What Poisoned the People of Flint?
A Conscious Callous Policy of a Racist, Capitalist, GENOCIDAL System!

February 8, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Well, a few months after the switch, we had already noticed rashes on my kids’ arms, their backs, my face. And they were different, because you couldn’t put any kind of lotion or cream on it without it burning. It felt like straight-out chemical burns. And every once in a while, our water would turn bright blue or yellow, and we had no idea why. They kept telling us that the water was fine...

—Melissa Mays, Flint resident, water-safety activist
(Democracy Now!, December 17, 2015)

If you were to put something in a population to keep them down for generation and generations to come, it would be lead. It’s a well-known, potent neurotoxin. There’s tons of evidence on what lead does to a child, and it is one of the most damning things that you can do to a population. It drops your IQ, it affects your behavior, it’s been linked to criminality, it has multigenerational impacts. There is no safe level of lead in a child.

—Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha,
Flint pediatrician who spearheaded lead-testing of Flint children.

Flint, Michigan
Protesting outside of City Hall, January 8, 2016 (AP photo)

A wide range of people have spoken out on the poisoning the people of Flint. Here are a few examples...

Young Black man who spent time in Flint’s prison: You think people in prison are getting bottled water? You have to put on an orange suit to really understand. You are forced to drink that lead filled water; you are exposed to peeling paint with lead. You go in on something like retail fraud, waiting for a hearing, spend a year in there, and come out completely changed. Your brains don’t work, losing hair, rashes. And you get out and your kids who were nice kids are lashing out and angry. (interviewed by Revolution)

Environmental Activist Erin Brockovich: I can tell you that Flint, Michigan is the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “I can tell you for certain that this is a national crisis that we are not getting ready to face. The crisis is already here. Even since Flint has hit the national stage, we’ve found out that Sebring, Ohio has the same problem.... The same thing is happening in Louisiana. (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert)

Filmmaker Michael Moore: This is a racial killing. Flint MI is 60% black. When u knowingly poison a black city, u r committing a version of genocide. (Twitter)

Joyce Zhu, a doctoral student at Virginia Tech University, who went to collect samples at a Flint hospital: When I turned on the tap, you see this corrosive, reddish, brownish tap water... It’s that moment that made it so real.... I grew up in Singapore, where clean water, you take it for granted so much.” (New York Times)

A Flint resident: Water is one thing we need to live, as people, as human beings! (Interviewed by Revolution)

Protesting poison water in Flint, Michigan
February 3, 2016. Flint, Michigan residents on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing about the water in Flint. This woman is holding a bottle of tap water in one hand, and hair she says is from the drain in her shower in the other. (AP photo)

For more than 18 months (starting in April 2014), the state of Michigan poisoned the people of Flint, Michigan, with drinking water contaminated with lead (as well as other contaminants). Lead is a well-known neurotoxin that injures anyone exposed to it, and in particular causes permanent and irreversible brain damage to children. Lead levels in the tap water of some Flint homes are at twice the level of lead that is considered “toxic waste”—and this is the water that about 100,000 people, including 30,000 children, were forced to drink.

For 16 months, the state consciously covered this up—doctoring tests, slandering critics, and lying to people, telling them everything was all right.

Finally, starting in October 2015, in the face of angry protests by residents and of doctors and scientists who amassed damning evidence of this mass poisoning, officials could no longer ignore the crisis completely. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder began limited distribution of bottled water and filters, the city “advised” pregnant women and small children not to drink unfiltered tap water. Later they would admit that it was unsafe for anyone to drink or even wash with or bathe in it.

On January 14, 2016, Snyder wrote to President Obama asking him to declare a federal disaster and to provide almost $100 million for short-term emergency measures like providing residents of Flint with bottled water and water filters, and for additional nurses to provide care for injured children. Obama declared a federal emergency, authorizing FEMA aid efforts and pledging only $5 million in aid but declined to declare this a “major disaster,” which would provide more aid for a longer time. And none of this changes the permanent damage done to the children and people of Flint, and as of now, the water of Flint STILL has dangerously high levels of lead.

As this article goes to press, Congressional Democrats proposed allocating $600 million, which, if that amount gets through, would be enough to begin the absolutely necessary and urgent work of replacing all the service pipes in the Flint water system which are currently leaching lead into people’s tap water. But within days, as Republicans acted to block that, the Democrats were already slashing their proposal in half, and it is not at all clear that even the reduced amount will pass.

Poison Water... for People This System Has No Use For

People ask: What happened!? How could this happen? And how could it go on for so long without anyone doing anything about it?

For most of the 20th century, Flint was a booming center of the auto industry that was once a pillar of U.S. capitalism. Hundreds of thousands of people moved there from farms and sharecroppers’ plots in Appalachia, the South, and other parts of the U.S., as well as impoverished immigrants from Europe and elsewhere, to work in the many auto plants. In particular, Black people being driven from the land and fleeing Jim Crow in the South went to Flint and other industrial cities in the North.

Year in and year out, their labor produced billions of dollars in profits for the auto giants and the system as a whole—in the early ’70s General Motors’ (GM) corporate profits were about $2 billion a year.

But when global political and technological changes created the freedom—and the competitive necessity—to exploit desperately poor people in the Third World, most of the Flint operations were shut down. In the early ’70s GM employed 80,000 people there—over 10 percent of its worldwide workforce. Today it employs about 5,000, less than 2.5 percent of its global labor force.

In Flint, unemployment skyrocketed, the population dropped by half, the city tax base deteriorated, infrastructure crumbled, and crime rates soared.

The same system that squeezed so much wealth out of the people of Flint for half a century now has no use for them. Starting in 2011, the state actually took over the city government so that it could impose severe “cost-cutting measures” without any “interference” from residents. To get an idea of the viciousness of these cuts, consider this—the entire Flint school system, with 30,000 students, has exactly one school nurse.

In the logic of this system, which views everything from the standpoint of profitability and the “efficiency of capital,” why should the state be “burdened” with maintaining a decent life for people who it can no longer exploit?

So in April 2014, in order to save one to two million dollars a year, the state’s city manager switched Flint from the Detroit water system, which provided good water from Lake Huron, to temporarily using the Flint River as the water source. People in Flint were alarmed―the Flint River was an industrial dump for decades and notoriously polluted. Their protests were ignored.

Almost immediately, water came out of taps filthy and tasting foul. People were getting rashes, their hair was falling out, children were losing weight, developing anemia. Residents showed up en masse at city council meetings, bringing jugs of the vile water, but were assured it was “safe.” The then-mayor even pulled the stunt of drinking a cup of it on TV, as if the fact that he didn’t die on the spot somehow “proved” that the water was safe.

Think what it says about how this system looks at poor white and Black people, that when the authorities saw and smelled the foul swill coming out of people’s taps, and heard stories of sudden unexplained illnesses, their response was basically “stop your whining and drink it”!

And on a global scale, there are billions of people for whom capitalism-imperialism has no use except and unless they can be exploited in sweatshops, mines, or plantations. They work dangerous, unhealthy jobs, or survive by picking through garbage dumps and sleeping on the streets. And everywhere they are poisoned because of the workings of a system in which human life is worth nothing—from harmful chemicals at workplaces, pollutants in the air and water systems, pesticides in the fields, and other toxins that cause immediate and long-term harm and suffering.

A Genocidal Dimension

Black people, driven from their land in the South, fleeing the horrors of Jim Crow terror, worked the lowest paying, most dangerous jobs in the Flint auto plants. They were “last hired and first fired.” And today they are the hardest hit as those jobs have moved to other parts of the country and around the world, in search of the more viciously exploitable people.

Today 41 percent of people in Flint live below the poverty line and over 60 percent receive food stamps. And for the Black majority things are even worse, with higher unemployment, worse jobs, and worse housing, making the water crisis even harder to deal with. In Flint, as well as Detroit, the government has instituted particularly vicious cuts to essential services.

And nationwide, a genocidal agenda is in effect for Black people, with mass incarceration, police murder and brutality at the cutting edge. A system built in large part on the most vicious exploitation of Black people now finds millions of people for whom it has no use. All this is a critical dimension of what’s behind the poisoning of water in Flint, and the system’s callous response.

