Why I'm Starting a Union in Detroit

There is no power in the world that can Read more

Dispatch from Detroit: Turn Back on the Power

Last week, my good friend Pastor Ray Anderson of Read more

Dispatch from Detroit: Phones in the Hands of the Homeless

It's difficult for me to stomach the news that Read more

Why I’m Starting a Union in Detroit

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A formerly homeless Detroiter painting the new office of the Detroit Workers and Builders in northwest Detroit. May, 2015

A formerly homeless Detroiter painting the new office of the Detroit Workers and Builders in northwest Detroit. May, 2015

There is no power in the world that can stop the forward march of free men and women when they are joined in the solidarity of human brotherhood. —Walter Reuther

As a kid, I used to drive up and down I-696, the Walter P. Reuther freeway, in suburban Detroit all the time. I didn’t think much of the namesake of Detroit’s autobahn, as it’s been called. Who was Walter Reuther? The American labor leader, union organizer, fiery orator and socialist, marched with MLK Jr. in Washington in 1963 and made TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of the 20th century. I was young and took for granted the great legacy of the men and women who built Detroit and claimed for working people its abundant riches.

Today, Detroit is a very different place. Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera’s Detroit of 1932 is a world away from Mike Duggan’s Detroit of 2015. While Diego painted Detroit Industry onto the walls of the DIA, labor strikes and skirmishes erupted on the streets of a thriving industrial metropolis. The Battle of the Overpass in 1937 left union organizers beaten and bruised and tore open the brewing conflict that would win the young United Auto Workers (UAW) union a contract with Ford three years later. Walter Reuther was there.

Today, Detroit is experiencing a “comeback” that begs a simple question: whose comeback will it be? Without a few brave Walter Reuthers and a whole lot of organizing, I fear it will be Dan Gilbert and Mike Ilitch’s comeback alone. We have an opportunity to change that, for the 100,000+ unemployed and underemployed Detroiters who stuck it out through the city’s darkest days. For the 16,000+ homeless Detroiters, over 5,000 of which are youth. In a city with thousands of abandoned homes begging for renovation and renewal. In a city that says it’s too broke to fix the roads and the water mains and the blight.

Today, Detroit is getting a new union: the Detroit Workers and Builders. Inspired by the success of the Detroit Water Brigade, which I co-founded last year, I am committing myself to organizing Detroit’s homeless and unemployed to demand (and command) good-paying jobs. Instead of cutting off the water, let’s put Detroit to work fixing the crumbling water system. Instead of evicting families from their homes, let’s put Detroit to work demolishing and renovating blighted property. Instead of mass incarceration, let’s demand full employment at dignified wages.

Some of you might say this is impossible, a utopian pipe dream. Yet, who would have imagined one year ago that the Detroit Water Brigade would have put over 500 volunteer canvassers in the streets delivering aid and connecting families to assistance? Who would have imagined that the city would have halted their water shutoffs, implemented wide-ranging assistance programs, and is now studying affordability measures? Even the Mayor himself pledged last September:

We are going to go through this city and rebuild our water system the way it should have been built years ago… [create] thousands of jobs

Let’s hold the Mayor to this pledge. Let’s put Detroit to work.

The Detroit Workers and Builders union will launch on June 1st with a party and fundraiser at its new headquarters in the House of Help Community Center, 23700 Clarita St, Detroit. 6pm. Get tickets here!

Dispatch from Detroit: Turn Back on the Power

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Last week, my good friend Pastor Ray Anderson of the House of Help Community Center in hard-hit northwest Detroit called me with some bad news: the lights were out in his building. The monopoly private utility company, DTE Energy, had come to collect on $16,000 in overdue payments and he didn’t have the money. It was Thursday, the same day that over 100 hungry families come each week to pick up food baskets at House of Help. What do we do?

He had been through this before. The building he inherited from the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) had a broken boiler system, so he had energy-intensive space heaters installed temporarily in the classrooms to keep the children in his free after-school program warm. These cost him $6,000 a month in heating bills during the cold winters. He would replace the entire boiler system eventually, he said, when he secured the building from Detroit and began renovating it. But that was only a dream at $50,000 away… What do we do?

