(EDITOR’S NOTE, 4/16/19, 11:07 AM ET: This is the third installment of Grit Post’s series commemorating the five-year anniversary of the Flint Water Crisis, about the role environmental racism played in the events that unfolded in Flint. Click the links to read part 1 and part 2.)
The Flint Water Crisis began five years ago on April 25th when then-Mayor Dayne Walling, following a decision by the city’s Emergency Financial Manager Ed Kurtz, pushed the button that switched the city’s water off Detroit’s water system and on to the water of the Flint River. But local activists blame environmental racism as the real culprit.
But the saga that culminated in the Flint Water Crisis was a much slower one that was around to launch the career of filmmaker Michael Moore 30 years ago. Without this slow-motion financial crisis, the water crisis likely never would have happened.
So to understand both the water crisis itself and what is needed to rebuild public trust between citizens, the city, and the state of Michigan, its necessary to understand the dire financial straits of Flint.
Equally important to note is that the emergency management law that led directly to the water crisis is still on the books in Michigan.
The Fall of Flint
Once upon a time, Flint had Michigan’s highest median income. This was thanks, in no small part, to the presence of General Motors in the city. Now nearly half of Flint residents live in poverty.
Flint, like many Michigan cities, followed the model of competition in urban development championed by Charles Tiebout. This was exacerbated by a state regulatory framework that discouraged consolidation of poorer and richer areas. Money flowed out of the city toward the suburbs in the latter half of the 20th century and Flint couldn’t do anything to stop it.
“Because Flint couldn’t grow to encompass those areas, just more people, impoverished people, were stuck,” said Michigan State University professor Rick Sadler. “This Tiebout model isn’t good when you’re talking about social equity. Then [people] wind up getting pushed or relegated to smaller municipalities that are poorer.”
Sadler said when people leave the city behind, they feel absolved of directly dealing with the city’s problems, which creates a culture of urban neglect. Then, a shock came to the city it was no longer prepared to weather.
General Motors left, and with it about 90 percent of Flint’s wages.
The loss of their primary source of economic activity combined with a political and philosophical framework that pitted Flint against its wealthier suburbs was nothing short of catastrophic.
William Hammond, treasurer of Flint’s Economic Development Corporation, describes the city as a wagon wheel. At its center is the hub of downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods, and at its rim are the suburbs. But when General Motors left and the population plummeted, he says the city lost its spokes.
“We won’t be a city of 250,000 again, not for many, many years,” Hammond told Grit Post. “We lost all our economic base and are struggling to recover.”
And so, Flint turned to the state. It spent two years under state control under former Governor John Engler (R) and fell again under emergency financial management during the tenure of Governor Rick Snyder (R) for four years. It was during Snyder’s oversight of the city that the Flint Water Crisis began.
Ed Kurtz, Snyder’s emergency manager who made the decision to switch to Flint River water, has said that his job was purely financial — it was not to make sure the water he told Flint to use was safe. That responsibility, he argues, falls on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
Structural and Environmental Racism
The kind of concentrated poverty that exists in Flint has a unique characteristic that smacks of racism. Only 4% of Americans live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty — where nearly half of homes live in poverty — but of these neighborhoods, nearly all are predominantly nonwhite. Only a quarter of people living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are white.
Flint is one of only two cities nationwide to have concentrated poverty on a city-wide scale.
That leaves Flint with less tax revenue to go into schools, police, fire departments, and crucial public infrastructure. At its core, the Water Crisis is an infrastructure crisis.
“Flint is yet another chapter in the book that is being written about oppressive and exploited conditions of African-American people,” said University of Buffalo professor Henry Louis Taylor Jr.. “This narrative happens to be about a serious health problem where black and low-income whites were put in harm’s way by people attempting to save money. This is structural racism in action.”
Lawsuits have unsuccessfully attempted to make the case that the Emergency Financial Management law at the heart of the water crisis is itself a structurally racist denial of voting rights, as state-appointed managers usurp authorities of locally elected groups like school boards and city councils.
And a state commission has found that Flint, in the aftermath of the crisis, has long been a victim of structural racism.
