Black Flint Rising: After the fix, will injustice remain?

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FLINT, Mich. - "My fear is in two years, pipes will be fixed but all the injustices that brought this about will remain," declared Dawn Demps at a Friday night forum titled #BlackFlintRising, A Conversation about Flint's History of Racial Injustice and the City's Current Crisis.

The forum was organized by the Advancement Project, a multi-racial civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C. Demps was responding to the question "What is the fight beyond fixing pipes to move Flint forward?" posed by Advancement Project moderator Chelsea Fuller.

"We don't have resources, jobs or money; our lives are disvalued," said panelist Tim Abdul-Matin, outreach director of the M.A.D.E. (Money, Attitude, Direction, Education) Institute, adding that the city's poverty rate is 45 percent.

Demps, executive director of UPASS (Urban Center for Post-Secondary Access), said Flint is a "typical urban depressed, decayed area." She said lead poisoning hit hardest at those living in predominantly African American north Flint.

It's an area with no major grocery chains, no neighborhood schools, vacant homes, and toxic brownfields where many factories once stood. She noted the infant mortality rate is three times that of white neighborhoods.

These conditions are created by and amplify racism, Demps said. She noted that black and brown boys and girls are suspended from school three to four times more frequently than whites and punished more "intensely" for the same offenses.

High school student Lalani Clay said it was "scary" just learning that lead had been running through the pipes for two years. "We can't use the fountains at school," she said.

Outside her school conditions aren't any better: "The streets are all potholes," she said. "There's no streets, no schools, no jobs, why am I still here? Politicians making these decisions act as if we don't live here at all." She's proud to be a "Flintstone," as Flint residents call themselves, and would like to continue to live here, but worries if it's worth it. "Like a scary movie, when does it end?" she asked.

Jia Ireland, a student at the University of Michigan, Flint, talked of transportation issues. "Even in the land of GM (General Motors), people couldn't pick up water because they didn't have cars," Ireland said.

Mott Community College student Ellen Porter worried about the "school to prison pipeline." "It starts around the third grade. It needs to be stopped," she said.

Asked about the importance of participating in elections Clay said, "Your voice matters, your vote matters. Let your voice be heard and vote."

Demps had many ideas for moving Flint ahead, starting with education investment all the way through college, not justi Head Start, along with investing in infrastructure. "We need environmental justice," she said. "Flint has some of the largest 'brownfields' n the country. Buick and GM shut down and left a mess." She also called for getting power back from the city's un-elected emergency manager, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

Rep. Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) said the state's emergency manager law spoke to what many see as a huge contributing factor to Flint's current crisis, the rule by Gov. Snyder's appointed emergency manager, replacing elected officials of the city. Calling it an anti-American law, he continued, "We send soldiers abroad and we don't have democracy here. We need to push back. We need to ask Snyder and the whole team to go."

Bakari Sellers, former South Carolina state representative, representing presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and Nina Turner, former Ohio state representative, representing Bernie Sanders, addressed the crowd and vowed their respective candidate's support for solving the city's problems. Speaking of the two Democratic candidates Sellers noted the positive, that we now have "two 70-year-old white people calling out the criminal justice system."

John Rummel contributed to this article.

Photo: Tom Williams/AP