The water shut-offs in Detroit began in March 2014, when the city’s Water and Sewerage Department announced its aggressive plan to cut off service to customers who were over 60 days late on their bill or who owed more than $150. Yet while the water shut-offs forced residents to bathe with bottles or buckets of water brought to them by community groups, the commercial accounts for corporations, sports stadiums, and golf courses continued to shower their properties and rack up $30 million of debt in water bills.
Two experts from the United Nations investigated the developing situation in Detroit in October 2014, and they quickly declared it “contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills.” They added that the water shut-offs disproportionately affected the “most vulnerable and poorest” residents.
In response to the injustice and inaction, southwest Detroit artists Antonio Cosme and William Lucka painted FREE THE WATER and a fist of resistance on the Highland Park water tower in November 2014. Cosme and Lucka were promptly met with felony charges for malicious destruction of property, trespassing, and more. The maximum penalty for these charges is four years of prison time. The city of Detroit has also demanded compensation for repainting the tower, estimating costs between $45,000 and $75,000. However, according to Cosme, the city has refused to prove this calculation with a bill.
Cosme is a graffiti artist, farmer, and co-founder of hip-hop collective The Raiz Up. He is a program coordinator for Restoring Our Community through Creation and a campus coordinator for Universidad Sin Fronteras. Lucka is a muralist and artist. He is also a member of The Raiz Up, a volunteer guitar instructor with Grace in Action, and an outspoken activist against gentrification.
Other artists and public projects have similarly called attention to water access and human rights. The New York-based Water Tank Project raises awareness by installing the work of artists such as Derrick Adams, Marilyn Minter, and Ulay on highly visible water towers. In 2015, the Spanish artist-collective Luzinterruptus created Rain Interactive, an installation of thousands of light and water-filled condoms meant to criticize the privatization of water. This summer through August 14, the inaugural public art biennial CURRENT: LA tackles the theme of urban and global water availability. CURRENT: LA is sponsored by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.
As Cosme told DemocracyNow, “The criminalization of artists is part of a larger war on public space. It’s coinciding with a war on public good. And privatization is being implemented on our publics schools, on our water, our healthcare.”
The trial for Cosme and Lucka is currently set to begin on October 24, 2016. Although the artists’ legal defense team does not believe that they will ultimately serve a prison sentence, fighting these felony charges is expensive and will ultimately cost at least $9,000. You can donate to the artists’ cause here. Funding ends August 31!
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