Horns honked as people slowed to snap pictures and wave their support. It was a rainy January night in Flint, Michigan. Cars rolled down the bricks of Saginaw Street, Vehicle City USA’s main drag.
Over a loudspeaker, a voice cried under the bright lights of local TV crews.
“We will not rest until they get rid of this mess. They must understand, the citizens of Detroit, we stand in solidarity.”
Michiganders across the southeast corner of the state had taken up the call of the Detroit Light Brigade. As activists addressed the crowd, the Light Brigade assembled a dozen protesters in front of city hall, each one holding an illuminated letter.
# A R R E S T S N Y D E R
Others stood on the edge of the city’s main drag holding their signs for passers-by to see. Night set in. As the speeches wound down, the crowd split into groups. The #ARRESTSNYDER brigade took their protest across the street to the city jail. Melissa Mays from Water You Fighting For? led them in a cheer while volunteers unpacked water from a U-Haul driven up from Detroit. Most loaded packs into their cars; one man boarded a bus with a pack tucked under his arm.
We were soaked. My fingers raw. In one hand I held an umbrella, in the other I held a sign someone had given me from the back of their truck in the parking lot that was more pothole than parking lot.
“Did you get a picture of that?” I asked, gesturing as best I could toward the message projected on the wall of the city jail.
Water Is a Human Right
If you think the building looks familiar, it’s for good reason. It’s the same jail of Roger & Me infamy where wealthy suburbanites paid to spend the night just prior to opening for another type of client.
Amazing the infrastructure the government is and isn’t willing to pay for, isn’t it?
Alma, one of the activists we spoke with, had driven up from Detroit with friends to participate.
“This is criminal. Governor Snyder needs to be in jail, and he needs to pay back the people that he’s damaged for the rest of their lives and the next generations to come. This is criminal.”
I couldn’t even finish asking whether or not she was satisfied with Rick Snyder’s apology before I got a resolute “No.”
“He needs to leave.
“Everything needs to be restored back the way it was. We don’t need emergency managers. We voted down emergency managers. They [Michigan lawmakers] went overnight and did some other trickery. The emergency managers are supposed to be helpful, but they’re doing nothing but being harmful to the people who live in the big cities in Michigan.”
The emergency managers Alma is referring to are appointed by the governor and responsible only to the governor—no one else. In theory, emergency managers are appointed on a temporary basis to help cities struggling to manage their finances. In a rust belt state like Michigan, where our population centers have been decimated by outsourcing jobs, there’s no shortage of cities struggling to stay above water.
When an emergency manager is appointed to take over a city or town, it’s no exaggeration to say that democracy essentially stops working at the local level. The municipality’s council and mayor are rendered mere figureheads.
At the time when Flint switched water sources from Detroit to Flint, the city was under one of these emergency managers. The decision to switch water sources was made to save the city money. Instead, it looks like the city could need well over a billion dollars to replace its aging infrastructure.
For Alma and the rest of the crowd, there was a clear consensus: “Snyder needs to go.”
We also spoke to Caryn and Alissa, two of the protesters who had been part of the #ARRESTSNYDER brigade. They relocated to Flint in May 2015 and have been living with lead-poisoned water ever since.
As we huddled under my umbrella, Caryn explained how they first found out about the water crisis.
“I heard about it as I was moving in,” she said. “We had to use a lot of reverse osmosis water. We had to buy our water for a long time before they started going around with the filters. It’s been difficult, it’s been a task to make sure that me and my family are safe and healthy.”
Even for Flint residents like Caryn and Alissa who have water filters, there are still daily challenges.
“There was lead in our coffee this morning because I spilled a little out of the filter, ” Alissa said.
They didn’t even have a filter for their water when they first moved in.
At the time, Alissa says, the state told the people of Flint: “It’s fine, just drink up.” E-mails acquired by NBC News show that while the Snyder administration was publicly telling people to “relax,” Snyder’s own chief of staff was also accusing the administration of “blowing off” the people of Flint. As of the time of this writing, the U.S. Attorney’s Office is currently investigating the administration’s mismanagement of the situation.
“We went for a couple months without a filter before we had the money aside that we could use,” Alissa explained. “We figured, we’re kind of gambling. We hope we’re old enough that we’re not developing too much and that it won’t hurt us terribly.”
Carmen, a friend of theirs who joined them at the protest with her toddler, pointed out, “Flint is an extremely impoverished area. And so they don’t have the ability to purchase bottled water. And that was [Snyder’s] solution at first. So, these people have to choose, am I going to get my electricity shut off, or am I going to poison my children. That’s an unacceptable choice; this is America. That shouldn’t even be happening in a first-world country, let alone our country.”
“And not to mention that Flint has one of the highest water rates in the country,” I pointed out.
Alissa chimed in, “It actually went up astronomically since we found out about the crisis.”
Even though Carmen lives in nearby Clio, not Flint, she still doesn’t trust the water in her own home.
“I’m not certain if Clio gets Flint water. I don’t know. Either way, I don’t drink water from my house because of the Flint Water Crisis and none of my kids [do either]. We buy gallon water for food and, well, we bathe in it, but we don’t drink it or cook with it.”
As far as Alissa is concerned, the first step toward justice for Flint is accountability from the governor’s office.
“Admit your wrongdoing, because he’s acting like it wasn’t his fault, and like he didn’t have any hands in it, but we’ve seen multiple e-mails that have been released over the last week that show it goes all the way back to February , that he did have knowledge of it, that the EPA told him not to do it, the Michigan investigators told him not to do it, they told his chief of staff. There needs to be something done to make up for what happened.”
As with Alma, these local residents are not at all satisfied with the steps that the Snyder administration has taken so far.
Caryn pointed out that “There’s still lead in the water because of the residual corrosion.”
“He definitely dragged his feet and it’s definitely not enough. Because the corrosion is still an issue. It’s still affecting our water, even though we’re getting water from Detroit now. There’s still lead in our water because the Flint water corroded the pipes and they’re probably going to need to be replaced. If he could get on that, we would really appreciate that.”
Getting the lead out of the water isn’t enough for Carmen. As she and her son went to join the protesters in front of the jail she reflected on the situation.
“I’d really like [Snyder] in jail now,” she said. “Especially now that we know he knew for so long and did not care. Not only did not care, but like went out of his way to make sure that kids were drinking the Flint water.
“The biggest problem is that he clearly does not care what happens to the children of Flint, to the people of Michigan as a whole. He’s taken his actions so far as to jeopardize the lives of our children, and that’s obviously way too far.”
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