We should never forget what happened in Flint

Oct 23, 2017

When General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s troops first overran an extermination camp in Nazi Germany, he directed that every photojournalist within 50 miles be brought to see it. When asked why, he said otherwise, someday, someone would deny that it had ever happened.

He might have been even more worried that, people might just, with the passage of time, forget about it.

It has only been two years since the state reluctantly agreed to allow Flint to reconnect to Detroit’s water supply, but already memories are fading of a state bureaucracy that poisoned an entire city and then tried to cover it up.

But a group of people got a powerful reminder yesterday, when Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the ACLU, spoke about the crisis at Temple Emanu-el in the Detroit suburb of Oak Park.

I was honored to be asked to introduce Guyette, who is among the finest investigative reporters anywhere.

The audience wanted to hear him talk about Flint, and I thought he might speak for 20 minutes. Instead, he held everyone spellbound for an hour and a half, speaking without notes, and recounting one of the more unbelievable crises in modern history.

Guyette was laboring under a handicap. After years in the alternative press, he had been hired by the American Civil Liberties Union, an advocacy organization. For a long time, state officials wouldn’t treat him with respect and wouldn’t return his phone calls. But he meticulously worked, assembling information and gaining sources’ trust.

Eventually, he said, Michigan Radio was the first mainstream news outlet to take what he was doing seriously, and others followed. Guyette originally came to the story because he was hired to look at issues involving open government and the emergency manager law.

What struck him early on, he said, was the utter contempt then-emergency manager Jerry Ambrose had for the people of Flint. When a resident asked why she hadn’t been told what the city was doing, he said Ambrose sneered, “well, I’m telling you now.”

Eventually, Guyette obtained an internal EPA memo showing great concern about the water, and another that proved the Snyder Administration’s claims that Detroit officials had forced Flint to stop using Detroit water was a lie. The callousness of those involved is mind-boggling.

Fundamentally what happened, Guyette believes, was that the emergency manager law was used to take democracy away from a community of mostly poor people of color without powerful allies.

For example, so0n after the state switched the city over to the Flint River, General Motors complained that the water was corroding engines at a factory in Flint.

The Snyder administration allowed GM to reconnect to Detroit water, but when residents begged to be allowed to do the same, they were told they couldn’t afford it.

Eventually, Guyette helped a scientist apply for a grant to independently test lead levels in the water, which seemed to prove the state systematically lied and manipulated data.

Today, the attorney general’s office is prosecuting a number of people. The state is paying millions in legal fees to defend some of them and others who haven’t even been charged, including Governor Rick Snyder.

None of those who poisoned a city has come forward to accept blame.

Fundamentally what happened, Guyette believes, was that the emergency manager law was used to take democracy away from a community of mostly poor people of color without powerful allies.

There are those who think it couldn’t happen again. And there are those who know better.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.