) would keep people in their homes, on the water system, and in the City. To their credit, a majority on the jury agreed.

On May 14, a larger group of us with the PPC are facing trial in Lansing for an action blocking all doors to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and surrounding the building with yellow crime scene tape. Much like the indigenous peoples of Michigan land, St. Francis called water “our sister.” In that sense, the crimes we named are against Water herself. As creature and kin, she has been assaulted: poisoned, polluted, fracked, commodified, privatized, and yes, weaponized. As a commons and relation, Water has been turned from a gift of grace and subjected to these forms of death. And so, they are also crimes against human life.

People joined the action from the four directions of the state and we looked back toward one another’s homes.        

  • To the east…we witness the callous poisoning of Flint, a Black majority city, in which MDEQ and Emergency Management were complicit.
  • To the north…the Department’s role in permitting Line 5, an underwater pipeline endangering the Strait and the Great Lakes, which also carries the dirty energy befouling our planet and driving climate catastrophe. We also witness the massive commodification of the aquifer by Nestle, and the abuse of the waters in the permitting of fracking.
  • To the west…we saw the damage from the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill, another Enbridge pipeline, the cost of which clean-up is hardly covered by the $166 million settlement. And as everywhere in the state, contamination of water supplies with PFAS, which the MDEQ has been so slow to monitor and prevent.
  • Here in our city to the South…even beyond the shut-offs, U.S. Ecology has been granted permits to import fracking waste into urban neighborhoods, there to “clean” it, pouring millions of gallons of waste directly into the Detroit sewer system.            

Such a list breaks our hearts and summons the gospel nonviolence of our steadfast resistance. Those on trial will attempt to put these very crimes before an Ingham county jury.

Pray with us that they will find our action more than justified.

~Bill Wylie-Kellermann is a retired United Methodist pastor in Michigan. This article is adapted from his remarks at a press conference on World Water Day 2019 at the Charles Wright African American Museum. His book, Where the Water Goes Around: Beloved Detroit (Cascade, 2017) includes an account of the Detroit water struggle. Learn more about World Water Day at: www.water.org/International/Water-Day


Last Updated on November 1, 2023

The Michigan Conference