Water shutoff activists face possible jail time for ‘Free the Water’ mural

"Free the Water" and black fist mural on a water tower in Highland Park. Photo courtesy of Detroit Water Brigade.
“Free the Water” and black fist mural on a water tower in Highland Park. Photo courtesy of Detroit Water Brigade.

By Steve Neavling
Motor City Muckraker

When the city of Detroit began shutting off water to low-income residents who couldn’t afford their water bills, some activists resorted to civil disobedience to stop what they called a draconian, inhumane response to delinquent payments.

Activist Antonio Rafael. Photo by
Activist Antonio Rafael. Photo by Daymon J. Hartley.

One of those activists is Antonio Rafael, a 28-year-old farmer, community organizer and artist who spent the past two years protesting the shutoffs. In June 2015, Rafael sat down with a young boy to block a city-paid crew from turning off water to a pregnant woman during Ramadan in southwest Detroit. He also was among the protesters who blocked the entrance to Homrich, Inc., a company that disconnects water for the city, in June 2014.

Now Rafael and fellow artist and activist William Lucka, 22, are facing up to four years in prison for allegedly painting “Free the Water” and a large black fist on the water tower at the Highland Park Treatment Plant near I-75 and I-94 in November 2014. They were held in police custody for 18 hours and later charged with a felony count of malicious destruction of property.

Prosecutors also want the pair to pay a whopping $45,000, the alleged cost to remove the graffiti.

Their potential penalties are much stiffer than those doled out to suburban graffiti writers who have been caught vandalizing buildings in Detroit in the past two years.

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The activists’ trials are set for this week in Wayne County Circuit Court.

“A lot of people were inspired by that image,” said Rafael, who is known for painting “Zombieland” on the top of the now-demolished Park Avenue Hotel as a commentary on the stark contrast between big developers and struggling residents of the Cass Corridor. “I’m a street artist.”

Rafael and Lucka are part of the neighborhood collective, Raiz Up, which raises awareness through hip hop and art.

The pair launched a fundraiser campaign through Funded Justice to help with the legal costs.

“You have to be hard-pressed to say we maliciously destroyed property,” Rafael told Motor City Muckraker.

Rafael worries about his and his friend’s future.

“I’m trying to go to grad school,” Rafael said. “I would really like to further my education. That felony is going to make it a lot harder for me to do that.”

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Rafael isn’t exactly a troublemaker. He’s a frequent volunteer and community organizer, cleaning up trash on his free time and raising awareness about political and environmental injustices. He has been active in helping Flint in the wake of the water crisis, and he’s getting out the word about lead poisoning in Detroit Public Schools buildings and the impact of gentrification and emergency management.

Lucka is a muralist, volunteer and outspoken opponent of gentrification and emergency management.

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Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.