[All photos by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog]
As lawmakers and other political movers and shakers in Michigan gathered together in the cozy warmth of Michigan’s State Capitol Building for Governor Snyder’s 2016 State of the State Address, over 500 protesters from around the state gathered in the frigid cold outside to demand substantive action by the state government to respond to the poisoning of Flint’s drinking water with the powerful neurotoxin lead. Though protesters chanted, “This is what democracy looks like,” the fact is that this is, in fact, NOT what democracy looks like. In fact, the human-caused catastrophe in Flint is the direct result of democracy being replaced by what is essentially a one-person dictatorship. Without the Emergency Manager laws – Public Acts 4 and 436 – none of this would have come to pass and the protest in Lansing last night would have been unnecessary.
The protest began with a press conference in front of Lansing City Hall. Michigan nurse Cheryl Weston started off, saying, “Today Gov. Snyder will have to face some of the people who he poisoned.”
Steve Dawes, an Assistant Director in UAW Region 1C, reminded the audience that one of the first things Republicans did when they swept into power in 2010 was to take $8 million a year in revenue sharing from Flint, making their perilous financial situation even more difficult. He talked about how labor unions have been working since last year to provide drinkable water to Flint residents, often going home to home to distribute it.
UAW Region 1C Assistant Director Steve Dawes
Ironically, as he spoke, staffers and interns for the Michigan Republican Party held a “bottled water drive” on the steps of the Capitol. They displayed a small pile of cases of bottled water, most purchased by the MRP from Walmart (of course). MRP Chair Ronna Romney-McDaniel was nowhere to be seen (of course), nor were any other of the MRP’s leadership (of course), leaving the interns and staffers to face the crowds of mocking protesters and try to stay warm (of course).
Walmart water purchased by the Michigan Republican Party for Flint in place of actual assistance and help
The UAW contributed a few bottles of water of their own
with labels saying “Refreshing Leaded Flint Water”
UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada took to the microphone and said, “What I don’t understand is how Gov. Snyder could go on Twitter and say this is not political issue. It IS a political issue!” She lauded the activists and people in the medical community who were “out there raising their voices when nobody would listen” and said that, through his actions (an inactions), Gov. Snyder had created “a whole bunch of new activists.”
Nayyirah Shariff, a Flint activist with the Flint Democracy Defense League, asked Gov. Snyder, “When are you going to lift executive immunity so that I can know who poisoned me?” She called Flint’s activists “Water Warriors” and said the Snyder’s four apologies had not stopped Flint’s residents from being abused. “We’re still receiving bills for poisoned water,” she said. “It was unchecked power that has poisoned our community.”
The final speaker was former Congressman and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer. He placed the blame for what has transpired in Flint directly on the shoulders of Gov. Snyder. “This reminds me of the Pottery Barn’s policy that ‘If you break it, you own it.’ Make no mistake,” Schauer said, “Gov. Snyder owns this.”
As the press conference came to an end around 6 p.m., protesters began marching across the street to the Capitol Building. Carrying signs and chanting, they surrounded the MRP staffers and interns who scrambled to move their small pile of bottled water as they were engulfed in the maelstrom.
For over an hour the protestors swarmed the front steps and lawn of the Capitol Building. Their chants could be heard inside the House chamber as Gov. Snyder took the stage to deliver his State of the State Address:
Here’s a bit of video I shot with my phone:
Gov. Snyder opened with a discussion of the crisis in Flint, spending nearly half of his 50-minute speech in contrite acceptance of his administration’s role in the debacle. He seemed to deflect blame from himself directly, instead claiming he was not informed of what was going happening. Looking and sounding as if he was on the verge of tears, Snyder told the residents of Flint, “I’m sorry and I will fix it. You did not create this crisis, and you do not deserve this.”
“Government failed you at the federal, state and local level,” Snyder said. “We need to make sure this never happens again in any Michigan city.” He said that Michiganders should be able to turn on their faucets and get clean, safe water any time.
In reviewing how Michigan, and Flint in particular, have arrived where we are today, Gov. Snyder completely skipped over the part where his Emergency Manager Darnell Earley made the unilateral decision to move to the Flint River for water in a cost-saving measure. While he (and far too many others) want to implicate Flint’s elected officials, the fact is (and it IS a fact), the Flint City Council NEVER once voted to move to Flint River water. That decision was made FOR them by the state under the “leadership” of the Emergency Manager. Period.
