Living for Change News
March 20th, 2017
Thinking for Ourselves
Beyond Toxic Talk
Shea HowellHow we talk is intimately connected to how we think. Words define our world and give meaning to our lives. Thus, one of the many dangers of this moment is the deterioration of our capacities for political thought. When public values are reduced to single words, blasted in all capital letters on Twitter, we are all diminished. BAD, SAD, FAKE, LIES are judgments devoid of substance, but they infiltrate our consciousness and erode our conversations.
In sharp contrast to this dismal use of language, people around the country are consciously moving to deepen our capacity for reflection, conversation, strategic thinking, and powerful action. There is a growing recognition that actions must be enriched by reflection, that the path to a better future requires collective efforts to create a new vision.
Movement for Black Lives provides a thoughtful agenda about the kind of future we can create. They invite everyone to join in the conversation and study of their platform saying, “We have created this platform to articulate and support the ambitions and work of Black people. We also seek to intervene in the current political climate and assert a clear vision, particularly for those who claim to be our allies, of the world we want them to help us create. We reject false solutions and believe we can achieve a complete transformation of the current systems, which place profit over people and make it impossible for many of us to breathe.” They invite us to study, think, argue and act in relation to these broad, visionary projections.Recently,
Movement Generation offered a new Just Transition Zine in both English and Spanish. The Zine “offers a framework for a fair shift to an economy that is ecologically sustainable, equitable and just for all its members.”They explain, “A Just Transition requires us to build a visionary economy for life in a way that is very different than the economy we are in now. Constructing this visionary economy calls for strategies that democratize, decentralize and diversify economic activity while we damper down consumption, and (re)distribute resources and power. This zine is our offering towards that end – it is a humble point of departure for folks interested in building collective vision and action towards Ecological Justice that does not separate humans from nature, or social equity from ecological integrity.”
This week the Women’s March named its 5th action of the first 100 days
Reflect and Resist. Organizers say the action, “is designed to educate some, and refresh others, through study, reflection, and courageous conversations, so that we can all be empowered by, and learn from, the work of activists who came before us while being mindful not to perpetuate the mistakes of the past. Community is key to activism, so bring your huddles, neighbors, and your march partners back together, collectively choose a book or article to read, or film to watch. Take time to reflect and, together, discuss the topics that they highlight and the issues that women experiencing multiple forms of oppression have faced and continue to face”.The
National Council of Elders is asking us to organize public readings of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Breaking the Silence speech, to reinvigorate his call for a radical revolution of values against racism, materialism and militarism. They ask us to hold conversations following the reading about what his ideas mean for us today.These are just a few of the efforts emerging around our country. They are essential to counter the toxic talk flowing from those in authority. They are acts of resistance and of vision. All of us need to join in creating these spaces for collective reflection. They are the sources of our best hopes.
What We’re Reading
Giving Up Toxic Masculinity To Build Real Resistance
Fifty years ago the times were tumultuous, as they are now. Activists were fragmented by gender, race, tactics and issue silos then too. The machinery of surveillance and repression by local, state and federal government was intense and about to become more so.
Despite knowing the risk of speaking out, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King stepped forward to offer clarity and direction. His speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence  was delivered on April 4, 1967, to an overflow crowd at Riverside Church in New York City.
Now the speech is receiving new attention, not for reasons of wistful nostalgia but as a vision even more relevant to our times than it was then. To learn more about events already organized to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “A Time to Break Silence” speech or how to help initiate one yourself, go here .
In his speech, Dr. King identified the triplets of racism, militarism and materialism as the legacy we must overcome. Why triplets? Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a peace movement veteran, explains : “Why did Dr. King use the word ‘triplets’ when ‘three’ or ‘triad’ would have been enough? Perhaps because biological triplets share a great deal of their DNA. What DNA do these triplets share? The DNA of subjugation, of top-down power.”
To be clear, Dr. King’s remarks did not incorporate the possibility of ecocatastrophe or the structures of patriarchy and sexism into his analysis and call. Can there be any doubt that today he would?
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Living for Change News
March 13th, 2017
Water Stories of District 7
Living for Change News
March 6th, 2017
HELP SAVE THE CASS COMMONSAn Appeal to the Social Justice Advocacy Community in Detroit
From the Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council
In 2011, the Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC) received as a gift the property of the First Unitarian-Universalist Church (First UU), located at the corner of Cass Avenue and Forest Street. This property consists of the august church building and sanctuary, as well as the adjoining elegant parish house, which has a spacious vestibule and parlor, a very large social hall, a kitchen, and several floors of multipurpose rooms. Constructed in 1916, the structure has been awarded an historic designation, and occupies a prime site in midtown Detroit, a central hub of corporate gentrification.
