The ugly secrets that Flint revealed

February 11, 2016

Dorian Bon reports on the latest developments in the ongoing battle to save a city that was poisoned by austerity--and to hold those responsible to account.

EACH TIME I comb through the latest revelations and commentaries about the circumstances surrounding the poisoning of Flint, I boil over with rage.

How can one do otherwise in the face of such a flagrant and destructive act of state violence?

In 2011, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder imposed an emergency management program to seize control of Flint's finances, as part of a broader drive to reduce government spending and privatize key infrastructures. Snyder's program not coincidentally targeted almost only majority Black cities like Flint, Detroit, Pontiac and Allen Park.

In April 2014, Flint's emergency manager was instructed to reroute the city's water supply to use the highly polluted Flint River as the source. The river water corroded pipes, causing lead to leach into the water that came out of residents' faucets.

Multiple regional and state government bodies, including Snyder's own office, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency, proceeded to deny and distort the truth about the ensuing lead poisoning crisis that afflicted Flint children most of all. Meanwhile, state employees in Flint quietly received $4,200 in bottled water at the state office building in Flint, and the local General Motors plant stopped using the river water because of the damage it caused to engine parts.

Flint residents marching to expose the poison in their water
Flint residents marching to expose the poison in their water (Water You Fighting For)

Now a city of 100,000 lives each day with the fear that its children will suffer permanent brain and developmental illnesses. Nearly 9,000 children under age 6 are confirmed to have been exposed, but the number may be higher. And with a citywide median household income of around $27,000 and home values cratered for the foreseeable future, few can afford to escape.

There is another epidemic that has now been traced to the water supply: Legionnaires' disease. Ten people in Flint have died and 84 more have been diagnosed with Legionnaires' since the city switched its water source--that's a 1,000 percent increase compared to earlier rates of contracting Legionnaires' in the area.

And now, e-mails that Snyder's office was forced to release show the governor and his staff knew of the link between Flint's water change and the Legionnaires' outbreak by March 2015, but did nothing.

DESPITE EXPANDED relief efforts and local solidarity work, the fundamental problem of corroded pipes and a contaminated water supply remains. Mayor Karen Weaver, elected last November to address the crisis, has announced that comprehensive pipe removal and repairs won't begin until early next month.

Since the declaration of a federal state of emergency in Flint last month, the Obama administration has directed $5 million toward immediate water shipments, and $80 million to infrastructure projects. But to date, there is no clear, decisive and expedited plan on the table to undertake the construction of a new water supply system for Flint--the estimated cost for which is $1.5 billion, or about 20 times less than what Obama has pledged so far.

Yes, $1.5 billion is a lot of money. But to put things in perspective, Obama's latest budget allocated $2.9 billion for building and servicing the U.S. military's unmanned killer drones in the 2016 fiscal year. Are we unreasonable to demand that Obama halve the budget for his death squads from the sky this year, and redirect those funds to Flint?

While Congress deliberates on the 2016 budget, many people in Flint still can't gain access to basic relief supplies. Advocates for the undocumented warn that an estimated 1,000 Flint residents don't receive the state's emergency bottled water shipments because they can't present identification. Plus, with Obama's latest round of raids and deportations since the start of the year, many fear reprisals asking for any help at all.

According to Democracy Now! inmates at the local Genesee County Jail were forced to continue drinking and washing with Flint River water up until the end of last month, after which point they received a ration of 48 ounces of bottled water per day, less than half the medically recommended daily consumption for adults.

More pressure is needed on state and federal authorities to end the humanitarian crisis for all the people in Flint--including the undocumented and incarcerated--to stop the number of casualties from rising any higher.

FLINT'S PREDICAMENT is at the forefront of the American political discussion. Through persistent grassroots mobilization and demonstrations against Snyder's crime, local residents are primarily responsible for putting it there.

The burgeoning radical spirit that has developed alongside the Black Lives Matter movement and the Bernie Sanders campaign--as well election-season posturing by even the Democratic establishment--have also contributed to the frequent coverage of Flint's story in the media and the many responses from prominent political and cultural figures.

Congressional hearings on the Flint crisis are ongoing, as is an FBI investigation. Both will hopefully uncover more of the details behind what actually happened. Meanwhile, the victims in Flint and their supporters throughout the country are demanding Snyder's resignation, if not arrest on charges of murder.

Last weekend, Hillary Clinton delivered a talk on the crisis at the House of Prayer Missionary Church in Flint. According to The Detroit News, Clinton convinced the Democratic National Committee to host its March 6 debate leading up to the Michigan primaries in Flint.

This is clearly a campaign move. Clinton wants to adopt the persona of a problem-solving pragmatist, in contrast to the idealistic socialist Bernie Sanders. Critically, Clinton is also hoping to hold onto support among African Americans who may consider embracing Sanders' program of social reforms since his campaign's extraordinary successes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

As multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuits mount against Snyder and his administration, activists around the country are rallying behind the call to defend Flint. Rev. Jesse Jackson, for example, has said he wants to organize a "major national march" in the city as soon as possible.

WITH ALL of this attention on Flint, now is the time to project this story even further, in order to indict the very system that put the bosses' profits over a whole city's livelihood.

The poisoning of Flint has exposed to a broad layer of the U.S. population a striking example of the sheer barbarism of neoliberal austerity. It has also aroused indignation among millions of working class people who face similar injustices in their own lives.

Since Flint, it is possible to conceive of a national effort to confront lead poisoning. Far more people know today that 500,000 people in the U.S. suffer from this illness, and that Black children are twice as likely as their white counterparts to be exposed to hazardous lead levels during their development.

Somewhere between 3 and 6 percent of Flint's children are currently diagnosed with lead poisoning--and health authorities say that all of the children under 6 in the city have to be considered as exposed. But as incredible as it may seem, there are many other places throughout the country with even more severe crises than Flint--places where an uprising against the state's criminal negligence is just as urgent.

There are 18 cities in Pennsylvania, and 10 counties in Alabama, Louisiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma with higher rates of lead poisoning than Flint, due mostly to toxic, lead-based paint lining residential walls. And these numbers don't do justice to the scope of the epidemic. Data for lead levels in major American cities like Philadelphia, Houston, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles are still unavailable, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is only two years in to a recent push to systematically monitor lead exposure throughout the country.

Virginia Tech water utility expert Yanna Lambrinidou has made the explosive claim that, due to inadequate federal regulations, untold millions of American homes in major cities throughout the country are likely exposed to hazardous levels of lead in their water. For that matter, it's worth bearing in mind that as of 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 1.6 million Americans lacked indoor plumbing--while a staggering 40 percent of the Navajo nation goes without running water.

What these figures reveal is a country--the richest the world has ever known--where millions of people are denied the basic necessity of clean water and a safe living space. And those injustices are only revealed when ordinary people organize themselves to confront political leaders and force them to act.

As Flint's crisis continues to unfold, let's insist on illuminating these hypocrisies to an ever-widening audience--until no one is forced to place their trust and safety in a system which, at the end of the day, will always prioritize profit over life, health, and happiness.

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