Flint water protest at “state of state” brands Snyder a “criminal”

LANSING, Mich. – A fresh layer of snow greeted residents of Flint on Tuesday as they stepped off their chartered buses in downtown Lansing. They were heading to the Capitol building where Governor Rick Snyder was T-minus two hours from delivering his state of the state address. They were determined to have their voices heard: The state of the state is not strong.

In 2012 Snyder signed Public Act 436, essentially removing Flint’s democratically elected government and replacing it with a dictatorial state-controlled “emergency manager.” Snyder’s hand-picked dictator had the power to make life or death decisions, a power he would eventually use to come down on the side of death. (In addition to the lead poisoning of the city, at least a dozen deaths have been attributed to related bacteriological poisoning from the polluted Flint River water.)

Flint’s “emergency manager” Darnell Earley had ruled that the people of Flint should drink the water of the polluted Flint River rather than continuing to drink the water of Lake Huron that had been pumped into their city by way of Detroit.

He forced the population to drink the poisoned water because, he said, it would save the city of Flint $5 million over two years. The mass lead poisoning of a city and the death that have followed are part of a story now known around the world.

Jessica Owens was born in Flint and she rode on a bus with hundreds of others from Flint to Lansing. She is a mother of an eight-year-old boy, one of the 8,000 children in the city of Flint whose futures are now uncertain. She showed me a baby bottle filled with frozen water from her tap. On the bottom was an aggregation of brown material.

“This came from my tap, and my water tested at an 11,” she told me. That’s eleven parts per billion. The EPA says that homes with lead levels at 15ppb are at “high risk” and anything above 5ppb is of concern.

“I’m too nervous to even bathe him,” she said. “Is he going to have problems? I’m in the process of getting his blood re-tested. The last one came back at a 3.”

The lead concentration in her son’s blood, she said, was lower than some of the other tests she had seen.

Doctors have indicated, however, that test results today may not indicate anything about lead poisoning that may have occurred months ago, and that any lead in the blood, especially the blood of a child, is cause for concern. The half-life of the element lead causes it to dissipate quickly but the damage it does to human minds is permanent and irreversible.

Owens says the whole administration is to blame, from Snyder on down.

“With his pen stroke, with the emergency manager law, he poisoned 100,000 people. I hold all of them accountable. This is what happens when profits take precedence over people.”

The trip from Flint to Lansing took an hour. The bus was filled with people desperate to have their voices heard. Some had taken time off from work, and many were retired. Even though there was a heavy union presence at the capitol building protest (The UAW’s famous sit down strikes took place in Flint 80 years ago), the majority of people I spoke to on the bus were new to activism.

“We want water, shut it down”

The first stop after getting off the buses was a rally at a space across from the Capitol where several public figures spoke passionately about the crisis. Vice President of the UAW, Cindy Estrada, was on hand to call out the governor, saying:

“What I don’t understand is how this governor can make a comment on Twitter saying that people are ‘politicizing’ this issue. Our kids are being poisoned because they’re not paying attention; they only pay attention to cutting costs instead of looking out for our children and our elders. I say this is a political issue.”

Former Congressman and Rick Snyder’s 2014 Democratic challenger for the governorship, Mark Schauer, said, “Gov. Snyder, your administration owns this man-made disaster.” Shouts from the crowd proclaimed verdicts of “guilty” and “criminal.”

After Schauer’s speech, order was politely set aside and those who had been gathered around to listen to speakers joined the rest of their brothers and sisters who had already staked  out spots on the Capitol steps.

The people gathered at the foot of the Capitol and slowly, cautiously moved their way up the steps with the UAW, the Teamsters, and Black Lives Matter leading the way. Eventually, they got right up to the doors of the building and chanted. Police stood just on the other side behind windows, their eyes averted.

As the sun set and the governor’s state of the state speech grew nearer, groups of protestors split off from the crowd at the front to attempt to find alternative ways into the building. At one point, every entrance to the Michigan Capitol had a group of at least 30 people singing and chanting, demanding to be let into the building where their elected leaders meet.

Once the Governor’s speech began, those familiar with the layout of the Capitol led those who were not as familiar to spots they considered most likely to allow for their message to  be heard inside the chamber. They did a good job. If you listen carefully to the televised speech you can hear the cry of the crowds.

Sorry, not sorry?

As for the speech itself, Gov. Snyder seemed to take a modicum of responsibility saying that he would release all his emails having to do with the water crisis in Flint. That being said, he managed to spread the blame around in a conspicuously ideological way.

“Government failed you –  federal, state, and local leaders – by breaking the trust you put in us. I’m sorry most of all that I let you down.”

Critics have called into question two-thirds of that statement saying that Snyder’s emergency managers make local leaders powerless and that it took Snyder three months to seek federal assistance, only securing it a week before the speech.

The governor announced plans to release all emails having to do with the Flint water crisis from 2014 and 2015. No word about the emails from 2013, the year the emergency manager was installed, the year democracy was destroyed in Flint.

Nayyiraa Shariff, with the Flint Democracy Defense League and the Coalition for Clean Water was less than impressed with the governor’s moves.

“How he’s handling this emergency is piss-poor. He’s rationing out water that people have to ‘show their papers’ for,  people without state ID have to wait. Right now we have people who still need water, we have to replace our infrastructure, and we really have to repeal Public Act 436 because that created the Flint water crisis in the first place.”

As she spoke the water in Flint is still not safe to drink.

Photo: Earchiel Johnson and Patrick J. Foote/PW   |   Follow @peoplesworld_action on Instagram for our on-the-ground coverage. And check out our Facebook page


Patrick J. Foote
Patrick J. Foote

Patrick Foote writes occasionally for People's World. At the University of Central Florida, he worked with the Student Labor Action Project organizing around the intersection of student and worker issues. He would go on to work in the labor movement in such organizations as Central Florida Jobs with Justice, AFSCME Council 79, and OUR Walmart.