Establishing justice By Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves

By Shea Howell

Establishing justice

March 27, 2016

shea33This week the Flint Water Crisis Task Force released its final report. The report makes critical contributions to the public discussion of what happened in Flint, where the responsibility rests, and what should be done about it. Most importantly, the report makes clear that state authorities treated the people of Flint with contempt, disrespect, and disregard for their health and lives. At the core of the State’s actions was deep-seated racism. The report invokes the concept of Environmental Justice, opening important perspectives for us to consider as we decide how to move forward.

The report falls short in calling for the repeal of emergency management legislation. It acknowledges that it was unable to investigate the Karegnondi Water Authority and issues surrounding its creation. However, it cuts through some of the lies Governor Snyder has been pushing to avoid responsibility.

First, the Task Force places blame squarely on the State. In response to the Governor’s strategy of blaming everyone, they say, “Though it may be technically true that all levels of government failed, the state’s responsibilities should not be deflected. The causes of the crisis lie primarily at the feet of the state by virtue of its agencies’ failures and its appointed emergency managers’ misjudgments.

Second, the report highlights the role Emergency Mangers played in the key decisions surrounding the water crisis. It emphasizes the consequences of legislation that concentrates power in the hands of a single individual without democratic checks and balances. The Task force concluded, “The Flint water crisis occurred when state-appointed emergency managers replaced local representative decision-making in Flint, removing the checks and balances and public accountability that come with public decision-making. Emergency managers made key decisions that contributed to the crisis, from the use of the Flint River to delays in reconnecting to DWSD once water quality problems were encountered.”

Third, the Task Force addresses openly the environmental injustice embedded in the chain of choices made by the Governor and his appointees. As the New York Times commented, the report “makes clear the principal cause of the water crisis in Flint, Mich.: the state government’s blatant disregard for the lives and health of poor and black residents of a distressed city.”

The Times editorial goes on to say of the report, “While it avoids using the word “racism,” it clearly identifies the central role that race and poverty play in this story.” This report should be read along with the Principles of Environmental Justice. They offer a standard for us to judge how we are meeting our responsibilities to Flint, to one another and to the earth.

These Principles were crafted at the People of Color Environmental leadership Summit in 1991 “to build a national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities,” and to “re-establish our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth.”

Among the 17 principles are these:

  • Environmental justice demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, free from any form of discrimination or bias.
  • Environmental justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.
  • Environmental justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.
  • Environmental justice protects the right of victims of environmental injustice to receive full compensation and reparations for damages as well as quality health care.
  • Environmental justice considers governmental acts of environmental injustice a violation of international law, the Universal Declaration On Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on Genocide.
  • Environmental justice calls for the education of present and future generations which emphasizes social and environmental issues, based on our experience and an appreciation of our diverse cultural perspectives.


Governor Snyder, his appointed administrators, and the State Legislature violated these core principles. We have a long way to go to establish justice.

Diminished capacity By Shea Howell

Thinking for Ourselves

By Shea Howell

Diminished capacity

March 22, 016

shea25On the eve of World Water Day, Governor Rick Snyder released his new “action plan designed to ensure Flint’s recovery and strong future.” The banner heading of the plan repeats Snyder’s slogan “Getting it right. Getting it done.”

Designed by public relations experts and vetted by lawyers, the plan is intended to show everyone that Snyder is continuing his positive, relentless action. It is also designed to focus attention away from the causes of the catastrophe in Flint and to shift the blame to federal levels.

This plan reflects the moral failures of Governor Snyder, his administration and all those who support him. Ever since he was forced to acknowledge a crisis in Flint, Governor Snyder has failed to understand the human consequences of his own arrogance and indifference. He has half stepped, tried to deflect blame, accused others of failures, distorted his own role, and been reluctant to release all information necessary to uncover the full degree of complicity, complacency and duplicity in this disaster. His latest plan reflects a complete lack of simple human empathy, a diminished capacity for understanding.

Snyder’s distorted view of this human tragedy is expressed in his first point. It reads “Children under 6 with high blood lead levels offered professional support and case management.”

Let us be clear. Every child in Flint has been traumatized by what has happened to their community. Every adult has been traumatized. Every animal, plant, garden, building, road, school, and sidewalk has been poisoned and carries the scars of this tragedy. Every bone in every body for now and future generations will carry some measure of the terrors and pain people have endured.

Governor Snyder sees none of this. He chooses to say some children, who test at some level, for one substance, will be “offered” support.

This kind of small spirited and weak minded response is exactly why Snyder should resign. It is why the Federal Government needs to declare a Public Health Emergency in Flint. It is why we need to support Mayor Weaver and the local activists who are calling for broad support and a truly comprehensive response to the crisis they face.

