Without Black Lives Matter, Would Flint’s Water Crisis Have Made Headlines?

This article was written by Susan J. Douglas and originally appeared in the March issue of In These Times.

Why is Rick Snyder, Michigan’s suddenly infamous governor, in the center of the media’s crosshairs? Massive coverage—front-page pieces in the New York Times, headlines in the nightly news, wall-to-wall coverage by Rachel Maddow—has linked the contamination of Flint’s water supply to the fact that its population is 57 percent African-American, and has either explicitly or implicitly cited the catastrophe as an act of “environmental racism.” That’s a term we haven’t heard much in the media, despite many other instances of environmental racism in the United States—one notorious example being the huge pollution-spewing garbage-burning incinerator in Chester, Pa., that sits right across the street from residential housing. Chester is predominantly poor and black.

So what’s different about Flint? The historical timing. The Black Lives Matter movement offers a news peg, having persistently insisted that incidents of violence against black communities are not one-offs but part of systemic, structurally based brutality. Now there’s a media framework to legitimate Flint residents’ accusations that the water crisis would never have happened in more affluent, white communities like Grand Rapids or Grosse Pointe.

The rise of Donald Trump also provides context here, however subtly. In his campaign, Trump has sought to make a virtue out of the fact that he has no political experience and instead would “get things done” because he’s a businessman and a “deal-maker.” In 2010, Rick Snyder campaigned on this platform as well. He was a wealthy venture capitalist and former tax accountant with zero political experience. Michigan was still reeling from the Great Recession, and Snyder claimed that his business background made him the ideal person for the job. He said one of his guiding questions in developing policy would be “What’s financially affordable?” and championed “a streamlined regulatory system that’s more friendly to businesses.”

As part of this approach, Snyder pushed through his controversial emergency manager law in 2011, which allowed him to appoint officials to run—that is, take over—struggling cities and school districts and who could overrule local elected officials, dictate decisions about finances and public safety, terminate or modify contracts and sell off public assets. They did not need to have any particular expertise—in, say, education or public health—outside of cost cutting. And they were paid anywhere from $132,000 to $250,000 a year. Many Michigan residents denounced the law as undemocratic—it prompted two unsuccessful recall attempts—and in November of 2012, it was repealed by a popular referendum. Six weeks later, Snyder signed a slightly revised version of the bill that included a $770,000 appropriation for the managers’ salaries. Why did that matter? Because spending bills are legally shielded from referendums. And where were the emergency managers appointed? In largely African-American communities.

So how well have these allegedly savvy quasi-CEOs done?

In Detroit, teachers have staged sick-outs because of the failure of the various emergency managers to deal with crumbling school infrastructures, overcrowding and, yes, rats in the schools. Who was the emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools? Why, Darnell Earley, who ran Flint when it switched to the Flint River for its water. In February, he resigned in disgrace. In Flint, the revolving door of managers took authority away from the mayor and city council and pushed to change the city’s water supply from Detroit to the polluted Flint River to save money. We are now seeing how well that worked out. Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose overruled the city council’s March 2015 vote to return to the Detroit water supply. And because of the autocratic power emergency managers enjoyed, they could ignore rising complaints about the color and smell of the water, and ignore or manipulate data about its safety.

There are many lessons the Flint catastrophe teaches, but one of the biggest is that governments do not work bet­ter if they are “run like a business.” It’s not just the ethical problem that slashing spending on things like public health is unjust and immoral. It’s also, in the end, more expensive. The switch to the Flint River for water was projected to save $15 million dollars. It may now cost $1.5 billion to clean up. So much for what’s “financially affordable.”

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and an In These Times columnist. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work is Done (2010). She writes frequently on gender issues, media criticism and national politics.

In These Times is an independent monthly magazine dedicated to advancing democracy and economic justice. Get In These Times today!

Photo Credit: Tony Webster / Flickr

104 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallusabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Neville B.
Neville B1 years ago

Hi Marianne,

Aha, good work : ) Some of the folk here also did, and wanted to dig a little deeper - including getting in touch with GM and accessing - legally - the Linkedin account; I asked them not to waste their time, as it's likely just wishful thinking/envy - hmm, maybe that's his/her dad?