Protecting and Securing a Vital Base
Given this synergy of organizational activities over the years, the property has become a true “commons” for social justice advocacy and cultural development. However, the care and maintenance of an aging, 44,000 – square feet facility involves heavy financial responsibilities. Though EMEAC has succeeded in securing grants, a few major rental contracts, and intermittent income from rentals for events such as weddings, workshops and conferences, these strategies have not generated the volume and regular flow of funds required to cover operational costs.
An Immediate Goal of $60,000
As major corporations appropriate the heart of the City, dislocating and dispossessing working class neighborhoods, people of color and the poor, we social justice activists who are current EMEAC board members want to secure this valuable, strategically located community center. We are convinced that this base is indeed treasured by many community members. Therefore, we are inviting those organizations and individuals who have created projects and relationships here — relationships and mutual efforts which, in fact, constitute the commons, to join us in implementing a program that will secure this property while advancing our capacities to build movement unity. Our immediate goal is to raise $60,000. Then we will work to generate an income of $10,000 each month.
Thinking for Ourselves
Silence of the Good
Every year, on March 2, I listen to the speech Dr. Martin Luther King gave at my college in 1967. This year marks the 50th since I first heard him there. A month after he was in Marietta, Ohio, he would speak at Riverside Church in New York, “Breaking the Silence” on Vietnam. There he would proclaim that America was the “greatest purveyor of violence” in the world and that we needed a “radical revolution in values against racism, materialism, and militarism.” A year later, he would be killed.
King’s subject was the future of integration and, while acknowledging progress in civil rights, he explained that “the murder of civil rights workers is still a popular pastime in the south.”
He chronicled, “In the state of Mississippi alone over the last eighteen months more than fifty-six Negro churches have been burned to the ground…Since 1951 over the southland more than eighty-six deaths have occurred of Negroes and whites who have been involved in civil rights.”
This violence was directly related to a “white backlash.” He says, “We have to discuss this problem very honestly. People tend to think of the so-called white backlash as a new phenomenon and I always say that it is a new name for a very old phenomenon because the fact is that there has never been a solid, monistic, determined commitment to the question of racial justice on the part of the vast majority of the white Americans.”
“America, King says, “Has constantly taken one step forward but at the same time it took a step backwards on the question of racial justice.”
Today, with the ascendancy of Donald Trump, the forces of white supremacy have again pulled us backward. King recognized such moments as times for action.
He says, “I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation, the forces committed to negative ends of our nation, have used time much more effectively than the forces of good will. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the violence of the bad people but for the silence of the good people. Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God; and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so it is necessary to help time and to realize that the time is always right to do right. Edmund Burke said some time ago, “When evil men combine good men must unite.” This is a great challenge facing America. When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. When evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek to bring into being a real order of justice. This is the great challenge facing America.”
Moonlight: Masculinity, Sexism & Misogyny on Trial in the Pursuit to Dismantling Patriarchy
Moonlight is an incredible movie that dismantles masculinity without dismantling
As a result of the relationship Chiron and the drug dealer develop; the drug dealer begins to undergo a social transformation. One-day Chiron experiences being humiliated by his mother, who is losing her battle with her drug addiction, when she calls Chiron a faggot! He is hurt and confused by his mother’s actions and words. He immediately runs to the drug dealer’s house for comfort. During dinner Chiron drops a bombshell at the dinner table and asks, “What is a faggot?” As the drug dealer and his girl friend absorb what he just asked Chiron follows up with another question. “Am I a faggot?” The drug dealer looks at his girlfriend before he responds, and chooses his words carefully. “No you are not a faggot,” he says in a comforting voice, and he also goes on to say something to the effect of “a faggot is a degrading term used to describe some people.”
At that moment during that discussion Chiron begins to question his gender identity, and at that moment for the drug dealer what was at stake wasn’t Chiron’s gender identity buthis humanity. In all actuality the drug dealer had become the father Chiron didn’t have, and the defining moment of the conversation was how the drug dealer had dismantled a twisted version of manhood wrapped up in being overly masculine by basically telling Chiron that his gender identity is not a concern right now because he is just a kid and whatever it becomes down the road it will be. The social norm of the “hood mentality” that governs the drug dealer’s social identity normally would dictate to him that the relationship he builds with Chiron is rooted in their masculinity. As most men growing up in the “hood” as boys, we grow up fast and hard. Searching for our manhood on street corners occupied by men, who are haunted by broken dreams and hearts fueled by pain and hurt. This pain and hurt is hidden behind our masculinity, where it dictates of us to be hard and never to appear soft because to appear soft is to be weak and weakness is associated with the feminine. This social indoctrination that most boys undergo, and that we carry with us into our manhood, ultimately socially handicaps us because of our need to overcompensate for being masculine.
