In a crowded foyer at the Capitol Hilton in downtown Washington, a press conference set to kick off a series of meetings for the U.S. Conference of Mayors quickly shifted to issues of race and injustice.
The mayors who stood at the podium on Wednesday seemed to have every intention of discussing how issues surrounding the economy and criminal justice reform would frame their conversations throughout their Winter Meeting, but given the continued attention to issues of policing in American cities and the recent attention directed at the water crisis in Flint, Mich., the focus quickly shifted away from the officials’ prepared remarks.
About five minutes into opening statements by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore, the president of the conference, a woman in a blue shirt, her twisted hair cascading down her shoulders, stood directly in front of the mayor’s podium holding a handwritten sign that read “16 shots and a cover up #LaquanMcDonald #ResignRahm.”
The protester, April Goggans of Washington, D.C., stood silently before the podium as mayors from cities across the country—Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta, both of whom have their own issues of violence to deal with—took the podium. There was shuffling behind her and murmurs from both ends of the spectrum. Where is security, some wondered. Others, either recognizing the optics or her position, said as representatives of the people they must hear the people’s complaints.
Though her message was for Rahm Emanuel, the embattled mayor of Chicago who is scheduled to address the meeting later this week, she said after that the message she and the handful of protesters who joined her at the press conference on Wednesday had to deliver was relevant to all. “Rahm Emanuel is one person, but the things that he is doing are things that they do systematically in all police departments, in all mayors offices,” she said. “Think of all the states that were here–they’ve got some real serious problems around race, around policing, immigration in their cities,” Goggans said.
The conference carried on, with mayors awkwardly speaking of issues of policing and criminal justice reform with a glaring testament to the dissatisfaction felt among their constituencies staring reporters and news cameras in the face and surrounding them. “Black Lives Matter,” some chanted. Others taunted Mayor Rawlings-Blake, who was blasted for her handling of the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.
Then, something interesting happened.
Mayor Karen Weaver of Flint, Mich., fresh off a round of meetings at the White House and empowered by the national attention her city has been receiving in the wake of a two-year-old water crisis, took the podium and the protesters quieted. “This is something that in April will have gone on for two years now,” said Weaver. “We haven’t had clean, affordable water in the city of Flint.”
“It’s ironic when you live in the Great Lakes state and you don’t have access to clean water,”she said.
Flint, a majority-black city of about 100,000 about 70 miles north of Detroit, has been grappling with elevated lead levels in its water since the city switched its water supply as a cost-saving measure. Residents complained and protested, high lead levels were detected in residents’ blood, and many complained of rashes and other ailments, but the water source was not switched back until October 2015. Last Saturday, President Obama signed an emergency declaration and freed up federal funds to address the crisis.
Weaver, who took office in November 2015 and promised to immediately address the water crisis after becoming mayor, said Wednesday that she does not believe the water contamination would have gotten as bad as it got had the city not had high levels of low-income residents and a majority African American population.
“It’s a minority community, it’s a poor community and our voices were not heard. And that’s part of this problem,” Weaver said. “This is a civil right. Water is a basic human right. Everybody deserves clean water.”
Weaver’s appearance came one day after the Governor of Michigan got teary eyed during his State of the State address on Tuesday, taking responsibility for the water crisis in Flint and promising to spend the rest of his term addressing the issue. The mayor on Wednesday said his acknowledgement was a “good start,” but ultimately officials from the bottom up need to be held accountable for what happened in her city.
“The state is ultimately responsible. We know buck stops with the governor, but if we want to start pointing fingers there’s enough blame to go all the way around” she said, without outright calling for a resignation. “One of the things I’ve decided to do with my time is let the investigation show us who knew what, when. I’ve got to focus my energy on making sure the people of Flint get the resources that they need.”
Weaver met privately with President Obama on Tuesday, where she requested more federal assistance and called on him to meet with the governor to call on the state to do more.
The road ahead is long for Flint—Weaver has said solving the water crisis, from fixing the crumbling infrastructure to addressing the underlying health crisis, could take an estimated $1.5 billion. The city’s educators are already gearing up for the behavioral and developmental issues likely to plague young people as a result of the crisis. Weaver said, too, the crisis has had a “grave” economic impact on the city.
“People leave. People can’t afford the water. It’s devastating companies, restaurants, those kinds of things because people want to know, what water is this that this food is being cooked in and washed with,” she said. “It’s had a devastating impact.”
The issues brought to light by the black lives matter movement have been pushed to the center of national conversation over the past several months–with everyone from political candidates to the president having to address the grievances of protesters in some way. What the press conference on Wednesday showed, though, was socio-economic justice issues can take on a variety forms and impact Americans in very real ways.