Thompson: Flint to get civil rights hearings

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

In the wake of the lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint, questions have been raised about how much race played in the state’s unbelievably slow response to the crisis and whether the civil rights of the city’s residents were violated after being exposed to unsafe water for 18 months.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission — an eight-member state body composed of Democrats, Republicans and independents — on April 28 will hold the first in a series of public hearings in Flint about the crisis in an effort to determine if racial bias and discrimination factored into the decision-making process.

The constitutionally mandated commission, which voted unanimously at its January meeting to conduct at least three public hearings, will hear testimonies about the public water system from Flint residents including its faith-based community. The first hearing will be at the Riverfront Banquet Center, 1 Riverfront Center West in Flint, beginning at 2:30 p.m.

“The people of Flint will be the focal point of the commission’s hearing. They will speak first, their testimonies will be sworn and others including representatives from various state departments and agencies will be there to hear their personal stories and learn of continuing unmet need,” said Arthur Horwitz, co-chairman of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.

“Aside from the important educational aspects of the hearings, the commission intends to act upon a report and recommendations that will be prepared by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and advanced to the governor’s office and the Legislature for consideration and action.”

According to Horwitz, the commission held public hearings in Flint 50 years ago focusing at the time on the disparate impact urban renewal initiatives and the highway construction was having on the black community there.

“In the course of its hearings, it found Flint to be rigidly segregated; many in its black community living in squalid conditions with no access to decent housing, business, financial, real estate, commercial and foundational leadership indifferent at best to their plight,” Horwitz said.

Agustin Arbulu, executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said: “In light of the numerous claims of the water crisis as a civil rights violation, this clearly falls within the purview of the MCRC.” He cited the Flint Water Advisory Task Force’s recent report as a clear example of environmental injustice.

Arbulu, an attorney, added: “The issue of greatest concern to the commission is whether or not racial bias, systemic racism or environmental injustice played a role in the evolution of the water crisis, the responses to it and mitigation of damages subsequent to the emergency orders been issued.”

The Flint hearings will not be the first time in recent memory that the commission has delved into issues of legitimate and heightened public interest. In 2006, it led hearings relative to the ballot initiative to ban affirmative action measures in public educational institutions called “Michigan Civil Rights Initiative,” or Proposal 2.

“The purpose of the 2006 hearings was only to gather information to determine whether or not fraud had occurred in gathering petition signatures,” Arbulu said. “The commission issued a report which was used in the court case as evidence of fraud in the petition gathering process.”

Quincy Murphy, a member of the Flint Charter Commission and an activist who has been recently leading recall efforts against Gov. Rick Snyder, said he plans to testify at the hearing.

“Anytime you can take state revenue sharing from a city with a declining tax base, job loss, school closing, high crime, dilapidated homes, abandoned buildings, closed grocery stores in predominantly black community, I would say race played a significant role,” Murphy said.

Former Republican state Rep. Mel Larson, of District 61 (which then covered Pontiac, Lake Orion, Oxford, Addison and Oakland Township), who together with the late Daisy Elliott, a Democrat from Detroit, co-sponsored the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976, said the hearings in Flint are crucial.

“There is a definite question of equal protection under the Constitution and the protection of civil rights in Flint,” Larsen said. “I think the commission wants to dig in to this issue because it is getting to be a universal problem.

“Even when you look at the Detroit Public Schools and the copper or lead in water in 19 schools, I think environmental justice needs to be looked into to see if there is a pattern of discrimination based on people living in urban areas and poor people.”


Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on Super Station 910 AM at noon Fridays. His column appears Thursdays.