Equipping nonprofits to advance social change

Emergency (Mis)Management and the Silencing of the Black Voice in American Democracy

Written by Noelia Mann

In mostly poor, mostly black areas of Flint and Detroit, children were poisoned with lead, parents were infected with (and killed by) Legionnaires' disease and schools were closed rather than having their leaky roofs, rodents and toxic black mold attended to … all just to save money. Due to the city’s financial crisis, and Michigan’s sweeping emergency management laws, state-appointed Emergency Manager Darnell Earley was put in charge, first of the city of Flint, and then of the Detroit public school system. We now know from media reports how catastrophic the decision was to switch Flint’s water supply from Detroit municipal water to cheaper water from the contaminated Flint River. Also in Detroit, teachers without other options have organized ‘sickouts’, in response to the repeated neglect by the same emergency manager.  But what has been less publicized in the dual crisis affecting Flint’s water and Detroit’s public school system, is the affront to democracy behind both catastrophes. Due to sweeping emergency management laws in Michigan, Mr. Earley has been put in a position of near total authority over local government, displacing democratically elected city officials, first in Flint and then in Detroit. In both cases, the emergency management system proves itself a prime example of the disruption and effective elimination of the democratic system of checks and balances. The state’s emergency management system doesn’t just silence the voice of the people, it has been implemented in a very targeted way that has led to some dramatic racial disparities. Flint proves that, in some cases, that silence can be deadly.

Flint, and the five other cities placed under emergency management during Gov. Rick Snyder’s term have a majority black population and largely suffer from poverty. Flint’s water crisis, the neglect of Detroit public schools, and the undermining of Michigan’s democratic system are therefore no coincidence. Rather, as Art Reyes of the Center for Popular Democracy says, they are “the result of decades of systemic disinvestment in poor” black cities and a long legacy of environmental racism, in which communities of color are exposed to greater environmental threats. Moreover, they are the results of a democracy that still does not equally recognize the value of a black voice (or a black life). Flint residents have been complaining (loudly and often) about their discolored and foul-tasting water ever since the switch in April 2014, but the media and political elites just started paying attention to the crisis a few months ago.

In the absence of satisfactory government response, the people of Flint are taking matters into their own hands. On Wednesday morning, the Detroit Free Press reported that “a coalition of activists filed a new action in federal court Wednesday morning, asking a judge to rule that Michigan has repeatedly violated the Safe Drinking Water Act and to order the state to quickly replace all lead service lines in Flint.” These community-based responses to the devastating results of an unelected official’s decisions attest to the influence of grassroots organizers. In a larger display of the power of movement building and organizing, the NAACP met with Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday to propose a ‘15 point priority plan’ to address the city’s water crisis.

The criminally mismanaged Flint water supply and Detroit public school system have become full-blown crises because of the state’s emergency management system. But active grassroots resistance proves, once again, that community organizing and movement building are the only antidotes to the reality of an American democracy that doesn’t just punish people for being poor and black, it poisons them.

Movement Building race