At the beginning of Sunday’s Democratic presidential debate in Flint, moderator Anderson Cooper informed his viewers about the catastrophic state of Flint’s water system.
“Now, we’ve come to Flint because this is a city in crisis,” Cooper said. “A city where, as you probably know, the tap water is toxic.”
In other words, Cooper was saying that by conducting the debate here, the national media’s attention, and, by extension, the entire country’s attention, was turning to this city, perhaps as a way of showing solidarity with the victims of the Flint water crisis. Throughout the rest of the debate, both candidates did allude to Flint and the need to give this city attention.
How much does it actually help the cause if we stage an event here — one single event — and then pack it all up and keep on kicking the can down the trail? In fact, I would argue that this whole debate distinctly hurts the Flint community. If only for a moment, it gives the American people the sense that we are doing enough, because the mainstream media and political establishment are giving this city the attention it deserves. For Christ’s sake, they even hosted a debate there! In that horrible, impoverished city! They must, then, really care!
One of the first questions posed at the debate dealt with the concrete action the candidates would take in Flint, long after this momentary spotlight dims. Anderson Cooper asked, “Why should the people of Flint believe that you aren’t just using this crisis to secure political points?”
In her response, Hillary Clinton cited her long political career as evidence that she will be here to stay, that she genuinely cares about the people of Flint. “I think because throughout my public career I have been evening the odds for people in every way that I could,” Clinton said. “I will be with Flint all the way through this crisis…”
Upon further examination, Clinton’s rather meaningless and platitudinous statement about her loyalty to marginalized members of society does not hold weight. She was a fierce supporter of Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform, which sought to end “welfare as we know it.” Clinton’s reforms tore apart poor communities by severely limiting access to social security benefits and food stamps.
The crucially destructive element of Clinton’s reform, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act prohibited welfare to mothers under 18 years of age and denied aid for additional children for mothers who were already on welfare. This legislation did allow for mothers in school to recieve welfare; however, it assumes that one has resources in her life to provide for a child and stay in school. Of course, this is only true for the most privileged among us. Clinton sought to create a system where, in order to receive welfare, one had to work or be in school. This was meant to promote individuality and productivity. Additionally, because of Clinton’s 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime legislation in this nation’s history, people returning from prison were received at home with disdain; Clinton’s legislation ignited the stigma that still surrounds ex-prisoners today. Nobody would hire them. In turn, they could not receive welfare. The Clintons, together, created this vicious, unforgiving, dividing cycle that Michelle Alexander, among other scholars, has dubbed the New Jim Crow.
And yet, here Mrs. Clinton was on Sunday evening, spouting off once again a stump speech of sorts, deceitfully trying to convince residents of this city that she has always supported them, has always stood for those who face the longest odds.
Bernie Sanders, responding to the same question, discussed how he had met with residents of Flint to hear about their struggles: “(I held a) town meeting, which was as nonpolitical as I could make it, for hundreds of people to tell me and the world through the media exactly what was happening here in Flint.”
One member of this community who knowingly avoided Sanders’ private community meetings was Melissa Mays, the founder of Water You Fighting For, an activist group whose target is clean water. In an interview with John Whitesides, Mays explained her absence.
“I’m not going to be used like that. I’m not going to be a token. Do something first, then I’ll show up.”
Mays raises a crucial point: Sanders — and the rest of the political arena — cannot expect everyday citizens to put their lives on hold to hear them speak, when Sanders and his colleagues have not reciprocated and have not taken action in the name of justice for these people. Of course, neither candidate has had the time or space to do anything concrete — they are each busy running a national campaign. But all of these words, from both candidates, given their past actions in relation to Flint or communities demographically similar to it, are absolutely meaningless. And so this debate cannot be the only national spotlight that Flint receives. It cannot be, for millions of us, our only exposure — I hesitate to even call it that — to what is going on in Flint and in marginalized communities across the country. We have an obligation to go forward, to do more, to educate ourselves and to help in concrete ways that the political establishment is unable to match.
Both candidates’ flat responses, then, highlight the issue: Staging the debate in Flint on Sunday night does not help the cause because it does not concretely aid our suffering brothers and sisters in this ravaged city. If anything, the strategic staging of this political event numbs the national audience to its inaction. Ultimately, we are rendered more profoundly ignorant of, and improperly content with, our inaction.
Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.