Then, the water pipes leaked and burst. He invested $15,000 in new water infrastructure when DPS said they couldn’t help with the abandoned school building and it was on him (the tenant) to fix it. The bills started stacking up faster than the meager income from donations and sponsors. He fell behind on his water bill, but the kids still needed food and tutoring, the families still needed clothes from his free store and food baskets from his pantry. Jobs in the community were nearly non-existent. But life must go on. What do we do?

He called me one day when a water shutoff notice came. Even before the date had come for the crews to come out and cut the water, it was cut off. The taps went dry. We mounted an offensive campaign against the water department and got them to agree to cut it back on – temporarily. The bills keep racking up, and residents with no water in the neighborhood come to him for food and drink. What do we do?

Now the lights are off. We hold a candle-lit vigil with little tea votives lining the stage of this old school-auditorium-turned-sanctuary. And pray. And G-d said, let there be light…

And yesterday morning the lights were restored, after tense negotiations with DTE and donations large and small from hundreds of supporters. The halls of the House of Help are once again illuminated, shining above the classrooms where kids sit with their tutors unfazed by the business squabbles of adults. There will be more light, as we plan our upcoming crowd-funding campaign: $50,000, no $75,000… no! $100,000 to keep the lights on, pay all the bills, buy the building! Let’s do this.

Will it work? Only G-d knows. We launch in a few weeks, with an honest video plea to help the House of Help revitalize a moribund community where a 28-year old man was shot dead on the corner last week. Where chaos reins over compassion – for now. Let’s do this.

On June 1st, Detroit Workers and Builders (DWB 2.0) will launch with a crowd-funding campaign to restore power to Northwest Detroit – starting with our new headquarters at the House of Help Community Center.

To learn more and sign up to attend physically or virtually online, visit DetroitWorkers.com

The hallways of the House of Help without electricity.

The hallways of the House of Help without electricity.

Dispatch from Detroit: Phones in the Hands of the Homeless

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It’s difficult for me to stomach the news that Facebook is building a ‘Facebookville’ futuristic city in California. Why? Because I know homeless people who use Facebook in library computer labs.

So I decided to do something about it: I called up the DWB crew and we put our heads together. We realized that Facebook isn’t going to share with us the profits of our original content, but we could use Tsu to empower homeless people to get off the streets.

Enter CJ, Mayor of the former Detroit Tent City. CJ is the first participant in the #TsuChallenge pilot, a DWB program to gift smartphones to homeless Detroiters that they use to document their lives and earn money on Tsu. Check out this short video, and if you want to support him join Tsu under him as his “child” in the network — and he’ll (and you’ll) earn money for your social media work..

This Year, Let’s Not Let Detroit Shut Off the Water

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Demonstrators protest against the Detroit Water and Sewer Department July 18, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Joshua Lott)

Demonstrators protest against the Detroit Water and Sewer Department July 18, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Joshua Lott)

As the ground thaws, a now-familiar scene is beginning to re-enact itself on the streets of Detroit’s poorest neighborhoods. Those despised pickup trucks are circling around, with orders to cut the water flow. For now, they’re only targeting commercial accounts and so called “illegal hookups” – the now-pervasive practice of desperation in Detroit. Within weeks, we hear, the city will again be shutting off regular residential customers whose only crime is not having the money to pay for Detroit’s water.

 

This year, let’s not let them do it. What do I mean? Last year, our tremendous protests shook the city: thousands marched, dozens (including myself) were arrested in rolling blockades, and the world rallied to our side: from The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to the Daily Show with Jon Stewart to the Irish Parliament and even the United Nations. In response, the emergency manager ceded control of the water to Mayor Mike Duggan who quickly implemented a series of reforms called the 10-Point Plan. Minor as they were, these reforms showed the power of our grassroots movements to extract serious concessions for Detroiters. They have only put more wind behind our sails.