In his speech he outlined a series of steps he and his administration plan to take (via the Detroit Free Press):
- Ramping up the number of Michigan National Guard troops in Flint from fewer than 100 currently to about 200, with plans for the troops to staff water stations while the Red Cross and other volunteers complete visits to all of the city’s roughly 33,000 households this week.
- Appealing President Barack Obama’s refusal to declare a federal disaster in Flint when he declared a federal emergency there on Saturday. A federal disaster declaration, which is reserved for natural disasters, would make greater amounts of federal funding available.
- Asking the Legislature for a $28.5-million supplemental appropriation to cover immediate Flint needs, such as the cost of bottled water and filters and troops from the Michigan National Guard, which Snyder mobilized Jan. 12 after declaring a state of emergency on Jan. 5.
- Including in that appropriation about $2 million to support Flint utilities and stop any threatened shut-off of water customers, while the state and the city work on a broader plan to address the problem of Flint residents being billed for water they can’t drink.
- Also included is close to $1 million to increase the number of nurses and other health professionals in Flint-area schools and about $120,000 as a first step in expanding capacity at child and adolescent health centers.
- Expanding age eligibility for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) healthy nutrition program. Experts say good nutrition minimizes the impact of lead exposure.
- Testing and replacing faucets and other fixtures at schools and other public facilities that could be potential sources for the leaching of lead.
The testing of water in schools is particularly important because, as former Flint mayor Dayne Walling told me in my interview with him, they are exempt from federal testing requirements:
The biggest hidden problem is what’s happening in schools because the Safe Drinking Water Act does not require testing, I’ve now learned, in schools where the municipal water system is being tested. But, again, the problem is how the water interacts with the older lead and copper pipe systems. So, if you’re on Detroit water in a metropolitan Detroit community and you’re using water every day and it’s circulating through your system, then the test that those communities are publishing are probably representative of the risks. But if you’re a four-year old in a Headstart program in an older school building, the water in those pipes is not turning over every day, likely. It’s sitting there all weekend then kids are coming in and using the drinking fountain or filling a water bottle. Those risks are going undetected in Michigan. So there are a lot more safeguards that need to be put in place and then they have to be enforced by the State Department of Environmental Quality.
But let’s be clear, while we all agree that major infrastructure improvements need to be made in Flint, $28.5 million is barely a drop in the bucket. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who met with President Obama yesterday in Washington, D.C., estimates that over $1 billion will eventually be needed. Looking around the House chamber as Gov. Snyder gave his Address – particularly seeing tea party adherents like Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof sitting stone-faced behind the governor – it’s hard to imagine the current legislature voting to spend that sort of money. With nearly a half billion in Michigan’s Rainy Day Fund and another half billion surplus left over from last year, it’s hard to understand why less than 3% of that is being requested.
If Michigan Republicans can’t see that it’s not only raining in Flint but that they are in the middle of a veritable monsoon, residents of that city are in deep trouble.
Gov. Snyder also pledged to release all 2014-2015 emails to and from him regarding the Flint water catastrophe. This marks a major victory for the fine folks at Progress Michigan who have kept up a steady drumbeat of calls for this to happen. However, given that much of what led to the switch to the Flint River happened in 2013, we may not be getting the full story:
— Laura Packard (@lpackard) January 20, 2016
UPDATE: Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan released the following statement about Gov. Snyder’s releasing of some but not all of his emails related to the Flint water crisis:
While it’s a good first step for the Governor to release these emails, Progress Michigan remains committed to advocating for a complete repeal of the exemption for the Governor and legislature in our FOIA laws. It’s nice that now that the spotlight of national media is shining a light on Snyder’s failures that he decides to give lip service to transparency. We will continue to shine a spotlight on the Governor to encourage action and not just empty words.
Also, Gov. Snyder made clear this morning that the emails he’ll be releasing are his only and not those of other members of his administration.
We also have to remember that it’s not just Flint at issue here. Detroit Public Schools – which uncoincidentally are run by the same Emergency Manager that once ruled over Flint, Darnell Earley – are in a state of collapse that is unprecedented even for that beleaguered school system. “Detroit schools are in need of a transformational change,” Snyder said in his speech. “Let’s solve this problem and help the kids. The time to act is now and avoid court intervention.”
