AS Michael Moore put it in Time magazine last week: “If it were happening in another country, we’d call it ethnic cleansing.” The filmmaker and activist was referring to the poisoning of his hometown, Flint, a relatively small town in Michigan.
The colour of the water that has been coming through Flint’s taps has been visualised in images across the internet. It ranges from yellow to brown, and dates back to 2014, when the predominantly African-American town’s water supply was switched from Lake Huron to the thoroughly contaminated Flint River.
It wasn’t so much the toxins in the river — a repository for effluent, not least from the depleted General Motors factory in town — that caused lead poisoning as the rusted pipes that yielded highly contaminated supplies as the consequence of a chemical reaction. It thus did not help matters much when the source was eventually switched back to Lake Huron last year, after an extended period of denial on the part of the authorities.
Federal and state emergencies in recent weeks have led to supplies of bottled water for Flint residents, but these will not last forever, and Moore makes a valid point when he accuses the Michigan governor, Rick Snyder, of ignoring initial complaints because they came from citizens who are unlikely to have voted for him in the first place, and argues that “this would not have happened in predominantly white Michigan cities like West Bloomfield, or Grosse Pointe, or Ann Arbor”.
Plenty of others have also made the point that when General Motors discovered its cars were corroding as a result of the riverine source, it was allowed to switch its water supply back to Lake Huron. Not so the ordinary residents of Flint, and up to 9,000 children are believed to have been poisoned. Intellectual retardation is one of the most obvious consequences, although there are far worse possibilities.
Moore was perhaps the first to suggest that Snyder’s calculated carelessness should lead to a prison sentence. That’s unlikely, but what’s clear is a pattern whereby the legitimate concerns of lesser citizens are overridden by the imperative to cut costs in the interests of neoliberal prerogatives.
A similar scenario unfolded in New Orleans more than a decade ago, when Hurricane Katrina stripped away the veneer of the great American illusion and laid bare the reality of racism in the heart of Louisiana. Further examples of this tendency will no doubt emerge in the years ahead.
It is all very well for Barack Obama to claim that he would be appalled if his children faced similar risks — just as he declared that Trayvon Martin, a victim of vigilante racism, could have been his son. Decent homilies, however, do not deliver the requisite change. That’s not the president’s fault, but it’s a measure of his impotence.
The race to pick his successor entered a new phase this week with the Iowa caucuses, shortly to be followed by the New Hampshire primaries. Even the early results were not available at the time of writing, but the process will begin to whittle down the field, especially on the Republican side, where there is still a fairly long line of contenders. Among Democrats, it’s more or less a straight contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Both have claimed to be appalled by the Flint debacle. Both also cast themselves as Obama’s heirs, which is interesting but not quite accurate in either case.
Sanders stirs more enthusiasm among younger voters, as Obama memorably did in 2008, but his outsider status is unlikely to stand him in good stead with the Democratic party hierarchy. Current polls suggest he would defeat Donald Trump or Ted Cruz by a bigger margin than Clinton, who is somewhat sullied by her stints as first lady and secretary of state. She remains, for the moment, the likeliest next president, although it will depend ultimately on whether the Republican side of politics can do any better than Trump or Cruz.
But however much any of them might militate against the egregious injustice in Flint, what the situation in Michigan ultimately comes down to is a contest between people and profits. And profits generally tend to win, especially if the people in question happen to be non-white, It’s just the American way.
Only Sanders, on the most optimistic projections, is likely to challenge the status quo in respects that really matter. His chances of securing the White House and delivering a shock to the system are dismal, though.
The poisoning of Flint’s water supply, distressing as it may be, is but a reflection of the long-standing contamination of America’s democracy. And those of us disinclined to contemplate the possibility of a Trump presidency should reflect on the fact that both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush served two terms each in the most powerful post in the world.
Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2016