In the spring of 2014, Tom Stephens received an alarming email from organizer Charity Hicks that water service would soon be shutoff to residents with unpaid bills. Within a week, workers contracted by the city to carry-out the shutoffs arrived on Hicks’ block. Hicks watched from her window as the truck rolled up and a man got out to shut off her water, even though she still had two days left to pay her water bill. She ran out of the house barefoot to confront the man and warn her neighbors to “fill your bathtubs now. Run water now, put it in jugs and put it in the fridge.” Hicks called the cops on the person shutting off her water and he drove away, running over her foot on the way out. Instead of protecting her from the violence of having her water shut off, the police arrested Hicks and took her to the Detroit Detention Center, barefoot and bleeding, and left in hazardous conditions with for three whole days before finally being released. Stephens heard Hicks tell this story at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church shortly after being released. “Everybody there was just like, ‘whoa…the rubber’s really meeting the road here.” Hick concluded her address with a line that has since become a rallying cry in Detroit: “we need to wage love.” It shook the room. “Nobody that was there will ever forget that meeting,” Stephens explained.
It was a transformative moment for Stephens, longtime activist and “peoples lawyer” who grew up in Trenton, MI and has lived in Detroit since the early 1980s. A member of the National Lawyers Guild and dedicated activist since the late 1970s, Stephens has been involved with anti-war movements, the environmental justice movement, struggles against emergency management, and organizing for educational justice in Detroit. His introduction to activism came as a student at the University of Michigan, when he protested having to register for the US military’s selective service program during the Soviet-Afghan War. “I had spent my freshman seminar…studying the recently completed Vietnam War and I’d been somewhat radicalized,” he recalled. When he was told he had to register for a potential draft, “I kind of just said…‘Fuck that,’ and kind of became an activist.” His refusal sparked a commitment to antiwar organizing and peace work that he continued when he enrolled in law school after graduation. “I figured it was a way I could make a living and also I could do things that were interesting to me and were beneficial for people in general, others in society.”
After law school in the 1980s, Stephens began working in the environmental justice movement. He was a co-founder of the Evergreen Alliance, which launched a decades-long campaign to shut down the world’s largest trash incinerator in Detroit. “The years between 86 and 91 were a kind of a whirlwind of just proto-environmental justice,” Stephens remembers.” The environmental justice movement was in its infancy and Stephens saw the narrow base of activists and “the lack of involvement of people in the Black community” as key shortcomings of their campaign that influenced his organizing work in the years that followed.
Stephens built on his background in environmental justice and labor organizing when Governor Rick Snyder placed the City of Detroit under emergency management in 2013. Having been active in the campaigns against Public Act 4 and the Consent Decree that ushered in Emergency Management, Stephens was among the founding members of an organization called Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (DREM) to coordinate struggles against the state takeover of the city.
D-REM arose out of an attempted formation of a much broader resistance when the emergency manager first took over Detroit. Among its many initiatives, DREM waged direct action protests in the streets and city government buildings, developed a communications strategy to challenge dominant narratives about emergency management, and developed a “People’s Plan of Adjustment” to challenge Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s plans for privatizing public assets and eliminating city services. Despite the resistance waged by DREM, Orr plowed ahead with his plan to balance the city’s books on the back of working-class Black Detroiters. “The only thing that could’ve stopped this was mass unrest in the streets,” Stephens reflected.
DREM’s initial meetings were well attended by a diverse base of community, labor, religious, and political interests and requests for “communication” quickly emerged as a priority. However, the legal repression and economic coercion of emergency management, along with internal contradictions, fragmented the broad political/social coalition. “Our initial unity continued to manifest in a sort of new form,” Stephens explains. “A few of us older professional-technical volunteer cadre, together with a series of web hosts handling the internet, developed a new digital-age grassroots movement communications platform.” The availability of a word searchable archive, platform for statements/publications/testimonies/documents, and documentation of protests, “played a role in affecting the public discourse and made a counter-hegemonic record of that significant history.”
