DWB Advocate Testimony at DWSD Affordability Fair

Testimony of Brian Coburn, Dexter, Michigan, Aug 2nd, 2014

All non-Advocate’s names have been changed to protect the privacy of DWSD customers


I showed up at the Detroit Water and Sewage Department’s Water Affordability Fair on August 2 to offer advocacy to citizens on behalf of the Detroit Water Brigade. Before my effort – like those of other advocates – was cut short, I happened to be able to approach five citizens who had lined up to discuss their debt with an agent inside the payment center. Three of them said yes and while the other two respectfully declined, they both said they were happy to see advocates there.


The first was a woman named Tammy Johnson, who had to turn around and go home to retrieve a valid ID before she was granted conference with an agent. The second, Monique, had an outstanding balance of nearly $5,500 with the DWSD. Her agent asked her if she could start a payment plan by putting down $593 on the debt, which Monique said she could not afford as she was currently unemployed. She was immediately referred to another desk, where she was handed a business card for the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency’s Information & Referral Call Center and told to get in touch with them on Monday to “see if there were any funds left she could use.”


It was upon the third time I entered the payment center with a citizen that I encountered problems. While walking out with Monique, a man wearing a blazer over a polo shirt that read “security” asked me what I was doing in the building. I stated my name and business and offered my hand, which he refused to shake. When I entered the cubicle with a woman named Krystal (regretfully, we were separated before I could document her surname), an agent told me they had a rule that only one adult could enter a cubicle at a time and that I had to leave. I found that peculiar and asked her if this was a written rule, as I gazed over the room and saw several cubicles with more than one adult in them (not counting the agents themselves). This agent said I could ask security and then left her desk to get two guards, who told me I had to leave. When I asked if I could stand outside the cubicle, they said I had to return to the waiting lobby area. While I walked out, the security guard who refused my hand stepped into my pathway and snarled, which I took as an attempt at physical intimidation.


I stepped outside the building to share this experience with Justin Wedes, the Detroit Water Brigade’s organizer. When I walked back up to the building to see if I could catch Krystal on her way out and document her experience, I ran into the same security man who refused my hand. He was standing outside the front door and told me I could have gone back to the lobby but I chose to leave the building and I wasn’t getting back in. When I asked him why I would be barred from a public building, he replied “You can try to force your way through me, but then I’ll have you arrested.” It was then that the Detroit Police Chief interjected and said that wouldn’t be necessary. He approached me and said I could go back in the building but that if an agent asked me to leave a cubicle, I was not allowed to make comments or ask questions but just had to leave immediately. I agreed to that and went into the lobby of the pay center to see if I could spot Krystal and follow up with her. Unfortunately, our paths did not cross again.


While waiting, the same security man who had confronted me also entered the building and held a long stare on me from about 20 feet away. Later, he pulled the police chief aside and had a brief conversation with him. I was then again approached by the police chief and told that there had been several complaints by citizens about me asking them questions inside the building. Given my pleasant experiences with the five people I was able to talk to, I found this to be a highly dubious claim (although I did not communicate that to the police chief). I asked the chief if I could approach citizens who were outside the building and after pondering the request for a moment, he agreed. Why an officer of the law determined there was a difference between talking to citizens in a public building or on a public sidewalk remains a mystery.


After that, Mr. Wedes asked me to cease offering advocacy for the rest of that day in the name of peace and to funnel all needs for advocates to Detroit Water Brigade spokesman DeMeeko Williams, who said he had been “authorized” to enter the pay center and was confident he could conduct his business there with minimal harassment. The questionable legal path taken against me and other advocates by agents, security guards and Detroit police officers was not lost on any of us and I hope reporting these deeds will lead to a much different environment next time we advocate for citizens trying to avoid a shutoff of their water.



Testimony of Justin Wedes, Detroit, Michigan, Aug 2nd, 2014

All non-Advocate’s names have been changed to protect the privacy of DWSD customers


I arrived at the Water Affordability Fair at about 7:30am on Saturday, August 2nd. After setting up the Detroit Water Brigade table near the tabling site we had been assigned by a member of the Mayor’s Office, I began to hand out free water bottles and talk to residents in line to pay their bills. I was approached by a woman who identified herself as Terra Defoe from the Mayor’s Office who asked if I had a permit to “organize here.” I was confused, so I asked her to please clarify what she meant. After she clarified, I told her that I had received permission from the Mayor’s office to table at the Water Affordability Fair and that I was not here to protest but rather to assist customers with free advocacy on their behalf in order to understand their bills and get on payment plans. She then referred me to two mounted police who told me I had to leave – that I was demonstrating and blocking pedestrian traffic.


I told the officers that I was not demonstrating but assisting residents, and I returned to speak with the woman I was advocating for. When Ms. Defoe returned, she spoke individually with both the customer I was advocating and with myself. She moved the customer to the front of the line and again referred me to the police. I asked the woman to confirm that I had her permission to advocate for her in the payment center, and she nodded affirmatively. She was then told by Ms. Defoe that if she wanted to enter with me she would have to make an appointment to return on Monday. I was told again by the mounted police, and now the building security as well, to leave or face arrest.


Later I was told that only one Water Advocate, Demeeko Williams, would be allowed into the building with customers.


Testimony of Sonya Ferris, Detroit, Michigan, Aug 2nd, 2014 forthcoming…