Flint looks for racial bias, water crisis link

Jacob Carah
Special to The Detroit News

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission held its first of three public hearings Thursday to determine whether racial discrimination and bias contributed to the Flint water crisis.

“I just want to come and hear from others, hear from my comrades, the people that are going through this too,” said Jonnie-Faye Townsend, a life-long resident of Flint’s north side.

“When you learn from, hear from other people that are suffering like you and going through what you are going through, you can get strong by banding together,” Townsend said.

Augustin Arbulu, director of the Department of Civil Rights, said he understands the public outcry and criticism for the commission’s decision to hold hearings two years into the crisis on the water contamination and the controversial emergency manager law, which some accuse of causing the problem.

“What ends up happening is like anything, the commission has to rise to their consciousness,” he said. “This is important and we want to do it right,” referring to the eight-member body established in the state constitution to investigate discrimination.

The commission voted unanimously in January to conduct public hearings.

Clarissa Camez testified on health effects suffered by her and her partner.

“Older folks in this community are not getting tested for lead and the effects of lead,” she said. Often, older residents who are home-bound don’t have access to aid.

“When we went to the doctor to try and address these issues, we were told we couldn’t be tested because we have Medicaid,” she said. “And Medicaid coverage won’t pay for testing for adults, I think that’s age discrimination.”

Local attorney Edward Hoort, executive director for the Center for Civil Justice, said he is concerned by the limited range of language services for information.

Most of “the critical services and literature is only available in English,” he said.

Hoort said some Realtors “are refusing to list homes in the city,” expressing a worry that homeowners’ investments are being damaged by the crisis.

Tony Palladeno Jr., born and raised on the east side of the city and a local activist, demonstrated Flint’s ongoing hardship to the commission.

“If I may just hand this to one of you,” he said, raising a package of bottled water, now common in residents’ homes. “That is one meal in the city of Flint. Please, please feel this.”

As he urged members to pick up the water and “feel the weight,” some struggled to comply.

“It’s been hard, it’s been very hard,” he said. “We need a place where we can go to bathe safely, but also to enjoy water again. We need a safe place to go in this community, where we can tell our tales to each other, where we maybe need to cry a little bit and more importantly, laugh a little bit.”

Palladeno said he was moved to tears on a trip to Washington, D.C., with other activists recently for the congressional hearings.

His bus stopped at an Ohio rest stop. He bent down to a drinking fountain.

“I thought, man we haven’t been able to do this for nearly two years,” he said.