Date: 06/15/2019; 07/12/2019
During his deployment in the Vietnam War, Russ Bellant saw the ramifications of the U.S. government intervention that left a country and its population decimated. In the decades since, Mr. Bellant has seen a similar destruction resulting from the State of Michigan’s intervention in Detroit that has fundamentally changed the city: “It’s Detroit in name, but it’s not the history. It’s not what generations of people have built.”
Upon returning from the Vietnam War and during his time as a student at Wayne State University, Mr Bellant became an anti-war activist. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Bellant began as an apprentice in the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). The department serves 126 municipalities across seven Michigan counties with extensive distribution mains and almost 3000 miles of sewer collection piping. Building on his experience as an apprentice and mechanical helper, Mr. Bellant began to witness the strength of DWSD. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, “Detroit had a world-class civil engineering staff. People came from all over the world to consult with the Detroit water system engineers, and they had the resources because they had already built this pretty large system serving several million people.”
Detroit’s world-class water system was also a driver of suburbanization, as surrounding cities and towns depended on DWSD infrastructure for their water and sewer systems. As a result of the efficiency, ingenuity, and strength of the Detroit water system, neighboring municipalities that relied on Detroit for water and sewerage tried time and again to take over DWSD starting in the 1950s and continuing into the 2000s.
As a water plant operator in the 1990s, Mr. Bellant traded shifts with his coworkers so he could attend the legislative hearings and committee meetings in Lansing that sought to determine the fate of DWSD. At the first hearing he attended, Mr. Bellant obtained a copy of the critique put forth by the neighboring counties and studied it. By this time, he was an expert on how the Detroit water system worked, and he was able to identify that the critique was fabricated and false. “I went back and started testifying…on my own,” he recalled.
While the suburbs were conspiring to takeover DWSD, the state was maneuvering to undermine the Detroit Public Schools (DPS). Mr. Bellant first got involved in the fight to preserve schools in Detroit during the first takeover in 1999 with Public Act 10, with the implementation of a CEO of DPS and the loss of the democratically elected school board. As a result, all decisions regarding the schools were made through the appointed CEO and there was not a school board to represent the citizens’ interests. Mr. Bellant recalls that the CEO ordered the demolition of a building that contained asbestos and was located right next to his children’s school. Despite the parents’ requests to wait until school was out for the summer, the building was demolished, leading to asbestos contamination throughout the schools’ hallways “like swirling snow on a freeway.” While some teachers and school staff refused to work in such hazardous conditions, the principal refused to close the school. Mr. Bellant was among about a third of the parents who pulled their children out of school.
When one of the parents had the idea to take a sample to Wayne County Department of Public Health, the school was closed due to the levels of asbestos contamination. Children “had to leave their personal property, their computers, their coats in the lockers and everything, get out, and they never were able to go back in the building again. That was the experience of dealing with the one-man dictatorship at Detroit Public Schools.” This experience showed Mr. Bellant, other parents, and students the dangers of state takeovers and suspension of local control.
During the aftermath of the 2008 Recession, Mr. Bellant saw his neighborhood drastically change as more and more houses were added to the foreclosure list and eventually demolished. In the wake of the national mortgage foreclosure crisis that rocked the city, Detroit officials failed to reassess property values, meaning that Detroiters were paying higher taxes than their homes were worth. In the years since, Detroit illegally overtaxed residents by $600 million leading to a massive foreclosure crisis that has decimated Black homeownership in the city.
At first, Mr. Bellant would personally board up the houses that were empty and deteriorated in order to preserve the neighborhood and prevent crime. Eventually, Mr. Bellant began buying houses in his neighborhood. The Detroit Land Bank owned about a third of the parcels in Detroit, so Mr. Bellant took action and bought several houses off the tax auctions: “I got five of the houses occupied and not as a landlord…I did purchase agreements where for three or four years people owned the property…and paid me back the cost of what I put into it.” As Mr. Bellant began to make great strides in preserving the houses in his neighborhood, he inspired others both in his neighborhood and in the surrounding neighborhoods to do the same: “Within our block club territory, we’ve probably rescued about fifteen houses and made them occupiable or on the road to becoming occupiable.” This experience was common for many Detroiters who took it upon themselves to save their neighborhoods while the city, county, and state abandoned them.
Public perceptions across the country during these years painted Detroit as a crime-ridden and failing city due to the shortcomings of its residents and elected officials. Emergency Management by the State of Michigan is portrayed as a benevolent and necessary action to help the city. In other words, age-old racist narratives about the city have been used to justify white savior interventions from the state. Mr. Bellant, with his extensive experience and independent research, tells a vastly different story.
While popular narratives maintain that the City of Detroit was placed under emergency management and declared bankruptcy due to mismanagement by city officials, Mr. Bellant explains that the city’s assets have been gutted through through privatization, tax incentives to corporations, cuts to state revenue sharing, and selective debt collection. For example, Mr. Bellant pointed out how predatory agreements like the 2012 Consent Agreement could have been avoided if officials collected outstanding debts from billionaires like Mike Ilitch, who owed the city around $280 million.
Mr. Bellant retired from his position as a city employee in 2009. During the Detroit bankruptcy proceedings in 2013, he addressed the court as a retiree and said on the record that bankruptcy provisions were, in effect, privatizing and dismantling the pension system and support for the city workforce. The bankruptcy process took money from city workers’ pensions that was originally withheld from their paychecks for retirement. Mr. Bellant found that, although the pensions and employment contracts are “supposed to be inviolable,” “that is what bankruptcy is designed to bypass.”
“It speaks to the larger mentality of people…not as citizens with the sovereign right of power, but as disposable people who can be swept away after they’ve…used their lives.”
Because DWSD was such a valuable piece of Detroit’s infrastructure, it became one of the targets of the Emergency Management period and the subsequent bankruptcy. In preparing to privatize DWSD, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr began forcing the collection of water debt by launching a massive campaign of water shutoffs for people who owed as little as $150 on their water bills. At the expense of Detroiters’ health, the leaders of Detroit sought to make DWSD more attractive by reducing its debt in order to continue to privatize and sell off Detroit’s public resources.
Mr. Bellant is now the President of the Helco Block Club, the Vice President of the We Care About Van Dyke-Seven Mile Neighborhood Association, the Vice President of the East Side American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Chapter, the Treasurer of the 9th Precinct Community Relations Council, and a Commissioner of the Detroit Public Library.
As an employee of DWSD, Mr. Bellant saw the valuable work and resources within Detroit that were taken advantage of by external forces. As a father, Mr. Bellant saw the powers-that-be systematically disassemble Detroit’s schools. As an activist and citizen, Mr. Bellant continues to fight to make Detroit a city run by its citizens and for its citizens.
In speaking about his vision for Detroit, Mr. Bellant states that he has “a responsibility to help make it happen, and myself and the many others who want that to happen have a duty as a citizen to do what we have to do to win…Your values have to determine your commitment and where you go and what you do, and if they’re truly your values, you don’t walk away when you lose.”
Russ Bellant, interviewed by Peter Blackmer, June 15, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.