Water activists speak out ahead of court case

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Detroit — Court proceedings adjourned Wednesday afternoon without a jury seated in the case against two activists charged with disorderly conduct for blocking water shut-off vehicles in the city in summer 2014.

“Probably we will not be getting any witnesses on the stand until Friday,” said attorney Julie Hurwitz, adding that opening statements were expected Thursday after jury selection. “But the judge ordered the city to have their witnesses in the courtroom (Thursday) so you never know what’s going to happen.”

The proceedings in 36th District Court, which followed a demonstration earlier Wednesday, involve two members of the "Homrich 9," protesters who blocked Homrich Inc. trucks hired by the city to shut off water to residents who were more than two months overdue or owed more than $150 for water service.

Defendants Bill Wylie-Kellermann, pastor of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, and Marian Kramer of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization were joined Wednesday outside court by several supporters and family members holding protest signs.

"I'm really honored to be on trial with Marian Kramer, one of my friends and mentors," Wylie-Kellermann said Wednesday before the court proceedings began.

The original protest took place July 18, 2014, at a Homrich facility on East Grand Boulevard, Wylie-Kellermann said.

Wylie-Kellermann and Kramer are standing trial for misdemeanor disorderly conduct before Judge Ruth Garrett.

During Wednesday’s proceedings, two prospective jurors were dismissed, one each by the prosecution and defense, according to supporter Deborah Choly, who was in court for the hearing. A third individual was excused by the judge.

Only six other prospective jurors were brought into court, forcing the proceedings to be adjourned until a new pool could be tapped Thursday, Choly said.

Of the Homrich 9, one wasn't charged, one's case has been resolved through a deal, and the others are working their way through the judicial process, members said Wednesday.

Kellermann said he has rejected plea deals and looks forward to the jury trial.

"They want us to say we won't do this again for a period of time," he said. "We are not willing to say that."

Kramer also rejected similar deals.

"If we don't take a stand for humanity, who will?" she said.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes in September 2014 dismissed complaints looking for a moratorium on the shut-offs and the reinstatement of service to those whose water was shut off for nonpayment.

Rhodes said there was no support for Michigan law for a municipality to base water rates on an individual’s ability to pay.

But the Homrich 9 and supporters have rallied behind a “water affordability plan,” designed to bill families based on income. State lawmakers recently have introduced bills that would charge families based on income, according to a statement released by the group ahead of Wednesday's press conference.

Activists at Wednesday's press conference included Homrich 9 members Wylie-Kellermann and Kramer, as well as Julie Hurwitz, a defense lawyer for the group and member of the National Lawyers Guild. Various other supporters and family members also joined, holding protest signs behind the defendants as they spoke to media.

Wylie-Kellermann's 2-year-old grandson, Isaac Wylie-Fahey, held a large cardboard sign that read, "Prosecute Homrich, not Grandpa!"

The group's action last summer prevented "massive water shut-offs to tens of thousands of households," the group said.

Wylie-Kellermann planned to defend himself in court Wednesday, while Kramer is represented by attorney John Royal, who disputed the accusation of disorderly conduct against his client.

"This was widespread and unprecedented efforts to shut off water to hundreds of thousands of resident of Detroit," said Royal, president of the Michigan Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. "We'll be showing (at trial) the real disorder came from the emergency manager and his associates."

The group blocked Homrich trucks as the city struggled through bankruptcy under emergency management, Wylie-Kellermann said. Civil disobedience leading to trial was the group's only option, he said.

"It was, at the time, the last vestige of democracy in the city," Wylie-Kellermann said.

Some members of the group plan to use the "necessity defense" in their cases, arguing their protest defended "the rights of Detroiters to have water in their homes," according to the statement.

But a judge already has disallowed that defense for Wylie-Kellermann and Kramer, the group said Wednesday.

"What we did, we understood to be preventing harm," Wylie-Kellermann said. "Water is a human right, and that's why we're here."


(313) 223-4616