Human Rights Intensive Speaker Series: Just Water
August 2 @ 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm
In October 2014, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Water came to Detroit and accused the city of human rights violations. Since 2013, Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department had been shutting off water to tens of thousands of households with overdue water bills; while the city posed the shut-off program simply as sound fiscal management in the wake of municipal bankruptcy, the UN Special Rapporteur argued that this program violated the human right of the people in those households to water.
Deemed a human rights violation, Detroit’s water shut-off program is also deeply sedimented in the racial history of the city—a history that stretches back to the French colonization of indigenous territory where land and water were held and used in common and that encompasses the race-based inequalities that the city’s twentieth-century development at once relied upon and advanced. The water shut-off program, which has primarily targeted working-class and poor Black communities, is one of the manifold forms that this history has taken in the present.
The demand for the recognition of water as a human right, then, can solicit a still larger demand for the recognition of the ongoing structural exclusion of Black communities from American political, social, and economic life. Water is a human right because it is necessary for life, but water is also a material that, in Gaston Bachelard’s words, “remembers the dead”—here, the Black dead of past and present who are not redeemed by, and even accompany, calls for rights and justice.
Creative Cities Fellow, Stanford Arts Institute, and Associate Professor of Architecture, University of Michigan
Andrew Herscher has worked in a number of public collaborative projects in Detroit that advance the cause of a just, inclusive, and democratic city, most recently Detroit Resists and the We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective. His publications include Violence Taking Place: The Architecture of the Kosovo Conflict (Stanford University Press, 2010), The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit (University of Michigan Press, 2012), the co-edited volume Spatial Violence (Routledge: 2016), and Displacements: Architecture and Refugee (Sternberg Press: 2017).