Promise in the Land of Despair: The Crisis Is Not Over in Flint, Michigan

Chris Wood, Aron Block and Tim Robbins helping Flint resident Vince Williams. (Photo: David Schwenk)

Promise in the Land of Despair: The Crisis Is Not Over in Flint, Michigan

While the state and federal governments have failed, two outposts of citizen aid are providing support and fostering hope

For many Flint residents, fear and despair plague their every day. Hobbled by illness and unsure about the safety of the city water supply, they have quit expecting city and state officials to help them recover from a water crisis that began over three years ago. Not only have pipes not been fixed, but also thousands face eviction for not paying for the water that poisoned them. Critical health issues fester in families that face financial ruin. Thankfully, two outposts of citizen aid have stepped up to provide support where officials have failed in this toxic environment of crushed dreams and urban decay

Camp Promise and Wolves Den in Flint are two community encampments giving much-needed assistance to residents literally struggling to stay alive. Vicki Marx, who started showing symptoms of Parkinson's Disease shortly after the water crisis broke out, has been going to Camp Promise every day since it established grounds in Kearsley Park in April of this year.

"They give me hope," she said as she poured over documents that showed lead levels in her water as high as 79 parts per billion. Water should contain less lead than the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion. Once ingested, dangerous levels of lead accumulate in the brain, bones, kidneys and other major organs, leading to severe health problems such as Ms. Marx is suffering.

"When I told my story at a town hall meeting, Aron came up to me afterward and started crying and said he was so sorry. It was the first time anybody told me that around here." --Vicki Marx"The city doesn't care," she said with disgust. "They just want us to die or go away. They tell me it's my fixtures. I've replaced all my fixtures. They still refuse to replace my pipes. When I told my story at a town hall meeting, Aron came up to me afterward and started crying and said he was so sorry. It was the first time anybody told me that around here. He said we're here for you. We're going to fight for you."

Ms. Marx is referring to Aron Block, a Flint resident who started Camp Promise because his friend's family also suffered in obscurity. "Nobody was stepping up to help these people," Mr. Block told me outside his tent. "Where was the compassion? Where was the caring? Where was the community? We wanted to build some solidarity with veterans, elderly, young people. You name it. We've all got to fight this together. These people are sick and need immediate help."

The Murphy family that inspired Mr. Block to act has seen their lives upended and their dreams crushed. Adam Murphy had to quit a promising career that offered high pay and travel after he had just completed an intense training course. "Now I can't even drive to the store by myself," he said inside his kitchen, having become sick from the water that came out of the faucet. "I'll get lost. I'll forget what to buy. Maybe I will return three or four hours later with nothing I needed to get."

His wife, Christina, is the only one in the family of six who hasn't gotten seriously ill from the water. "My kids, they have rashes, forgetfulness, extreme mood swings. They have tooth decay. The teeth fall apart like paste because it eats from the inside out. My husband can't work. If I get sick, I don't know what would happen to this family."

Like many other residents, the Murphys express disdain for city officials. "They gave us boilers, told us to boil the water, but that actually increases the danger of some of these toxins in the water. They tell us it's OK to drink the water with these filters they give us, but the lead levels are still way too high."

The Murphys are also upset with the city for providing them with state doctors who are ill-equipped to administer the detox therapy they need to rid their bodies of toxins ingested while drinking the water. "We need environmental doctors. The medicine alone costs nearly $200 per month. Who's going to pay for that?" The weight of worry, fear, and despair nearly led Mrs. Murphy to give up all hope, but once Camp Promise came along, her mood changed for the better.

"I was getting really depressed," she said. "I was ready to take the kids and get the hell out of here, even if we couldn't sell our house. Then Aron called and said, 'We're setting up.' All kinds of people started coming from all over the country, including Native Americans. These people have able minds and able bodies and are doing the work that we sick and disabled can't do, 'cause we're right in the middle of the war."

Indeed, on a recent day members of Camp Promise visited the house of Vince Williams to clean the yard and fix a dilapidated porch. They spent most of the day at the home working and providing a compassionate ear to Mr. Williams, who is disabled and must carry water up stairs just to bathe. Camp Promise also travels around the city delivering water to the needy. Perhaps greatest of all, they provide a physical space where residents can gather and learn to care for each other.

"I started meeting the other residents and am now on the Camp Promise Residents Council," Ms. Marx said at the camp fire. "We meet with the camp and tell them what we need. They respond. You come here and get to talk to people. I can't believe the stories I hear. I am still physically a wreck, but after coming here, I am emotionally 100% better than I was before."

Across town another encampment, Wolves Den in Flint, has taken up residence at a house where tents and water storage containers fill the yard. Made up mostly of water protectors who grew close at the Oceti Sakowin camp while battling a pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota, they also provide outreach to the community, having used their water truck from Standing Rock to deliver water to needy residents. They go to senior living centers and go to the top floors to see if anybody needs water. They also perform chores for the sick and disabled.

"Camp Promise and Wolves Den in Flint are both providing critical services where the state has failed."

"A lot of people are really sick and can't do these things anymore," said Chelsea Lyons, one of the founders of Wolves Den who organizes much of the work. Besides being an activist, Ms. Lyons is also a reporter who recently released parts of an interview where a Michigan official, Phil Stair, used a racial slur to blame African-Americans for Flint's water crisis. While that story has exploded across the nation, Ms. Lyons continues working to fill a void where the city has failed.

"The city has a few token programs to help people that don't do any good. Like, here are these free water filters that don't work at all. Take them. Really. You can't tell people that the water is safe drinking through these worthless filters. You're telling people to drink and bathe in poison. They should all be in jail."

Many see corporations poised to seize on the misery of Flint residents and take advantage of this time of crisis, when they can buy up cheap homes pushed into foreclosure and snatch up mineral rights for fracking. A number of residents and activists believe there is a concerted effort to push people out of the city and gentrify it for the existing universities and prosperous businesses, going as far as to label it racial and environmental genocide in the name of corporate profit.

Whatever the truth may be, one can't deny that city officials have failed miserably in protecting the citizens of Flint. Camp Promise and Wolves Den in Flint are both providing critical services where the state has failed.

"We want to start our own water distribution center," Ms. Lyons said, "But we also need to pressure the city to get the pipes fixed. The best we can do is raise awareness that Flint still has this problem and to get thousands of people out here to push for change. There's a lot of interest now with various groups and we're planning for a massive action this summer."

When asked what she gets out of this personally, Ms. Lyons focused on the positive change their group pushes through community action.

"This is just one phase of something that started at Standing Rock. It's bigger than Flint. It's a collective of getting people to organize better and learning how to fight to somehow restore our planet. I mean, just looking at science, we're only a decade, or maybe two, away from catastrophe. I have kids. I want them to be able to grow into adulthood. If we don't do this now, then when are we going to do it? It's time."

Both camps plan to continue their community work throughout the summer and invite all interested parties to come help them restore hope and promise to the residents of Flint. For some residents, their very lives may depend upon that help.

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