Sexism & Misogyny
Chiron’s mother in a single parent home raises him by societies definition. But society fails to see it as a social crime for a mother to be raising her son by herself. Therefore the domino effect from this social crime is that Chiron’s mother’s worth as a woman becomes in question in association with her social status. She, like many women, becomes socially stigmatized as a result of being a single parent. This is the ramification of sexism and misogyny. These social norms of sexism and misogyny by oppressing, exploiting and degrading women are the children of patriarchy. They take on an invisible and visible form in the lives of women in our society. The invisible form is patriarchy itself, which is at the core of this society and interacts with women in every way fashionable. The visible form is sexism and misogyny in the physical form of men who are the agents of patriarchy, which plays itself out by how men interact with women.
For many women being left as a single parent they become stigmatized for not having a man around to help them raise their children as if it is their fault the father left. Chiron’s mother equally feels this stigmatization because she is socially degraded; as if it is solely her fault her son’s father is missing in action. Societies sexist and misogynist expectations magnify her struggles. As a result the ramifications leads to depression and being dehumanized. Depression takes root as the pressure of being both parents begins to mount on her shoulders. She sacrifices her dreams and goals for the sake of fighting to secure a future for Chiron with little resources. Because of poor employment and poverty, she is forced to seek assistances from the state, which is another degrading and dehumanizing process for women. Her social life is either non-existent or she is just deemed as a good fuck by men, but not a woman that is worthy of being committed to building a long standing relationship with that can end up in a life long commitment.
Under these social conditions drugs or alcohol easily becomes a coping mechanism for many women, and sometimes are introduced by the men they find themselves being entertained by. Sexism and misogyny is a social disease that all men suffer from in some form or fashion, and ultimately perpetuate its ramifications differently that all men take with them with their interactions with women. But what remains the same is the oppression and exploitation that women experience from it. In Chiron’s mother’s life you can see vividly how sexism and misogyny socially abused her and left her to fend for herself the best way she can by adopting a survival of the fittest mentality. The works of sexism and misogyny is the evidence necessary to put patriarchy on trial as it has dismantled the humanity of women for years and left children suffering as a result.
Most men think in dismantling patriarchy they will dismantle their manhood, and as a result it prevents us from truly overstanding the oppressive ramifications of patriarchy towards women, LGBTQ people and even against ourselves. As a result of not having a clear overstanding of patriarchy, we as men become agents of its destruction.
Feminism shouldn’t be a threat to the welfare of men. LGBTQ identities shouldn’t be viewed as a threat the welfare of men. As a man to be pro-feminism, is basically to be pro-women. As a man to be pro-LBGTQ, is basically to be pro-human. Our sexuality shouldn’t define our humanity, but our humanity should define our sexuality. Our values and principles is the anchor of our humanity, and our values and principles shouldn’t be dictating of us oppressing each other but ultimately working for the liberation of us all.
Patriarchy in association with capitalism and white supremacy is a threat to us all. As a Black man in a capitalist society, I find myself negotiating my manhood in some form or fashion. As result of white supremacy and patriarchy this is the same way women and LGBTQ people may find themselves. The key differences not only are women and LGBTQ people become forced to negotiate their humanity, but also forced to surrender their humanity to appease patriarchy. For liberation to be manifested not only must white supremacy and capitalism be destroyed, but also patriarchy the primary architect.
By no means do I consider myself an expert on this subject, but because of my experience of being an agent of patriarchy through acting out sexist and misogynistic behavior towards women helps me overstand the need for the dismantling of patriarchy. The first blow of defeating patriarchy is by deconstructing our sexist and misogynistic thinking. Hyper masculinity, sexism and misogynistic behaviors are the creations of patriarchy. This is the root of the oppression of women, children and LGBTQ people. By putting patriarchy on trial, we put ourselves on trail to become agents of its destruction. The verdict becomes to dismantle patriarchy is to dismantle ourselves.
WHAT WE’RE READING
Revolution! The word means different things to different people. It has been made seductive by the work of artists like Lin-Manuel Miranda, in his groundbreaking musical, Hamilton. Perhaps a more palatable “call for revolution” is Bernie Sanders’ new organization, Our Revolution, which asks Americans to “reclaim democracy for the working people of our country by harnessing the transformative energy of the ‘political revolution.’”
