Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

(Photo: Linda Parton / Shutterstock)

Voices From the Front Lines of the Flint Water Crisis

Amy GoodmanDenis Moynihan

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.

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.

© 2016 Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on over 1,400 public television and radio stations worldwide.

Denis Moynihan

Denis Moynihan

Denis Moynihan is a writer and radio producer who writes a weekly column with Democracy Now's Amy Goodman.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Report on Revolving Door and Tax Policy Sparks Calls for Federal Probe and Reforms

"This is an example of terrible management in the Treasury Department across multiple administrations."

Jessica Corbett ·

Nabisco Strike Ends After Union Members Approve New Contract

"Congratulations to these brave workers on their wins," said one labor writer. "May their determination and grit be an inspiration for workers everywhere."

Jessica Corbett ·

'I Had a Duty of Care': Doctor Praised for Violating Texas' New Abortion Ban

"I hope the law gets overturned," Dr. Alan Braid said, "and if this is what does it, that would be great."

Jessica Corbett ·

'Infuriating Disappointment': Biden DHS Ramping Up Deportations to Haiti

"It is unconscionable for the Biden administration to resume deportation flights to Haiti, despite the country's ongoing political, economic, and environmental disasters."

Jessica Corbett ·

Architect of Texas Abortion Ban Takes Aim at LGBTQ+ Rights While Urging Reversal of Roe

"Make no mistake, the goal is to force extreme, outdated, religious-driven values on all of us through the courts."

Jessica Corbett ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.

Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo