AMERIKA: Poisoned City, Flint and the Specter of Domestic Terrorism – By Henry A. Giroux

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– In the current age of free-market frenzy, privatization, commodification and deregulation, Americans are no longer bound by or interested in historical memory, connecting narratives or modes of thinking that allow them to translate private troubles into broader systemic considerations. As Irving Howe once noted, “the rhetoric of apocalypse haunts the air” accompanied by a relentless spectacle that flattens time, disconnects events, obsesses with the moment and leaves no traces of the past, resistance or previous totalitarian dangers. The United States has become a privatized “culture of the immediate,” in the words of Zygmunt Bauman and Carlo Bordoni: It is a society in which the past is erased and the future appears ominous. And as scholar Wendy Brown has noted in Undoing the Demos, under the rule of neoliberalism, the dissolution of historical and public memory “cauterizes democracy’s more radical expressions.”

Particularly now, in the era of Donald Trump, US politics denotes an age of forgetting civil rights, full inclusion and the promise of democracy. There is a divorce between thought and its historical determinants, a severance of events both from each other and the conditions that produce them. The growing acceptance of state violence, even its normalization, can be found in repeated statements by Trump, the leading Republican Party presidential candidate, who has voiced his support for torture, mass deportations, internment camps and beating up protesters, and embraced what Umberto Eco once called a cult of “action for action’s sake” – a term Eco associated with fascism. Ominously, Trump’s campaign of violence has attracted a commanding number of followers, including the anti-Semitic and former Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke, and other white supremacists. But a death-dealing state can operate in less spectacular but in no less lethal ways. Cost-cutting negligence, malfeasance, omissions, and the withholding of social protections and civil rights can also inflict untold suffering.

Flint provides a tragic example of what happens to a society when democracy begins to disappear.

The recent crisis over the poisoning of the water supply in Flint, Michigan, and the ways in which it has been taken up by many analysts in the mainstream media provide a classic example of how public issues have been emptied of any substance and divorced from historical understanding. This is a politics that fails to offer a comprehensive mode of analysis, one that refuses to link what is wrongly viewed as an isolated issue to a broader set of social, political and economic factors. Under such circumstances shared dangers are isolated and collapse into either insulated acts of governmental incompetence, a case of misguided bureaucratic ineptitude or unfortunate acts of individual misconduct, and other narratives of depoliticized disconnection. In this instance, there is more at work than flawed arguments or conceptual straitjackets. There is also a refusal to address a neoliberal politics in which state violence is used to hurt, abuse and humiliate those populations who are vulnerable, powerless and considered disposable. In Flint, the unimaginable has become imaginable as 8,657 children under 6 years of age have been subjected to potential lead poisoning. Flint provides a tragic example of what happens to a society when democracy begins to disappear and is surpassed by a state remade in the image of the corporation.

A more appropriate way to analyze the water crisis in Flint is to examine it within wider contexts of power and politics, addressing it as a form of domestic terrorism – or what Mark LeVine has called in a different context a “necropolitics of the oppressed.” This is a form of systemic terror and violence instituted intentionally by different levels of government against populations at home in order to realize economic gains and achieve political benefits through practices that range from assassination, extortion, incarceration, violence and intimidation to coercion of a civilian population. Angela Davis details much of this violence in her new book Freedom Is a Constant Struggle.

Some of the more notorious expressions of US domestic terrorism include the assassination of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton by the Chicago Police Department on December 4, 1969; the MOVE bombing by the Philadelphia Police Department in 1985; the existence of Cointelpro, the illegal counterintelligence program designed to harass antiwar and Black resistance fighters in the 1960s and 1970s; the use of extortion by the local police and courts practiced on the largely poor Black inhabitants of Ferguson, Missouri; and the more recent killings of Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice by the police – to name just a few incidents.

Connecting the Dots: From Katrina to Flint

At first glance, the dual tragedies that engulfed New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina and the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, appear to have little in common. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Bush administration’s failure to govern, the world was awash in shocking images of thousands of poor people, mostly Black, stranded on rooftops, isolated on dry roads with no food or packed into the New Orleans Superdome desperate for food, medical help and a place to sleep. Even more troubling were images of the bloated bodies of the dead, some floating in the flood waters, others decomposing on the streets for days and others left to die in their homes and apartments.

“We don’t have just a water problem. We’ve got a problem of being stripped of our democracy as we’ve known it over the years.”

Flint, Michigan, also represents this different order of terrorism and tragedy. Whereas Katrina unleashed images of dead bodies uncollected on porches, in hospitals, in nursing homes and in collapsed houses in New Orleans, Flint unleashed inconceivable reports that thousands of children had been subjected to lead poisoning because of austerity measures sanctioned by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and imposed by Ed Kurtz, the then-unelected emergency manager of Flint. The poor Black populations of both New Orleans and Flint share the experience of disenfranchisement, and of potential exclusion from the institutional decisions that drastically affect peoples’ lives. They live the consequences of neoliberal policies that relegate them to zones of abandonment elevated beyond the sphere of democratic governance and accountability. Both populations suffer from a machinery of domestic terrorism in which state violence was waged upon precarious populations considered unknowable, ungovernable, unworthy and devoid of human rights. Such populations have become all too frequent in the United States and suffer from what Richard Sennett has called a “specter of uselessness,” one that renders disposable those individuals and groups who are most vulnerable to exploitation, expulsion and state violence.

