On Feb. 6, I attended the University of Michigan’s first tri-campus summit at the UM-Flint campus, where I had the opportunity to meet inspiring, engaged students from all three campuses. I heard the stories of students from Dearborn and Flint who do so much admirable work toward social justice and equity in their communities — those of whom I wouldn’t have been able to know about otherwise. In particular, I met students from the Flint campus who not only are committed to responding to their city’s water crisis, but are living it every day. Unlike many of us in Ann Arbor — no matter how much we think we know or want to help in this situation — these students have the experience of going to university while in the midst of one of the most public urban crises in the United States.
For more than two years, Flint, Mich., has been on the receiving end of state-sanctioned violence. The city of about 100,000 people is about 57 percent Black/African American, and has been dealing with lead-laden water since the former emergency manager, Darnell Earley, decided to switch the water infrastructure from the Detroit supply to the Flint River. As many of us know by now, this had dire consequences: the chemistry of the river water proved corrosive almost immediately after the switch occurred, exposing lead in many of the pipes carrying the water – a problem that continued even after the supply was switched back to Detroit in October because of the corrosion. Flint residents started reporting dirty, smelly water and health impacts (rashes, hair loss, breathing problems, burning eyes, etc.) in the first months after the switch. This was in April 2014 — almost two years ago. Since then nearly a dozen people in Flint have died of Legionnaires’ disease (positively correlated with lead exposure), all of Flint’s children are being treated as though they were exposed to unreasonably high levels of lead, the city is under a state of emergency and communities are feeling the impact of this crisis. While community organizers and others in the Flint community resist the water crisis by supporting each other and finding ways to care for themselves, Gov. Rick Snyder and others in the state government quietly talk about reactionary solutions.
The problem I and so many others see here is that the emergency management that led to this problem in Flint is bound to the politics of race and class. Michigan’s current administration sought to — and continues to seek — ways to restrict democracy in Michigan’s urban centers. Since most white people left these centers in the decades following World War II, the cities — including Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, Pontiac and Benton Harbor — who’ve experienced emergency management have been home to majorities of people of color. These are people who vote for their officials, like every other community in the United States, but are then are told by the state that they are not fit to choose their leaders. Would this happen in “white” cities? I severely doubt it.
As a non-Black person of color, I write this article in solidarity with those in Flint who are critically resisting abuse in the form of water poisoning, emergency management and downright negligence — I’m close to calling it “stupidity” — on the part of Snyder and his administration. As a brown Middle Easterner, I see the state violence in Flint tied to the imperial colonialism that is tied to the history of almost every person of color in our society. I can’t be the first to find similarities between U.S. involvement in the Middle East and the politics of racial domination within our nation. In 1953, when U.S. and British forces initiated a coup d’état to oust Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in the name of petroleum interests, they sent my family’s country down a road that led to extreme Islamist control. Iran, once a close ally to the United States, finds itself always serving Western interests. Iran, once a nation where human rights were practiced daily, has become a place where those who are suspected of being gay or of political subversion are routinely killed. Really, the white “West” has determined the course of Middle Eastern politics and economics by meddling in ways that are completely self-serving; this is why I say we still live in colonial times. And the psyche of colonization there works in the same ways here. When the white governor of a state effectively replaces the elected officials of Black-majority cities, we — Black and non-Black people of color — call out racial domination. When these emergency managers make decisions that lead to the wholesale poising of urban populations, we raise our voices against imperial colonialism. And when the same government continues charging water bills to those with tainted water — those whose well-being has been jeopardized by violent government practices — we see very clearly how unrelenting oppression can be.
I want to highlight that we people of color share common histories, and as much as the world tries to divide us — telling us that we are too dissimilar to hold a conversation, let alone struggle together or love one another — that history cannot be erased. When the students I met at UM-Flint described their experiences, and those of others in their community, I understood where they were coming from, at least in part. Though I’m wary of co-opting racial/ethnic struggles as my own, I affirm that our oppressions are linked. Not only that, I affirm that our resistance as well as prosperity are tied to each other’s as well. If we are to overcome racism (or the “imperialist-white supremacist-capitalist-