The Flint water crisis of 2014 happened as a result of a Michigan democracy crisis that had started years earlier. Flint was one of the primary victims of the way the auto industry abandoned Detroit, and had been struggling financially for years. Rather than actually working to alleviate poverty and build up the community, Flint’s Republican governor decided to go with the too-popular lie that authoritarianism is more efficient and effective than democracy or other forms of self-governance. In an act of open defiance of democracy, the Michigan legislature passed a law, which the governor signed, re-instating the emergency management powers that the people of Michigan had resoundingly and directly voted to remove:
Following his election in 2010, Snyder and the Republican-controlled state Legislature expanded the powers of emergency managers. Michigan voters, through a November 2012 ballot proposal, repealed the controversial law.
But less than two months later, Snyder signed replacement legislation that he said improved upon the former law. It offered four pathways for struggling schools and municipalities: A consent agreement, Chapter 9 bankruptcy, mediation or emergency manager.
Michigan’s emergency manager law is facing scrutiny in federal court, where plaintiffs argue that the law is unconstitutional because it disproportionately targets black communities and continues a “narrative of structural and strategic racism.”
Emergency managers were given near-total power over their jurisdictions, and could outright ignore local elected officials. This was the setting in which the decision was made to switch Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, to save money, resulting in the poisoning of thousands of people, and potentially permanent brain damage for an entire generation of Flint’s children:
While it’s still difficult to know for sure, it seems like the decision to ignore warnings about the need for treatment to prevent corrosion was also apparently made to save money.
“As we all know, the water plant itself is operating fine, but without corrosion control chemicals, it had a detrimental impact on the lead pipes,” Adler said.
The city “made the decision” not to use corrosion controls “because they didn’t think they needed it,” Adler said. The state Department of Environmental Quality failed to ensure the chemicals were added, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency didn’t alert the public when an employee first raised a red flag.
“It was a failure at every level, all along the way. This was a perfect storm of bureaucratic mismanagement of a public health issue,” Adler said.
A previously released email showed that Flint water plant supervisor Mike Glasgow was also concerned about the conversion to Flint River water just days before the city would formally close a valve that had delivered Detroit water for nearly 50 years.
“If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple weeks, it will be against my direction,” Glasgow wrote in an April 17, 2014, email to officials at the state Department of Environmental Quality, suggesting management above him had its own “agenda.”
When we hear this person talking about “a perfect storm of bureaucratic mismanagement”, I think it’s worth noting that this was a spokesperson for Republican governor Rick Snyder. The GOP has a long-standing hostility towards the general concept of “government”, and they lean heavily on the notion that bureaucracy is both always bad, and only a government problem. Pretty much any time I get into an internet fight about healthcare systems, I have to explain to fellow USians that all the paperwork they have to deal with from health insurance corporations is also bureaucracy. With the USPS, the deliberately unpleasant tax system, under-funded schools, and many other areas of government, conservatives have a record of using sabotage not just to allow their corporate overlords to get away with harming people, but also to support their antigovernmental rhetoric by making the government worse on purpose. They like when there’s a huge government catastrophe like this, because it’s tailor-made for their perennial antigovernmental talking points.
And as always, the only parts of the government they actually dislike, are the ones that make life better for the general population. What’s more, their constant efforts to spread corruption and dysfunction also provide a degree of protection for themselves. There’s a quote that I’ve shared before:
Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit:
There must be in-groups whom the law protectes but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.
It’s from a comment by a composer named Frank Wilhoit, and while I don’t know how I feel about the broader argument he was making, this definition is useful all by itself. The conservative project of dismantling government, and then using the dysfunction they have caused to advocate for further dismantling, serves to both remove protection from the out-groups, and remove bindings from the in-groups. This was a crime of conservative, authoritarian governance, for which thousands of people will be paying for the rest of their lives. All of it happened under the authority and supervision of Rick Snyder, the Republican governor who signed the law bringing back the emergency management system his constituents had just rejected.