 

This year, let’s not let them just concede minor points. We have the opportunity to fundamentally restructure the way water is distributed and governed in metro Detroit, and we need to seize it.  It is time to seriously consider both income-based rate structures and a meaningful debt amnesty program for long-delinquent accounts. Treating water as a commodity or luxury item that must be paid for or it will be withdrawn leads to the illogical conclusion that those who can’t find work can’t have water. If the city can’t guarantee a job to all of us who want to work, how can it demand a water bill? The only possible answer is: it can’t, and we won’t let it.

 

Solving Detroit’s water affordability crisis isn’t just about more financial assistance, it’s about job creation. Detroit is in desperate need of fixing, but can’t seem to come up with the funds to fix itself. Nevermind that the monopoly utility company makes billions in profits annually off our electrical needs. Nevermind that the water department spends hundreds of millions straight from your water bill payments (46 cents of every dollar) each year just on interest to bondholders: that’s pure profit to people who’ll never have their water cut off. Detroit isn’t broke, it’s just sending all of its residents’ money elsewhere rather than re-investing it locally.

 

Already, other cities are emulating Detroit’s dangerous precedent: Baltimore last week announced its intention to shut the water off to more than 25,000 delinquent accounts. Detroit has embarrassed the entire country, sparking comparisons to sub-Saharan Africa and other poverty-stricken regions that promise little in the way of human rights. Its current government should be ashamed to shut off the water (or the streetlights, or the front door) to anyone – and most certainly to those who can least afford it.

 

The Detroit Water Brigade has developed a citywide work program proposal that it is currently workshop-ing with a diverse array of community stakeholders: activist groups, labor unions, elected officials, social entrepreneurs, even the Mayor’s office. We are willing to work with anyone who wants to put unemployed and under-employed Detroiters back to work fixing the city, and we won’t stop until the last shutoff valve is cut back on when every resident in Detroit can afford the water.

 

The alternative to working constructively with us is another year of our resistance: more blockades, protests, international outcry and – this time around – economic direct action. We have amassed a larger network than ever, having delivered water and vital support to thousands of Detroiters. That network can be harnessed for good, canvassing the city with hundreds of volunteers and training Detroiters to make vital repairs to our city’s neglected infrastructure. Let’s come together rather than fight this year, showing the country and the world that Detroit can work together for the betterment of all. This year, let’s not let Detroit shut off the water.

 

Dispatch from Detroit: Life After Facebook

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Two months ago, I walked out of the Facebook factory. I was tired of spending countless hours every day checking notifications. I had become addicted to that nice feeling of a picture being “LIKED” 5 times, 10 times, 100 times…

What do all these likes and comments and “friends” add up to in the end?

Big money. For Facebook. Billions.

And for us, we grow farther from our friends when we bury our faces in our phones. Our deeply personal relationships become commodified and monetized, packaged into nice 1’s and 0’s and wrapped up with advertisements. Our private lives on sale for someone else’s profit.

So I packed up and said goodbye, returning only for the occasional check-in and to encourage my former factory workers to join me in my revolt. And I joined Tsu, a new social network that pays me for my content and whose users support low-income families in Detroit by donating some of their earned revenues to help people pay their bills and put food on their table.

In short, I left Facebook for good – to do something meaningful with my online time. And many of my friends have joined me: even my 1 year-old goddaughter Ella Mia is on Tsu now and is earning revenue for her college fund (I donate $2/week…)

Will you take the dive and join me? Sign up here and begin to reclaim your digital life.*

In peace and much prosperity,

Justin


*Full disclosure: when you join Tsu, my organization the Detroit Water Brigade (DWB) earns a third of half of the revenues you receive. You earn half of 90% of all ad revenues of the site: the other 10% goes to the platform to keep it running. DWB uses these earnings to deliver water and financial assistance to low-income families in Detroit.

Come to the NYC Debut of A Dangerous Game!

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A Dangerous Game

A-Dangerous-Game-570x317

Director Anthony Baxter finds himself on a journey to global hot spots where Donald Trump and other rapacious developers – often in cahoots with local officials – are using golf as a smokescreen for massive luxury resorts that end up costing the earth. With appearances by Hollywood star Alec Baldwin, environmental icon Robert Kennedy Jr, the world’s most famous businessman, and a cast of memorable local heroes who aren’t taking it any more.

