News & Politics

The Big Lesson From Flint: Resistance Is NOT Futile

Especially if you keep at it for a long time.

Photo Credit: Art_Photo/Shutterstock

Few topics in recent memory have generated as much attention from the mainstream and alternative media as Flint’s water crisis.  Not surprisingly, the right wing press has barely covered it at all.

Is there anything about the water crisis that hasn’t already been said?  I think so.  

Our daily selection of the problems and crises intrinsic to late-stage race-based-capitalism is presented by a highly evolved very well oiled media machine.  It is designed to chop anything and everything into isolated,  bite-sized pieces.

Most of what happens is breathlessly presented as though it is brand spanking new and a thing all by itself.  This is not conducive to helping US Americans see and understand patterns and connections.   

For example,  it may come as a surprise to Rachel Maddow or the New York Times,  but in the annals of institutional white racism,  the mass poisoning of people of color has happened before.  

In Flint,  white power poisoned the populace by “accident.”  Protracted water contamination resulted from a convergence of acts of omission,  commission and cover-up by many actors with a variety of mostly malicious agendas.  

But Flint is only one kind of mass poisoning scenario.  When white power introduced alcohol and smallpox to Native American communities they did so quite deliberately.  That established a precedent that showed up more than a century later in Viet Nam,  Laos and Cambodia.  To this day birth defects still occur as a result of millions of tons of the chemical weapon Agent Orange that were dropped on those three countries.  

The line between intentional and “accidental” is not as a solid as you might think.  As has been pointed out regarding Flint,  terrorists of various stripes are known to have called for poisoning water supplies as a tactic.  In that context, a 2012 editorial by Detroit News Editor Nolan Finley,  Michigan’s white supremacy spokesman in chief,  is worth noting.  His nasty little “tongue-in-cheek” editorial is headlined,  Michigan Is Breeding Poverty.  It begins,  “Since the national attention is on birth control, here's my idea: If we want to fight poverty, reduce violent crime and bring down our embarrassing drop-out rate, we should swap contraceptives for fluoride in Michigan's drinking water.”  The editorial has since been deleted from the paper’s web site although it is proudly included in a recently published anthology of Finley’s columns.  

Sometimes poisoning a population is a combination of deliberate policy and “oh, well.” For example,  in Navajo territory decades of uranium mining have contaminated the water table and created many other health problems for the Navajo population.  

Yes,  Whites Get Poisoned Too

Some readers may already be saying,  but wait,  predominantly white populations deal with poisoned water too,  thus somehow proving that none of this has anything to do with race.   Yes,  the people of West Virginia have struggled for two years with a chemical leak that poisoned their water.  Environmental activist Erin Brockovitch regularly speaks about a long list of communities dealing with water problems similar to those in Flint.  Fracking also poses comparable threats to all kinds of populations.  Others point out that the water infrastructure of the entire nation is in disrepair thus creating potential risk for everyone.     

All true.  There is no doubt that there are many ways in which white people treat other white people very badly.  But that reality sheds little or no light on how white racism works.  For a helpful discussion of this topic I recommend            Ta-Nehesi Coates’ recent essay The Enduring Solidarity of Whiteness.  

White Power’s Enduring Thirst for More White Power

By way of broadening the context for a deeper understanding of the racial dynamics of the Flint crisis,  consider other policies and practices that have similar devastating effects:  

  • The current version of the mass incarceration of African Americans.

  • The systematic decimation of the public schools in Detroit,  Chicago and other “black” cities.

  • The fact that white power created and maintains predominately black cities and ghettoes within cities in the first place.  

  • The demolition of Black Bottom, Paradise Valley and other stable, self-reliant African-American business districts in Detroit to make way for freeways so that whites in private vehicles could more easily go to and from the places that whites want to go.  

  • The fact that over a thirty year period,  twenty-three out of twenty-three bills introduced into the Michigan State Legislature authorizing the creation of even a low functioning regional mass transit system were defeated.  At the risk of stating the obvious,  most African Americans live in the city.  Most of the jobs have been moved beyond the city limits.  

  • The decades long struggle by entrenched suburban and outstate white power interests to gain control of the Detroit owned water and sewage system that has served all of Southeast Michigan without harm for decades.  Using Detroit’s bankruptcy as cover,  this has included shutting off water completely for 91,000 Detroit residents—almost as many families whose water was poisoned in Flint.  