While Snyder’s pathetic attempt to respond works its way through the media, activists and community members gathered to support efforts by the State legislators to advance a package of bills designed to insure water is a human right in Michigan and make our water, safe, affordable and accessible to all. The Republican Committee Chairperson, Lee Chatfield, is keeping this package of 11 bills from a public hearing.

Moving these bills toward law is a crucial step. But equally important is moving to remove Emergency Management legislation. Even Governor Snyder conceded that “it would be a fair conclusion” to say that Michigan’s emergency manger law failed in Flint.

It is time we act out of fairness and love for one another. Small steps, with even more narrowly devised guidelines designed to save money diminish us all.

Here is the contact information for Representative Lee Chatfield:

S-1486 House Office Building

P.O. Box 30014

Lansing, MI 48909

Phone: 517-373-2629


Rhodes as Emergency Manager By Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves

By Shea Howell

Rhodes as Emergency Manager

March 6, 2016

shea25Governor Snyder has appointed Judge Steven Rhodes as the 5th Emergency Manger of Detroit Public Schools. Judge Rhodes presided over the Detroit Bankruptcy hearing and gained widespread support from Snyder and the corporate elite for his handling of the case. Snyder hopes that Rhodes will be able to influence the State Legislature to acknowledge their obligation to step up and pay $515 million debt to put the district back on sound financial grounds.

This appointment is a desperate measure by Snyder. It is an attempt to shift the public conversation away from the failures of Emergency Management legislation. It is an effort to use that legislation to further undermine public education and destroy the power of teachers and the unions that protect them in their efforts to protect and educate our children.

Emergency Managers have become so toxic in Michigan since the poisoning of Flint’s water supply that Judge Rhodes doesn’t event want the title. He said, “I told the governor that I was not going to be just another emergency manager. This is (about the) transition to local control.” Rhodes wants to be called the “transition manager.” This is an empty gesture. Rhodes has all of the powers of the emergency manager, his authority comes from EM legislation, and he is collecting that salary.

He is an Emergency Manager. And he shares some of their worst characteristics. He combines ignorance with unchecked power. He openly admits he is unprepared to run a school system. He said to WDET as he assumed the powers of Emergency Manager,

“I told the governor when he approached me that I don’t know anything about academics or education or how to run a school system.”

Combining unchecked power with ignorance is why Emergency Managers destroyed the water systems in Highland Park and Flint, sold off public lands to private interests in Pontiac and Benton Harbor, and initiated massive water shut offs in Detroit. These actions not only violate basic human rights, they have cost lives and endangered public safety.

Now we are led to believe that someone who openly states he knows nothing about educational practices, academic development, or complex school systems should advise the state legislature, hire the next superintendent, and put in place the policies that will provide a “new” school board.

Judge Rhodes has already revealed his own complicity in the racial stereotyping and white supremist attitudes that undergird Emergency Management. This law depends upon the belief that people in urban centers, especially people of color and poor people, cannot govern ourselves. This law claims we are less capable of making decisions about our lives than our fellow citizens are just across the borders of Flint, Pontiac or Detroit. Rhodes shares this belief.

Rhodes talks about people as “stakeholders,” not citizens. He tells us we need to “reach out” to ensure “highly qualified candidates” who can be “trained” in how to be good school board members. He supports the proposed legislation that allows Snyder and Duggan to appoint most of the board. Real local control would not be fully restored for about a decade.

If Lansing pays the debts of DPS it will not be because of Judge Rhodes. It will be because some other Judge forces them to live up to their legal obligations.

Between now August, when the Judge says he will leave, little will have changed for our children. The abuse and neglect they are suffering at the hands of the Governor, the State Legislators and their appointed managers will continue. We, who care about our children and our future, need to open new spaces of love and learning in our communities. In this way we can claim our own power and responsibility for educating our children.



The State of Our City Shea Howell

Thinking For Ourselves
Shea Howell
The State of Our City
shea25Mayor Duggan gave his third State of the City address last week at the Second Ebenezer Church on Detroit’s East Side. He emphasized the progress he has made cutting crime and increasing police response times, tearing down blighted houses, encouraging businesses, and creating job programs for youth. He discussed his initiatives to cut car insurance and to add new technologies of surveillance. He announced his intentions to carve out a role for the Mayor in the Detroit Public School crisis and said he is encouraging the return of power to an elected school board.

 Most of the 2,000 folks in attendance cheered on as members of the audience stood to have their efforts acknowledged.  But for the first time in over 40 years, the speech was interrupted 4 times by protesters.

Mayor Duggan would do well to pay attention to those protests. They say more about the state of our city than all of the orchestrated cheering. These brave young people who stood up to question the Mayor and his “relentless, positive, action” deserve the thanks of all of us who are concerned about the growing racial divide and brutal inequalities we are facing.

It was their voices that raised the important questions we face. Unfurling a banner that read “Opportunity for who?” they challenged gentrification, water shut offs, disinvestment in education, and Duggan’s ties to Governor Snyder and his emergency managers.

