Flint, Michigan, a city of some 100,000 people, is being poisoned.
In April 2014, the Michigan state government forced Flint to change its water supply from Lake Huron, which had served the city for half a century, to the Flint River. The water in the river is corrosive enough to cause the lead in city pipes to seep into the water supply, and out through the taps.
As a result of the switch, which was implemented to save $19 million over eight years, Flint’s water system has been delivering lead-contaminated water to the city’s homes, schools, businesses and public buildings.
Lead poisoning is most deadly for children. Kids exposed to high levels of lead are at risk of anemia and decreased bone and muscle growth, as well as damage to reproductive organs and the nervous system, according the World Health Organization.
The damage will last long after Flint River water stops flowing through the city system. As Flint resident Sada Brandt explains in Undrinkable: The Flint Water Emergency, a documentary made by local high school students at Davison Community Schools, “The only way that it’s going to get fixed is if they fix the pipes at this point, because they’ve already corroded the pipes so badly.”
To add insult to injury, the state insists to this day that residents of Flint continue to pay for the poison that comes out of their taps, charging exorbitant rates that have driven thousands of residents into debt.
Flint, as Matthew Smith Jr., the lead reporter in Undrinkable notes, “is no stranger to struggle.” The city was the site of one of the most inspiring moments of workers’ struggle in U.S. history, the 1936-37 occupation of the General Motors (GM) plant, which inspired the historic wave of sit-down strikes across the country that created the modern U.S. labor movement.
In Michigan, GM pulled out all the stops to neutralize and then destroy the gains that autoworkers had won, culminating in the 1980s with the destruction of most of Flint’s assembly plants and the removal of tens of thousands of auto jobs to less unionized U.S. states and Mexico.
It was another filmmaker who attended Davison Community Schools, Michael Moore, who told that story, famously documenting GM’s decimation of Flint in his 1989 documentary Roger and Me. As Moore shows, the crisis of unemployment and poverty that grew out of the flight of the auto industry from the city would become the main factor determining Flint’s economic life during the decades to follow.
Today, the median annual household income in Flint is about $27,000 – less than half the national average.
In recent years, though, the main source of the attack on Flint’s working class has been the statehouse in Lansing.
In the aftermath of the Great Recession, which saw Michigan hit particularly hard as GM went into bankruptcy, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder launched an austerity campaign to weaken public infrastructure, gut any remaining power of unions and community organizations, and rebuild the state after the image of corporate power.
To do all of this, Snyder and his henchman deployed a classic divide-and-rule strategy. First, Snyder launched a multimillion-dollar campaign behind a proposal for “right to work” (RTW) legislation, to convince non-union workers that their unionized counterparts were rigging the economy against them. The scale and boldness of the governor’s campaign—and the unwillingness of union leaders to break with a conciliatory strategy pushed by the Democratic Party – allowed the RTW campaign to succeed.
Next, Snyder appealed to thinly veiled racist ideas to justify deep budget cuts. According to Snyder, the state’s fiscal woes were the result of poor financial management and corruption on the part of municipal governments in predominantly Black cities. The solution, therefore, was to give his administration far-reaching powers to bring the affairs of these cities back into good order.
Michigan residents voted down this plan in a 2011 referendum on Public Act 4, but one month later, Snyder ignored the will of voters and signed a bill giving state-appointed managers all of sweeping powers proposed in Public Act 4 and more for several major cities.
Snyder… shoved aside elected governments in favor of emergency managers in the cities of Benton Harbor, Ecorse, Flint, Pontiac and Allen Park, and in the school districts of Muskegon Heights, Highland Park and Detroit. All except one of these cities—Allen Park is the exception—have Black majorities.
The Root estimates that 50 percent of Black Michiganders live under “emergency management,” compared to only 2 percent of the state’s white population.
Detroit’s working-class neighborhoods—iconic for their history of labor militancy, Black art and a rich culture of resistance, though already ravaged by Corporate America’s offensive against organized labor – suffered immensely under the thumb of Lansing’s dictatorial rule. Snyder’s appointed manager decided to push Detroit into bankruptcy—not to save the city from collapse, but to gain the necessary legal footing to obliterate pensions, social assistance, public schools and other bottom-line city structures.
Meanwhile, in Flint, emergency manager Darnell Earley announced the governor’s decision to shut down the pipes channeling Lake Huron water from Detroit’s water department, and resupply the city with local river water, as part of a broad scheme to downsize Flint’s budget.
And so the water contamination crisis was born.
But Flint residents have been drawing on their city’s long tradition of struggle to fight for their right to clean water. Their efforts are well documented in Undrinkable.
Much of the grassroots activism has been dedicated to overcoming the challenges of everyday life in a city with a contaminated water supply. “I have a three-year-old granddaughter,” explains Jackie Pemburton to the high school filmmakers, “and if we bathe her in Flint water, she breaks out in a rash.”
In response, the people of Flint have organized water-bottle drives to collect hundreds of thousands of bottles from sympathetic, mostly working class donors who arrive from across the state to show solidarity with fellow Michiganders. Neighbors help each other with boiling water for washing and bathing, and try to make sure that no one goes thirsty.
