A state of emergency has been declared in the city of Flint, Michigan. A belated response to a severe lead contamination of the city’s drinking water – which itself was the result of a bid to save money, no matter what the human costs, by an unelected emergency manager. Despite the protests of city residents, the lead crisis went unaddressed for nearly a year. This is too little, too late for the residents of Flint – especially infants and young children – who now face lifelong health problems, including brain damage, stunted development, behavioral troubles, and anemia. There is no cure for lead poisoning.
Flint, once known for being the home of General Motors, is predominantly African American and 40.1% of Flint’s 102,000 citizens are living in poverty. Republican Governor Rick Snyder used the recession and the fiscal crises of cities like Detroit and Flint as an excuse to attack public sector workers and appoint emergency financial managers in these communities. The role of these emergency financial managers is to ensure that the already wealthy city bondholders see a return on their investment, and to do this they are given powers that override elected officials and signed union contracts.
The contamination began in April 2014, when Flint changed its municipal system to source water from the polluted Flint River. So intent was the Governor and his emergency manager on cutting the budget that the city did not take steps to account for the corrosiveness of Flint River water, and lead from Flint’s aging pipes leached into the water supply as a direct result.
The entire crisis could have been prevented with the simple addition of an anti-corrosive agent to the treatment process – an incredibly cheap additive that is used by every municipal water system – but this basic safety measure was discarded as an unnecessary cost. Cynically, water rates were raised to be among the highest in the nation, and today Flint residents are still being charged for that poisoned water.
Even though Flint residents began complaining about the color, taste, and smell of their tap water almost immediately and articles exposing the water’s problems began appearing as early as October 2014, no official action was taken to address these issues until September 2015. Indeed, Governor Snyder may be apologizing now, but emails released by his office show an administration seeking first to deny the situation and then deflect blame.
Austerity is Life Threatening
The poisoning of Flint shows that budget-cutting and austerity are literally life threatening. It shows the callous indifference of the right wing establishment to the lives of black and poor people. And it shows the need for us to get rid of the entire rotten capitalist system, which again and again creates such disasters.
Once the scandal fully broke it became impossible to ignore. Small demonstrations were organized by Flint residents – many calling for Governor Snyder’s resignation. Bernie Sanders echoed this call at a recent debate and Socialist Alternative agrees. In fact, all those responsible should go to jail.
Defeating the right in Michigan will require building a sustained movement against Snyder, the emergency managers, and their vicious austerity agenda. It must be a movement that unites working people and youth, unions and the unorganized, both on the streets and by running independent candidates apart from the two parties of big business. Only through this type of movement can we mount an effective challenge to the politicians who created, or even allowed, this mess to occur.
Working people are asking: “How could this have been averted? What recourse do I have against such a state government?” It is true that this would have been far less likely to occur in a wealthy community. It would have also been far less likely to occur when the labor movement and especially the United Automobile Workers, which is centered in Michigan, were at their height. At that time working people had an organized force that the bosses had no choice but to respect. Today the labor movement is a shadow of its former self. This is the force that must be rebuilt to create a just, democratic system where the lives of poor and minority people are valued.