“Many Detroiters – especially black Detroiters – aren’t experiencing the ‘revitalization’ of greater downtown,” said Dakarai Carter, an organizer from BYP100. “Millions of dollars are being invested there, while our neighborhoods deal with disinvestment resulting in a lack of community services and resources. We are disrupting business as usual because we know that cities thrive on democratic control and shared access to resources.”

The reality is that Duggan’s speech was almost exactly the same as the speech given by Mayor Dave Bing right before the onslaught of emergency management and bankruptcy in 2013. Bing, too, offered five key initiatives: cutting crime and increasing police, blight reduction, Detroit Works to grow demonstration areas to redevelop neighborhoods, improve public transportation, and encouraging entrepreneurs.

That is why Duggan is failing the city. The questions we face are not the same as those of the pre-emergency manager-bankruptcy era. To move down the same old path of promising the “best way to handle the problem is to grow the city,” is the kind of relentless positive non-thinking that brought us the crisis in Flint.

Mayor Duggan refuses to look at the basic question of how do we develop a city that includes all of our people? How do we create relationships that foster care, compassion, and joy for everyone?

These are not empty questions. Nor are they utopian thoughts. Since Duggan took office, citizens groups have offered clear advice: Put a moratorium on foreclosures. Stop the Water Shut Offs. Adopt a Water Affordability Plan. Adopt a community benefits agreement. Develop place-based education to encourage our young people to learn while rebuilding the city. Encourage land trusts and cooperative businesses.

Shortly after the State of the City, Former Mayor Dave Bing, who no doubt recognized much of the progress claimed by Duggan, offered some advice “As much as we say or think we are being inclusive, the reality is we are not. There is an undercurrent of frustration and anger that could lead to a negative outcome.”

Detroit is a movement city with a strong history of developing creative grass roots alternative ways of living and being. Duggan’s old thinking shows no sign of recognizing the depth of the challenges we face. He would do well to listen to our youth.

Who decides? By Shea Howell


Thinking for ourselves

By Shea Howell

Who decides?

February 21, 2016

The toxic water in Flint has vividly brought to light the toxic consequences of right wing republican thinking that government should be run like a business. It has also shown us something about the poisoning of our own thinking.

It took the poisoning of children to get the majority of people in America to recognize something profoundly ugly has been going on in Michigan. This is because our culture does not do well with complexity. We like our politicians loud, our heroes strong, our victims pure, and our villains beyond redemption. This tendency toward one dimensional characters and simple sound bites has been exploited by the corporate elite to obscure the realities of emergency management in the lives of people.

With Flint, suffering cannot be denied. It cannot be explained away by easy racial stereotypes. Lead laden water was knowingly allowed to flow into homes. It poisoned children, created a public health crisis, and possibly caused deaths.

In contrast, in Detroit, 91,000 households have experienced water shut offs thanks to the policies initiated by Emergency Manager Orr and continued by Mayor Duggan. More homes have been shut off from water in Detroit than have received poisoned water in Flint. Children, elders, pregnant women, high school kids, renters saddled with previous bills, and unscrupulous landlords have all been shut off from life giving water.

Yet this tragedy, condemned by the United Nations as a human rights abuse, has been intentionally complicated by corporate powers. They have suggested that people are choosing cable TV rather than paying water bills. They have suggested people just want free water. They have suggested that people need training programs to know how to balance budgets. They have suggested we have a culture that needs to be changed. The corporate elite have played on racial stereotypes and prejudices against people who are poor to justify a policy that is unthinkable in most advanced countries.

Until Flint the corporate elite pushed the primary principle of emergency management. It says, “People cannot be trusted to make decisions about what is best for them.” Economic theorist Jamie Peck explained this idea as central to “austerity” politics emerging globally. “Strict fiscal discipline and government spending cuts is the only way to restore budgetary integrity—thereby securing the confidence of the investor class, appeasing the jittery markets and paving the way to growth.”

We have all seen the application of this idea in Michigan as Emergency Managers moved into city after city to “discipline” the people by removing mayors, city councils and elected school boards. Then we watched decision after decision justified as “necessary.”

But in Flint, there is simply no excuse for poisoning babies. This act has brought us face to face with a policy that strips cities of their assets and turns public responsibilities into private profit. Every step along the way, people have suffered. School closings, loss of services, widespread layoffs, destruction of public parks, loss of basic access to transportation, have all been explained away. Often those who suffer the consequences of these choices have been blamed for them.

But Flint has put an end to all that. Children have been victimized. But Flint citizens are not victims. They are survivors. They are fighters. Their effort to organize, to document, to agitate, to challenge again and again the “truths” of the corporate elites ultimately brought this crisis to light. Flint strips away all the corporate efforts to claim emergency managers are necessary. But Detroit reminds us that we should not have to wait until babies die, to know that people, not technocrats, know what is best for themselves and their families.