The facts are now well-known: Flint, Mich. is a community that is 57% black with more than 40% of its residents living below the poverty line. About two years ago, officials in Michigan changed the water source for Flint from the largest fresh water supply, Lake Huron, to the toxic Flint River. After the switch, the residents of Flint began to complain to city officials and leaders that their tap water was discolored and foul-smelling, and that they were also beginning to suffer from outbreaks of skin rashes. State officials responded that the water was safe and minimized their complaints.
Since the War on Drugs in the 1980s, minorities have been serving lengthy mandatory prison sentences for dealing drugs. Politicians, judges, prosecutors and police all proclaimed this was done because drug dealers were poisoning low-income communities and communities of color. In Flint, elected officials played a role in actually poisoning a community of blacks and poor people.
I am deeply appalled at the lack of accountability and insensitivity of the governor and other elected officials in Michigan. I am further sickened and disgusted that charges have not been filed against all of the leaders who failed to investigate the complaints of citizens, made the decision to transition the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, and were in a position of trust,yet endangered the Flint residents. The resignation of the emergency manager who approved switching Flint’s water supply is just the start.
It is truly disturbing that these leaders have not been required to answer for their offenses against the residents of Flint, who have been permanently harmed by their reckless and wanton decisions. Somewhere in America there is a black man or woman serving a lengthy prison sentence for a non-violent drug crime, yet we allow public officials to poison an entire community and then move freely with no repercussions.
If this was ISIS who poisoned 100,000 Americans, we would call it “A Crime Against Humanity” or “An Act of Terrorism,” and we would pool all of our resources to swiftly bring them to justice. An apology, such as the one given by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, is simply not enough.
We must come to the realization that without real consequences, there will be no real change. When the health and welfare of a community is at stake, money should not be the primary concern. Leaders must look well beyond the numbers to fully investigate and consider the short- and long-term impact of their decisions. Leaders should not be able to hold a public office and be indifferent in their decision-making. Social responsibility is at stake—our humanity, our public trust, and our fundamental and core American values. We continue to see the ugly head of implicit racial bias that has consistently permeated our justice system, now permeating the drinking water supply decisions in Flint.
Members of the National Bar Association, the nation’s largest association of lawyers of color, of which I am the president, will be in attendance at the Democratic presidential debates and will join our Michigan affiliate members in renewing our call for (1) an independent and thorough investigation by the Department of Justice into this public health crisis; (2) the criminal and civil prosecution of Governor Rick Snyder and/or any other public official who was responsible for making the decision to supply Flint with contaminated water supply that poisoned approximately 100,000 people; and (3) a comprehensive plan for health care and other civil remedies for all of the residents affected.