Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s successive emergency managers are now gone from Flint, but the wreckage of their rule there still pollutes many homes. The crisis in Flint is, on the surface, about water. In April 2014, the city switched from the Detroit water system, which it had used for more than 50 years, to the Flint River, ostensibly to save money. The Flint River water made people sick, and is likely to have caused disease that killed some residents. The corrosive water, left untreated, coursed through the city’s water system, leaching heavy metals out of old pipes. The most toxic poison was lead, which can cause permanent brain damage. The damage to the people of Flint, the damage to the children who drank and bathed in the poisoned water, is incalculable. The water is still considered toxic to this day.
The Flint debacle also is about democracy. As a team of us from the “Democracy Now!” news hour traveled to Flint last weekend to report on the crisis, we received a text message from a native son of that city, Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore. “Lead isn’t the poison in Michigan. Fascism is,” Michael wrote. “How do u toss a democratic election in the garbage and get away with it?”
Moore had just visited Flint to help organize a rally calling for the arrest of the governor. Rick Snyder ran for governor in 2010 as a fiscal conservative, and won in the tea-party wave of electoral victories that year. He pushed for a strengthened emergency-manager law, which would give him broader powers to take over city governments and school districts that were deemed (by a board that Snyder appointed) to be in a state of “financial emergency.” The governor could then appoint an emergency manager with sweeping powers, overriding elected city councils and mayors, imposing severe austerity measures, selling off public assets and breaking existing contracts with labor unions. He did this primarily in black communities.
“We don’t have just a water problem. We’ve got a democracy problem. We’ve got a dictatorship problem,” Claire McClinton told me in Flint. She is a lifelong resident of the city, from a union family, and a lead organizer with the Democracy Defense League. She and her group were meeting just across the Flint city line at a restaurant in Flint Township, which never switched off the Detroit water. As they met, a woman approached them. Kawanne Armstrong was visibly upset, desperate to get clean water for her newborn grandson. Audrey Muhammad, one of those attending the meeting, offered her water that she had just bought for herself, which she had in her car. These two women, both, like 60 percent of Flint’s residents, African-American, walked into the bitter cold to move gallon jugs of water from one car trunk to another. “It’s for my grandson. He was born February 6. ... That’s my concern,” Armstrong told us.
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We left that meeting and went to a Catholic church in Flint, where scores of people were preparing to head out, canvassing door to door to distribute water and water filters, and to assess the needs of each household. Union members from Detroit, social workers and plumbers from Ann Arbor, and many Flint residents were volunteering their time on a bitter-cold winter Saturday afternoon.
Last October, under enormous pressure, the governor was forced to switch Flint’s water back to the Detroit source, but the damage to the pipes has been done, and toxins continue to leach into the water. Melissa Mays was in the church, as a founder of Water You Fighting For, an activist group. “All three of my sons are anemic now. They have bone pain every single day. They miss a lot of school because they’re constantly sick. Their immune systems are compromised,” she told us. She, too, is sick. “Almost every system of our bodies have been damaged.” Despite her illness, she was out helping others.
The emergency manager is now gone, and the people of Flint have elected a mayor, Karen Weaver, who can actually represent them. She immediately declared a state of emergency, focusing national media attention on the crisis. She has demanded $55 million to jump-start the immediate repair of Flint’s water system. Gov. Snyder has countered with a fund of $25 million, and insists that it be spent on contractors of his choice—conditions that Weaver rejects. “We’re going to get rid of these lead pipes one house at a time, one street at a time, one neighborhood at a time, until they are all gone,” Mayor Weaver said. “We cannot afford to wait any longer.”
Two parallel investigations, state and federal, are underway in an attempt to determine if any crimes have been committed. The first step to healing Flint has been taken, though: the restoration of democratic control. All else will flow, like water, from that.