Lead poisoning from water and paint is epidemic in the United States and extreme in the Black community. A government study revealed that between 1999 and 2004, Black children were nearly three times more likely than white children to have highly elevated blood-lead levels, the type of lead poisoning where the most damaging health outcomes occur. In fact Freddie Gray, the unarmed man brutally murdered by Baltimore police on April 12, 2015, grew up in a neighborhood where more than three percent of children younger than six had high lead levels in their blood. And Freddie Gray himself was a victim of lead poisoning that may well have contributed to learning disabilities.

Who can look at this and not see the genocidal dimension and intentions?

The Cover-Up

We now know what was happening. Flint River water is highly corrosive—19 times as corrosive as Lake Huron water. Although it is possible to treat such water to make it safe, that would have cost about $36,000 a year and once again, the state thought that spending money on safe water for the people of Flint was a waste of money.

Many water systems, including Flint’s, use lead pipes and/or lead-soldered pipes. (This is itself a scandalous exposure of capitalism, since people have known for more than 50 years that even small amounts of lead are toxic.) These pipes are coated to keep the lead from getting into the water, but the corrosive river water damaged the pipes so that the lead began leaching in. The longer the water flowed, the more the pipes were damaged, the higher the lead levels soared.

But this truth was denied by those in authority. Every time evidence emerged that the water was dangerous, the state not only covered it up, they mocked and attacked those who exposed it.

A few months after the switch, GM told the city that one of its plants in Flint would stop using city water because it was corroding their engine parts! In spite of this, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) publicly insisted the water, unsafe for steel, was fine for human beings. At the same time, the state quietly allocated $400,000 to GM so it could pipe clean water into their plant.

In January 2015, the University of Michigan at Flint reported they had found high levels of lead in some of their drinking fountains. Partly in response to this, the state of Michigan spent thousands of dollars to have water coolers with clean water installed in the State Office Building in Flint... but continued to tell people in Flint that the water was fine.

In February 2015, testing done at the home of Lee Anne Walters showed lead levels of 104 parts per billion (ppb)—seven times the level that the federal Environmental Protection Agency considers acceptable. (In reality, experts agree that there is no “safe” level of lead in human drinking water.) Walters contacted Miguel Del Toral, an EPA expert, who discussed the results with others at the EPA.

Toral was alarmed not just by the high reading at Walters’ home, but by the fact that the state was using testing methods—in direct violation of EPA standards—which were guaranteed to give readings that were far lower than the actual lead levels in the tap water. Toral wrote that “I’m worried that the whole town may have much higher lead levels” than what the state was saying publicly. Toral’s memo was suppressed by the EPA—instead of making it public, or even just sending it to the MDEQ, EPA officials decided to have “behind-the-scenes” discussions of the issue, which would go on for another seven months while residents of Flint were being told their water was fine. The one action EPA did take was to order Toral not to have any more contact with Lee Anne Walters or other water activists.

“Behind-the-scenes” state officials displayed their utter contempt for the people of Flint. Angry residents were referred to as “hysterical,” activist groups were “anti-everything.” One email released by Governor Snyder’s office discusses a woman who says that a state nurse told her—in regard to her son having clinical lead poisoning—that “It is just a few IQ points.... It is not the end of the world.”

In March further testing of Walters’ home showed levels of 397 ppb, triple what it was in February. In response the authorities told her the problem was her home plumbing (which turned out to be a lie) and hooked up a garden hose from her neighbor’s house to provide her with “clean” water. At the same time a consultant group hired by the city issued a public report stating that Flint water met federal and state standards... without even giving a figure on lead levels.

Attacking Doctors and Scientists

As activists and ordinary people continued to protest and raise hell, sympathetic doctors and scientists started to get involved.

In September 2015, scientists and graduate students from Virginia Tech (VT) who specialize in lead testing released findings from tests in hundreds of Flint homes showing elevated lead levels. Readings varied from home to home depending on how much lead was in their service pipes to begin with and how badly the pipes had corroded, but in some cases lead levels were 13,000 ppb—almost 900 times higher than the EPA’s “safe” level.

These Virginia Tech scientists have been involved in exposing high lead levels in water systems around the country—in fact, what is happening in Flint is in many ways just the tip of the iceberg of a national lead poisoning crisis. This crisis is driven by the fact that for several decades the rulers of the U.S. have been cutting back on repairing and upgrading infrastructure like roads and bridges, water systems, and electrical grids so that they could keep taxes low. This was in turn driven by increasing competitiveness in the “globalized” world economy, where major blocs of capital are battling it out for domination—and for survival—against other big capitals.

