This is the second part in a two-part series. The first part ran last week.
James Perkinson and civil disobedience
James Perkinson grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. He writes, in one of his numerous books, that it was a difficult time with beatings, racial tension and a simple love of basketball. He earned a degree in business at University of Cincinnati but fell in love with scripture. After graduation, when a friend told him about a communal living experiment at one of Detroit’s churches, Perkinson went to observe. And under the roof of a church in the heart of Detroit’s post-’67 rebellion neighborhoods, he became a student of Detroit.
He would eventually take his learning all the way to a Ph.D in Theology from the University of Chicago, becoming a professor of theology at Detroit’s Ecumenical Theological Seminary. By this time, Perkinson had already established himself as a voice of conscience within the city’s theological community, and when the effects of Detroit’s bankruptcy began to grow uncontrollable, the community acted.
Under broad daylight, in July 2014, Perkinson and eight other people of conscience were arrested in front of Homrich Corporation’s gates. They used their bodies to block the trucks used to shut off people’s water connection. “The arrest process was fairly violent,” Perkinsons recalled. “They grabbed our sign and threw us to the ground, and handcuffed us, and dragged us to police cars.”
That encounter was recorded and posted to social media, and his group was released without being charged. So they came back. By the early mornings, the group that would become known as the Homrich 9 sat in front of those gates until they were arrested again.
Having now experienced a proper arrest, the group was slated to be judged by a jury of peers.
“Democracy has already left, that’s what emergency management meant,” Perkinson said. “So the courts are the last thing left as an arena to gain a hearing on water policy.”
The trial process took two years to reach its end. Unsurprisingly, most jury-age Detroiters were upset at the city’s emergency management as well, making the selection difficult. So when two members of the Homrich 9 were left in a courtroom waiting for the jury to return from deliberation, the prosecuting attorney suddenly canceled the trial and dropped charges. The city didn’t want to risk what would happen if the jury came back with a not-guilty verdict.
The Homrich 9 have been enshrined within a long history of civil disobedience that has continued to today. Detroit’s bodies of freshwater have only reinforced this need as climate change threatens the geopolitics of the region.
Part of the terms of emergency management is that access to many assets have shifted to suburban control through the Great Lakes Water Authority. Many of the natural resources coming from the Great Lakes have been leased to private companies like Nestle, who use it to sell bottled water around the country.
If nothing else, Perkinson was hopeful for the next generation of activists. In this interview, he talked with intimacy about the efforts young Detroiters have made in urban farming, affordable water and youth involvement in the arts.
To say the least, ReJoyce Douglas is a thorn in the side of her school district. After a protest gained citywide attention, her efforts to make the water crisis more transparent were written about in almost every Detroit publication. Douglas is a senior at her high school in the west side of Detroit. She’ll be attending Michigan State University in the fall. And along with 20 other students, her skip-day had the media’s attention.
She worked with Julia Cuneo to create an event that could call attention to some of the serious problems from the shutoffs around her neighborhood. The Student Count Day Protest followed a group of students skipping school on Count Day.
Instead of classes, the students went to the Cass Corridor Commons and learned about activism and water as a human right.
“The idea for the protest came immediately after we got a call the night before the first day of school saying that the water was going to be shutoff in our schools,” Douglas said in an email correspondence.
ReJoyce talked about all the hard parts in their action. The people who tried to convince her not to skip class and even alumni of her school pushed back. But it was the support of activist groups that helped ReJoyce carry the project to completion.
Like ReJoyce, other youth activists are working to create the next generation of political voices in Detroit’s inner city. Her protest brought attention to her school and voiced students’ worries about their own access to water.
“We want this to be something that we pass on to our peers and younger siblings,” Douglas said. “We want to create generations of strong-minded youth to come.”
Cities like Milwaukee Pittsburgh have grappled with these same problems in the past two years. Michigan has meanwhile presented itself as the ground zero of water problems, as the people of Detroit worked to make themselves a model for solutions.
The activists working hardest against the crisis in Detroit are, in fact, high school students, college professors, priests and volunteers. But they’re disrupting a system that side-stepped popular votes and worked too far toward inadequate solutions. Their time may be just beginning.