I’ll be featured on a panel discussion with Director Anthony Baxter and other cast members at the IFC Center on March 12th, 8pm!

Get tickets here

And check out the trailer below…

 

Ode to the Social Gadfly

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Gadfly

This one is dedicated to all those annoying gadflies out there. You know who you are. You’re speaking inconvenient or uncomfortable or economically-unprofitable truths on the daily. Your old friends probably don’t call you. You don’t get invited to their parties, but sometimes you crash them anyway…

 

Feeling somewhat embattled myself lately, I thought I’d open the history books and console myself with some of the more controversial figures of the last century. Detroit has produced more than its fair share of gadflies over the years: Michael Moore, Madonna, Eminem, Walter Reuther, the list goes on… Detroit’s got grit, and its diaspora generation has challenged convention in every industry and in many countries around the world.

 

Back when labor unions had cojones - that is, when they struck not just voted – some rebel gadflies from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) joined forces with United Auto Works on a retreat outside Detroit to craft the now-legendary Port Huron Statement:

 

We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.

 

What is the consciousness of our generation, the Occupy generation? Saddled with debt, job prospects waning, but with high hopes and expensive degrees. We “millennials” want work that is meaningful, not just good-paying. We watched our parents acquiesce to the false luxury of the 80’s and 90’s, we survived the dot-com bubble and its bust, and we bathed ourselves in the self-referential shallowness of the Backstreet Boys era. We packed our hopes into the empty signifier box of Obama’s Hope and Change©, and then when we didn’t get all the change we had hoped for we took to the streets of Manhattan and Detroit and Chicago and Oakland and…

 

The other week, the former bankruptcy boss of Detroit Kevyn Orr condescendingly called out my crew of social gadflies during a speech at the Economic Club:

 

“Some of [the water crisis] was orchestrated. We know that the Occupy Wall Street folks are the folks behind Detroit Water Brigade.”

 

You’re damn right, Orr. And we gadflies are happily stinging the nasty Wall Street horse you rode in on. And we’ll continue to be that voice after you’re long gone and you’ve picked up your last consultation check from some corrupt bureaucrat or veiled veneer of a corporate foundation. Because the Detroit we want doesn’t need emergency managers and bankruptcy lawyers. Because the Detroit we are building doesn’t have water shutoff trucks or back-due property tax payment plans with 18% interest rates.

 

Or maybe just because we can’t help being that pesky social gadfly you keep swiping at.

 

So maybe the 60’s aren’t quite back again (yet), but at least we’re making some damn noise! So let’s praise those among us who possess that annoying gadfly-i-ness that is so preciously-needed in times of social upheaval, when systems crumble around us. Praise them even as they sting us with their itchy, seductive poison.

Dispatch from Detroit: Runaway Water Rates And the Case for Nonpayment

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Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.

-Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895

Water and sewerage rates in Detroit are literally out of control. Rates have risen 119% in the last decade. This month the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) is proposing another 12% rate increase, even as they cut the water to thousands of low-income residents. Many families spend upwards of 20% of their monthly income on water and sewerage, when the federal government considers 2.5% to be the affordability threshold. 80% of the city can’t afford the water, and nearly half are behind on their bills.

It is well-established in legal case law that a user fee – like your water bill – must be proportional to the necessary cost of the service, or else it is a tax. In Detroit today, the cost of the service and the price have become completely uncoupled: a full half of the price of water is to pay off old bad debt. Think about that for a second: half of the money you spend on your water bill basically goes to pay the interest on a credit card that you didn’t ask for. The guy who did? He’s behind bars for federal corruption (and so is his boss.)

The price is also uncoupled from the cost in another way: people are charged by their usage while 90% of the costs of running the system are fixed, i.e. they don’t depend on how much water we use or discard. This is why we are in the ridiculous position of being told that the rates are going up even while we use less water due to rain and better conservation! A pricing structure that punishes people for using less of a supposedly-scarce resource doesn’t even make sense. The reality is that we aren’t paying for water: we’re paying to line the pockets of Wall Street bondholders with inflated interest payments.

