The Defend Black Voters Coalition hosted a virtual press conference on April 19 to launch its “Taking Back Our Power” campaign. The event featured state Representative Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, and members of organizations in the coalition, including Detroit Action, MOSES Action, Michigan People’s Campaign, Mothering Justice Action Fund, Emergent Justice and Color of Change.
The “Taking Back Our Power” campaign calls on public officials to enact utility reform legislation based on preventing statewide power outages and utility rate increases to ensure utility companies like DTE and Consumers Energy provide affordable and continuous power supply.
Ken Whittaker, executive director of Michigan People’s Campaign, opened the panel by discussing how corporations such as General Motors, Consumers Energy and DTE publish statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement but also fund legislators that support voter suppression.
“What we found is that lawmakers are funded by many of the same corporations that have been so happy to give hollow statements in support of Black lives,” Whittaker said. “These companies are showing us that they are against the people by financially backing lawmakers that are supporting voter suppression. We are going to expose them, and we’re going to fight them.”
Ponsella Hardaway, executive director of MOSES Action and co-chair of Defend Black Voters, spoke about how companies like DTE and Consumers Energy have been seeking permission from the Michigan Public Service Commission to increase utility rates, despite making record profits during the pandemic. According to Hardaway, DTE requested a 9% increase in utility rates, and Consumers Energy is expected to make a similar request by the end of the month.
“Michiganders now suffer the highest electrical rates and the worst power outages in the Midwest,” Hardaway said. “We’re here to say that this is a no. We don’t want more money going to them.”
Hardaway also said these companies fund legislators supporting hostile voter suppression legislation in Michigan. She called for utility reform that creates equitable utility rates.
“We’re taking back our power by making sure regulators and legislators are accountable to the people, not the corporations,” Hardaway said. “We value people over profits. These companies consistently give our money to politicians who are working to take away our political power. They take away our political power by making it harder for Black and working-class people to vote.”
OT Goree, a member of Emergent Justice and a DTE customer, shared the story of residents of Shoreline Condominiums, many of whom are senior citizens, who experience frequent power outages that often last up to seven days, despite residents having paid their utilities bills. Goree called for the Michigan Public Service Commission to reject rate increases and ensure such power outages do not continue.
“DTE couldn’t do this to our communities if the regulators or the elected officials didn’t let them,” Goree said. “The utilities commission missed an opportunity to create real accountability for power outages, like the ones I’ve experienced. But they can make up for it. They can deny DTE or Consumers Energy any further rate increases.”
Veronica Claybrone, a member of Detroit Action and a DTE customer, said utility rate increases and power outages disproportionately affect those with health problems and prevent them from accessing basic utility needs.
“I’m 71 years old,” Claybrone said.“I’m living on a fixed income, and I have certain health issues, so I can’t afford for my utilities to go off.There’s people all over Detroit that need help because they have respiratory problems, and they have other illnesses. That means they need their utilities.”
Rabhi responded to community concerns by discussing the components of new legislation introduced in the House in partnership with state Rep. Abraham Aiyash. Rabhi said H.B. 4073 includes provisions for credit granted on utility bills for those facing power outages. Under the legislation, those who experience power outages would receive $5 in compensation for every hour the outage continues. The $5 rate would increase with each passing hour and cap at $25 per hour.
“We’re seeing corporations put big money behind politicians that support voter suppression,” Rabhi said. “This is an unacceptable set of circumstances that we’re in. Not only does our bill try to address the issue around long power outages, our bill also addresses the issue of frequent power outages. I believe that this will also serve as a very, very needed financial incentive for the utilities to get their act together and harden their grid.”
Panelists recommended that community members contact the Michigan Public Service Commission and their district representatives to voice concerns about heightened rates for utilities and support the legislation being introduced by Rabhi.
“We need people to contact their legislators, but it’s not just your legislator that we need,” Rabhi said. “Call your friends, call your family members, all across the state of Michigan.”
Summer News Editor Navya Gupta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.