And a judge has thrown out charges against Snyder on procedural grounds:
A district judge in Genesee County tossed a pair of misdemeanor charges levied against former Gov. Rick Snyder for his involvement in the Flint water crisis, citing previous court rulings that state prosecutors incorrectly used a “one-person grand jury” to indict Snyder.
Snyder, who was governor in Michigan from 2011 to 2019, was charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty by a public official. Genesee County Judge F. Kay Behm signed an order remanding the charges Wednesday.
Behm’s order technically does not dismiss the charges, but sends them back to a lower court for dismissal.
Behm cited a Michigan Supreme Court ruling from June which stated government prosecutors erred in 2021 when they had a circuit judge serve as a “one-man grand jury” to indict Snyder and the other officials. She also noted circuit court rulings to dismiss charges against other former state officials which cited the Supreme Court ruling.
Snyder is the latest former official to have charges tossed related to the Flint water crisis, although state prosecutors, led by Attorney General Dana Nessel, have vowed to continue seeking charges related to the case. In October, charges for seven other former state and Flint officials were dismissed, although the state’s prosecution team has indicated it will appeal the decision to dismiss the charges.
In a statement, the prosecuting team said it plans to appeal Behm’s order.
“As we have reiterated time and again, rulings up to this point have been on process alone — not on the merits of the case,” the unattributed statement says. “We are confident that the evidence clearly supports the criminal charges against Rick Snyder, and we will not stop until we have exhausted all possible legal options to secure justice for the people of Flint.”
Snyder’s lawyer, Brian Lennon, said in a statement the prosecution efforts have been “amateurish and unethical.”
“The state has already wasted millions of taxpayer dollars pursuing meritless misdemeanor charges and this case should now be considered closed,” Lennon said. “The prosecution team’s statement saying it will appeal this ruling is further proof that they intend to continue their efforts to weaponize the court system against their political enemies.”
They always claim persecution, but I can’t help but note that the United States will hold people for weeks, months or even years without trial, often over petty shit like suspected shoplifting, but poisoning thousands of people? Well, that is generally done by members of the in-group, whom the law protects, but does not bind, and years later, the “criminal prosecutions” section of Wikipedia’s water crisis article shows an awful lot of dismissals.
More and more, I’ve been realizing that the United States is a conservative country, in that it is set up, at every level, to maintain racial and economic disparities. It’s not just the legacy of redlining, or environmental racism, or civil asset forfeiture, or white supremacy in law enforcement, or racism in the courts, or racism in legislation – it’s also a parallel infrastructure designed to smooth the way for those at the top (who are almost all white men). When you’re at the bottom, when the system screws up, you pay the price. At the bottom, you can spend years in prison even when everyone in the legal system agrees on your innocence. At the top, you can steal millions, and get a finger wag as you’re gently told to give it back.
And race is absolutely a part of this. Flint, MI is a predominantly Black city, and that fact is a big part of how this whole situation came to be in the first place. The system does actively harm poor white people as well, of course, but they are much more likely to be treated as part of the in-group that gets protection and exemption from the law, if their crimes and conduct merit honorary membership. That option is generally not available to people who aren’t white (though exceptions are sometimes made for wealth, power, or allegiance/usefulness to wealth and power). I think George Zimmerman – the man who murdered Trayvon Martin – is a good example of that. He had no authority, and not much in the way of political and economic power, but he adopted the role of being a member and defender of the in-group, and is therefor in the clear. Kyle Rittenhouse also comes to mind. There’s always some reason. Zimmerman was probably over-charged, given the available evidence. Was that an honest mistake by the prosecutors? Who can say? But the overall pattern is suggestive, to me, of more than just coincidence. They say justice delayed is justice denied, and it seems like we’ve seen nothing but delay on this case.
I’m glad to hear that prosecutors will keep trying, but the fact that this is where they’re at, so many years later, demonstrates the degree to which our “justice” system exists to serve and maintain hierarchical order, not any meaningful notion of justice.
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