The problem is the banks, in particular the water bondholders. Last year the water department realized that cutting off the water to thousands of poor people wasn’t actually a good way to collect money. (Hint: you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip!) So they did something smart: they went to the bondholders and asked them to voluntarily turn in their bonds for a refinancing at a lower interest rate. The result was $250 million saved from future Detroiters’ water bills. That’s 10 times more money saved than from shutting off our water – and no one lost their home, kids, or life.

And so we are left with a recurring situation in 21st-century America: The rich are benefitting more from, and paying proportionately less for, essential public services. The reality is that water bills are a tax in Detroit – not a user fee – but a very regressive one for poor people. We should acknowledge this fact and fix the rate structure to be truly progressive. Yes, wealthier people should pay more for water so that poor people can pay less. The alternative is that only some people get water. The alternative is death.

How do we make this shift to water as a human right paid for by progressive general taxation? My proposal is a tried-and-true method from the civil rights movement: boycott payment. The only leverage we the people have against a water department that increasingly doesn’t have to listen to us is our pocketbooks. Let’s refuse to pay, or at least refuse to pay more. Do what some of my friends do in Highland Park, where the city has had such trouble collecting water bills they don’t even send them anymore: pay a fixed, fair amount each month. When the bills are reasonable and proportional to the quality of service and our ability to pay, we’ll pay in full again.

Until then, it’s time to say: Can’t pay! Won’t pay!

Please sign our petition calling on the city of Detroit to cancel the bad water debt, and help us deliver it at the DWSD’s February 25th water rate hike meeting: 2pm, 735 Randolph Street downtown

Dispatch from Detroit: I’m Quitting Facebook

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Peace Out, Facebook.

Peace Out, Facebook.

tl;dr version: I’m shutting down my Facebook profile. If you don’t care why and just want to know where I’m going instead, jump down to the big bold link below…

 

I’m busting out of the Facebook factory, friends. I’ve just had enough! I’ve had enough of the endless comments, click-bait memes, and other mental noise pollution. The whole thing feels demeaning now: I am more than an aggregation of my “friends”, a collection of photos, a series of Facebook event pages, a few “likes”. I’ve spent way too many hours pushing pixels around…

 

I am a man. And I deserve to own and be paid for my creative work, not to be turned into an attractive canvas for someone else’s advertising.

 

What do I mean? I’ll give you an example: when I was in college, I managed and played in a few bands that performed on the weekends. Every student organization and small business in town begged us to play their events without pay, for “exposure”. I politely told them that my band was professional and here’s our rate. And I paid my musicians on the spot, even if I had to front the money myself from a heel-dragging venue or club. I respected their work, and in doing so I earned their loyalty. Cats showed up on time and ready for my gigs.

 

Facebook is the epitome of the “exposure” hoax: it plays on our vanity and desire to be liked by many people, at almost any cost. Having administered several large Facebook pages myself, I can tell you that if you don’t pay for “reach” now on Facebook not even a fraction of your fans will see your posts. On top of that, the cost to every user in time and energy is profit to Facebook: they made $2.6 billion last quarter alone. They’re buying up land around Silicon Valley to build their own villages. They’re running experiments on our emotions by altering what we see in our news feeds. If they were a medieval kingdom, the serfs would have revolted by now. Enough, I’m out.

 

I tried to work with Facebook, even running a campaign last year called Pay Me Facebook calling on the social media company to start compensating users for posting original content. At that time, no viable alternative really existed. Now, the thousands of people who joined our campaign have somewhere new to go.

 

So where am I going? Well, the good news is there’s a growing alternative called Tsū that is just like Facebook with one major difference: you get to own and keep all your content and get paid for it by sharing 90% of the ad royalties the company earns. My organization, the Detroit Water Brigade, joined Tsū recently, and we’ve already earned nearly $800 in royalties – and donations from other Tsū users that gift their royalties to us. That’s $800 that would have gone into the pocket of Mark Zuckerberg & Co. that is now bailing out low-income families in Detroit.

 

I invite you to join me on Tsū, by clicking this link and joining under the Water Brigade.