There have also been many protests at City Hall. In October, protesters gathered outside the building, and chanted “Save the children! Lead free!” An energetic crowd then marched through City Hall, yelling, “What do we want? Clean Water! When do we want it? Now!” (Watch video coverage here and here).
At another rally, a large multiracial crowd lines the sidewalk of one of the city’s main roads, chanting “Flint Lives Matter!”
With no help at all from the state government, this grassroots organizing and protest have been essential. Rick Snyder finally declared a state of emergency in Flint, and then a few days later offered to help truck potable water and filtration equipment into the city.
This is over a year after GM refused to continue using Flint River water in one of its few facilities remaining in the city, for fear that the water would cause corrosion. The company began buying water from other areas of the state.
Undrinkable student-reporter Grant Polmanteer asks the obvious question: “If the water’s not good enough to make cars, how could it be drinkable for humans?”
Local doctor Mona Hanna-Attisha first reported in September 2015 that the level of lead in the blood of Flint children had more than doubled since the pipes were opened to the Flint River. That far exceeds federally mandated limits, according to a sample of 1,746 patients drawn from throughout the city.
Government officials claimed that the fault for all this lay with landlords and tenants, who had neglected to service lead-ridden pipes that run through much of Flint.
This is a nonsensical argument. Most U.S. cities have pipe systems with a high lead content—water supplies are treated so they don’t corrode the pipes, causing lead to leach into the consumption stream. Water from the Flint River water is highly corrosive, and it isn’t treated.
As early as last year, an Environmental Protection Agency official had notified the state about lead contamination, only to be ignored by the Snyder administration and taken off the investigation by his EPA superiors.
While Flint residents have struggled to save their children from poisoning, state officials cruelly neglected the crisis they caused. It’s no surprise that most people in Flint want Snyder to resign. A growing number, including Michael Moore, are demanding his arrest.
“Snyder has been trampling our democracy for years,” said Nayyirah Shariff, an activist with the Flint Democracy Defense League in an interview on Democracy Now! “Really ever since he’s been in office, and specifically since Flint has had an emergency manager in December 2011.”
“Our City Council wanted to go back to [getting water from] Detroit,” Shariff continued, “and our emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose, said it was inconceivable because it was going to cost too much money. And the culture of the emergency manager is money trumps everything. It’s more important than people’s lives.”
The Flint Democracy Defense League has played a pivotal role in building the confidence of Flint’s working class to fight back against the state’s austerity. In August 2014, Shariff spoke at a rally against contamination and water consumers’ debt, expressing the spirit that would carry over into later marches and demonstrations:
We need to form solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are fighting the water war around the country…We need to bring up the people who are suffering in silence and say: Welcome to the movement, we are here for you, we will fight with you and for you to get rid of this emergency manager, get rid of Snyder and anybody who is a puppet for the corporate regime to privatize water.
Another speaker that day, longtime activist Claire McClinton, celebrated the willingness of the crowd to struggle, while setting the current situation in historical context:
This is the fighting Flint we used to have. This is the Flint we have forgotten, a Flint with a rich history that put the unions on the map, the first city to elect an African American mayor, the first city to pass open housing. We are history-makers, and we set the pace on a lot of things. So I’m proud of all of us here today, because we’ve got to remember who we are…
The emergency manager represents banks and corporations. We need to be clear on that. We need to understand who our friends are, and who are enemies are in this fight.
McClinton brings two main lessons to the table that are worth taking into account. First, the state and its “emergency managers” represent big business, and they will always act to safeguard corporate profits, no matter what the human cost.
Flint’s situation is not an exception to the norm, but a reinforcement of it. That’s why in 2014 Snyder shut off the water supply of 150,000 households in Detroit that couldn’t afford astronomical water bills – at the same time as General Motors, Chrysler and Citibank were benefitting from a government bailout when their profits dried up.
It’s why California’s Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, in the midst of a terrible drought, forced cities in his state to reduce water consumption by 25 percent while safeguarding the water access of wasteful and dirty agribusinesses in the Central Valley.
And it’s why President Barack Obama has facilitated an enormous boom in hydraulic fracturing for natural gas despite the documented poisonous effects of fracking on the country’s precious, life-sustaining groundwater.
McClinton’s second and equally vital point is that “we are history-makers, and we set the pace on a lot of things.” Her words, spoken in the first week of August 2014, couldn’t have been more prophetic.
Days later, a popular uprising in Ferguson, Missouri against the police murder of Mike Brown would spark a new social movement that put the racist American police state on the defensive for the first time in decades. In Chicago, for example, #BlackLivesMatter protests have changed the political terrain so profoundly that the Democratic regime of Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces a real challenge from below.
The citizens of Flint want to put the same pressure on their vile Republican governor. They’re sure to find support in others Michigan cities devastated by austerity, and among the broader working class enduring the bosses’ “right to work” law.
McClinton’s insistence that the people’s power is leveraged through protest, strikes and self-organization is as pertinent today as it was when the Flint workers’ occupation of the GM plant changed the face of the country in 1937. Protest and organization are forcing Snyder to face up to the crisis he created in Flint—and they are the best chance of toppling the governor and ending Michigan’s corporate austerity for good.