Invocations of revolution have long held a special place in the radical imagination of Black freedom struggles all over the world. KEEP READING
Commentary No. 444, March 1, 2017
From: FBC Office <fbc-What Resist as a movement needs to keep in mind is the fact that we are in the midst of a historic structural transition from the capitalist world-system in which we have lived for some 500 years to one of two successor systems – a non-capitalist system that preserves all of the worst features of capitalism (hierarchy, exploitation, and polarization) and its opposite, a system that is relatively democratic and egalitarian. I call this the struggle between the spirit of Davos and the spirit of Porto Alegre.
Commentary No. 444, March 1, 2017
“Resist? Resist! Why and How?”
From time immemorial, persons who feel oppressed and/or ignored by the powerful have resisted those in authority. Such resistance often changed things, but only sometimes. Whether one considers the cause of the resisters to be virtuous depends on one’s values and one’s priorities.
In the United States, over the past half-century, there emerged a latent resistance to what was seen as oppression by “elites” who enacted changes in social practices offensive to certain religious groups and ignored rural populations and persons whose standards of living were declining. At first, resistance took the path of withdrawal from social involvement. Then it took a more political form, finally taking on the name of Tea Party.
The Tea Party began to have some electoral successes. But it was dispersed and without a clear strategy. Donald Trump saw the problem and his opportunity. He offered himself as a unifying leader of this rightwing “populism” and catapulted the movement into political power.
What Trump understood is that there was no conflict between leading a movement against the so-called Establishment and seeking power in the state via the Republican Party. On the contrary, the only way he could achieve his maleficent objectives was to combine the two.
The fact that he succeeded in the world’s strongest military power heartened like-minded groups all across the world, who proceeded to pursue similar paths with steadily increasing numbers of adherents.
Trump’s success is still to this day not understood by the majority of leaders of both U.S. mainstream parties who search for signs that he will become what they call “presidential.” That is to say, they want him to abandon his role as the leader of a movement and confine himself to being the president and leader of a political party.
They seize upon any small sign that he will do this. When he softens his rhetoric for a moment (as he did in his February 28 speech to Congress), they do not understood that this is precisely the deceptive tactic of a movement leader. Instead, they feel encouraged or hopeful. But he will never give up his role as movement leader because the moment that he did this he would lose real power.
In the past year, faced with the reality of Trump’s success, a counter-movement has emerged in the United States (and elsewhere) that has taken on the name of Resist. The participants understood that the only thing that can possibly contain and eventually defeat Trumpism is a social movement that stands for different values and different priorities. This is the “why” of Resist. What is more difficult is the “how” of Resist.
The Resist movement has grown with remarkable rapidity into sometimes impressive enough that the mainstream press has begun to report its existence. This is the reason that Trump constantly inveighs against the press. Publicity nourishes a movement, and he is doing what he can do to crush the counter-movement.
The problem with Resist is that it is still at the stage where its many activities are dispersed and without a clear strategy or at least not a strategy they have yet adopted. Nor is there any unifying figure who is able at this point to do what Trump did with the Tea Party.
Resist has engaged in manifold different actions. They have held marches, challenged local congressional representatives in their public meetings, created sanctuaries for persons menaced with state-ordered expulsions, interfered with transport facilities, published denunciations, signed petitions, and created local collectivities that meet together both studying and deciding upon further local actions. Resist has been able to turn many ordinary persons into militants for the first time in their lives.
Resist however has a few dangers before it. More and more participants will be arrested and jailed. Being a militant is strenuous and after a while many people tire of it. And they need successes, little or big, to maintain their spirits. No one can guarantee that Resist will not fade away. It took the Tea Party decades before they got to where they are today. It may take Resist equally long.
What Resist as a movement needs to keep in mind is the fact that we are in the midst of a historic structural transition from the capitalist world-system in which we have lived for some 500 years to one of two successor systems – a non-capitalist system that preserves all of the worst features of capitalism (hierarchy, exploitation, and polarization) and its opposite, a system that is relatively democratic and egalitarian. I call this the struggle between the spirit of Davos and the spirit of Porto Alegre.
We are living in the chaotic, confusing situation of transition. This has two implications for our collective strategy. In the short run (say, up to three years), we must remember that we all live in the short run. We all wish to survive. We all need food and shelter. Any movement that hopes to flourish must help people survive by supporting anything that minimizes the pain of those who are suffering.