  • The years long effort to slowly but surely block many of the streets that run through the border between Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park.

  • The forty year bi-partisan evolution of “emergency management” power by which state government takes control of municipal government and local schools in predominantly black communities in Michigan.   

This list could go on for many pages.  Its purpose here is simply to remind us of the never ending process by which race-based capitalism reproduces and reinforces racial disparity.  Each of them manifests a complex matrix of converging white power interests as captured by the “enduring solidarity of whiteness” phrase from the previously mentioned article by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Flint is an especially good example of how the big fog machine operates to redirect,  distract,  confuse and control the public conversation on how the process works.  To be sure, Curt Guyette,  Investigative Reporter for the ACLU,  played a critical role in bringing attention to the crisis in the first place.  Some excellent reporting since then by Curt and others is clarifying the details of who did what and knew what and when.  Bridge Magazine maintains a regularly updated and very helpful timeline of what various government actors did and didn’t do that starts in 2004.  

But step back from the aggregate of the media ‘s bite size pieces coverage of Flint and what do we see?  Most stories are about blame and finger pointing between Republicans and Democrats, or bureaucrats versus policy makers or state government versus the federal government.  Yet is it not obvious that all of the above played a part?  

The Permanent Labor Surplus is a Now Big Factor

Specifically missing from Flint coverage is any understanding of the insidious dynamics of living in the permanent labor surplus phase of white power capitalism.  This cannot be stressed enough.  Excess labor underlies mass incarceration,  the widespread use of emergency manager takeovers of local government and the attacks on big city public school systems.  

Let’s put mass incarceration under the microscope as an example.  It takes millions out of the labor force by locking them up.  It keeps them out of the labor force through a system of lifetime monitoring and stigma. It sabotages the white Christian “ideal” of proper family life.  It takes away the right to vote of the incarcerated,  often permanently,  which alters the calculus of electoral political power.

Then there is the other side of the coin.  Mass incarceration also creates employment for police,  court workers,  prison guards, lawyers,  prison construction workers and many,  many more.  Talk about a big government “make work” program—mass incarceration is a doozy.

The US American system of slavery did not emerge fully formed from a bolt of lightening.  It took years of lawmaking,  new financial instruments and institutions,  theological rationalizations,  transportation innovation,  bitter political struggles and new systems of mass torture to bring it to its full potential.  So it has been with mass incarceration.  The point is that just as slavery was once integral to our economic system,  mass incarceration is now.  

Still unlike slavery which was THE economic engine,  mass incarceration is only one of many component parts of the current economy.  The permanent labor surplus puts all but a tiny fraction of the global workforce into the precariat.  This now includes virtually all of the US white working class.  That in turn exacerbates the racial, gender and immigration fault lines that define labor competition in the present and more importantly the future.  The masters of the race-based-capitalist universe do not foresee ever again a need for all workers to have core competencies and education.  White workers do not anticipate that they will ever again enjoy the kind of job and retirement security they experienced for the brief period that lasted from roughly 1950-1980.  

This has a powerful but mostly invisible impact on public policy and practice regarding education,  incarceration,  immigration,  elections  and public health.  It makes white voters even more susceptible to electoral appeals and public policies that seem to favor them at the expense of African Americans or immigrants.  To be blunt,  if (mostly black) city schools are perceived as producing poorly prepared students,  this operates to the advantage of whites in the job market by assigning them extra credit for having attended better schools.  It’s one of many forms of affirmative action for white people.  (Like a lot of other things that used to help whites, it’s not working so well these days to provide them with good and secure employment.  That’s one reason they are so riled up.)  

Loudly and frequently proclaiming the “failures” of “black” schools has the added white power value of reinforcing the self fulfilling prophecy,  dating all the way back to slavery,  that whites are superior.  First,  prohibit African Americans from owning books or learning to read, then disparage them for being illiterate.  It’s an old formula.  Very old.  

Jail Snyder?  Let’s Not.

Working hand-in-hand with the blame game approach to Flint is the trap set by  

the dominant “crime and punishment” model of “fixing” social problems.  I myself am wearing a button right this minute that depicts Michigan Governor Rick Snyder behind bars. It makes me feel good.