One of the most consequential aspects of emergency management was the proposed privatization of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). “The orchestration of the long-sought white takeover of the water and sewer system was part and parcel of the bankruptcy and emergency management,” Stephens explained. In the spring of 2014, Orr announced that they were going to start conducting 5,000 water shutoffs per week to reduce DWSD’s debts to prime it for privatization (ultimately DWSD was regionalized into the Great Lakes Water Authority in response to opposition to privatization). This announcement spurred organizers like Charity Hicks into action to protect herself and her neighbors that spring. At a meeting with Canadian water activist Maude Barlow that spring, Stephens learned a lesson that has shaped his approach to organizing ever since. “She said, ‘If we pay attention to what’s happening with our water and we deal with it appropriately, it will help us solve all our other problems,’ which has sort of been my whole approach to life since then.” Barlow also suggested that Detroit activists file a complaint with the United Nations that the water shutoffs were a violation of human rights.
As a member of the City Council’s Legislative Policy division, Stephens had previously been tasked with finding out what was happening with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. “I had a lot of background through the incinerator and the Lawyers Guild and everything with organizing, but I had never seen anything like this, and I still haven’t seen anything like it,” he recalled. As organizations like the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, We the People of Detroit, and the People’s Water Board Coalition advanced demands for a water affordability program in the face of mounting shutoffs, Stephens decided “I’m going to do something about this water affordability challenge, or I’m gonna die trying.” In addition to his involvement in community organizing and direct action protests against the shutoffs, Stephens was also involved in writing the complaint to the United Nations, which he described as “the single most successful political tactic that I ever participated in in my whole life.” “Within two or three weeks,” he recalled, “the UN sent out a press release with all kinds of quotes from the special rapporteurs for housing and water that said, ‘Yeah, if you’re shutting off water to people who can’t afford it, that’s a violation of their human rights.”
When Orr finally left the city in late 2014 marking the end of Emergency Management, Stephens and DREM transitioned into working around issues of education. In the decade preceding the state takeover of the city, the Detroit Public Schools had been dismantled by a series of state-appointed emergency managers who racked up debt, closed dozens of schools, and decimated enrollments. “We were Detroiters Resisting the Emergency Manager, but there’s no more emergency manager,” he explained. “And, even Snyder had admitted that emergency management had not helped the Detroit Public Schools. We realized that we had to do something about education.”
Alongside longtime educators like Aurora Harris and Dr. Aneb Kgotsitsile (Gloria House), Stephens helped to form the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement (DIFSM). “We said, ‘What about organizing Freedom Schools? What about making education as a political activity and the political and social and racial and economic aspects of education the central focus of a self-organized, grassroots Freedom School movement?” Modeled on the Freedom Schools Kgotsile and other activists organized in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement, DIFSM was formed to “respond to Detroit children’s needs for positive educational activities to fill the vacuum created by the dismantling of the DPS through the policies of Emergency Management.”
Through his decades of organizing experience, Stephens has many important lessons to offer to current and aspiring activists. “If you just do everything that you can and you do it long enough,” Tom explains, “you’re gonna make some progress.” He states that efforts to change the world must begin with changing ourselves. “Then we change the people with us, and it goes out from there, and if the dynamic is that it keeps getting bigger and more confrontational, it keeps raising the stakes,” and eventually, he explains, the powers that be will have to acknowledge the protest. Stephens explains that to make social change, you must have a strong social and political base and a strategy that is calibrated to win, changing with the times as necessary.
Stephens also notes the importance of the activism of future generations and younger organizers. He suggests that in order for their activism to be successful, they must be even better organizers than the people before them. “None of this stuff is ever gonna get solved if we’re relying on elected officials to lead. And, you know, if you just look at American history or world history, none of the real progress ever comes from that direction, right? It always comes from people getting self-organized and bringing pressure from the bottom.” As a longtime organizer, Stephens has faith in younger generations of organizers and activists that are “rising to that challenge” in Detroit and beyond.
Tom Stephens, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, May 24, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.