But in the middle run (say 20-40 years), minimizing the pain changes nothing. We need to concentrate on our struggle with those who represent the spirit of Davos. There is no compromise. There is no “reformed” version of capitalism that can be constructed.
So the “how” of Resist is clear. We need collectively more clarity about what is happening, more decisive moral choice, and more sagacious political strategies. This does not automatically come about. We have to construct the combination. We know that another world is possible, yes, but we must also be aware that it is not inevitable.
by Immanuel Wallerstein
Living for Change News
February 27th, 2017
Thinking for Ourselves
Mayor Mike Duggan delivered his fourth State of the City address last week in an unusual venue. He chose Focus: Hope as the spot. It was a move designed to highlight his central message, time to focus on the neighborhoods. “We’ve improved the basic services but if we’re going to fulfill a vision of building a Detroit that includes everybody then we’ve got to do a whole lot more,” Duggan said.Duggan then listed efforts he intends to take: job training with a clear “path to jobs” though Detroit at Work and a Skilled Trade Employment Program aimed at youth. He emphasized neighborhood investment by philanthropic organizations, promising a beginning $30 million to engage residents in Livernois/McNichols, West Village and Southwest Detroit to create walkable communities, and he promised street sweeping. He even pledged affordable housing and to back the City Council effort to guarantee 20 percent of new units will be set aside in any new project.
He said we can also expect more police officers, a new initiative around healthy pregnancies, and a Detroit Promise to insure that those babies, and current students, have a guaranteed college education when they graduate from Detroit Public Schools.
In spite of all of this, the Mayor’s speech seems more show than substance, more promise than reality.
The first reason for this is the overall framing of the neighborhoods. According to the Mayor, our neighborhoods are only places to be fixed. He does not see any of the creativity, energy or imagination that has been evolving at the neighborhood level for years. Home recipes turned into a thriving sweet potato pie shop, a neighborhood bakery reclaiming lives with returning citizens, bike shops and barber shops, 3-D printing, hand crafted furniture, and flower shops all are anchors in communities long neglected by development schemes. Rather than seeing these as sources of strength to be supported and expanded, the Mayor reduces neighborhood life to nothing more than a vast wasteland he will fix for us.
At the same time, he has refused to look honestly at the inequality his policies have created. Just days before the address, two local professors released a study concluding: “First, by a number of measures Detroit continues to decline, and even when positive change has occurred, growth has been much less robust than many narratives would suggest. Second, within the city recovery has been highly uneven, resulting in increasing inequality.”
The report went on, “Citywide data suggest Detroit is continuing to experience decline that makes it worse off than it was in 2000 or even 2010 in the depths of the national recession. Population, employment and incomes continue to decrease, while vacancies and poverty have increased.”
Perhaps the most important reality for the mayor is his failure to come through with his earlier promises to leverage jobs in the development of the core city. Detroiters are actually losing jobs at an alarming rate. The researchers noted,
Had the Mayor heeded the wisdom of the community, we would have a Community Benefits Agreement in place that could already have mandated job training, job placement and increased the number of Detroit Enterprises benefiting from downtown investment.
Had the Mayor heeded the wisdom of the community he would have adopted a Water Affordability Plan to stop water shut-offs and support people staying in their homes. Instead his blindness to this human rights abuse risks the wellbeing of everyone.
The Mayor is going to have to do a lot more than stand inside Focus: Hope and offer promises. He might start listening to what people want.
Scenes from the rollout of Riverwise, a community-based magazine created by a team of authors, writers, photojournalists, parents, grandparents, students, organizers, activists, artists, educators and visionaries. Check us out online!
A Letter from Detroit Youth Organizers
When we were asked to plan the Youth Day of Vision on behalf of the James & Grace Lee Boggs Center, we knew that we wanted this event to youth-led and youth-centered. For us, that meant involving young(er) people in the planning process from the beginning and letting them control the direction of the event. Our Youth Planning Committee consisted of middle and high school students who are involved in the Detroit Independent Freedom School held at the Cass Corridor Commons.
We started with an introduction to what happened in 1967, inviting the Detroit Historical Society to a DIFS session to teach the students about the uprising and the Detroit 67 Project. This introduction was followed by brainstorming sessions, school visits, and planning meetings to determine what activities would work best for the day, recruit youth to attend, and set an agenda and facilitation schedule.
This may sound like an arduous process for just one event, but we believe that creating powerful, grassroots leadership in the future means giving them the reins today. We guided the young people through the organizing process, from conception to development to completion. This process provides them with the skills to create their own events, advocacy, and activism projects. The Youth Day of Vision was therefore not just about a vision of the future, but a vision of dynamic, transformative, present day youth leadership.
