Flint and Steal: The Polluted Politics of Michigan’s Water Crisis

by Kodi Alvord 

I am a Yale student. This means that every morning I wake up, brush my teeth, take a hot shower, and fill my water bottle in the dining hall before I attend class. For me, this is my routine. For residents of Flint, Michigan, this is a luxury.

In the past few weeks, Flint’s catastrophic water crisis has made national headlines, invoking a furious search for someone to blame. Elevated levels of lead in the drinking water are predicted to have lasting impacts on the neurological development of Flint’s children. These children may live the rest of their lives in the shadow of this crisis. The disaster has also been linked to an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease. For many people, including filmmaker Michael Moore, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and MSNBC reporter Rachel Maddow, Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, is to blame.

But is this really true? Is Rick Snyder ultimately responsible for this disaster? An assessment of government documents, including Rick Snyder’s emails, suggests that it is. The Snyder administration was warned repeatedly that lead levels in drinking water rose after the government decided to begin using the Flint River as a water source. Snyder’s administration responded by disparaging individuals who warned of the disaster.

Furthermore, Rick Snyder had personal oversight of the emergency managers who signed the initial order to begin using the river as a source of drinking water and who later sold the original pipeline that had supplied Flint citizens with water from Detroit. In doing so, the Michigan government committed Flint to drinking from its own river until a separate water pipeline could be established.

While the general public outcry has been aimed directly at Gov. Snyder, significantly less attention has been paid to the state of Michigan’s political atmosphere, and how it enabled this disaster. For instance, Rachel Maddow calls the legislation that allows Snyder to override elections and appoint his own emergency managers, “the single most radical piece of legislation put into law by any state in the country in our modern political history.” In order to understand the Flint situation, we must acknowledge that political negligence, discrimination, and stereotyping are all public health issues, and citizens bear the responsibility of constructing favorable political climates that protect them. We must also note that the situation in Flint is not without precedent.

In 1900, the five largest cities in America all used lead pipes with severe consequences. In that year, lead pipes increased infant mortality and still birth rates between 25 and 50% in the average Massachusetts town. In Lowell, Massachusetts, the effects were even more salient. Lead service pipes were used to connect water mains to local households, and in the next 18 months, lead poisoning developed in 8 families, with 18 documented cases of lead poisoning, one death, and severe impacts on mental health. Subsequent tests revealed that lead levels existed well above government regulations.

I attended high school at Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School in Bloomfield Hills. The school is a short drive from Flint, and I frequently passed through Flint on my way to other destinations. Students often spoke of how they’d roll the windows up at stoplights, and would never go there at night. When people mentioned Flint, the effect was a normalization of violence and conflation of criminal and non-criminal identity. Consequently, I never heard any student support political activity involving Flint. It wasn’t worth their time.

The problem is not that Flint has been branded America’s most violent city. It is that this label allows outsiders to smear Flint residents with harmful stereotypes. The social stigma against Flint, coupled with widespread political unconsciousness, has helped construct the sociopolitical atmosphere that precedes disaster.

In 2012, Cranbrook held a mock presidential election. While the majority of students voted for Mitt Romney, nearly everyone disfavored numerous policies that Romney supported in his campaign. Notably, most students believed that the Keystone XL pipeline was an environmentally damaging project, and should be abandoned. These same students pushed for a Romney administration.

Cranbrook students are not legally adults, but they are members of Michigan’s most prestigious high school, and supposedly educationally elite. The Cranbrook election results suggest that voters in Michigan may not be as politically aware as they think they are. In failing to vote in accordance with their principles, and blindly following sociopolitical norms, voters create a government that does not work for them.

But even worse is the fact that many potential voters in recent years have not made it to the polls at all. General sentiment that the political process is beyond saving, coupled with systemic barriers to political participation that disproportionately affect low income communities of color (such as Voter ID laws), have discouraged citizens from taking control of their political environment.

When Rick Snyder was re-elected governor, his favorability ratings were abysmally low.  Voter turnout in Michigan was 42.8%, and Snyder won only 6.82% of Detroit votes.

So who is to blame? If we’re going to pin the crisis on Rick Snyder, we need to examine the social and political antecedents to the Flint Water Crisis. We must recognize that the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling, and Flint does not stand alone in its suffering. In fact, a 2003 study by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that “few cities are in outright violation of national contamination standards for drinking water, but this is more the result of weak standards than it is of low contamination levels.”

It is time for all of us to demand accountability in politics. It is time to declare loudly, “We are Flint.” It is time for Flint to take back their government, for outsiders in Michigan to wake up and participate in the process, for a revitalization of health-oriented political consciousness in America. There is one presidential candidate calling for such a revolution: Bernie Sanders. The political establishment in Flint stole the health and well-being of a generation. In the name of public health, it is time to Bern down that establishment.