Rev. Al Sharpton's Weekly Blog

Flint Response: Worse Than Katrina?

Jan 25, 2016

Bill Schuette, Michigan Attorney General, just announced that Former Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Todd Flood and retired Detroit FBI Chief Andrew Arena will be a part of the independent investigation designed to get to the bottom of the Flint water contamination crisis.

While an investigation is obviously needed, it remains to be seen just how thorough this will be and whether or not there are any conflicts of interest involved. In the meantime, the residents of Flint -- majority African-American and 40 percent who are below the poverty line -- continue to suffer. Last week, Gov. Rick Snyder stated in an interview that the water crisis was his "Katrina."

As one who figured prominently in rallies and marches surrounding Katrina, and one whose organization's local chapter has raised concern over Flint's water for a long time now, I was taken aback by Gov. Snyder's statement.

Democratically elected officials were displaced and replaced with emergency management people who cut a deal and sent contaminated river water that corroded pipelines and exposed residents to toxic levels of lead. Gov. Snyder's administration ignored this problem since 2014, and in terms of direct action, politics and policies, the Flint crisis might just be even worse than Katrina.

In areas like Flint and Detroit, there is a history of emergency managers taking control of Black cities from local authorities. When that local power is taken away from city councils, mayors, etc., the residents have less input over decisions that directly impact them and their neighborhoods. As the citizens of both Flint and Detroit will often say, the emergency managers are more concerned with cutting costs than with the actual welfare of the community. In Detroit, some schools are still suffering both academically and financially after emergency management failed to resolve issues and failed students and their families. In Flint, drinking water became contaminated with lead in April of 2014 and Gov. Snyder did not declare a state of emergency until Jan. 5 of this year. That is simply outrageous and a grave miscarriage of justice.

I am not certain what Gov. Snyder was hoping to accomplish by equating his failures to the failures of Katrina. If he meant that it was his challenge in terms of dealing with environmental racism and infrastructure neglect, he may have a point. But if he meant to compare egregious government neglect, which undoubtedly existed with levees and the government's inability to protect the ninth ward of New Orleans, to replacing elected officials with emergency management that created a water catastrophe because they wanted to save money, and his administration ignored the issue since 2014, well then, many would argue that the politics and policies could be even worse than Katrina. Because the residents of Flint were largely voiceless, their complaints were ignored for far too long and their so-called leaders thought nobody would notice.

We at National Action Network, through our local chapter under Rev. Charles Williams, started raising concern over the water crisis along with others in 2015, but we were also disregarded and overlooked. Doctors and others on the ground sounded the alarm over elevated lead levels for some time, but were ignored as well until recently. Everything points to a systemic failure from the top down, and it is yet another example of how the poor and disenfranchised can get so marginalized from society to the point where their water is poisoned, and those in power think they can just brush the issue under the rug. We don't think so.

The National Guard began assisting with distribution of bottled water and filters this month. While that is a good development, it is not enough. Many residents are still forced to bathe in the contaminated water, and most are left wondering why they are still receiving bills for toxic water.

If they cannot drink it, cook with it and more, why should they have to pay for it? And who is going to pay for the health costs of all of those impacted by this tragedy? These are long-term issues that must be dealt with, but before we even get to that, the crisis itself must be resolved. The people of Flint are still suffering with no clear answer as to when their water will be safe again. And while we welcome an independent investigation, there must be accountability, period.

On February 3, Gov. Snyder will appear before Congress, and many of us will be outside and visible, because the citizens of Flint are not invisible and they deserve justice.