The day of the event, over 60 young people between the ages of 10 and 20 came to the Detroit Historical Museum for a day of investigating the past, understanding its relevance for our present, and envisioning our future. We explored the museum through an engaging scavenger hunt, teased out the differences between a riot versus a rebellion, and imagined ourselves in 1967 through a group role-play. It was exciting for us to see the young people’s visions of the future, which included cures for diseases, regional transportation systems, and diverse, interdependent communities.
At the request of the young people, we kept the space adult-free. The purpose of this careful curation was to allow young people to be themselves, open up, make mistakes, and take charge of their own spaces. We also integrated social media and many different types of hands-on engagement into the day’s activities. You can still find pictures on Instagram & Twitter by searching #DetroitUprising.
Because of this event, young Detroiters were able to more deeply understand the power of community organizing. Armed with this information, the young people heard from youth organizations about ways they could plug in immediately to work towards social justice in their communities.
We are incredibly proud of the young people who organized this event with such bold enthusiasm. We look forward to continuing to work with the social justice activists who attended and who will continue to transform this world for the next 50 years.
An Open Letter to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Their Report: “Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint”
Tom Stephens First, the Good NewsThere’s much to applaud in the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s recent report[i] (February 17, 2017) regarding the deep historical and social origins of the now-notorious Flint water poisoning catastrophe.This includes:1. Exposing the historical story of implicit bias, structural and systemic racialization behind this atrocity adds official recognition to the critical dynamics, particularly the “cumulative and compounding effects” of all discrimination and environmental racism (P. 82), far beyond and much better than the simplistic and limiting notions of individuals’ intentional, subjective racial prejudice that undermine our civil rights laws. This is a notable achievement for an official government body – especially if it’s followed by policy actions to prevent repetition of such abuses in the future. I don’t want to be misinterpreted as dismissing this positive aspect of the commission’s work;2. Calls for specific reforms of the emergency manager statutes to avoid future cases of destruction of local democracy, accountability and the rule of law at the local level are welcome; and
3. The Commission’s acknowledgement of its own failure to intervene on a timely basis for the benefit of the People of Flint, and their vow to do better in the future, displays sincere reflection and commitment. It is appreciated.
I don’t want to minimize these good things in the report. But as a lifelong Michigander who submitted written testimony to the commission that, altho uncited, is very much in line with their ultimate findings,[ii] I feel morally compelled to say that I am seriously dissatisfied with the report.
In brief, I believe it misapplies complex, historical analysis of flexible and only partially developed environmental justice concepts, and especially the distinction between implicit and intentional racism, to blatantly let top policy makers who are responsible for poisoning Flint off the hook for what they did and why. Let me explain.
Racism without Racists, Poisoning without Culpability
The commission’s “implicit bias” narrative, based on the brilliant work of native-born Detroiter and leading critical race scholar john a. powell, reflects a sophisticated, contemporary and deeply insightful view of the way that racialization works to oppress People of color (and, as the commission notes, to injure Whites as well). But that welcome perspective should never be employed as a shield for government officials whose implementation of state policies and actions causes harm. The commission stumbles badly on this vital point of accountability.
The key flaw in the commission’s reasoning runs thru out the report. It is perhaps most evident in the commission’s express adoption of the word “racism”, but avoidance of the term “racist” in their report, because of “a lack of consensus on the common definition of the [latter] term”. (P. 21) Much later, near the end of its report, the Commission states that “Racial disparities are too often sustained by structures and systems that repeat patterns of exclusion.” (P. 127) Unfortunately, the commission’s misapplication of implicit bias theory, and structural and strategic racialization, to excuse policy makers whose unconscious prejudices, ideological biases and plain incompetence and arrogance poisoned Flint, effectively sustains and repeats those very patterns of exclusion. This is completely unacceptable.
Excusing Official Misconduct
The commission’s “racism without racists” construct takes back with one hand whatever positive effect it achieved with the other, via their exhaustive discussion of implicit bias, structural and strategic racialization. While these concepts offer much promise in understanding the attitudes, actions and conflicts experienced by People in our communities, applying them to the acts of policy makers responsible for poisoning Flint is a cop out.
