by Kristian Davis Bailey
The city of Flint peaked in national headlines last month as more people learned about the city’s exposure to dangerous levels of lead-contaminated water. For almost two years, community members in Flint had been fighting a state-imposed decision to switch the city’s water source from Detroit’s clean water system to the Flint River.
“People are beginning to learn that we have a water problem--a water catastrophe here in the city of Flint,” said Claire McClinton, a veteran organizer with the Flint Democracy Defense League. “But what's also important for people to understand is that we have a political problem that was brought on by a law that would shock the nation to learn about--the Emergency Management Law.”
Enacted by the Michigan State Legislature in March 2011, Public Act 4 (commonly known as the Emergency Management Law) authorized the governor to appoint an “emergency manager” to ensure the “fiscal responsibility” of municipal governments and school districts deemed to be in “financial stress or emergency.”
“We called it a Dictatorship Law,” McClinton said.
Emergency managers (EMs) are able to hire and fire employees, change union contracts without a vote, breakup school districts, and overrule decisions of local mayors and city governments. EMs report only to the governor and have only one focus: the city’s finances.
Michigan voters revoked the Emergency Management Law in a November 2012 ballot initiative. But passed Public Act 436, which largely mirrored the original act, shortly after Republican governor Rick Snyder took office in 2013. The revised act, however, was protected from being overturned by a state referendum.
“People don’t understand that democracy is being taken away and we have these EMs who are perverting and bastardizing the democratic process,” said Nayyirah Shariff, who is also an organizer with the Flint Democracy Defense League.
Currently, three school districts remain under emergency management and all cities with EMs have been restored their local autonomy. But at the peak of state-appointed oversight, over 50 percent of Michigan’s Black population lived in a city under emergency management. In other words, half of the state’s Black population was governed unconsensually and had no democratic control over policies made on its behalf.
“This is the untold story about the water crisis,”McClinton asserted.
'HELL HATH NO FURY'
According to Shariff, news reports and public officials each obscured or lied to the public about the danger of the new water source.
It took an independent test completed by Virginia Tech researchers for the state and media to take residents seriously. But the damage was too late. Hundreds of kids had suffered lead poisoning, which leads to brain damage and behavioral issues. The effects of lead poisoning are irreversible and can be transferred to one’s children and even grandchildren.
Lead poisoning in women also increases the risk of premature births and miscarriages.
This fundamental vulnerability is what led Melissa Mays and so many others to pick up the fight for water in Flint, where women are the predominant leaders of the movement.
“As a mother, my job is to protect my kids,” said Mays, founder of the grassroots organization Water You Fighting For? “And by lying to me and telling me the water is safe, they took that away from me. So now good luck to them--hell hath no fury.”
Shariff said the profit motive of Flint’s emergency managers overruled the health concerns of the people regarding the water crisis.
STRIPPED OF DEMOCRACY
Mays called this disregard “environmental racism,” but stressed that the issue extends beyond race. While Flint’s population is 56 percent Black, the overall city has a 40 percent poverty rate. Most of the communities placed under emergency management since 2011 were above the average poverty level for the state of Michigan.
“I think they just hoped that we'd be so worried about paying our bills that we wouldn't notice or care that all of our rights got taken away and that we got put on a toxic water system,” Mays said.
“There was a sense of helplessness, but we the people had to keep fighting,” she added.
In addition to protests, door-to-door organizing, and handing out water, residents from across southeast Michigan participated in a weeklong, 70-mile march from Detroit to Flint last July to highlight the water issues facing each city.
Public goods into private profit
The Emergency Management Law operates under the guise of supporting the public welfare of residents. Yet the experiences of communities under emergency management offer a much different picture.
In Flint, the EM sold off the city’s sanitation services to a private corporation. One of the first the first actions the EM took in Muskegon Heights was laying off teachers and selling off assets such as school buses. Detroit lost its human services department under EM Kevyn Orr, who made cuts to lighting, transportation, and EMS services.
