Why did Flint suffer a water catastrophe that now requires that children be treated as if they had been poisoned?
It wasn’t because the people were negligent. From the moment Flint began taking its water from the polluted Flint River, residents warned about water that came out of the faucet brown, tasted foul and smelled worse. They began packing public meetings with jugs filled with water that looked like brown stain.
It wasn’t because the democracy failed, because in Flint democracy had been suspended. The city, devastated by the closing of its auto plants and industrial base, has been in constant fiscal crisis. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, one of the crop of proud conservative governors promising to cut taxes for the rich and get government out of the way, appointed an emergency manager to run the city. Elected officials had no say.
It wasn’t because the city manager and the state environmental agency and the governor weren’t warned. Warnings were issued from the beginning. General Motors even suspended using the water because it was too corrosive for the auto parts it was making. Nevertheless, city and state officials assured the worried residents of Flint that it was still safe to drink.
Lead poisoning isn’t like contracting a cold or getting the flu. Lead is an immediate and unrelenting threat to health. It causes miscarriages and births of low-weight babies. Children exposed to lead can have disabilities that afflict them for their entire lives. Lead stays in your bones. Yet even after a federal EPA official warned that the tests were being skewed to underreport levels of lead, even after heroes like LeeAnne Walters reported that her children’s hair was falling out and that they were developing rashes and constantly sick, even after the heroic pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, an Iraqi-American, reported elevated levels of lead in children’s blood, their concerns were dismissed, their alarms scorned, they were attacked for sowing hysteria and the poor residents of Flint were told the water was safe to drink.
Why were the people and the obvious signs and the experts ignored?
They would not have been ignored if these were wealthy suburban neighborhoods and the water suddenly turned brown. They would not have been ignored if the children of an all-white community were at risk.
State officials dismissed the complaints as exaggerated. The brown water was just rust. Officials thought people ought to be grateful for what they had. The laws, they wrote, ensure the water is “safe to drink.” It doesn’t regulate how it looks, its “aesthetic values.” The water looks bad because it’s from the “Flint River.” Flint is old and poor. The pipes are old and poor. The people are black and poor.
They just have to learn to put up with it. And if the lead seems to be at dangerous levels, flushing the system before the tests, skewing the sample to the most recently built systems can jigger the results to get by. Some might get hurt, but no one worth caring about.
This is the ugly reality of the right-wing assault on America’s working people and particularly on people of color. They want to get “government out of the way” – out of the way of their greed. The successful have earned special treatment – in taxes, in contracts, in interest rates, in public investment. The unsuccessful need to learn self-reliance. They need to accept what they get and be grateful for it.
Flint is not a bug in their perspective; it is a feature. They fought against African-Americans getting the right to vote. Now they use “emergency” to set up dictators – emergency managers – to occupy predominantly African-American communities. They worry that the poor get too much “free stuff” – food stamps (once a Republican program), health care through Medicaid (so they refuse to expand it), unemployment insurance when they lose their jobs (so they limit its coverage), minimum wages (which they fight against) and “costly regulations” that require safe water and clean air and safer workplaces.
The “establishment” Republican candidate Jeb Bush has called for a “regulatory spring cleaning” to strip away regulations that protect health and safety. The Republican Congress annually seeks to cut backs EPA’s budgets and authority. The Republican governors gleefully gut the budgets of their own state agencies. They don’t worry. The children of the rich will be protected. It is the poor – of all races but disproportionately people of color – who will be left at greater risk.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder should have the common decency to resign. The state and the federal government should step in and rebuild Flint’s water system immediately. A federal investigation should issue indictments where justified. But this isn’t simply about water and Flint. This is about an ideology that believes in this rich country, the privileges of the few must be protected, even if the necessities of the many are sacrificed. “Of course there is class warfare,” billionaire Warren Buffett once acknowledged, “and my class is winning.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson is the founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. He was a leader in the civil rights movement alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was twice a candidate for President of the United States.
Photo: Mike Ahrens of Muskegon, Mich., held a sign up about Flint’s water crisis in Ann Arbor Jan. 18. Junfu Han | AP