Media Misses the Mark, Vote Theft at Core of Flint’s Problems
Three significant mainstream media outlets all published disclaimers this week, arguing that although the emergency managers appointed by Michigan Governor Snyder clearly made the ill-fated decisions to poison Flint with corrosive river water, and ignored the subsequent outcry from their victims for a year and a half, somehow – they conclude – Snyder’s unprecedented emergency manager statutes are not to blame! What’s really going on here?
The New York Times, which has previously called out Snyder’s “depraved indifference” toward Flint, editorialized on the role of emergency management in poisoning Flint’s water on February 4. “The lesson from Michigan is that emergency managers succeed only if they work with the communities they serve.”
On the same day, Bridge Magazine, in conjunction with an impressive time line of the Flint disaster, editorialized: “The suggestion that the state’s emergency financial management law itself led directly to lead poisoning in Flint children, is not supported by the public record.”
The next day in the News, Dan Calabrese, echoing the Times, gushes with premature praise for the supposed benefits to Detroit of emergency management via Kevyn Orr’s work.
The Times has the facts wrong. The emergency management statute itself (PA 436) prevents the EM from “work(ing) with” the communities they serve. Appointed by the governor with unrestricted power and no accountability, they are incapable of “serving” communities beyond Wall Street. Indeed, Flint’s serial EMs “work(ed) with” the opportunistic local elite leaders of the Karegnondi Water Authority to poison Flint by using the Flint River as a water source! The drain commissioner of Genesee County was and still is the CEO of the Karegnondi Water Authority.
Bridge Magazine also gets the facts wrong. Emergency management removes all local control and places all authority in the hands of an appointed person accountable only to the governor. The EM and the governor knew for a year that Flint water was not being properly treated. State office workers stationed in Flint had bottled water trucked in for their buildings. Because of the structural features of emergency management, the authorities did not care and did nothing for Flint until their own misconduct blew up in their faces, after independent activists, journalists and scientists decisively exposed their lies and abuse. Emergency management enabled both this unaccountable decision making and unconscionable delay.
Mr. Calabrese also gets the facts wrong. At best, the jury is still out on his Orr/Jones Day miracle of Detroit. His emphasis on “the revival of Midtown”, “people brokering downtown real estate”, and characterizing Detroit-without-emergency management as “a hopeless disaster” reveal his bias. As eminent historian Thomas Sugrue and virtually every other credible observer has repeatedly stated, the current downtown investment bubble will not by itself generate a broad, equitable or sustainable recovery for Detroit as a whole and our People. Today the overwhelming majority of Detroiters are like the People of Flint who were denied the bottled water trucked in to favored spaces for privileged People, like downtown Detroit. Detroiters still face horrifying crises of public education, water shut offs, housing foreclosures, inequitable community economic development and democracy-destroyed-by-corporate-finance. With regard to Detroit’s water, Orr and his investment banker partner Miller-Buckfire wanted to sell Detroit’s water department to Veolia, the largest private owner of water systems in the world. Intervention of public authorities across southeast Michigan prevented that sale, and, under pressure from federal bankruptcy court, created instead the Great Lakes Water Authority as a preferred mode of exercising corporate, white supremacist power over this crucial infrastructure and resource.
The EM law in Michigan is racist in its conception and form. With the majority of African Americans in our state under city emergency managers, the first EM statute was recalled by Michigan citizens in a 2012 referendum vote, with nearly every county in the state overwhelmingly rejecting it. A new EM law was passed again, this time by a lame duck legislature under dubious circumstances, with the addition of a small amount of money which rendered it immune from democratic accountability via another recall.
In a list of financially troubled communities published in 2009, there were white communities with more severe financial problems which were never placed under emergency management. The list of EM cities are overwhelmingly African-American majorities — Highland Park, Saginaw, Pontiac, and Benton Harbor as well as Flint and Detroit.
In 2013, Michigan’s Department of Education published a list of 55 financially troubled school districts that are overwhelmingly white; none had an EM appointed over them. In almost every situation, a string of EMs has worsened the situation of the city or school district under their control. The Detroit Public School System, overwhelmingly African-American, was originally taken over by the state when it had a budget surplus, and now has an insurmountable deficit. Emergency management has been applied to undermine the democratic and human rights of African-Americans, with no benefit to those communities; the benefactors are private companies acting parasitically on these communities.
The law supports and reinforces the institutional racism inherent in Michigan’s public institutions. Eliminating democracy and checks and balances is bad policy. The EM law is a bad law.
In light of the true facts and a realistic analysis of the power dynamics at work, the conclusion is clear: Emergency management caused the Flint River catastrophe, and one of the responses must be repeal of Snyder’s emergency management statute.