Thinking for Ourselves
By Shea Howell
Flint and Silence
January 10, 2015
Almost everyone knows of the criminal activities of Michigan Governor Snyder. His administration was well aware of lead contamination in the Flint water system. Yet they did nothing to remedy the situation. Worse, they actively told people to “relax” and drink the water. They labeled critics in the EPA “rogue” and denied the scientific evidence presented to them. The consequences of these actions cannot be fixed. Lead, especially in the bodies of small children, does damage that will last their lifetimes.
Calls to jail Snyder are being fueled by a host of progressive organizations as the extent of his evasion of responsibilities comes to light.
This week NBC News obtained emails showing that Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, was “frustrated by the water issue in Flint.” Muchmore wrote to an unnamed person in the health department, “These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us.”
At the core of this disaster is the destruction of the public sphere and our sense of connection to each other. Long before the official recognition of a “crisis” some officials inside GM recognized that their machines and tools were being corroded by the new water source. They stopped using it. Yet they were silent. Officials inside UM-Flint started using bottled water. Yet they were silent. Companies throughout the city adjusted to other water sources. Yet they were silent. Churches were given water filters, on the condition of silence.
All along the way, people with the ability to protect themselves and their businesses did so. Few lent their voice, authority, or resources to challenge the state or its policies. They did not feel connected to or responsible for the people living in the communities they share.
This profound sense of separateness and isolation is encouraged by a republican ideology that fosters selfish individualism. The “every person for themselves” mentality that is woven into Republican thinking is now normal for most Americans. So people did what they could to protect themselves. They didn’t think about their neighbors, many of whom are poorer and darker.
A lot of us need to ask some hard questions not only of governor Snyder, but of ourselves. Where were we when people in Flint organized to tell their stories of problems with their drinking water? Where were we when courageous lawyers and city council members challenged emergency managers? Where were we when people organized caravans of water from Detroit to Flint? Where were we when people marched from Detroit to Flint to Lansing to bring attention to the plight of people facing water shut offs and poisoned water?
Over the next few weeks, people will be celebrating Martin Luther King’s legacy. Many will tell themselves, they would have stood with King if they had been around then. But if they did not stand with the people of Flint, if they are not now calling for the criminal prosecution of Governor Snyder, they would never have had the courage to walk down a road with Dr. King. His fundamental challenge to us is to “break the silence.”