Framing Flint: Water Justice in the Heart of the Great Lakes

By Frank X Murphy

March 20, 2016

The last couple weeks featured a Democratic Party presidential debate in Flint, followed by an unusual appearance of a sitting state Governor before a congressional committee.  Rick Snyder spun out “false contrition” and “phony apologies”[i] crafted by his legion of taxpayer-funded lawyers and consultants.[ii]  Now this story can’t be allowed to slip back into the trough of news cycles and the ADD static of our overstimulated information age.  The poisoning of a city of 100,000 by official state policy is way too important to let that happen.

We need a big water justice movement.  Flint should be a wake-up call to the need for new, human rights-based water policy.  Personally embodying a whole social and economic system and its profound political dysfunction, Rick Snyder is only the preeminent symbol of much deeper structural problems.  His emergency management policy abandons democracy in order to force a social austerity that’s so extreme it can kill.  That needs to be understood.  More, it has to drive policies.  That won’t happen until after we foreground the systemic critique, and deal with how it made Flint the basic human rights issue it is.

Framing Flint right is crucial.  But the framing is hard, because corporate media doesn’t handle systemic issues well – race, class, capitalism.  Superficial corporate tropes cloud our vision, and even blind us.  We have to reframe the issues.  We should begin by understanding what’s happening and why.

Accountability for Flint not only won’t and can’t come from shouting matches between Ds and Rs, either on capitol hill or the campaign trail.  Accountability for Flint meansat least four nonnegotiable demands moving forward:

1.    Immediate humanitarian aid in the form of comprehensive wraparound disaster relief services – medical, psychological, nutritional and beginning now to provide the necessary lifetime medical care (more on that below).  Snyder’s almost incomprehensible cluelessness is exemplified by the fact that even now, six months after finally conceding that his EMFs poisoned 100,000 People for 18 months, he’s still stuck at the bottled-water-and-phosphate-coating-the-pipes stage of bungling response, while his spinmeisters fog up the airwaves with meaningless apologies.

2.    Fixing the infrastructure is the current big technical issue, the financial, engineering and political power contest of getting the lead out of Flint’s water.  Snyder’s continuing lack of anything resembling an adequate plan to deal with this unprecedented crisis he caused in a large urban community is one of the most recent confirmations of his egregious, personal criminal culpability.  Lead, follow, or get out of the way, and don’t stop to collect a million dollars from taxpayers for criminal defense lawyers on your way to jail!

3.    Accountability for Flint means full criminal prosecution and sentencing of all top officials responsible for poisoning the whole city.  Based on current evidence, that’s apparently Governor Snyder.  Then repeal the emergency mismanagement statutes that paralyzed Flint’s democracy before they poisoned its water; thorough Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reform so such public acts are performed in sunlight; and beginning the necessary root-and-branch renewal of our democracy. 

4.    Lifetime medical care for People of Flint must be provided, as the only practical and just way to discharge responsibility for a violation of basic human rights and cope with the long term consequences.  Fortunately, well-represented class actions are already pending and moving toward the discovery stage toward this end.

Other People may wish to add or modify the above – it’s a suggestion for democratic discussion.  I leave the discussion (for now) with four key points:

1.    Amazingly, Snyder’s current government leadership is almost completely ineffective on all the above four key demands.  Not simply responsible for the problems that led to them, but utterly and totally unable to even make a feeble show of caring enuff to make a difference going forward.  That tells us something.  Let it sink in;

2.    The politicians’ bipartisan grandstanding, as almost all People know, doesn’t matter.  What matters in terms of accountability is 1) heads roll politically and 2) real state policies change.  From Snyder’s date with Due Process to the abandonment of his awful emergency manager policies of racial oppression, we demand action, not merely rhetoric and empty promises;

3.    Structural and systematic, radical (at the root) analysis of these events and issues will be essential.  We can’t really know how a lot of it is ultimately going to shake out at this point, but ambitious, proactive grassroots  demands and actions within these systemic radical frames are absolutely necessary now; and

4.    Broader societal lessons abound, from the fundamental human right to water and sanitation to the tremendous potential for improved quality of life thru sanely designed policies, like the Detroit Water Affordability Plan.[iii]   Canadian and planetary water she-ro Maude Barlow says “If we really understand what’s happening with our water and take care of that, it will help us solve all our other problems.”[iv]

We are all Flint, and Flint’s crisis is our crisis as well.  Wage Love![v]

Frank X Murphy is the pen name of a Detroiter who seeks the revival of democracy and the rule of law from its emergency management-induced coma.

Dedicated to the memory of Charity Hicks and Berta Cácere.


Notwithstanding Rep. Cartwright’s brilliant performance, the hearing was a major disappointment because, with Snyder under oath, the committee failed to follow up on the representative from New Jersey’s questions at a previous hearing about the financial and political connections between Snyder and the proponents of the Karegnondi Water Authority, the Flint-based entrepreneurs and political elites who created the opportunity for the catastrophe by cutting off Flint from Detroit Water and Sewerage Dept. supply.
This was a new low, even for Snyder’s “Michissippi”-style politics, as two leading Flint activists, one with three sick kids, drove to Lansing to object to Snyder’s taxpayer-funded cover-up and criminal representation, arriving a few minutes late to find that Snyder’s puppets had already approved it and the “meeting” was over!
As the Detroit Free Press – always eager to focus on largely irrelevant aspects of the catastrophe – editorialized on February 26: “Sometimes, it’s been hard to tell if the ‘spin doctors’ are helping, or making things worse.”