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Flint, Beyond the Crisis

As national headlines fade, a community remains

To call what is happening in Flint, Michigan a “water crisis” feels both exact and not. I’m not sure there’s other language that is as definite, short, and sharp for what was a massive institutional failure on many levels, spanning several years. The story, well documented, is jarring: in April 2014, Flint changed its water source. The city switched from treated Detroit water, sourced from Lake Huron, to water sourced from the Flint River. Officials didn’t apply the necessary corrosion inhibitors to the water, which resulted in eventual lead contamination. Lead from old pipes filtered into the water supply leading to dangerously elevated levels. In short, the city’s water was poisoned. The percentage of Flint children under the age of five with elevated blood-lead levels shot up—from 2.5 percent in 2013 to 5 percent in 2015.

It’s vital that we look at a place as more than just the violence that has been done to it. The word “crisis” is a funny one, even when it most closely describes a situation. I hear “crisis” and I think of something that simply arrived, engineered by no one. Something that couldn’t be helped, though it turned the lives of everyone in its path upside down. I hear crisis and I think weather, some uncontrollable element, sweeping over a place and leaving nothing.

By 2002, the city of Flint had a deficit of $30 million. To help offset this financial emergency, in May of 2003, the city increased water and sewer bills by 11 percent. A part of the frustration in analyzing the institutional failures that lead to Flint’s ongoing water poisoning is that so many people in power, when given the opportunity to make choices that best cared for the people they were serving, actively chose to take an entirely different route.

This hurts for those of us who have been to Flint and know the inner parts of the city. Like many other large Midwestern cities, it runs on a balance of industry and white-collar jobs, sometimes in harmony with each other. I first came to love Flint through its incredible sports lineage, spending time there covering its basketball programs that, through the years, have fed Michigan State an amazing group of players, most notably through the early 2000s. Flint, even to an outsider, feels like a true community. People look you in the eye when they talk to you. People want to show you the city, with pride. Once, when I found myself lost at a gas station with a dying cell phone, inquiring about a map, someone in the store insisted that I just follow them to the place I was looking for, even though it seemed to be clearly out of their way.

It’s vital that we look at a place as more than just the violence that has been done to it.

When people talk about the gentleness of strangers that exists in the Midwest in a way it doesn’t exist in, say, New York City, a lot of that lives in Flint. The hovering element—the thing people often point to when describing these moments and these lives—is trust. It’s an enviable quality that I found when I spoke to and spent time with people in Flint, people who opened their doors and kitchens, who spoke to those they’d just met with the familiarity of kin.

Perhaps that is what makes what is going on in Flint more infuriating. Kind and vulnerable people, taken advantage of by a system that is supposed to protect them. That story is nothing new, and it’s echoing down through American politics as I type this. The story of Flint’s water crisis didn’t begin one month and end the next. It won’t end even when people finally believe it has ended. There are children who have been poisoned by their drinking water, and that will impact them their entire lives. Earlier this week, the city council in Flint agreed to give up its efforts to force thousands of residents to pay backdated water bills by imposing liens which would have allowed Flint’s government to claim their homes as collateral to cover the delinquencies. This feels like a victory, and in many ways it is. But to have to imagine being forced out of your home for not paying for that which is poisoning you and your loved ones is absurd in the first place. It is a moment that should have incited outrage at every level of government, instead of becoming a drawn-out legal action, centered money, and ultimately a decision to write off a community’s only available protest as a cost of doing business.

Flint is a place I have loved spending time in, and it is more than just what is happening to it.

A crisis doesn’t just arrive. Years from now, even after the year 2020, when the lead pipes are expected to be repaired, fixing the city’s water flow, the generational impact of the crisis will still be felt—physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially. When people lament the state of so-called “inner cities,” it’s often forgotten that they were carried to that state. When Flint’s water system is fixed, the city of Flint won’t wake up repaired. And there will be people in power, at the end of it all, looking at those still struggling in the city and shaking their heads, wondering how it got so far.

It is one of the stranger conditions of our time to know that there are fights happening over water. Over lead in the very water that flows into homes and works to keep people alive. Our memory of political action is short. I used to lament this but now, in the era of this presidency, I’m amazed that anyone can hang on to anything for more than a few minutes at a time before letting go and waiting to be grabbed by something else. Still, the work done by activists in Flint to keep the city’s water in the front of people’s minds is valuable. From longform blog posts to simple tweets reminding national audiences that this is a problem that didn’t end just because of a benefit concert or a successful run of donations. That the problem is institutional, and that it needs to be rooted out, with a better, longer-term plan in place to protect the people who haven’t left the city—who deserve a safe place to live and a government willing to serve them properly.

This is all mostly to say that Flint is a place I have loved spending time in, and it is more than just what is happening to it. Flint is where I got my ass kicked in five straight games of pickup basketball in a small high school gym and walked outside to be healed by the breeze. Flint is where I sat in a west side diner and messed around with a jukebox for forty-five minutes while a server patiently waited for me to get done. It’s where I found strong, brilliant, artistic, politically engaged people. People who surely deserve better, and people who surely deserve to not have their stories fade from our memory so quickly.