 

Tsū is invite-only but free to all, so you must join under an existing user. By joining under the Brigade, you are already helping Detroiters: 1/3rd of the revenue you generate will go automatically to our organization. Just by posting original content and interacting with other users, you are helping families in Detroit by redistributing ad revenue from corporations to people in need.

 

So adiós, Facebook. It was nice while it lasted, but I’m spent. You can find me in Detroit.

 

PS – If you decide to make the jump with me, let me know and I’ll send you a nice welcome message on Tsu!

Dispatch from Detroit: Debt-roit

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Original Photo: NY Times

Original Photo: NY Times

Croatia, a small Mediterranean country of 4.4 million, just did an amazing thing: it wiped clean the debts of its 60,000 poorest citizens. Their Deputy Prime Minister, Milanka Opacic, said

 

They will be given a chance for a new start without a burden of debt.

 

The move will unfreeze bank accounts to nearly 20% of Croatians whose accounts were frozen last year for non-payment. Among the debts include in the mini-jubilee, or debt cancellation: “banks, telecommunication companies, major utilities, several major cities and municipalities as well as the government’s own tax agency. None will be refunded for their losses,” according to RT.com.

 

Detroit is also a metropolitan area of approximately 4.4 million people, so an obvious question is: Is Detroit in need of the same kind of debt cancellation program? The simple answer is: yes, and then some. A 2011 World Bank study found that only 7% of households in Croatia have mortgage debt. In metro Detroit, which includes the more affluent suburbs, nearly half of Generation X’ers are underwater on their mortgages. A more vulnerable majority of the urban population doesn’t even have mortgage debt because they can’t afford to buy a home: they’re a permanent renter class. That same World Bank study estimated that “1 of every 10 households faces financial distress” in Croatia. In Detroit, half of the city lives at or below the poverty level.

How many Detroiters would qualify for debt cancellation if they lived in Croatia?

Let’s look at the program qualifications:

Their debt must be lower than 35,000 kuna ($5,100):

Average Detroiter holds $23,604 in household debt, thousands more in questionable “public debts” like water department’s $5 billion debt ($1,100+ per family). None of these debts resolved in city’s bankruptcy.

 

Their monthly income should not be higher than 1,250 kuna ($138):

Below the poverty level in Croatia is considered 22,145 kunas ($4,343) per year or less, so to qualify in Croatia Detroiters would have to be under 65% of poverty income, or earning $1656 /year or less. A 2014 United Way study found that 67% of Detroiters are under the poverty line. The ultra-poor in Detroit: 18,000 un-housed people, 14% (officially, at least) unemployed.

 

Those applying for the scheme are not allowed to own any property or have any savings:

50% of Detroiters have no bank account, 40.5% are renters not owners.

 

There’s another thing that Croatians and Detroiters have in common: high levels of child poverty. It’s risen higher in Croatia than any other European Union country, at a rate that UNICEF calls “alarming”. In Detroit it’s risen faster than in any other major city in the U.S. Most alarmingly, Croatia’s infant mortality rate (# deaths/1,000 live births) may be slightly higher than the U.S.’s at 5.6 to America’s 5.2, but it dwarfs Detroit’s by a factor of three: a full 15 infants in Detroit die out of every 1,000 born alive. The national nurses union recently declared a public health emergency in the city of Detroit, and is calling on a financial transaction tax – aka “Robin Hood Tax” – to pay for direly-needed health infrastructure improvements for the poor.

 

Upon comparing these startling statistics, the question becomes less one of “Could this happen here?” and more of “Why the f%@k has it not happened yet?” The country’s largest municipal bankruptcy did just about nothing to relieve the overwhelming debts of Detroiters, though it did allow a few large banks and corporations to grab at soon-to-be-valuable waterfront property and public parking lots.

A solution

You might say the kind of debt relief seen in Croatia would be unfeasible here in Detroit with the levels of indebtedness and the current political climate. OK, then let’s start small: first, let’s cancel the water debt and free up poor families from thousands of dollars in back-payments to a utility company whose former director is behind bars. The Detroit Water Brigade has a petition you can sign today calling on the city to do just that. It’s a start, right?

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