These are ironic words given that he and his Republican colleagues have been trying to create transformation in our state’s schools, and in Detroit in particular, by starving them of needed resources. Transformation, especially rapid transformation, requires investments and that seems to be the last thing that Michigan’s Republicans are interested in. They seem convinced that they can turn things around quickly and effectively by spending less, paying teachers less, using less qualified teachers, letting buildings and classrooms crumble around the teachers and students, using untested and unproven education gimmicks like the so-called “student-centered learning” practiced in the Education Achievement Authority, and by testing students more. It’s not just illogical, it’s 180° from what they actually need to be doing.
This is largely why nearly every Detroit school is closed today due to another teacher “sick out”. Teachers ARE sick; sick of trying to educate students in a deplorable teaching environment. If you need any proof, have a look at the photos in this article. It will break your heart.
Gov. Snyder, for all his emotion, faux or not, looked and sounded like a man who has no idea what he’s doing. His slavish adherence to the principle that “government should be run like a business” has him adrift with no anchor, utterly clueless as to why his leadership style is failing him so completely. It’s clear why: when a CEO takes charge of a corporation, he surrounds himself with people who tell him he’s doing everything right. They shield him from bad news and take whatever drastic steps are needed to keep the company profitable, closing down divisions, and making investments in successful ventures. When it comes to state government, it’s the bad news that the governor most needs to hear. He or she cannot simply jettison cities or schools that are struggling. When times are bad, it’s these struggling areas where investments are most critical.
Corporatism has proven to be a failed model in Michigan. From schools that educate our children to the jails that house our inmates and including our struggling urban centers, privatization, austerity, and profiteering have failed our state on every level. At the heart of Flint’s problems and Detroit Public Schools’ problems is Emergency Management; a takeover by the state that believed it could do things better. The verdict is now in: the state CANNOT do things better, at least not under our current “leadership”. When locally-elected officials are removed from the equation, accountability goes away and havoc and chaos ensue.
This is Michigan under the failed leadership of Governor Rick Snyder and, despite protest after protest after protest, this is decidedly NOT what democracy looks like.
One final note: Political analyst Bill Ballenger made statements over the course of the last week claiming that the Flint Water Crisis is “overstated” and basically a hoax:
“This has been a vastly overblown crisis, perpetuated by a lot of politicians with an axe to grind and, for that matter, the news media, and some national figures, some political, some entertainers who don’t know what their talking about,” Ballenger told WJR’s Frank Beckmann.
He said a full range of data has not yet become available on the seriousness of the impact of the contamination, discovered while the city was using the Flint River as a water source.
“I had my blood tested just yesterday, and I have no elevated blood-lead level. It’s way down there, and in fact,” Ballenger said.
“… The tests that have been taken in Flint so far show that a very small percentage of children had lead levels in their blood that is higher than what is tolerable… The idea that the entire population of Flint has been poisoned and that we all have elevated blood-levels because of this is just a total canard. It’s just a crock. And for this to be perpetuated as a story is doing a lot of damage to Flint as a community.”
Given how absurd these statements are, one wonders if perhaps the leaded Flint water has had more of an impact on Ballenger than he realizes.
Ballenger works for Inside Michigan Politics, a publication owned and operated by journalist Susan Demas. Demas issued this statement this morning indicating that Ballenger has been fired:
I have great respect for Bill Ballenger, who has continued to periodically contribute to Inside Michigan Politics after I bought the publication in 2013.
As you are aware, Bill’s comments Tuesday night on WKAR after the State of the State address regarding the seriousness of the Flint Water Crisis are indefensible. Bill had previously made public comments as a Flint resident and political analyst, but last night he was on “Off the Record” associated with IMP.
As I told Bill earlier Tuesday, he is entitled to his opinion, but not his own facts. And as the sole owner, editor and publisher of IMP, I alone speak for the publication and set its editorial direction.
Flint is a public health catastrophe, as the meticulous research of Virginia Tech and Hurley Medical Center Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha clearly shows. I cannot have anyone associated with Inside Michigan Politics who minimizes the impact of this terrible public health disaster that will impact people’s lives for decades to come. I am truly sorry to everyone hurt by Bill’s comments at a time of already considerable anxiety and pain.
So it is with a heavy heart that I am informing you that as of this morning, Bill Ballenger is not associated with Inside Michigan Politics in any way, shape or form.
Kudos to Demas for this move. It’s exactly the correct response.