If you want to write about protests, door-to-door activism, or anything set outdoors in Michigan during the month of January, you’re inevitably going to find yourself scrambling for creative ways of writing “it was cold.”
The afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 19 had been cheerful enough. Walking down Washington Square, I managed to stay warm by alternating which hand I stuck in my pocket and which held my briefcase every minute or two.
But once the sun fell behind the Michigan Capitol, no clever maneuvering could keep my fingers warm. Eventually, I had to keep my hands from shaking by holding my phone with two hands while I interviewed protesters.
Despite being the coldest night of the year so far, the 5° weather couldn’t stop the more-than 500 angry Michiganders from knocking at the doors of the Capitol. Literally.
The Mitten Becomes a Fist
Many came from Flint. Others from Detroit and Grand Rapids. Some from northern Michigan.
“I have three children,” said Adam from Grand Rapids. “It just breaks my heart and shakes me at my core thinking that somebody poisoned them. This is going to affect these kids for the rest of their lives.”
While Governor Snyder has been playing catch up following unrelenting pressure from the media, as of the time of this writing, we have yet to encounter anyone who is satisfied with the actions he’s taken so far.
The closest we’ve come so far is Lindsay from Okemos, a bedroom community bordering East Lansing.
“I’m happy with the current action in the last week or so,” she told us, “but I wish it had happened about 12 months sooner.”
Many of the people on the Capitol lawn had never been to a protest before.
“Well, I usually like to stay out of politics because so much of it tends to be frivolous bickering,” said Jacob. “But this was not one of those instances where we were fighting over hypotheticals. There are real people in our state suffering for decisions they themselves did not make. I felt it was my duty to stand by them.”
The sentiment of standing by Flint ruled the night.
“We want Flint to know that we care about them, that we’re here for them,” said Cassandra, from Lansing for Bernie Sanders. “We’re standing in solidarity and we won’t stop until there’s justice.”
The World Is Watching
Our band of photographers and citizen journalists from Stand Up, Flint! weren’t alone.
In addition to the innumerable TV trucks lining Allegan St. and TV crews dotting the Capitol lawn, numerous others were on the ground throwing cameras and microphones at anyone willing to talk.
It makes sense, given the sense of urgency on the ground.
Across Michigan, people want to help. People are organizing water drives, waving signs, and demanding accountability. While militiamen in Oregon have been occupying federal buildings, armed militiamen in Michigan are leading protests and getting help to those in need.
It’s weird … and heartening.
I didn’t spot any militiamen at the protest, but you certainly did find a diverse cross-section of Michigan. Suburbanites and city-dwellers. White and black. Young and old. Politically engaged and indifferent. Families and single people. The old union guard and the new wave of Bernie enthusiasts.
Does it take more to make us mad, or more to bring us together? This very divided state has been through a lot in recent years. I wonder, but I won’t venture a guess.
Throughout the night, one of the loudest chants was an oft-repeated:
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
The call-and-response was followed by intense bouts of:
“If we don’t get it, shut it down!”
Antonia and Charlise
The crowd lapped the east and north sides of the Capitol, regrouping periodically and, with renewed vigor, crashing on another one of the building’s staircases.
According to at least one source, the chanting was loud enough to be heard inside the Capitol chambers.
Outside, one gentleman took pity on our freezing crew.
“Have you been over to the warming station yet?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “What warming station?”
“The church right across the street.”
After an hour in single-digit temperatures, we were only too glad to for a chance to get out of the cold.
At the Central United Methodist Church, we met Antonia and Charlise, two sisters who had made their way down from Flint with the United Auto Workers union.
Both sisters grew up in Flint. Of the two, only Charlise still lives there. She told us a little about what that means for her and her family.
“It’s really hard,” Charlise told us, “because the water that we do get, we use half of it to bathe with, brush our teeth with, as well as drink on a daily basis. And I cook with the water as well. I no longer cook with Flint water.”
Charlise, like many other Flint residents, used to boil the water thinking that it would make it safe for consumption because of widespread misinformation.
“A lot of people didn’t know that,” Charlise said. The lack of clarity prompted a grassroots effort to launch a brand new billboard and postcard campaign in the city that went live yesterday, Jan. 27.
Needless to say, life is challenging given the present reality.
“I use bottled water for everything,” Charlise said. “It’s funny to watch my 16-year-old to get up in the morning and brush her teeth with a bottle of water.”
Antonia points out that, even in an ideal circumstance where a water filter is properly installed and working correctly, the people using water from that tap are still exposed to the lead.
“It’s kind of sad because when you read the filter it says it reduces lead,” Antonia observed. “It doesn’t eliminate it, it reduces it.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there is no such thing as safe lead exposure. Federal guidelines suggest that you should beware when there are more than 15 parts per billion. In Flint, that number has been far exceeded, with the worst samples showing 13,000 parts per billion.
“Thank you for your efforts,” Antonia concluded. “We appreciate it. It has not gone unnoticed. But a reduction in lead and an elimination of lead are two different things.”