Economist and Wayne State University Law School professor Peter J. Hammer recently submitted written testimony to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission as part of their hearings on the Flint Water Crisis titled, “The Flint Water Crisis, KWA and Strategic-Structural Racism”. Click here to download the report, or read coverage by Curt Guyette and the ACLU of Michigan: Democracy Watch: Law Professor Peter J. Hammer Likens Flint Water Crisis to ‘Tuskegee Experiment’.
Please find an introduction and summary to the document below by people’s lawyer, D-REM and PWB member Thomas Stephens:
This testimony provides the most comprehensive analysis to date of 1) the decision to approve Flint’s participation in the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) pipeline and 2) the financially driven decision to use the Flint River as an interim source of drinking water.
Racialized austerity so extreme it can kill, exposed:
“… Flint found itself in a position where it could not legally stop using the Flint River, or return to the safe water of DWSD, or decrease its water rates, or terminate its involvement in KWA, all because the City was bound to finance its participation in a pipeline that better served the interests of others. …
Nothing about what happened in Flint was accidental. Flint needs to be understood as a morality play illustrating the dangers of Emergency Management and fiscal austerity. Flint needs to stand as a profound multi-generational testimony to the dangers of strategic-structural racism in the same manner as the Tuskegee tragedy forever shames medical science. …
The problem is not a lack of knowledge. The people of the State of Michigan viscerally understood the dangers of Emergency Management and collectively opposed it. The people in Flint understood the insanity of using the Flint River as a source of drinking water and had immediate, firsthand knowledge of how dangerous and inappropriate the water was for human consumption when it began flowing in April 2014. Engineers understand the basic chemistry of corrosion control and the relatively simple measures that can be taken to mitigate its ruinous effects. Physicians understand the permanent debilitating effects of lead on the human brain, especially for children. The problem is not a lack of knowledge.
The problem is the often willful blindness of people in positions of privilege and authority (Knowledge-&-Power) to the needs, perspectives and interests of others, particularly when the “other” is from a community that differs from their own in terms of race or class or ethnicity. The problem is that the information and beliefs held by people in authority often reinforce that blindness and permit the unquestioned projection of policies and programs on others, even when it is clear that those policies are inappropriate or have harmful consequences. The problem is that vulnerable populations are often subject to exploitation that strategically manipulates the very vulnerability created by express racism, structural racism and unconscious bias, and yet this exploitation finds ready shelter in the very forces it exploits.”
“The primary, non-structural reason Flint was in financial distress was the direct result of state revenue sharing policy. This fact does not get the public attention it deserves. The State of Michigan created the very financial distress in Flint and other cities that it then used to supposedly justified the need for Emergency Managers.”
“… Emergency Managers operate within a narrow accounting frame with the specific charge of balancing the budget, regardless of social cost, believing that policies of fiscal austerity alone will breathe life into historically distressed communities. Moreover, these actions are undertaken in an environment that completely displaces democracy and civil society. … As reported in Bloomberg News: “After firing 20 percent of its workers, doubling water rates and outsourcing trash collection, Flint, Michigan, has a balanced budget. It’s also approaching the point at which it can’t function as a city.”
“Increasing water and sewer rates, along with other fees for basic services such as garbage, had become a staple of Emergency Management revenue seeking. During Flint’s time under Emergency Management, water rates in the City more than doubled. Emergency Management can be a cruel and misguided tool. Flint was in municipal distress as a consequence of decades of structural racism, deindustrialization, white flight, economic deprivation and isolation.
Rather than addressing these root issues, Emergency Management displaced democratic institutions and further marginalized citizen participation and the role of civil society. In addition, Emergency Managers imposed progressive budget cuts, weakening core city services and turning Flint into one of the latest “minimal cities.” A city made vulnerable as a result of structural racism was made even more vulnerable through Emergency Management and fiscal austerity.
II. KWA, DEQ, Treasury, Emergency Managers and Strategic Racism
Strategic racism is the conscious manipulation of the forces of intentional racism, structural racism and unconscious bias for personal or political gain. In examining the Flint water tragedy, some simple questions can help identify the existence of strategic racism. Were decisions made in the best interests of Flint residents? Were the people of Flint treated as ends in themselves or simply as instrumental means to further the objectives of others? Were decisions consistent with or deviations from the standard cost benefit analysis that is supposed to characterize Emergency Management under the direct supervision of the Department of Treasury? Would the same events be possible in a wealthy, predominately white community?”
“Wayne State University Law School Professor Nick Schroeck wrote: “The economic assumptions behind and the potential environmental impacts of the proposed Genesee withdrawal render the proposal flawed, at best, and a cynical ploy, at worst. We don’t need to drive another wedge between Detroit and the rest of the region. We should seek to improve upon the efficiency and conservation measures of the water delivery system that we already have rather than spending vast sums of public dollars on projects that are completely unnecessary.”
A broad alliance of environmental groups opposed granting the KWA permit. The primary beneficiaries of raw water are agricultural and some manufacturing processes. The largest political entity in KWA’s service area with the least to gain from raw water was arguably the City of Flint. Yet, Flint was said to be essential to the viability of the KWA vision and Flint was supposed to pay 30% of the expected costs. No one asked what should have been obvious questions. How would the financially distressed city under Emergency Management pay for its $85 million share of the conservatively estimated $285 million project? Given all of Flint’s immediate needs, was this the most important issue for the Emergency Manager to address? Whose agenda was the KWA project really serving?”
“On February 10, 2014, [Flint environmental lawyer Mike Robinson] sends an email to Steve Busch (DEQ) concerning “ACO:” (Administrative Consent Order) “Steve, I checked with the City’s bond counsel, here is the Language that we MUST include in the consent order so that the City can move forward on this.” The language the bond lawyers wanted was as follows: “The Respondent plans to use the Flint River as a temporary source of untreated water supply until KWA water is available. The Respondent must undertake the KWA public improvement project or other public improvement projects to continue to use the Flint River, such as additional water treatment plant public improvements, source water protection public improvements and public improvements to obtain back-up water supply, in order to comply with Act 399.” This last critical sentence was included almost verbatim in the final ACO.
If there was a point of no return in the tangled process leading to the use of the Flint River as the interim source of drinking water, this was it. The use of an ACO predicated on problems with the WTP in order to finance the KWA pipeline effectively obligated the City to use the Flint River as the interim source of drinking water during KWA construction. This legal commitment was strategically driven by the need to manipulate rules governing the bond market, not considerations of public safety. The Emergency Managers, KWA, DEQ and Treasury were all intimately involved. There would be no turning back.”