It’s about time that everyone is writing and broadcasting about Flint.
In the past two weeks, Vox, The New York Times, Washington Post and The Daily Show have all covered the Flint water crisis. In late December, Rachel Maddow did a 20-minute spot on what is happening. And Democratic Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton discussed it at their most recent debate.
Though I won’t go detail by detail in this column about how the water crisis happened, one thing is abundantly clear: When the decision was made to switch water supplies from Detroit to the Flint River, the state government did nothing to prevent corrosion of the pipes (mind you, it would have only cost an extra $100 a day). And when the public complained that something was wrong with the water, the government actively tried to disprove the complainers, saying everything was just fine.
It’s mind-blowing, it’s preposterous, it’s what happens when you choose to care more about dollar signs than people’s lives. And we know this wouldn’t have happened in a wealthier city. Not in Ann Arbor, that’s for sure. Definitely not in my hometown of West Bloomfield.
Governor Snyder needs to resign. The person who helped cause this man-made disaster should not be the one allowed to fix it.
Though I could go on about Snyder’s failures, I also want to talk to about the people of Flint — water activists — who have dedicated hours and hours of their time over the past year to raise awareness on this issue.
These are people who had been speaking to deaf ears, trying to do what is right. These are people who shouldn’t have had to do what they did — because we’re talking about water, something (and I shouldn’t have to say this) that no one can live without. These are everyday people who turned into activists to advocate for something they shouldn’t have had to advocate for — a basic human right.
When they could have been fighting for literally anything else — income inequality, raising the minimum wage, criminal justice reform — they had to fight for water. Heck, they didn’t even need to advocate for anything. They should have been able to live their lives. Because why should anyone, in the 21st century in the United States of America, have to worry about if their drinking water is clean?
I visited Flint twice last October and November, and was able to meet some of these activists: LeeAnne Walters, Melissa Mays and Nayyirah Shariff. They’ve protested at city hall and met with state leaders, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Environmental Protection Agency numerous times. All they’ve wanted this past year by badgering the city, state and federal government was for someone to acknowledge there was a problem in Flint and do something about it.
And they’re not alone in their efforts. During our conversations, they spoke about how the level of activism in Flint has increased recently.
“I guess you could say the flip side to (the Flint water crisis) is that more people are involved in city council meetings now,” Walters told me. “More people are getting out there and becoming more actively involved in the city. Not saying it should have taken this to make that happen, but if you’re trying to look for a silver lining, there’s that part of it. I know I never went to city council meetings.”
“I trusted (city council) to vote and do what was best for us at the meetings. When all this happened, that changed.”
Mays said, “We don’t want it to happen to anybody else. So that’s why we’ve been making this big, huge stink this entire time to stop it from happening to us, but then so it doesn’t happen to another community.”
Shariff, who is a member of the Flint Democracy Defense League, added, “I considered myself an activist, but it wasn’t really around water because I’m like, ‘We live in Michigan. I can just drive an hour and be at a lake somewhere.’ ”
Toward the end of our meeting in her dining room, I asked Mays directly if she also ever imagined learning so much about water.
“I wonder in an alternate universe, had I not moved here, had this not happened or something like that or had I not shown up to the very first protest (last January) about the cost and (total trihalomethanes), how different would my life be,“ Mays said. “But at least I know why I’m sick. I know what’s wrong with me. At least we have actions planned for the future. And honestly, I feel like we’ve done a lot of good.”
She continued, “(Nayyirah and I) joke all the time how I’m a metalhead. I’m covered in tattoos. I work in public relations. Never would our paths have crossed, nor the fact that we spend most of our social time hanging out with old pastors in churches.”
“I know!” Shariff chimed in. “Who would have thunk that?”
“Never did I think we would ever have met or nor would we hang out with these people,” Mays said. “We’re texting pastors at all times, and we’re making all these things or standing up and yelling and screaming next to these older people. I never would have thought that was going to be part of my life because my social life is concerts and my bands and hanging out with everybody else and stuff. And now it’s like, ‘I can’t come out tonight because we have a water meeting,’ and everybody understands, but it’s kind of cool.”
These friendships were forged at an astronomical cost. Sure, we want our communities to come together, but not under these circumstances. Not at the price of an entire city that is going to suffer from exorbitant physical, mental and fiscal problems for decades to come.
These activists are our heroes. While the work is far, far from done, Walters, Shariff and Mays are three of the many who have stood up, made noise and didn’t stop doing so until somebody listened.
I just can’t stop thinking how they shouldn’t have had to do it.
Derek Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.