Basic human rights like access to clean water are protected, first and foremost, by passionate, everyday people.
MICHIGAN—The most important guardian of human rights in Michigan is the everyday Michigander.
From the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a project spearheaded by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Americans have always prioritized ensuring the essential rights of fellow citizens. But this mission hasn’t always covered all people in the United States and all human rights. It’s everyday people who work tirelessly to make that mission a reality.
Americans don’t always agree on what is and isn’t an essential human right—the right to live being a right to affordable health care is hotly contested, for instance—but the main way those issues are settled is through public debate and advocacy on behalf of those who are being overlooked.
And while there is no shortage of human rights Michiganders are fighting for today, there are three that bubble to the surface as activists around the state look ahead to 2021.
The Right to Live Free of Police Brutality
One of the defining events of 2020, the killing of 46-year-old George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, is a flashpoint in a long battle with police brutality. Black Michiganders and their allies took to streets over the summer, and the monumental outpouring of grief and anger even prompted changes to how policing works in Michigan.
Practices like calling the police on people doing ordinary things while Black, no-knock warrants, and chokeholds are dangerous and ordinary parts of policing and our society, all of which have been identified as things that need to change. But Michigan police also have military-grade equipment, and chokeholds are a problem well outside just the law enforcement arena. Not to mention state officials and police departments typically respond to protests against racial discrimination with violence. In a recent incident, a judge sided with Detroit Will Breathe over excessive force used at a rally.
“It just feels like it’s a dangerous moment for our democracy,” Flint activist Nayyirah Shariff told The ’Gander. “I would say it’s very telling, as someone who has done a lot of demonstrations in Michigan and around the country.”
Activism is a major way to advance change on this issue. Groups like Black Lives Matter, Detroit Will Breathe, and others take to the streets to pressure officials and advocate for systemic change, and The ‘Gander has you covered on how to take to the streets safely during a pandemic and be an advocate remotely.
The Right to Clean Water
Detroit’s struggle to secure access to clean water for its residents recently won a major, if temporary, victory. The moratorium on shutting off water to Detroiters has been extended through 2022. That’s true statewide, too, until April.
“Every Michigander deserves access to clean water, especially during a global pandemic,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a written statement accompanying signing the statewide moratorium extension. “My administration will continue working to ensure clean water for all Michiganders, and I look forward to partnering with everyone who wants to get this done.”
But both those situations are set to eventually expire. They also don’t represent the only situation that threatens the right to clean water.
Flint still reels from its 2014 water crisis, which poisoned the city’s water supply with lead and legionella bacteria when the city’ switched its water system from Detroit’s water grid to the Flint River. Lake Adrian has a large bloom of cyanobacteria detected in 2018, and though it has not been reported to be detected in tap water tests as of the latest reporting, locals worry about exposure. And the human-made toxins called polyfluoroalkyl substances have been found in water nationwide, and cost lives in Michigan.
“It’s an issue of human dignity. It is a moral issue because we are the Great Lakes state, we’re surrounded by fresh water.” State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) told The ‘Gander.
The easiest and most direct way to get involved is ensuring clean water is distributed to people in impacted communities. During the rough transition with Detroit’s water restoration, local groups distributed bottled water, a reminder of the years of Flint seeing similar scenes.
People can also write to their representatives in Lansing to advocate for continuing the moratorium on water shutoffs.
The Right to Shelter
Michigan’s newest Supreme Court justice, Elizabeth Welch, is keenly aware of a looming threat over Michiganders: a “tsunami” of evictions. This resulting from another expiring moratorium Chang is working on extending. Advocating for an extension of that moratorium, like the one on water shutoffs, could save lives in Michigan.
But that’s not the only aspect of the right to shelter in Michigan. Earlier in 2020, the city council in Adrian passed a local ordinance that effectively criminalized homelessness. With the shelters for the unhoused in its Lenawee county having to operate at reduced capacity, this leaves many residents in a precarious legal position. Adrian activist Will Garcia meets with them regularly, and told The ‘Gander they call themselves “the breakfast club,” a reference to the 1985 movie of the same name.
The law in Adrian is written to target the “club” of unhoused Michiganders who were a central point of discussion over the city’s ban on camping passed in September. Efforts to clear out encampments have also taken root in Lansing and Grand Rapids.
Kalamazoo is doing things differently. The city has no plan to clear out the unhoused encampment, according to the vice president of impact engagement for United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, Alyssa Stewart.
Supporting charitable causes and advocating for the Kalamazoo approach in the near-term is one way to help the unhoused this winter, but Garcia and Chang both advocated for a long-term, housing-first solution. In addition to fighting the looming eviction crisis, a housing-first solution to homelessness focuses on creating housing that can be afforded sustainably, and can help people break the cycles of poverty that contribute to becoming unhoused.
Advocating for these causes depends on the community. In Kalamazoo, it’s turning a short-term solution into long-term success where in Adrian it’s simply legalizing the right of people in dire straits to exist at all. But the means can be the same either way—directly communicating with local government and calling on them to make positive changes. Organizations opposing evictions also exist, like Detroit Eviction Defense, to help prevent even more Michiganders from becoming unhoused.