And wouldn’t it be fun to put Rick Snyder in jail?  Sure.  But would it have anything to do with creating lasting social change?  Doubtful.  If white power deemed it valuable to put Rick Snyder in jail to protect its system,  they would do it.  If you don’t believe me,  ask Rod Blagojevich or Kwame Kilpatrick or Bernie Madoff.  

Truth is,  trying to put Rick Snyder in jail or even recall him from office may do more harm than good.  (The failed attempt to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin is but one cautionary tale here.) Why?  That approach reinforces narratives that work to perpetuate the status quo rather than those that examine and address root causes.

It is helpful to understand that some of those participating in white power decisions do not consciously or conspicuously harbor ill will toward blacks.  It was the slave system itself that generated and required animus toward blacks—not the other away around.   So it is today for the masters of white power,  circa 2016.  Overt racial animus has a role to play now just as it did then.  

Previously mentioned white power ideologue,  Nolan Finley wrote a 2013 Detroit News editorial  about Detroit’s financial problems titled,  “Can Detroit Govern Itself?”  You can guess how he answered his own question.  That editorial also is no longer available from the Detroit News website.  

L. Brooks Patterson,  another white power loudmouth, is the long serving Chief Executive of affluent Oakland County, Michigan.  He has built his entire political career on being overtly hostile to African Americans.  Consider this from a January 2014 New Yorker magazine profile:  “When I asked him how Detroit might solve its financial problems, he said, ‘I made a prediction a long time ago, [Note:  it was a statement he had first made about 25 years earlier.] and it’s come to pass. [Patterson] said, What we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.’”

Regarding Flint’s water crisis opined Patterson,  "I don't think we should say or use words anymore like Flint's been poisoned," Patterson said. "Because I don't think that's accurate." (Fox News January 19,2016)

Silly and absurd?  Depends on your point of view. Patterson’s role here is like that of Donald Trump.  He is reassuring and agitating whites in the face of circumstances they find disorienting.  And to remain true to my own imperative of connecting the historical dots,  Patterson,  Trump and many others are the linear descendants of many,  many earlier white power leaders of which former two-term US President Andrew Jackson is but one good example.    

The Movement Made a Difference

Flint’s poisoned water is not just another story of white power abuse.  At this moment there are many ongoing atrocities in the United States—and of course,  all over the world—of which we are completely or mostly unaware.  

Here’s the big difference.  Unlike Flint,  electoral candidates are not flocking to be photographed where they are happening.  Rachel Maddow has never heard of them,  let alone featured them repeatedly on her program.  The New York Times is not continually running editorials and front page news stories about them. Celebrities are not raising millions of dollars to alleviate the suffering.  

If you search Google News for stories about poisoned water in the Navajo Nation you get 1,700 results.  A query for stories about Flint’s poisoned water yields 751,000.  The deeply rooted political activism of Detroit and Flint goes a long way to explaining the disparity.  

As poorly as history is taught in the US,  many remember Flint for the iconic sit-down strikes that advanced the United Auto Workers (UAW) on its course to organize US auto industry workers wall-to-wall (while it lasted).   In the 1980’s,  when General Motors’ disinvestment in Flint was just beginning,  University of Michigan philosophy professor Frithjof Bergman was introducing local UAW leaders and members to radical ideas of reimagining how work is organized altogether.  Those ideas are now the basis of a fledging global movement known as New Work/New Culture.   

Michael Moore’s 1989 groundbreaking movie Roger and Me again put Flint on the map.  Southeast Michigan is rich in attorneys with a long history of fighting for social and racial justice. Some of those involved in helping to put the current water crisis on the national radar were involved with environmental justice lawsuits filed in Flint as far back as 1995.   

The ongoing struggle to achieve Black Power also means that there are African Americans in the media, academic,  political and economic matrix in numbers and in places they didn’t used to be.  This helps to explain why Kevin Orr,  Robert Bobb,  Darnell Early,  Roy Roberts and many of the other faces of “emergency management” decisions in Flint,   Detroit,  Benton Harbor and other Michigan cities are Black.  Much to the aggravation of some whites,  the optics of our time require and make possible involvement by African Americans,  women and other ethnic and racial groups in some institutional decisions.  

