Flint, Michigan, a city once known for its automotive manufacturing prowess, is now suffering from the lingering effects of its industrial history and present day environmental neglect (racism). In a city where 60% of the population is now Black or African-American, economic hardship and violence in Flint have become commonplace since the glory days of old, but nothing is common about the current water crisis faced by its citizens, and the rest of the world has finally taken notice including Devon Crawford and Stephen Green.
Devon and Stephen are graduates of Morehouse College who are now both students at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. Engaged in social justice and ministry, the current realities of environmental injustice in Flint compelled them to act. So Stephen and Devon loaded up their car with bottled water and drove from Chicago, Illinois to DuPont St. on the northside of Flint, Michigan. What follows is a first hand account of what they encountered, as told by Min. Crawford:
“Outside were a group of Black men who were distributing water to families in their communities. Many of the men were raised in the community, pointing to their houses and the schools they went to growing up. Now, they are fathers and heads of households who travel 45-50 minutes to get to work at an auto industry plant – a dying industry in the area. After work, they stand outside for hours collecting water bottles and distributing water along with local activists. Toward the end of the night, around 11pm or so, there were more people coming to pick up water than there were people dropping off water. Women and men would come to the distribution center with their children because they did not have a babysitter to take care of them while away. There were even immigrants who would come to the neighborhood distribution center because the state troopers and the national guard would not give a person water without documentation proving their citizenship. It was during the water distribution that I was able to hear the stories of the men and the complexity of the systematic racism they’ve endured as residents of Flint.
Since the water has been tainted, Flint residents have to use bottled and jugged water for their everyday needs – bathing, brushing their teeth, washing clothes, drinking, and cooking are among those needs. Some men shared that they only bathe every other day or when they believe they are beginning to smell, because they neither have enough water to meet the needs of every person in their household nor do they have time to pick up water for their families. The men shared that they are still paying water bills for their houses although they cannot use the water they are being charged for.
One man told me about how his girlfriend’s mother reacted to the water. According to him, last year he noticed that the water began to “look like tea and smell like oil”. His girlfriend’s mother wears a wig because all of her hair fell out as a result of her contact with the water. It was as if she had been undergoing chemotherapy. The water is contaminated with TTHM, which causes people’s hair to fall out.
Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM) are a group of four chemicals classified as carcinogens (cancerous), that are formed along with other disinfection by-products when chlorine or other disinfectants used to control microbial contaminants in drinking water react with naturally occurring organic and inorganic matter in water. Basically, in an effort to bandaid the water crisis by attempting to disinfect the city’s water supply, the situation has been made worse.
Something else discovered in the Flint water is the disease legionnaires. Legionnaires is a severe infection caused by bacteria that typically presents as pneumonia; symptoms may include a high fever, chills, cough, muscle aches, headaches, and diarrhea. There have been 10 reported deaths from the disease in Flint since the switch of the water supply to the Flint River. The only way to test children for legionnaires after time has passed, is by extracting marrow from the bone to test for the disease – a painful and expensive procedure. Many parents have opted against that treatment for those reasons. They said they would have gone earlier to get their children tested if they knew their children were exposed. Lead water has been proven to stunt intellectual development and cause behavioral imbalance in adolescents. The lead water combined with legionnaires and TTHM will likely amplify these negative effects on children to an extent which we cannot predict.
The mayor informed the citizens of Flint that the water was safe to drink after boiling, but even the vapors that came into contact with people’s skin caused outbreaks in some who tried. One father has a year old son who is only just beginning to grow hair. His exposure to the water has had deleterious effects on his development and now the father wonders if his sons will be able to have children and if there will be inter-generational effects on their future families.
The emergency management for the city of Flint effectively stripped the citizens of a representative government, highlighting the erosion of democracy in Flint and many other cities where municipalities have been usurped. Darnell Earley, the former emergency manager of Flint appointed by Gov. Snyder, who until this week was the emergency manager of Detroit public schools before resigning amid growing allegations of negligence – switched the Flint water supply from the Detroit water to water from the Flint River. This was done in an attempt to “balance the budget” but the people of Flint did not vote for this change to happen. The local police force has also been replaced by the national guard; instead of employing young people to manage water distribution, the national guard has been activated and tax payer dollars go to their salaries.
The water in the Flint River is corrosive and has stripped the lead on the inside of the pipe system. By the time Flint switched back to the Detroit water supply, the damage had already been done. The treated water still passes through the corroded lead pipes and filters into the homes of citizens.
We later met with the president of a local NAACP branch who talked about possible restitution for Flint. The lead ridden pipes in homes are beyond repair and will have to be completely replaced. Currently there are conversations about displacing the families, or buying them out of their homes so that the city can replace the piping system. The cost to replace the pipes in a house would be $30,000, but houses in predominately black neighborhoods, such as DuPont St., are only valued at 5-10,000 dollars because of scarce job opportunities and the poor quality of schools. When the houses were originally built in the 1960-70’s, they were valued at $60-$70,000. The NAACP president stated that she would rather stay in her home because she doesn’t see any benefit in moving away from a home she’s invested in, which has depreciated over time. If the people do not cooperate, there have been talks of acquiring the land using eminent domain.
The NAACP National President and CEO, Cornell William Brooks, will present a 15 point plan of restitution and reparation to the governor of Michigan. The points include:
- The Emergency Financial Manager law must be repealed;
- Water distribution by the national guard must be replaced by local youth labor;
- Access to fresh fruits and vegetables must be accessible to all residents;
- All Flint residents must be provided free home inspections;
- All Flint residents must be provided federally funded replacement of damaged systems;
- Fairness/justice must be examined in rate increases and continued billing for poisonous water;
- The city of Flint must have a new state of the art water distribution system;
- Pro-Bono legal advice must be available to all;
- Investigate responsibility for the crises and impose accountability measures;
- Equitable redevelopment must include anti-displacement measures;
- Jobs, contracts, and other economic benefits must go to local residents;
- Small business owners and prospective workers must have access to capacity building;
- A multi-disciplinary study must be conducted to assess impacts and needs related to the crises;
- All academic reports arising from the water crises must be available to Flint residents; and
- A Flint-wide environmental assessment must occur to determine and address other risks.”
Much has transpired since Devon and Stephen’s trip to DuPont St., including national water bottle drives and donations by churches, celebrities, and corporations; federal government emergency funding for Flint for up to 90 days; news that government officials in Flint were notified of the water crisis and given clean water to drink long before the citizens of Flint received notice; and a federal investigation involving the FBI – yet no one is in jail for the poisoning of an entire city of men, women, and children.
The Flint water crisis is another act of state sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies, and in the words of Ella Baker, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.” We should not rest until #blacklivesmatter in Flint, and we should not rest until justice is served.