The Governor and his men claimed, in their campaigns for office and in their “emergency management” policies, policies they re-enacted even after being rejected by public referendum, that they knew what they were doing. (As Michigan’s great public citizen and Governor Frank Murphy observed in the era of the great depression: “To sacrifice everything to balance the budget is fanaticism.” That’s what they were doing.) Implicit bias, structural and strategic racialization should never be allowed as a defense to such official misconduct. The commission’s failure to recognize this fundamental distinction between ordinary People’s implicit personal social attitudes, and the awful consequences of official actions by policy makers, converts their report in substantial degree from a needed exposé into an unjust, structurally racist cover-up.
The commission’s inability to place well-deserved blame where it lies with state government leaders is even further exemplified by their rather shocking statement: “We have neither seen nor heard anything that would lead us to believe that anyone in government permitted something they believed to be harmful to continue because of the racial makeup of Flint.” (P. 12) One must ask in this context, what in the world would it take?
Long before they admitted it, the top state government officials had significant information that would convince any reasonable person that 1) Polluted water is harmful; 2) Most People in Flint are of color and poor; and 3) They were being forced to use polluted water. Avoiding the conclusion that “government permitted something they believed to be harmful to continue because of the racial makeup of Flint” under these circumstances is apologizing for decisions and actions that implemented structural and systemic racism, of which these top officials should have known and which it was their duty to avoid and later stop. The commission’s failure to reach this inevitable, common sense conclusion is an extremely grave, unconscionable error.
Ignoring Critical Relevant Evidence
One of the ways the commission achieves this myopic result is by completely ignoring – in spite of their otherwise comprehensive historical overview – the damning official history of government attacks on environmental justice in the 1980s and 90s, centered around Flint and Genesee County. As I stated in my written testimony (note 2, below):
“Some 20 years ago, the issues of environmental racism and environmental justice – the disproportionate adverse exposure of People of color communities and the poor to pollution and other environmental dangers – were addressed by environmental agencies and courts in two (2) major cases that arose in Flint: 1) The Genesee Power Station (GPS) case; and 2) The Select Steel case.
The GPS case involved a wood-burning incinerator sited near Flint’s impoverished north end, a community already swamped with other toxic, heavy industrial sources of pollution. Negotiations with the incinerator resulted in an agreement to significantly reduce the amount of lead paint-contaminated construction and demolition wood the incinerator was allowed to burn. (They originally described their business to state environmental officials as “burning demolished Detroit crack houses”.)
After that partial settlement, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) under Gov. John Engler and Director Russell Harding insisted on a historic environmental justice trial of the allegation that they violated Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act by permitting the GPS, the first such trial ever. The Genesee County Circuit Court, Hon. Archie Hayman, entered an injunction against granting more air pollution permits in Genesee County after a 1997 trial that included lots of evidence of increased lead poisoning in Flint because of the GPS; the injunction was subsequently reversed on appeal for a procedural technicality.
The Plaintiffs in the GPS case had also filed the first administrative Title VI environmental racism claim with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1992. After initially losing the file, EPA later found it and opened an investigation, but they have never issued any decision. Meanwhile, 3 of the 4 Plaintiffs died.
A second major environmental justice case arising in Flint was decided adversely after a bogus, pro forma investigation in 1998 by EPA: the infamous Select Steel decision. In Select Steel, the same plaintiffs complained about a proposed (never built) steel recycling facility, that would further pollute their already overburdened community. EPA came under heavy political pressure in both Michigan and Washington, DC, including explicit threats to zero out the budget of their Office of Civil Rights. EPA rendered a decision against environmental justice that abandoned any meaningful attempts to remedy environmental racism, refusing to use their power to bring public health and environmental quality in Flint up to standards enjoyed in white suburban communities.
In significant part as a result of the Flint Select Steel precedent, environmental racism has found no legal remedy at EPA.
Why did these regulators ignore the pleas of Flint residents who were forced to drink smelly, foul and discolored water for a year and a half? Because that was the policy of allowing substandard environmental and public health conditions in communities like Flint, conditions that would never be allowed in whiter, more affluent communities. And that precedent was largely established in Flint in the 1990s. The ongoing Flint River scandal was the result of emergency management and the Snyder administration’s depraved indifference to health of People in Flint, as well as longstanding, established de facto environmental policy to allow such pollution in these communities.
The Flint River’s lead poisoning is just an extreme case.”
Ironically, on January 19, 2017, EPA finally issued their administrative Title VI decision in the GPS case. They found the state violated Title VI in their permit process. “… EPA finds that the preponderance of evidence supports a finding of discriminatory treatment of African Americans by MDEQ in the public participation process for the GPS permit considered and issued from 1992 to 1994.” 25 years later, it’s a textbook case of “justice delayed is justice denied.” The commission should not have ignored this evidence.
