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Standing with Flint for Water Rights

January 2016

We have been horrified by the poisoning of the water supply of the residents of Flint, Michigan, a predominantly Black community.  As part of alliances such as the Climate Justice Alliance, and through our work accompanying Global South social movements, Grassroots International understands this issue as part of the struggle against racism and for the human right to clean water around the country and around the world.  We are moved by the statement of solidarity below by the South by Southwest Experiment, a project connecting grassroots communities in the US South and Southwest, and invite you to share it broadly.

We Are All Flint
South by Southwest Experiment
January, 2016

In Flint, Michigan children … and their families, too … have been systematically poisoned by water adulterated with high levels of lead as the result of the state’s gross negligence and wanton disregard of the health, safety and welfare of the people.

The overseer of Flint, a state Emergency Manager appointed by the Governor to manage the city and acting under this authority, made the determination to cut the city budget by changing the source of water from Detroit to a local river. The state’s manager made this shift in the water source apparently without regard and indifferent to the corrosive impact that the acidic river had on the pipes that began to deliver lead-permeated water to the trusting, unsuspecting local families of Flint. Local residents drank it, bathed in it, cooked with it, brushed their teeth with it, and now they are suffering serious nerve, brain, skin and other maladies that are caused by lead poisoning and other adulterating elements in the water.

Having caused the problem in the first place, the Governor and manager moved way too slowly and with a negligible sense of urgency to address this calamity until the Flint Mayor declared an emergency and the gross errors in judgment by the state became a national embarrassment on the national nightly news.

We are grassroots community and labor organizations that work for environmental justice, effective public education, living wages and fair working conditions, just development policies and accountable governance. Our constituencies are people of low-wealth. Our communities are made up of African-descendent, Latino and Indigenous people in the U.S. South and Southwest.

We are appalled! Flint, Michigan is a city with a majority of African-descendent people, and one that has suffered from corporate disinvestment that has left over forty percent of the city’s residents living in poverty.

We note that, over the past decade and more, Michigan’s answer to poverty and accompanying fiscal crises in communities subjected to corporate disinvestment has been the imposition of autocratic rule on those communities by the State Government. Like several other predominantly Black cities in Michigan, Flint residents were subjected to undemocratic, authoritarian rule by an Emergency Manager appointed by and directly accountable to Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder.

It was within the context of that regime that the decision was made – ostensibly in the name of saving money – to make the Flint River the source of the city’s municipal water delivered to homes, public spaces and businesses. Since that time in April of 2014, Flint residents have been exposed to heavy metals including high concentrations of lead, volatile organic compounds, and bacteria delivered to them via their public water.

Following many months of increasing public concern and, finally, the declaration of a State of Emergency by the new Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, Governor Snyder responded by firing his head of Environmental Quality, issuing an apology, appealing to the federal government, and attempting to spread the blame on the state bureaucracy.

Mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, grandparents, sisters and brothers wonder what the Governor, the State of Michigan and now, the Federal Government will propose to do to alleviate the infrastructure crisis in Flint and the long-term human damage that has resulted. Governor Snyder and his administration bear direct responsibility for both. Indeed, the Governor and others face the specter that they could be found criminally negligent in this matter.

There is another critical question: How do we address the infrastructure crisis throughout the United States? As in Flint, this issue disproportionately burdens communities of people of color and of low-wealth. This is not simply a question of failure of public investment. It reflects a deep structural problem that threatens to create future public health disasters.

The deeper message of Flint goes beyond the dangers of human error or even negligence, and beyond the actions of state governments that would facilitate the impoverishment of our people. It is about a crisis in the U.S. that threatens the lives and well-being of a growing majority of the population.

The neoliberal model of development that underlies the strategic political policies in Michigan that led to this crisis has as its cornerstone the privatization of public resources and public services. This model is supported by both major political parties and bankrolled by those who have accumulated tremendous wealth at the direct expense of people of color and of low-wealth.

It is a mode of development that is rooted in the systematic undermining of the right to democratic participation by limiting the capacity of local people to impact the formation and implementation of public policy … whether in Flint, across the US, or in other parts of the world. The same forces that have made the Flint disaster possible are the same ones that are bent on privatizing public water supplies and preventing a just resolution to the growing world climate disaster.

We stand in solidarity with the people of Flint, who are on the frontlines of the struggle for democracy. We share their struggle for democracy and for a transition to a just society that more fully values human life and development.

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