In New Orleans, state violence took the form of a refusal by the Bush administration to invest financially in infrastructure designed to protect against floods, a decision that was as much about saving money as it was about allegiance to a violent, racist logic, cloaked in the discourse of austerity and willfully indifferent to the needs of the powerless and underserved in Black communities. In Flint, austerity as a weapon of race and class warfare played out in a similar way. With the imposition of unelected emergency managers in 2011, democratically elected officials were displaced in predominantly Black cities such as Detroit and Flint and rendered powerless to influence important policy decisions and their implementation. The recent deployment of emergency managers reflects the frontline shock troops of casino capitalism who represent a new mode of authoritarian rule wrapped in the discourse of financial exigency. As the editors of Third Coast Conspiracy observe:

For more than [a] decade now, Michigan governors have been appointing so-called “emergency managers” (EMs) to run school districts and cities for which a “state of financial emergency” has been declared. These unelected administrators rule by fiat – they can override local elected officials, break union contracts, and sell off public assets and privatize public functions at will. It’s not incidental that thevast majorityof the people who have lived under emergency management are black. Flint, whose population was 55.6% black as of the2010 census(in a state whosepopulationis 14.2% black overall), was under emergency management from December 2011 to April 2015. [Moreover] it was during that period that the decision was made to stop purchasing water from Detroit and start drawing water directly from the Flint River.

Rather than invest in cities such as Flint and Detroit, Governor Snyder decided to downsize the budgets of these predominantly Black cities. For instance, according to a Socialist Worker article by Dorian Bon, in Detroit, “Snyder’s appointed manager decided to push Detroit into bankruptcy … and gain the necessary legal footing to obliterate pensions, social assistance, public schools and other bottom-line city structures.” In Flint, emergency manager Kurtz followed the austerity playbook to downsize Flint’s budget and put into play a water crisis of devastating proportions. Under the claim of fiscal responsibility, a succession of emergency managers succeeded in privatizing parks and garbage collection, and in conjunction with the Snyder administration aggressively pushed to privatize the water supply. Claire McClinton, a Flint resident, summed up the larger political issue well. She told Democracy Now!: “And that’s the untold story about the problem we have here. We don’t have just a water problem. We’ve got a democracy problem. We’ve got a dictatorship problem. We’ve got a problem of being stripped of our democracy as we’ve known it over the years.”

The backdrop to the Flint water crisis is the restructuring of the global economy, the deindustrialization of manufacturing cities like Flint and the departure of the auto industry, all of which greatly reduced the city’s revenues. Yet, these oft-repeated events only constitute part of the story. As Jacob Lederman points out, Flint’s ongoing economic and environmental crisis is the consequence of years of destructive free-market reforms.

According to the Michigan Municipal League, between 2003-2013, Flint lost close to $60 million in revenue sharing from the state, tied to the sales tax, which increased over the same decade. During this period, the city cut its police force in half while violent crime doubled, from 12.2 per 1000 people in 2003, to 23.4 in 2011. Such a loss of revenue is larger than the entire 2015 Flint general fund budget. In fact, cuts to Michigan cities like Flint and Detroit have occurred as state authorities raided so-called statutory revenue sharing funds to balance their own budgets and pay for cuts in business taxes. Unlike “constitutional” revenue sharing in Michigan, state authorities could divert these resources at their discretion. It is estimated that between 2003-2013 the state withheld over $6 billion from Michigan cities. And cuts to revenue sharing increased in line with the state’s political turn.

These policy changes and reforms provided a rationale for the apostles of neoliberalism to use calamitous budget deficits of their own design to impose severe austerity policies, gut public funding and cut benefits for autoworkers. As General Motors relocated jobs to the South in order to increase its profits, its workforce in Flint went from 80,000 in the 1970s to its current number of 8,000. These festering economic conditions were worsened under the Snyder administration, which was hell-bent on imposing its neoliberal game plan on Michigan, with the worse effects being visited on cities inhabited largely by poor Black people and immigrants. Under strict austerity measures imposed by the Snyder administration, public services were reduced and poverty ballooned to over 40 percent of the population. Meanwhile, schools deteriorated (with many closing), grocery stores vanished and entire neighborhoods fell into disrepair.

