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.

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.”

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.

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.

  • J Smith

    Kudos to both men for standing up against the Water Shutoff’s!! Times change and since Michigan became a Corporate Fascist state, we see too many times how the citizens of this State are shut out of the process. Sometimes it requires brave hearts to make a statement that reflects the oppression placed upon them by a State that has NO regard for anything but Koch directives. Good Luck, young men and thank you for standing up against the hypocrisy all around us.

  • banmar

    First, I have to say that I understand the guy’s outrage and motivation. However, he went too far. He didn’t just “tag” the water tower; he destroyed its paint job. He may well be an artist, but he’s no Banksy or Shepard Fairey, especially on that scale. Hopefully he can find a good public defender or crusading attorney who can work out a plea deal to knock the felony charges down to misdemeanors and the fine reduced to community service. Next time, he should look for donations to rent a billboard (which would have been a lot cheaper than $45K).

    And Detroit, Philadelphia bows to your “Zombieland” on the deceased Park Avenue Hotel, and introduces you to its spiritual twin, the Beury Building, on North Broad Street in the Badlands; yes, it says Boner Forever.

    • javierjuanmanuel

      People buy those artists work, even if I disagree with where they do it.

      Not everyone who calls themselves an artist, is an artist. I am not sure we should be calling people community organizer at their request either.

      Allot of both the above, are people on welfare, who sell drugs on the side, and like to cause trouble and hate the idea of a 9-5. Maybe we need a word for that, that everyone understands.

      • banmar

        I think the sad part is there’s a lot of folks who are producing good mural art with a message and standing up and trying to improve their communities but they get overshadowed by the people who don’t get permission to paint and who misuse tragedies for their own crusades. There’s a lot of working renters whose leases say the landlord will pay the water bill and then get stuck in limbo when the landlord doesn’t. Of course there’s some cheats — every system has them — but some people just don’t make enough money to pay all the bills and too much to qualify for help.

      • banmar

        I think the sad part is there’s a lot of folks who are producing good mural art with a message and standing up and trying to improve their communities but they get overshadowed by the people who don’t get permission to paint and who misuse tragedies for their own crusades. There’s a lot of working renters whose leases say the landlord will pay the water bill and then get stuck in limbo when the landlord doesn’t. Of course there’s some cheats — every system has them — but some people just don’t make enough money to pay all the bills and too much to qualify for help.

  • Wayne curtis

    The words that define our social phenomenon are not heard at frist by a consciousness that hasn’t been developed to hearing nor seeing what is right in front of them. But as the consistency of words that define bringing an unknown a hidden found so will the peoples consciousness. Collective consciousness is the foundation of trasnformation of laws that do not obey our consciousness and needs. Art is not a commodity. We will not allow the art of a rainbow to be sold it is not a commodity.

    • javierjuanmanuel

      What he is is not art. He is free to do art at his home, or studio and give it away, same with you.

      Art supplies are costly, so is repainting the side of a building, overpass, etc.

  • javierjuanmanuel

    “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.”

    Who was inspired, how would he know, and what did the inspired do? Any of them go pay water bills, or hire some people and give them jobs ?

    He is NOT known, almost no one, knows any detroit artists. People, some very rare fans of the arts, and good memories, know a few artists, their Q rating is laughable though.

    Struggling residents of the cass corridor, besides being maybe english speaking adults, and free americans, also a maybe, have virtually nothing in common with a developer. LOL this is crap. Of course there would be a stark contrast, did any of those struggling major in business? Work 80 hour weeks for 20 years ? Bet everything they had, did well, doubled down, bet it all again, then again after that ?

    If not, then its like me asking why do I playbasketball and golf, and tiger woods and lebron make so much more money than me. Maybe a better comparison would be people not even playing golf or basketball being upset over money, I seriously doubt many in cass down on their luck have a college degree, not in the arts, and started a legit business with a tax id number, insurance, credit rating, etc etc etc.

  • javierjuanmanuel


    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.”

    This is waterford, not detroit, and I am not aware of anyone defacing a water tower in detroit. Its a rather unique thing to go paint or pressure wash, then paint that high up.

    If you want you could do a story about why the detroit cops in the news let off a young teen black mail tagging a building, saying they did not know how to write the ticket, and suggest the white girls from grosse pointe also get that same treatment.

    Curious, I never saw one person suggest that, its seems so obvious.

  • There are consequences for defacing public property. I doubt that many view the water tower as “art”.

  • There are consequences for defacing public property. I doubt that many view the water tower as “art”.

    • javierjuanmanuel

      One is not an artist unless people buy your work. People like this turd are eye rapeing people.

      You cannot make us look at your art, on land you do not own, on a public works project.

      • MarkDilley

        Ok, I had to stop at this particular part of the vitriol and say something.

        Javier Juan Manuel, I don’t think you understand what art is. Did you know that many of the world’s artists made no money off of their art?