Detroit Public Schools have been under separate emergency management since 2009, and are now governed by Darnell Earley--Flint’s EM during its switch to the toxic water source.
McClinton said all of these actions amounted to the transfer of the public commons to private corporations and banks. Shariff agreed.
“The goal of the Emergency Manager Law is to put public assets into private hands,” Shariff said, quoting a friend.
‘We are a throw-away class’
Shariff and McClinton both said what’s happening in Flint is part of a broader history of economic policy and structural racism.
"This is telling of a larger conversation of divestment from Black and brown communities,” Shariff said.
McClinton explained that Flint was once the headquarters of General Motors, which due to the strength of the US labor movement at the time, employed some of the highest paid workers in the world.
Due to the introduction of automated production into the plant, thousands of workers were no longer needed to produce cars--leading to the poverty present in Flint and many other cities today.
“What we have here is a situation where the Industrial Belt has been decimated through the loss of jobs. And the Emergency Management Law is the answer to that problem,” McClinton said. “Their answer to the problem is to impose dictatorship on the people that've been shut out of the process of production.”
McClinton went further: “We are a throw-away class whose lives don't matter.”
According to McClinton, the state relied on racist narratives to justify taking over so many cities in Michigan.
“The pretext that was used to even get these emergency managers in motion was that these minority cities are incapable of handling their finances,” she said.
Shariff pointed out that some of the emergency managers, including Darnell Earley, are Black.
“There’s a saying ‘They may be your color, but they’re not your kind.’”
‘An attack on all the people’
McClinton warned that the targeting of Black and brown communities distracts white and affluent communities from the fact that the state can also strip rights from them.
“Let's understand that that was a vehicle to ensnare the whole state before they get through with it. So we have to understand how they use the color question to attack all the people,” McClinton said. “You can't divide water between Black and white. There's not white water and Black water--there's water.”
According to Pew Charitable Trusts, 19 states had laws permitting state intervention in local finances in 2013—most concentrated in deindustrialized northeastern states. Indiana legalized emergency management in 2012 and quietly authorized an emergency manager for Gary Public Schools in 2015. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appointed an emergency manager for Atlantic City, where former Detroit EM Kevyn Orr served as a paid consultant. And this week, the Illinois State Legislature proposed a state takeover of Chicago Public Schools.
Both McClinton and Mays warned people in other states to be vigilant.
“People need to study and learn what the Emergency Management Law is, because now there are other states that are starting to look into putting a version of that into their states,” Mays said. “But they need to see that every single city - Pontiac, Benton Harbor, Detroit, Highland Park - all the cities that were touched by EM were just destroyed.”
Mays, McClinton, and Shariff’s groups are all part of the Coalition for Clean Water, which released a set of demands that include refunds on water bills since the switch to the Flint River, a repeal of the Emergency Management Law, and the resignation of Governor Snyder.
McClinton noted that special attention must be paid to political prisoners of the environmental struggle in Michigan, such as Rev. Edward Pinkney of Benton Harbor.
“There are so many strains here,” McClinton said.
Accordingly, Mays said, the issues and approaches in Flint are multi-pronged.
“We are working to help citizens here, we are working to help other people in other cities so that this doesn't happen to them, and we are working on legislature--creating laws and lawsuits, so we're hitting this from all different areas.”
Silencing citizens is not the answer, Mays said
"You cannot solve a financial problem by taking away the voice of the people. Had they listened, 100,000 people may not have been so bad off."
View more information about the Virginia Tech research at FlintWaterStudy.org. For more information about emergency management in Michigan, visit Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management. Claire McClinton recommended People’s Tribune for reporting on local updates.
Kristian Davis Bailey is a Detroit-based freelance writer and organizer. His work has focused on the intersections between the Black and Palestinian struggle, Black internationalism, and Black organizing in Detroit, Ferguson, and beyond. Read his prior work at Ebony, Colorlines, Al Jazeera English and Truthout.