This is not to say that only Blacks are involved in the resistance movement in Flint and Detroit.  To the contrary,  both cities have a long tradition of multi-racial organizing and struggle.  Two recent articles,  Flint Whistleblowers Who Exposed Their Poisoned Water:  We’re Just Getting Started,  in Yes! Magazine by Larry Gabriel and Without Black Lives Matter Would Flint’s Water Crisis Have Made Headlines? for In These Times by Susan J. Douglas,  help to explain recent activist  efforts in Flint and Detroit. Thirsty For Democracy,  an hour long special on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now profiled several of the women who have been engaged in the fight for water justice in Flint.  

White Power Always Fights Back

Naturally,  white power does not take kindly to any opposition to its agenda—whatever that agenda is at any given moment.  They have even come up with a derogatory acronym to discredit any dissent whatsoever.  I am proud to say that I am one of those they call the CAVE people.  What’s a CAVE person?   Why, a Citizen Against Virtually Everything—that’s what.  

Smugness,  condescension and anger toward those who dare to question them are among white power’s core values.  What’s the point of white supremacy after all if you can’t be,  er,  superior.  Think Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.  For historical perspective,  Quentin Tarantino’s plantation owner character as played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained is a useful reference point.  

One thing that makes the CAVE people term especially insulting is the disrespect it shows for the radical past of Flint and Detroit.  Many of those who sneer today would not be where they are but for the successes of the CAVE people of previous generations.  The great crime of former Detroit Mayor and now prison inmate Kwame Kilpatrick was not just that he was a crook who abused the powers of his office.  Lots of public officials have been corrupt.  It is that he betrayed the sacrifices it took by prior freedom fighters to make it possible for him to get elected in the first place.  

Respect for the accomplishments of earlier activists informs current struggles in Detroit,  Flint,  Benton Harbor and elsewhere.  No one claims to have it all figured out.  No one thinks there are overnight fixes.  The calibration of strategies and resources to be applied to resistance,  protest, visionary organizing and building community goes on daily.  It produces multiple events and activities designed to grow and strengthen the movement.  Not a day goes by in Flint or Detroit without a conference,  demonstration,  civil disobedience,  new article,  media event,  teach in,  new economy worksite or a host of other political acts.  It’s just a hypothesis,  but I’d love to seriously test the theory that Detroit and Flint rank near the bottom of the scale in couch potato media consumption.  Too many people are just too busy for that.  

 Does anyone have illusions as to how much suffering still goes on in Flint?   No.  Obviously the power of the people is not yet sufficient to have prevented the crisis in the first place or to save the public schools in Detroit,  despite the hard work of so many.  At the risk of perpetuating a stereotype,  Michigan is still becoming more like Mississippi every day.  In the near term there are undoubtedly many ways in which things will get worse.   

But that is anything but the whole story.  The momentum is clearly shifting.  Until Flint,  it is fair to say that Governor Snyder got everything he asked for from media, academia, big business and his Democratic and Republican political colleagues in government.  Not now.  Never again will Snyder or others in his media and corporate circle enjoy an aura of infallibility and invincibility.  

Kaitlyn Buss,  editorial writer for leading white power publication the Detroit News,  recently sounded the alarm regarding all of the so-called accomplishments Snyder and his cronies have been obnoxiously bragging about for years,  “unpleasant developments have begun to challenge them. And they’ll be much quicker to fall apart than they were to put together… Flint…has ruined Gov. Rick Snyder’s brand for the foreseeable future.”  

This shift alone is no small thing,  since being seen as invulnerable is in and of itself a major source of white power strength.  

It’s the CBTBC people (Citizens Building The Beloved Community) who are gaining momentum.  And it’s the CBTBC people who understand that it is not just a bad Governor that needs changing.  The white power system itself can and will ultimately be replaced for the good not just of Flint and Detroit but life on our planet.  

(Way too many people are making this movement happen to even start naming them.  But special thanks are in order to Curt Guyette, Shea Howell and Tom Stephens whose vigilant research and writing is invaluable in exposing and analyzing Flint and other Michigan crises.)

Strategies for building a better economy will be discussed at the North American Social Solidarity Forum taking place in Detroit April 8-10.  

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Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit based writer and activist.  He is co-editor with Karin Aguilar-San Juan of The People Make The Peace: Lessons From the Vietnam Antiwar Movement