Liberating Our Waters

by Lydia Wylie-Kellermann
Guest Contributor

One hot afternoon, my kids and I headed for Belle Isle, dressed in swim suits and looking for relief in the waters of the Detroit River. Cedar, who is now 2, immediately lay down at water’s edge, tummy in the water, and kept saying, “Thank you, water.” He said it over and over again with joy beaming from him. Where does he get it? Yes, indeed, he is right: thank you water.

After that, the kids both started digging a hole that the waves would fill. Isaac would lean his ear close to the water and say, “Water, what do you need? Oh, you want us to dig you a hole with a path for you to have as a home. Ok.” And he would start digging. Water became the third playmate. It had ideas and needs and there was real intimacy. I sat back and just listened. I would hear things like, “Ok, water, we will help you,” or, “The water says it loves it,” or, “I love you, water.”

These children filled me with delight as I watched the ways that—entirely on their own—they could see life and friend in the water and would offer gratitude and love to this river.

While they played, I thought about the direct action we were planning for Monday. It is the last week of the Poor People’s Campaign and we would be acting in Detroit.

At the center of downtown, there is a little park. Receiving little use when I moved home to Detroit nine years ago, it is now covered with private security cameras and weaponized security personnel who have been given some police authority. A stage hosts daily lunch concerts on one side of the park, and a huge sandbox dominates the other, with alcohol always flowing. Food trucks line the sidewalks in every direction. People swarm it now. Most look like me, white folks in their 20s and 30s, a majority of whom work for Quicken Loans. Quicken Loans, owned my Dan Gilbert, has been a major player in the foreclosure crisis in the city, and now Gilbert owns massive amounts of real estate downtown and leads the gentrification effort having, negotiated paying minimal property taxes in exchange for helping the city with education and infrastructure.

In the center of this park is a flowing fountain where the water is clear. Our planned action entails climbing into that fountain with buckets. We are going to remove some water and reclaim clean running water for Detroiters who are facing shut offs by the thousands, and for those in Flint who are still living with poisoned water: water for people, not for profit.

The kids dig and splash on Belle Isle as I worry about those doing the direct action, about the response by the militarized security force, about the privatization that has and will continue to come, and about the people leading this movement who are suffering without clean affordable water.

The water that runs in that fountain is a symbol of privatization and gentrification. The water that runs in this river is a symbol of abundance and generosity. The contradictions of life and death could not be starker. I want to be on the side of gratitude and love, of listening to the needs of the water, of seeing life and knowing friend. I let my kids’ words and joy and lessons wash over me with each wave upon my feet. And I pray for the clarity and courage and gift of community to act on Monday.


Carlos Santacruz educating about the water shut offs in Detroit
Water reclaimed from the Campus Martius fountain in downtown Detroit

Days later, we did act. We began by scattering ashes of homeless, unnamed people who had been unclaimed at hospitals and cremated together. We blessed this earth with their ashes and honored their lives by the movements of our bodies that day. We took the street at the Water Department and people told their stories of living without water. We raised our desperate cries to the windows where the inhumane decisions still reign. And then we made for that fountain.

Stage reclaimed as holding cell for those arrested on June 18 with the Michigan Poor People’s Campaign

People climbed in, and with rage and grief we liberated that water to cries of joy and celebration. Others shut down entrances and some stood in the street shutting down the QLine (our tax payers’ burden of a train that does not serve those living in the city). Twenty-three people were arrested. The police ushered them onto the stage, making it a temporary holding cell. And on that day, a different concert played with words that echoed through that park: “Everybody’s got a right to live, and before this campaign fails, we’ll all go down to jail. Everybody’s got a right to live.”

Denise Griebler reclaims water from the fountain for the people of Detroit and Flint

The day was hot and humid, and while water protectors waited on that stage, the police brought out bottles of water for those arrested—but they refused to drink. It was Nestle water, a company that has just been granted permission to pump endless clean water from Michigan for mere pennies while people in this state are literally dying of thirst and waterborne disease. “Boycott Nestle” chanted out from the stage. Minutes later, the police returned with pitchers of water and cups for everyone.

Both of these days were filled with the gifts and graces of water. While we reclaimed that water, it, too, reclaimed us for the work of the liberation of water for our children, and their children, and this whole, big, beautiful world.


Bio: Lydia Wylie-Kellermann is a writer, activist, and mother living in the Detroit River Watershed. She is the co-editor of