Ha ha! He can't even read his own dictionary refs : D

Yes, and yet the apologists keep trying to deflect it onto anyone else - I suppose it's inevitable that polyfaecal politicians attract bottom-feeders.

Thanks, I've really enjoyed talking to you : )

Hey Jennifer, how's you? Waiting for "Where to invade next" to release here : )

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Jennifer Manzi
Jennifer Manzi1 years ago

Yes because of Michael Moore

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Marianne C.
Marianne C1 years ago

@ Neville B:

I was the one who found a Dan Blossfeld who worked, or used to, at General Motors. He did not work as a chemist, though, and was something more of an engineer. The CV did not show an advanced degree or where he might be working NOW.

GM stopped using the public water supply in Flint after the switch that took water from the Flint River. They said it corroded car parts, apparently having missed Dan's assertion that there was nothing corrosive in the water.

The entire system of sending in an "emergency manager" to take over from elected city or school district officials was a pet project of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. The question of "emergency managers" appointed by the governor went before the state in the form of a ballot referendum, and was defeated. Snyder then wrote said policy into a finance bill, where it was not subject to referendum. It was through that boondoggle that Flint got an emergency manager. While that manager was in place, neither the mayor nor the city council had any authority to outvote or overrule him.

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld1 years ago

Neville,
Finally!

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Neville B.
Neville B1 years ago

Dear Marianne C.

Yes, he's got nothing himself.

I know, I've seen you do it, and then he tries to be patronising and snide with you : D I like your term, though I was going to go with Puerile Recidivist Anal Tautology - the acronym works well over here - what do you think?

Your husband is in good company, I've shown these to a few people at my university and they keep getting passed round to others!

Someone did a little digging and reported that there is someone of that name who is a chemist (though not necessarily an environmental one) at General Motors, and in that area. So maybe (s)he poached the name, or is some kind of troll for them (didn't someone say GM got their water fixed pretty quickly at Flint?). General opinion is the the former, due to the ill-concealed inadequacies. Perhaps he deliberately tries to annoy people with his repetitive obtuseness, like a little kid parroting what people say, just to be irritating because that's all the accomplishment they can manage?

You're very kind I think to go with 15; but a spoilt brat certainly.

:D LOL!! Brilliant!


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Neville B.
Neville B1 years ago

Okay, it did it again - it does not seem to like the 'is less than/derived from' symbol:

You see what I mean? His own link (yes, I took the trouble) has:
'[derived from] Latin plumbum'
and
'from New Latin plumbum'. Yawn.

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Neville B.
Neville B1 years ago

Dear all,
Care2 clipped my post, it read something like:

Dear all,
You see what I mean? His own link (yes, I took the trouble) has:
'

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld1 years ago

Marianne C.,
Please do not stoop to Neville's level, by slinging insults and name calling. Stick to the facts. Otherwise, you just appear as foolish as he does.

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Marianne C.
Marianne C1 years ago

@ Neville B:

I also notice that he's stealthily but surely incorporating things I've pointed out to him into his own posts, as if HE were the one arguing for them and *I* against.

He's done that before, just as inelegantly, on other issues. I have actually corrected him all the way to the wall on climate change, just to have him go back to his original false contention as if it had never come up in the conversation. I call his debating style "Dan's School of Full Circle Illogical Fallacy."

He claims to be a chemist, but I'm pretty sure he isn't. For one thing, my husband is a chemist, and when I show him something Dan has posted, he'll laugh out loud. For another, I seem to have gained a better understanding of chemical interaction and process from that one semester of chemistry in the 9th grade than he has from his supposed degree. Like you, I have picked up on some major deficiencies in his practical knowledge. For instance, when he misses the fact that what he thinks he's posting in support of his contentions actually discredits them.

It has occurred to me that he may actually BE a 13-year-old, trying to pass himself off as one of the grownups in a forum in which he thinks nobody can tell the difference -- although I've actually thought of him as nearer 15.

If that's true, his case of coprocephally may be congenital rather than pathological. If only it didn’t lead to so much coprolinguistics!

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