DETROIT (WWJ/AP) - More than a thousand people showed up outside Cobo Center in downtown Detroit Friday, calling for an immediate moratorium on service shutoffs by the city's water department.
Among them was "Avengers" actor Mark Ruffalo, who appeared unexpectedly, calling on others to join the demonstration.
The loud crowd, Friday afternoon, marched from Cobo to Hart Plaza for a rally that WWJ Newsradio 950's Sandra McNeil reported was the largest such event she's covered in the city.
Asked why he joined the rally, Ruffalo told McNeil that the American people need to know about these water shutoffs.
"I'm here to shed a little light on what's happening — the travesty that's happening here in Detroit with these people's water," Ruffalo said. "It's an absolute travesty; you'd think we were living in a third world nation."
"We're happy to send money all over the world to help other people in their crisis," Ruffalo added,"and we can't take care of our own people."
Also appearing at the rally were UAW President Dennis Williams and Congressman John Conyers.
"Water should be available to everybody," Conyers said. "It shouldn't be something that only people who can afford it can get."
Williams, addressing the crowd as it gathered at Hart Plaza,said the shutoffs show that "there's something wrong in America."
"Right now in a household there is child thirsty who cannot have a drink," Williams said. "Right now there is an elderly person who is ill that needs fresh water. There (are) children waiting to take a fresh bath and have clean water to drink."
The demonstration was organized by the group National Nurses United, which claims the shutoffs pose a public health emergency. The group's co-president, Jean Ross, called the shutoffs an "attack on the basic human right of access to safe, clean water."
"What's happening here is inhumane," Ross told WWJ's Charlie Langton. "We know that you need water to sustain yourself and no one, no one should shut off the water to the people."
Ross believes the water shutoffs go deeper than just trying to recoup some funds for the city.
"They're preying on people who can't afford it, to have to choose between their medications and food, their rent or mortgage payment and now water," she said. "It's an engineered disaster and it's all geared toward privatizing what should be a basic human right for everybody."
Ross said the situation is far more serious that it looks at a glance.
"This is about bringing people down to a level where they can't survive, and doing things that are more heinous even -- taking the people whose water has been turned off and taking those children in those environments away from their families," she said.
The Detroit Department of Water and Sewerage stepped up the shutoffs in March to collect some of the nearly $90 million owed by residents, businesses and other customers with past-due accounts. Through June, more than $43 million was owed on over 80,000 city residential accounts.
The department has reported about 17,000 customers are on payment plans, and officials try to work with those customers. The utility estimates about 90,000 active customers in are delinquent on their bills.
"I don't think there are that many people who just choose not to pay their bill," Ross said. "I mean, most of us can put ourselves in their place -- when you're having to choose between one bill and another, water is one you automatically say 'Oh, I will let that go, they're never going to shut that off.' These people want to pay their bills."
Water Department spokesman Bill Johnson says service has not been shut off to anyone who has come in with a "legitimate problem" in paying their bill.
Addressing the issue of people reporting trouble trying to get their water back on, Johnson told WWJ a title deed is required because they have so many squatters in the homes that they need to be sure that the person who handles the bill is the one requesting the water be turned on.
Water Department spokesman Greg Eno told the Associated Press that the city-owned utility has no plans to stop the shutoffs on accounts 60 days or more past due.
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