“The people of Flint have been subjected to unprecedented harm and hardship, much of it caused by structural and systemic discrimination and racism that have corroded your city, your institutions, and your water pipes, for generations,” the report said. “When the last of the civil lawsuits and attorney general criminal investigations are completed, and relief dollars from state and federal sources are exhausted, what will remain is a city and its people who will continue to fight against built-in barriers but whose voices — as a matter of public right — must never be stifled or quelled again.”
The report encouraged the emergency management law be amended to give locals a voice and encouraged government to employ experts in implicit bias, but Governor Snyder blamed career bureaucrats for the crisis and little changed in Lansing.
Flint isn’t the only community of color affected by environmental racism. In a 2018 investigation, Grit Post traveled to Coldwater Creek, a similar community north of St. Louis, Missouri, that was poisoned by nuclear waste. While the toxic waste remains in the community’s soil, federal government officials acknowledged for the first time that the radioactive waste has played a role in creating the cancer cluster in North St. Louis, five months after Grit Post’s investigation was published.
“The single greatest determinate of where certain kinds of toxic chemicals are located is race,” said Offensive Feminist’s Jennifer Kurland in her documentary on the Water Crisis. “The brush-off of the concerns of the citizens of Flint by the DEQ, EPA and our legislature is rooted both in racism and classism. Their responses show that the lives of the people of Flint are not as important to them as the lives of the people who look and act like them.”
Kurland’s documentary explores in detail the ambition to profit off Flint’s financial woes with a freshwater pipeline that would aid corporate interests in the lucrative work of hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking), ultimately at the expense of Flint’s safety. Kurland produces documents showing the state’s effort to use the crisis to double-down on its pipeline project.
And that leaves an important question going forward: what can make the people of Flint trust their city and state again?
Gentrification at the End of Public Trust
Even as Flint works to replace its water service lines and water from the mains tests within what is considered normal, its hard to convince Flint that the water is safe. Part of that is because, thanks to the Flint crisis, normal and safe aren’t the same thing anymore, but part of it stems from another kind of corrosion: The corrosion of public trust.
Flint repeatedly was sold on plans that put profits before people and told things that just weren’t true. Even years later, people warp statistics to minimize or outright deny the impacts of the Flint Water Crisis and environmental racism.
“I don’t know if they’re ever going to be able to rebuild that trust completely ever again,” local activist Ryan LoRee told Grit Post. “You’re starting to see people get more uncivil, honestly. To where you’re starting to see people say ‘look, do we go to these politicians’ houses?’ … They’ve run out of options as to what do we do now to make these politicians do something.”
As we previously reported, William Hammond has an idea for Flint — to take replacing the water infrastructure as a chance to revamp the entire city’s infrastructure. But there’s a tension in that, between the people lured in to a reinvented city and the people trying to live in the home they’ve always known.
These two problems — the lack of public trust and the risks of gentrification — have significant overlap says LoRee. He suspects the city’s plan is to leverage gentrification to replace the population of Flint who might never trust the city again with more affluent people who forget or deny the city’s troubled history.
“It’s a fresh start for new people,” he said. “People who live out of town, people will forget things because our attention spans last about thirty seconds nowadays, they move into these places and they don’t know that was Chevy in the hole, they don’t know that place had toxic water.”
LoRee has seen a pattern of the city shrinking over time. As Hammond’s “spokes” vanished, the city’s efforts collapsed to the city’s center. The city brought in charter schools, which brought gentrification to education, he said. Land Bank and Red and Green Zones have made it prohibitively difficult for locals to buy land. And the water crisis, he fears, was lighter fluid to the fire of gentrification sweeping the city.
LoRee is fighting the bleak future he sees for Flint, however, by promoting things like free-participation worker co-ops and broader community self-defense ideas. LoRee promotes for Flint the model spearheaded by Cooperation Jackson in Jackson, Mississippi.
In Flint, like much of the country, ideas are pitted against one another competitively. It would be easy to see Hammond’s infrastructure ideas as part of LoRee’s nightmare of gentrification, but Hammond doesn’t want to lose what makes Flint Flint either. Cooperatively, the ideas of infrastructure renovation and community self-defense could preserve and restore a once-great Michigan city.
And if that kind of little cooperation had happened 50 years earlier, the whole story of Flint may have played out differently.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.