Through the rubric of a financial crisis, intensified by neoliberal policies aimed at destroying any vestige of the social contract and a civic culture, the Snyder administration appointed a series of emergency managers to undermine and sidestep democratic governance in a number of cities, including Flint. In this instance, a criminal economy produced in Flint an egregious form of environmental racism that was part of a broader neoliberal rationality designed to punish poor and underserved Black communities while diverting resources to the financial coffers of the rich and corporations. What emerged from such neoliberal slash-and-burn policies was a politics that transformed cities such as Flint into zones of social and economic abandonment. Michael Moore sums up the practice at work in Flint succinctly:

When Governor Snyder took office in 2011, one of the first things he did was to get a multi-billion-dollar tax break passed by the Republican legislature for the wealthy and for corporations. But with less tax revenues, that meant he had to start cutting costs. So, many things – schools, pensions, welfare, safe drinking water – were slashed. Then he invoked an executive privilege to take over cities (all of them majority black) by firing the mayors and city councils whom the local people had elected, and installing his cronies to act as “dictators” over these cities. Their mission? Cut services to save money so he could give the rich even more breaks. That’s where the idea of switching Flint to river water came from. To save $15 million! It was easy. Suspend democracy. Cut taxes for the rich. Make the poor drink toxic river water. And everybody’s happy. Except those who were poisoned in the process. All 102,000 of them. In the richest country in the world.

In spite of the dire consequences of such practices, Snyder’s appointed officials proceeded to promote neoliberal economic policies that exacerbated Flint’s crumbling infrastructure, its high levels of violence, and its corroding and underfunded public school system. Similar policies followed in Detroit, where the schools were so bad that teachers and students reported conditions frankly impossible to imagine. For instance, Wisdom Morales, a student at one of Detroit’s public schools, told journalist Amy Goodman, “I’ve gotten used to seeing rats everywhere. I’ve gotten used to seeing the dead bugs…. I want to be able to go to school and not have to worry about being bitten by mice, being knocked out by the gases, being cold in the rooms.” In a New York Times article, titled “Crumbling, Destitute Schools Threaten Detroit’s Recovery,” Julie Bosman further highlights the rancid conditions of Detroit’s destitute schools:

In Kathy Aaron’s decrepit public school, the heat fills the air with a moldy, rancid odor. Cockroaches, some three inches long, scuttle about until they are squashed by a student who volunteers for the task. Water drips from a leaky roof onto the gymnasium floor. ‘We have rodents out in the middle of the day,’ said Ms. Aaron, a teacher of 18 years. ‘Like they’re coming to class.’ Detroit’s public schools are a daily shock to the senses, run down after years of neglect and mismanagement, while failing academically and teetering on the edge of financial collapse.

Under Snyder, “emergency management” laws gave authoritarian powers to unelected officials in cities that have Black majorities who were also made objects of devastating forms of environmental racism and economic terrorism. As Flint’s economy was hollowed out and held ransom by the financial elite, the Black and immigrant population not only became more vulnerable to a host of deprivations but also more disposable. They lost control not only of their material possessions but also the sanctity of their bodies and their health to the necessities of surviving on a daily basis. In this instance, exchange value became the only value that counted and one outcome was that institutions and policies meant to eliminate human suffering, protect the environment and provide social provisions were transformed into mechanisms of state terror. In both cities, poor Black populations experienced a threshold of disappearance as a consequence of a systematic dismantling of the state’s political machinery, regulatory agencies and political institutions whose first priority had been to serve residents rather than corporations and the financial elite.

Both Katrina and Flint laid bare a new kind of politics in which entire populations, even children, are considered disposable.

This particular confluence of market forces and right-wing politics that privileges private financial gain over human needs and public values took a drastic and dangerous turn in Flint. As a cost-saving measure, Darnell Earley, the emergency manager appointed by Snyder, and in charge of Flint in April 2014, went ahead and allowed the switch of Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron, which was treated at the Detroit water plant and had supplied Flint’s water for 50 years. The switch was done in spite of the fact that the Flint River had long been contaminated, having served as an industrial waste dumping ground, particularly for the auto industry. Via this switch, the state expected to save about $19 million over eight years. In short, peanuts for city budgets.

As part of the cost-saving efforts, the Snyder administration refused to add an anti-corrosive additive used to seal the lead in the pipes and prevent the toxin from entering the water supply. The cost of such a measure was only “a $100 a day for three months.” Yet the refusal to do so had catastrophic consequences as the Flint water supply was soon poisoned with lead and other contaminants leaching from corroded pipes.

As soon as the switch began in 2014, Flint residents noticed that the water was discolored, tasted bad and had a horrible smell. Many residents who bathed in the water developed severe rashes, some lost their hair and others experienced a range of other health symptoms. The water was so corrosive and toxic that it leached lead from the city’s aging pipe infrastructure. Soon afterwards a host of problems emerged. As Amy Goodman points out,

First, the water was infested with bacteria. Then it had cancerous chemicals called trihalomethanes, or TTHMs. A deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, which is caused by a water-borne bacteria, spread throughout the city, killing 10 people. And quietly, underground, the Flint River water was corroding the city’s aging pipes, poisoning the drinking water with lead, which can cause permanent developmental delays and neurological impairment, especially in children.

It gets worse. The genesis of the Flint water crisis reveals the disturbing degree to which the political economy of neoliberalism is deeply wedded to deceit and radiates violence. In the early stages of the crisis, according to Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star, people showed up at meetings “with brown gunk from their taps … LeeAnne Walter’s 4-year old son, Gavin was diagnosed with lead poisoning” and yet the Snyder administration stated repeatedly that the water was safe. Dale argues that the Snyder administration poisoned the people of Flint and that “they were deceived for a year and a half,” not only exposed to disposable waste, but also being made into an extension of disposable waste.

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