Hours before Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton faced off in a debate at Flint’s Whiting auditorium, more than 100 gathered for a rally on the campus of the University of Michigan-Flint.
Organizer Tiffany Williams, a 2011 UM-Flint grad and former Genesee County resident, flew in all the way from Seattle to host the event.
After parking at the Flint Farmers’ Market, I was immediately struck by the number of film crews. There was no mistake in Tiffany’s calculation for “maximum media exposure.” Even the Canadian Broadcast Corporation was in town to cover the rally.
Media coverage? Check.
Tiffany was surrounded by press and friends alike; after a moment hovering, I moved on to speak with Hubert Roberts of Flint and Kim Redigan of Detroit. The two were part of a contingent of approximately 10 sporting bright yellow “Peace Team” vests.
They belonged to a group called Meta Peace. Hubert explained their mission as providing “a peaceful element” during protests.
“We have to put aside our activism,” Kim added. “Most of the time, I’m an activist. When we’re here, we’re not taking sides. We’re creating a non-violent presence.”
“This is not amateur hour. When you’re dealing with people that are irate, how do you control yourself? There’s some extensive training that we have to go through,” Hubert explained. “You have to roleplay. You gotta work on calming yourself, because we’re emotionally geared to retaliate. It’s a discipline, somewhat like Ghandi, or Martin Luther King.”
“This is legitimate anger,” Kim clarified. “We have to be clear that there’s systemic violence. The water shutoffs in Detroit, the poisoning of the water in Flint, of racism, of sexism, all those things—that should make people angry. We’re not going to step in if people are having loud, verbal conflicts. In my own opinion, that’s necessary and called for.”
“I Don’t Have the Right to Do Nothin’”
The rally started hesitantly as Tiffany took the microphone in the shadow of a statue of Gandhi, which has stood watch over the university’s Wilson Park since 2010
She immediately apologized for not being a better public speaker, to cheers of support from the crowd.
“I don’t know any celebrities,” Tiffany told us. “I didn’t have a lot of luck with that, but that’s OK. I believe in the people of Flint. I admire your courage.”
As the song closed, Tiffany took back the mic. It was easy to see she had never done anything like this before. Like so many others who have become active in the movement for clean water and justice in Flint, Tiffany is simply, in her own words, “an everyday citizen” with a big heart for the people.
“While I was here studying sociology, I learned about the reality of inequity. Despite the despair we may feel, there is hope. I still believe that the silver lining is that we have the power to change it.
“There seems to be a lot of indifference and apathy, and it can be discouraging,” she went on. “The people of Flint are the strongest people I have ever seen. Politicians will not find the will to fix this on their own. If politicians held the welfare of people in high regard, this never would have happened in the first place.”
According to Tiffany, she was inspired to return because of the work that the people have Flint have been doing.
“I just want to say, you guys have some really great activism going on. You inspired me to come. The strength and integrity has been so inspiring.”
“We want solutions, we want new pipes, we want all the resources we need for the kids. We’re tired of politicians arguing and things not getting done,” Tiffany said. “Let’s send a message to those in power that we will not wait any more.”
After speaking for a few minutes, Tiffany invited Mysonne Linen and Angelo Pinto, two members of Justice League NYC, to speak.
Justice League NYC is an initiative of The Gathering for Justice, a group founded by the legendary actor and activist Harry Belafonte. It has long been organizing around juvenile justice reform, an issue that has been weighing heavily on many New York City communities. The issue got the national spotlight briefly in 2015 after Kalief Browder—who, despite having never been convicted of a crime, served three years at Riker Island jail—committed suicide following his release.
Mysonne, one of the activists from the Justice League NYC performed a spoken-word piece, punctuated with the frequent refrain “I don’t have the right to do nothin’.”
The piece opened:
Because Harry Belafonte sacrificed for people like me
And if he decided to do nothin’, then where would I be?
In a reference to Flint’s Legionnaires’ disease outbreak, he said:
Think about the people that died in Flint
And say, I don’t have the right to do nothin’
In the piece, the Justice League NYC activist also called for criminal charges to be brought against Governor Snyder.
A recall effort aimed at removing Rick Snyder from office is underway with a massive mobilization planned for Easter Sunday.
When I asked Hubert from Meta Peace about the recall effort, he said that while he plans to participate, he does have some ambivalence on the subject.
“To some degree, [Governor Snyder] should finish the job,” he told me. “To some degree, it’s evident he don’t know how to do the job.”
An Issue That Reaches Far Beyond Flint
As activists from New York City and Seattle led the protest in Wilson Park, I was also texting back-and-forth with Daniel from OMEL-US, a group of activists who had already made a number of trips to Flint from Chicago.
Angelo from NYC Justice League touched on how Flint has struck a chord across America.
“I’ve met [people] from all over the country who have come to help in any way they can help. I’ve seen some brothers from Chicago, I’ve seen other folks from Syracuse, New York, I’ve seen people from around the country come because something within them is compelling them to help in Flint.
“Flint has created the opportunity for the nation—it’s just like Ferguson. We need to look at this place for some answers, we need to look at this place because this where it’s happening now, this is where we’re getting direction on how to move forward.”
The issue goes much deeper than just the Flint water crisis. Since early 2016, we’ve been hearing story after story about other Michigan communities—and communities across the entire United States—where lead is posing a dire health risk.
As more stories come forward, we’re learning more and more about the way the system is rigged against those with the least—communities that are, more often than not, predominantly black and brown.
Angelo pointed out the gross injustice facing countless communities across the United States.
“The people who have the least are treated the worst,” he said. “The other people who have the least have to come to their aid.”
While having Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in town for the Democratic debate seems to have sparked some hope at shaping the national discussion around poverty and infrastructure, no one in Flint is saying ‘OK, good enough’. Not until the pipes are fixed.