Hurricane Katrina’s disastrous assault in 2005 on New Orleans — where about two thousand inhabitants died in the storm and its resulting wave of flooding when the city’s protective levees broke as they waited in vain for action from federal government officials mired in bureaucracy — is one of the most devastating events in history.
The majority of those inhabitants were black and poor and could not afford transportation to escape the storm in the Gulf Coast. Many died, and those who survived are still haunted by the trauma.
Katrina’s onslaught revealed underlying attitudes and lack of concern for those with little or no political influence and also exposed a large, long-suffering underclass of citizens craving for the attention of government.
Ten years later, the state of Michigan under Gov. Rick Snyder has created its own Katrina with the Flint water crisis. Despite pleas from residents and health officials including researchers from Virginia Tech about high levels of lead in the city’s water, those warnings were ignored by the state. For 18 months, residents, including pregnant women and children, were forced to drink the lead-contaminated water.
The crisis in Flint has unveiled a large number of people who are far removed from the wealth, power and privilege that get the attention of the lawmakers in Lansing as well as Snyder and officials at the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Flint, like New Orleans, is a majority African-American city and mostly impoverished. And while few, if any, big political donors who can directly summon the governor and other state officials to act with all deliberate speed in cases like the water crisis reside in Flint, government should still exist not just to provide security for the people, but also to improve their living conditions and deal with them truthfully at all times. Flint did not get such attention from the state.
Could this be a factor of race and class? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Flint is around $24,000 as of 2013. About 40 percent of residents live in poverty in a city of 100,000 residents where 56 percent are black.
Democracy is not only about majority rule. It is also about protecting the rights of the minority. In this instance, Flint’s lack of political leverage in Lansing showed. As published emails of state officials now reveal, the state made no serious attempt to understand the destitution and suffering of the people of Flint.
It is difficult to imagine that such inaction would have taken place in affluent communities such as Grosse Pointe, Bloomfield Hills or Birmingham. Also, would the state have dragged its feet if relatives or children of state officials had been forced to drink contaminated water?
While in New Orleans bodies could be seen floating in the river during Katrina, in Flint it will take years before we know the effects of drinking the contaminated water.
“Human life should matter whether that life is encased in a black, brown or white package,” said Woodrow Stanley, a former state representative from Flint. “The fact is that Flint is a poor, blue color and black community. Sometimes that does not move the emotional needle to get things done in government as opposed to a rich suburban community.”
Stanley added, “You have the same dynamics at play in both Flint and Katrina in terms of government inertia. There is no doubt that there is a link between political disenfranchisement when it comes to communities of color and the kind of laissez-faire attitude we got from the state of Michigan regarding the water issue.”
Stanley is worried that, “We don’t have the tools to assess the cause and effect with the kind of precision needed to know how many lives are in danger. I don’t even believe for a minute that there will be follow-up to track down those children who drank lead poison as they grow up.”
Detroit attorney Bertram Marks, said he is particularly concerned that it was under Darnell Earley, the then-emergency manager of Flint, who approved the city’s withdrawal from the Detroit water system and began pumping the water from its contaminated river to its residents. Earley is now the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools system.
“The director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has resigned. How is it that the emergency manager who made the decision to switch from the Detroit water system to Flint is still employed by the state,” Marks asked. “This episode is an insult to African-Americans, poor people and to any citizen with even the slightest compassion.”
What is going on in Flint is like a historic trial where the verdict should establish once and for all that government should serve all of the people including those with little or no authority, little or no socioeconomic influence. To ignore the pleas of an entire demographic of people facing a damaging public health disaster is to basically say their lives do not matter in the eyes of the state. Their lives do matter and they should not be “blown off,” as Snyder’s former chief of staff Dennis Muchmore warned in a published email.
When I sat down with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver for her first interview after her election, she was upbeat and determined to succeed. She will need all the help to do so.
Meanwhile, we have an obligation to champion the cause of protecting the citizens of Flint by demanding answers about what truly happened in Lansing because, as Thomas Jefferson put it, the press is “the only tocsin of a nation.”
Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9 FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.