Attend the fact-finding inquiry

The Dexter Avenue fire: Utility shutoffs and the social crisis in Detroit

By Socialist Equality Party
25 February 2010

Dexter houseThe Socialist Equality Party is calling on workers, young people and all those concerned about the worsening social conditions in Detroit to participate in a fact-finding inquiry into the January 5 house fire on Dexter Avenue that killed two disabled men and another Detroit resident. The inquiry will be held on March 20, from 1-5 pm, at Wayne State University in Detroit (see below for full details). Contact us today to become involved!

The Dexter Avenue fire was caused by a space heater being used to warm the house because DTE Energy had cut off gas and electric service to the two-story home in July, 2008. This tragedy was one of many similar cases. Since the end of last year, at least ten fire-related deaths have taken place in Detroit, the majority of which occurred in homes where utilities had been turned off and families were seeking to cope with freezing temperatures. This included a fire that resulted in the death of a baby on Detroit’s east side.

These deaths were totally unnecessary. No one should be forced to live without basic necessities such as gas, electricity and water. Yet hundreds of thousands are doing just that. And the situation is getting worse, not only in Detroit but throughout the metro area and the entire country.

According to DTE Energy, the company turned off utilities to 221,000 households in southeast Michigan in 2009, a 50 percent increase over 2008, when it cut off service to 142,000 households. With an average of 2.5 people in every household, this means more than half a million people, or one in ten residents living in the area, were without utilities some time last year.

Nationally, about 4.3 million households had utilities disconnected in 2009, up from 4.1 million the previous year. Applications for home heating assistance have hit record levels, even as states across the country are cutting funds to the program.

The economic recession and mass layoffs in the auto industry have made an already devastating situation unbearable in Detroit, where half the working population is without a full-time job. In a scene reminiscent of the soup lines during the Great Depression, last October, 50,000 people lined up at Cobo Hall seeking housing assistance. Officials acknowledged, however, that only one out of 23 who applied for assistance would get any.

All of the official institutions—the Democratic Party, the news media, the UAW and other trade unions and so-called civil rights organizations like the NAACP—have been silent about this crisis. None has carried out a serious investigation into the scope of utility shutoffs and the tragedies they produce, let alone taken any action to stop them. That is because in one way or another they all defend and benefit from an economic system that puts the profits of corporate CEOs and wealthy investors before the lives of ordinary people.

That is precisely why the SEP has initiated the campaign for a citizen’s inquiry into the Dexter Avenue fire, utility shutoffs and the social crisis in Detroit. We call upon all Detroit-area workers, unemployed people and youth to attend and participate in the fact-finding inquiry being held on March 20 at Wayne State University. This will be an opportunity to speak out and provide testimony about utility shutoffs and their impact on working class families. We are also calling on academics and experts with knowledge of the crisis in Detroit to provide testimony at the fact-finding inquiry.

What happened at 8011 Dexter Avenue?

Killed in the fire on Dexter Avenue on January 5, 2010 were Marvin Allen, 62, Tyrone Allen, 61, and Tyrone’s girlfriend, Lynn Greer, 58. Ronald Gross, the nephew of the Allen brothers, jumped out the window and barely escaped with his life.

The space heater was being used as temperatures dropped to 4 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill of -15. DTE had cut utilities to the home in July 2008, a full year-and-a-half before the fire. Just before the Christmas holidays, in December 2009, Greer met with DTE and arranged a payment of $181.00 to have power restored. For unexplained reasons, however, services were not restored.

Family members and neighbors say the delay may have been because DTE had previously dug up the gas hook-up in the yard. After the fatal fire, DTE tried to justify its actions by saying the house had an illegal hook-up to power lines and the family had been “stealing electricity.” A spokesman for DTE complained that the company had lost $100 million in profits due to such hook-ups, while acknowledging that the problem was getting worse due to the economic downturn.

DTE Energy is a for-profit company that had revenues of $9.3 billion in 2009 and profits of $546 million. It is one of the largest utility companies in the US, with 47 companies in 26 states. Its CEO, Anthony F. Earley Jr., received $4.84 million in compensation in 2007 and $7 million in 2008. From 2003-2007, he received a total of $18.31 million.

At the same time, tens of millions of workers are struggling to pay their bills due to the economic crisis. Ordinary workers are being told to do without, “tighten their belts” and choose between feeding their families or paying their utilities, while the government hands trillions of dollars to the Wall Street bankers who created the crisis.

Many thought that the election of President Obama and the defeat of the Republicans would put an end to government policies which helped only the rich. Instead, Obama has proven to be no less a tool of big business and the banks than Bush. The same is true of Mayor Bing and Governor Granholm.

Why you should join the inquiry

The citizen’s inquiry will expose the social conditions that led to the Dexter Avenue fire and similar fires. It will take testimony from workers in the Detroit metropolitan area on:

• Utility shut offs
• Poverty in Detroit
• Cuts in the fire department and other social services
• Plant closings and layoffs
• Poor housing conditions and foreclosures
• Federal, state and local budget cuts
• The health care and education crisis

By laying bare the real circumstances for the fire deaths on Dexter Avenue and exposing the social conditions which underlay them, the inquiry will assist in developing the consciousness which the working class needs to fight back. It will play an important role in laying the basis for the development of a political movement of the working class against the capitalist profit system, which will guarantee to all the right to safe and affordable housing, a secure job, health care and education.

We call on all concerned workers and young people to make their voices heard by supporting the citizen’s inquiry. To find out more, contact the SEP today.

Attend the fact-finding hearing:

Saturday, March 20, 1 -5 PM,
Wayne State University
General Lectures room 150
5045 Anthony Wayne
Detroit MI, 48202

Contribute to the fight for socialism in 2020

2019 has been a year of mass social upheaval. We need you to help the WSWS and ICFI make 2020 the year of international socialist revival. We must expand our work and our influence in the international working class. If you agree, donate today. Thank you.