Leaving out Flint’s important role in the attack and rollback against environmental justice perpetuates the very exclusion the commission decries, and allows current state leadership off the hook for implementing racist abuses in Flint in 2014-15. This seriously compounds the commission’s admitted failure to come to the aid of the People of Flint in their hour of need. That is why I feel compelled to write this response.
Racist Restructuring is not only about Flint
In addition to erasing the significant history of anti-environmental justice state actions in and around Flint, the commission’s selective application of history leads to other major contradictions. For example, Detroit’s decline and revitalization is a product of the same history of structural and systemic racism, suburbanization, housing and employment discrimination, capital flight and separate and unequal benefits of crucial infrastructure, all rooted in regional development shaped by implicit bias, that the commission details in Flint. Indeed, the two cities’ histories of abuse by such structural, systemic forces are inextricably related.
Detroit, like Flint, was subjected to Governor Snyder’s racist and undemocratic “emergency management” restructuring and asset-extraction policies; instead of contaminated water, Detroit’s structural adjustment involved mass denial of water via shut offs to tens of thousands of families comprising well over a hundred thousand individuals, an atrocity that was condemned by UN representatives as a human rights violation. This dubious achievement has been widely celebrated in the corporate media as Detroit’s “resurrection”.[iii] It is not critiqued by the commission, altho it represents another manifestation of the same deep history of implicit bias, structural and strategic racism that is their primary focus.
Ignoring Agency and Power
In political terms, emergency management deprived predominantly African American citizens in the managed communities of their agency in democracy. Now the commission’s “racism without racists” reframing of the Flint River scandal lets the perpetrators off the hook for their abuses and crimes, by excusing their agency because it “merely” reflected implicit bias the commission believes they shouldn’t be called out on, because it supposedly did not rise to the level of intentional, willful prejudice embodied in state policy. In addition to devastating democracy by ignoring the crucial role of agency, this is far too charitable to the structurally racist miscreants at the top of Michigan’s power systems. For the record, neither Snyder nor any of his Republican enablers in the state legislature have lifted a finger to date to fix the deadly problems caused by Michigan’s unprecedented emergency management statute. There’s nothing unconscious about their racist evil.
Coincidentally, the release of the commission’s report coincides with the release of the justly acclaimed James Baldwin documentary film, “I Am Not Your Negro”. Baldwin’s simultaneously blunt and eloquent message to American White People perfectly captures the moral blame that should be cast for poisoning Flint, and should serve as a useful corrective to the commission’s tragic evasions of official culpability:
“What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. . . . If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”[iv]
It is long past the time to stop the “relentless poisonous action” of Snyder and his associates; the systemic, structural and implicit nature of the racist bias underlying their shocking, depraved actions should not be an excuse.
[ii] The Flint River Lead Poisoning Catastrophe in Historical Perspective (link)
Lansing’s systematic inattention to issues addressed in our communities’ original draft environmental justice executive order, like the precautionary principle, cumulative impact of multiple pollution sources, communities’ rights to directly petition the state to investigate and remedy environmental injustice, and environmental racism (as well as feral, unregulated capitalism) itself, came after fighting tooth-and-nail against grassroots groups seeking such policies for 30 years. This notice-and-refusal-to-correct-injustice evidence adds culpability – even willful depravity, in the unprecedented circumstances of Flint in 2014-15 – to the depths of unconscious, implicit bias that undoubtedly plague all levels of the Snyder administration. This is precisely why I reject the commission’s reasoning and conclusion; they seem to be saying that, since structural and systemic bias are overwhelmingly implicit and unconscious (Nobody in state government endorses “I am a racist”), it would be unduly hurtful to attribute blame where blame would otherwise be due. I respectfully dissent.
Flip the script: The policies and actions of high officials like Governor Rick Snyder, Transformation Manager Richard Baird, and Treasury Secretary Andy Dillon that exposed the People of Flint to contaminated water were racist. Fundamentally, environmental racism is the state’s policy. The Flint River crisis proves it beyond doubt.
[iii] This uncritical corporate and white supremacist backslapping has been debunked by scholarship. Detroit’s Recovery; The Glass is Half Full at Most “…[B]y a number of measures Detroit continues to decline, and even when positive change has occurred, growth has been much less robust than many narratives would suggest. Second, within the city recovery has been highly uneven, resulting in increasing inequality. … Overall, citywide data suggest Detroit is continuing to experience decline that makes it worse off than it was in 2000 or even 2010 in the depths of the national recession. Population, employment and incomes continue to decrease, while vacancies and poverty have increased.” (emphasis added)