If you haven’t been following what’s been happening in Flint, Michigan, here’s a brief summary (the not-so-brief summary is here). On April 24, 2014, the city of Flint changed the source of its water to the polluted Flint River. It’s no surprise to this New Yorker that the pollution has caused numerous health problems, particularly in children. Many writers and news outlets are justly and appropriately evaluating what created this public health emergency. Solutions and consequences will be discussed for decades. What I want to share is a bit different. I want to share is my observation about the response of those affected by this crisis, and what that response, and its result, says to me about America. Which is this:
America still works.
Let me explain.
There are two narratives about the poor in this country that are relevant to what happened in Flint. One is that those who collect welfare (usually blacks) are lazy, and another is that they are disenfranchised because money and race are what drives politics. Flint is a city that would seem primed for both of these characterizations. It is 57% black and has a median income of $24,000 per year. Forty percent of the population live below the poverty line, and are on welfare of some type. If either of these narratives was true, the people of Flint would be stuck without hope of ever getting clean water.
Fortunately, they had LeeAnne Walters, a 37-year-old mother of four who became a self taught expert on water pollution science and led the charge to get accurate data. They had Jackie and John Pemberton, who went to City Council meetings and the state capitol at the head of a group of citizens determined to get this fixed. They came to their government armed with an important fundamental right: the right to petition their government for a redress of grievances. That right is part of the First Amendment to the Constitution, but is often forgotten. Freedom of religion, speech, and the press are talked about far more. But all those, and the right to assemble, are crippled without the right to bring concerns to the government. This fundamental right was exercised by the people of Flint, people who nobody would expect to be able to win because they are either lazy or disenfranchised.
But the City of Flint has returned to using it’s previous water source. The concerns of these supposedly lazy, disenfranchised citizens were heard and heeded. In short, these people, who no one would have expected to win, won. In doing so, they showed us that America still works. The wealthy might control some aspects of politics, and race is definitely a factor, but if America still works for the people of Flint, then it works for all of us.