The VT scientists are among many who have been sounding the alarm about the grave dangers involved in this. Rather than learning from their expertise—not to mention appreciating their courage—the MDEQ responded to the VT report on Flint by saying that these scientists specialized in “looking for high lead problems” across the country—meaning that these experts had also found high lead levels in a number of other cities around the U.S. “They pull that rabbit out of the hat everywhere they go. Nobody should be surprised when the rabbit comes out of the hat, even if they can’t figure out how it’s done.” (Michigan Live, “Flint Water Crisis: Key Figures,” November 11, 2015)

But this was no magic trick. Both scientific data and the experience of thousands of people proved that Flint water was not only unsafe to drink, but even to bathe or to wash dishes or clothes. The only thing it was safe for was flushing toilets!

The VT report was quickly followed by one from Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a local pediatrician, who led a team of people to test children and found that the number with dangerously high lead levels in their blood had doubled in the past year, and had tripled in some neighborhoods. The authorities mocked her study as well, claiming that they had more reliable data. (Months later the state would admit that Dr. Attisha’s figures were accurate.)

The Battle for Safe Water

Some of the more than 150 Flint, Michigan residents at a January 14 protest in Lansing against the government's role in the huge water crisis.
Flint residents at a January 14, 2016 protest in Lansing, Michigan. (AP photo)

Finally in October 2015―over a year after residents first raised the alarm―the state acknowledged that there might be some problem, and told people not to drink Flint water unless it was filtered or tested. But even then, THE STATE TOOK ONLY PALTRY MEASURES TO PROVIDE PEOPLE WITH FILTERS OR BOTTLED WATER.

  • People were forced to either scrape up the money to buy bottled water or filters, or to themselves drink, and give their children, poison. Residents already pay hundreds of dollars a month to the city for their poisoned water; now they would have to spend hundreds more for bottled water, often diverting cash from food, medicine, and other necessities. Thousands simply could not afford to do that and had no choice but to drink and give toxic water to their kids.
  • Flint’s immigrant community has been cut out of even the minimal government help. The first materials about the crisis were passed out in English only. When the government started passing out bottled water, they demanded IDs that undocumented immigrants don’t have. And in a climate of a war on immigrants—documented or not—many fear to open their doors to uniformed National Guard troops distributing water.
  • And in an obscene outrage, bottled water was distributed to guards in Flint jails, but the inmates—including pregnant women—were forced to drink tap water, while the guards held up their bottles of water and taunted them.

Through all of this, many ordinary people, activists, and churches launched crowdsourcing campaigns to fund free water distribution, and to help in other ways. Celebrities donated hundreds of thousands of dollars. Inner city youth from Chicago loaded up vans and drove to Flint to help. But the authorities who actually caused the problem did almost nothing, besides coming up with outrageous excuses for their criminality.

At the top levels, the city emergency manager, state officials, the governor, and the EPA are all pointing fingers at each other, when in fact they are all plainly complicit in this massive crime. Another tack is to argue about what was required under the letter of the law and what exactly were the applicable standards, in order to make this an issue of “confusion” rather than a conscious disregard for the lives of the people. For instance, the Detroit Free Press characterized officials from the MDEQ as saying that the kind of testing that would have revealed the lead contamination “isn’t required under federal drinking-water rules and has never been done in Michigan. What’s more,” MDEQ argued, “the Flint River water, treated in the city’s plant, was already approved as a backup supply in case of interrupted service from Detroit.”

In other words, faced with massive evidence that people were being poisoned, the authorities focused on proving that this contamination was legal under this system, and not on the fact that it was profoundly damaging thousands of lives.

What kind of system is unable to provide something as basic as safe drinking water to its own population? What can you say about a system, possessing wealth undreamed of by empires of old, which poisons children as a cost-cutting measure, and then takes such pitiful measures when their crimes are exposed? And what do you do with a system that cannot shut up about how great and powerful it is, but that lies and urges people to continue drinking poison in order to try to preserve people’s belief in their legitimacy? This is a system that needs to be gotten rid of through revolution, nothing less.

Get ready...


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