How the Flint Water Crisis Reveals a Rupture in Our Democracy
by Maria Hernandez
March 22, 2016
The Flint water crisis was neither inevitable nor accidental — it was the failure of a broken democracy.
At first, the crowd outside the March 6 Democratic Debate in Flint was exactly what you’d expect: cheering throngs chanting for their candidates of choice.
But then came the sound of drums approaching from a distance. And then came the activists. From around the country, they came together not to rally for candidates, but to bring attention to the rupture of democracy in Flint that led to the poisoning of an entire city.
In the flood of information now coming out about the Flint water crisis, a clear pattern has emerged. The governmental decisions that both created and covered up this public health disaster were neither inevitable nor accidental.
Here’s to Flint
“Here’s to Flint,” a documentary that premiered hours before the debate earlier this month, points to the countless opportunities for the city and state governments to avoid this crisis. It shows government officials choosing to obscure facts, ignore red flags, forego standard and necessary public health measures, and callously enforce the payment of exorbitant bills for poisoned water.
These government accountability failures are not lost on the residents of Flint.
“We see what happens when someone decides that, in order to save a couple bucks, it’s OK to suspend democracy for a moment,” said one resident at the screening. A class action lawsuit now in progress charges violations of the Voting Rights Act as well as the 13th and 14th amendments.
Many are pointing to Michigan’s controversial emergency manager law — which allows the governor to bypass the democratically elected government and appoint a single official to take over a city’s budgeting — as a root cause of this crisis. In fact, repealing this law is the first demand on a list of community priorities assembled by a local coalition.
Across the board, the areas in Michigan that have these emergency financial managers are the same areas with the highest concentration of black residents, making a strong case for upholding Flint’s toxic water as an example of environmental racism. Flint’s emergency financial manager Darnell Earley even overruled a city council vote that would have prevented the switch to corrosive Flint River water. Earley also declined an offer from nearby Detroit to renew its contract with Flint to provide safe, treated water.
Michigan’s failure to provide affordable access to safe water is a warning sign for the health of democracy in the United States. Flint is located in one of the oldest continuously inhabited parts of Michigan, not far from the largest store of freshwater on Earth. There is no reason that its residents should be unable to find clean water.
Nonetheless, people in Flint, Detroit, and other parts of Michigan have faced widespread water shutoffs in recent years due to unpaid bills. In areas like Flint and Del Ray, rampant pollution and poverty only make limited access to water harder to confront.
With Michigan’s public policy falling short everywhere from housing to wage inequality, activists are connecting the dots between race, class and environmental protection. According to the We the People of Detroit research collective, the areas with the harshest water service cutoff policies are, once again, the areas with the highest concentration of black residents, the highest rates of poverty, the highest likelihood to have their city taken over by an unelected financial manager, and too often, the highest prices for water.
Justice for Flint
Back at the debate this month, chants for justice competed with chants for candidates as activists merged with the crowd of voters. And across the state of Michigan, more and more people are calling out for justice and reform within our democracy itself.
Right now, marginalized communities face more barriers to political participation than at any time since the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. Federal and state policies are not protecting Michigan residents at the local level — just look at the entire generation of Flint children who will suffer the lifelong effects of early-childhood lead exposure. Unregulated industrial pollution ruined the Flint River; years of neglect left the city littered with unsafe lead plumbing; and a refusal to acknowledge the needs and demands of local residents and officials left the people of Flint with nothing to drink except toxic water.
Personally, I’m most concerned for those who aren’t yet aware of how much their rights are being eroded. I spoke with Jywana of Benton Harbor, another city built and populated in large part by people of color, and she didn’t realize that her city was also under emergency financial management.
In fact, many of Michigan residents I spoke to didn’t know their cities were under emergency management, and how would they? They’re being shut out of the state’s democratic process and pushed into a system they don’t understand.
No one should have to study up on municipal budgeting law — while juggling families and demanding jobs — just to have their voices heard. That’s not how democracy is supposed to work.
Nonetheless, Jywana and others showed concern for their neighbors in Flint, and she left me with a powerful question. “If you can’t trust the government, who can you trust?”