Flint, Poisoned Water and Systemic Criminality

Image of protesters in Flint, MI drawing attention to the water crisis
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Image of protesters in Flint, MI drawing attention to the water crisis

On January 16, 2016 Michigan Governor Rick Snyder delivered his annual “State of the State” address. In that speech the Governor struck an almost apologetic tone over the water crisis in Flint. He said that it is “now time to tell the truth about what we have done.” He went on to say “the government has failed you.” But the Governor’s feigned contrition is wholly disingenuous. Snyder’s suggestion that some officials made “mistakes” which led to the lead poisoning of public water supplies was a gross understatement.

The Governor claimed to know nothing about the period between April 2014 when his appointed emergency manager for the city of Flint began using water from the polluted Flint River as a cost-cutting tool, and September 2015 when he says he got his first glimmer that something might be wrong. Apparently, supplying an entire city with lead-polluted water was an insufficient warning in and of itself.

Image of a person drinking polluted water

He forgot to mention the thousands of complaints from Flint residents that the water had a disgusting smell, a brownish color and a terrible taste. He wants us to believe that he was totally unaware of widespread reports of sickness and rashes in Flint. He seemed not to notice the “boil only” warning issued by city officials. He ignored the fact that the Hurley Medical Center found alarming levels of lead in blood samples taken from children in the city. So it was not until September 2015 that the water crisis in Flint came to Snyder’s attention as a result of an email from his chief of staff. Surely, even in Michigan, misfeasance in public office is an indictable offense.

The poisoning of Flint should come as no surprise. It is merely the latest atrocity committed by conservative and neoliberal politicians conspiring with the corporate and business interests that have ravaged Michigan. In 2013-2014 Detroit was eviscerated by bankruptcy. Guaranteed retirements for former city workers were slashed. Public employees had their health benefits savaged. Publicly owned city assets were privatized for corporate profit, including Detroit’s public water system. Water prices skyrocketed in Detroit, Flint, and other Michigan cities and urban residents were confronted with mass shutoffs of water service. Corporate bond holders and their political stooges seized and profited from public assets built with everyone’s taxes and destroy the living wages and benefits of public employees. Federal and state governments have slashed funding for municipal governments and forced cities to live on bonds issued by banks which create a mountain of local debt and destroy democratic governance by passing local decision making to financial corporations. The privatization of public space for corporate profit has resulted in the arrests and jailing of thousands of urban youth for minor infractions. But the banks and the politicians who cut off supplies of clean water and electricity which result in death by disease, fire, and neglect are legally indemnified from those murders.

Image of Flint sitdown strike

Flint Michigan is the poster-child for the crimes of capitalism. In 1960, Flint had one of the highest per capita incomes in the United States. Those incomes were the direct result of the strikes and protests of autoworkers that forced General Motors to unionize.

But corporate power abetted by political corporate servants destroyed all of that. General Motors reduced the number of jobs in Flint from 80,000 to 5,000. It shut down and then tore down the manufacturing plants, all while demanding huge tax cuts and corporate welfare. GM as well as the state and the federal government shut the plants and cut wages in half. The state and federal governments granted legal immunity to GM for the production of defective vehicles (which GM had become very good at producing) and environmental crimes resulting from GM’s operations. Since then GM has made billions in profits, none of which benefited the people of Flint. Instead those profits were used for stock buybacks and dividend payments to the company’s largest shareholders.

So, in 2016 autoworkers in Flint and Detroit cannot afford the cars they build. The schools have overcrowded classrooms, vermin-infested buildings, and no heat, while teachers’ pay and benefits are slashed. The very government that could find untold billions to bailout Wall Street banks and brokers can find only $5 million to aid to the poisoned residents of Flint.

Flint, New Orleans, Detroit, and other cities suffer disaster after disaster because we tolerate an economic and political system which places private profit over the needs of its citizens. It is unconscionable that anyone in the United States should go without clean water, clean air, health care, education, housing, or a living wage. But such is the state of a dying, desperate, failing economic system. And such is the battleground on which that system much be confronted and consigned to the dustbin of history.

Gary W. Potter, PhD
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University.

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