Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one? …
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest…
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters…
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
By Paul Rozycki
It may be an omen that the most recent town hall meeting on Flint’s water crisis, held at the House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church, began in the midst of a torrential downpour, where many of those attending either dashed through sheets of rain, cowered under umbrellas or huddled in their cars until the storm passed.
Mayor Karen Weaver convened the town hall meeting to hear citizens respond to her recommendation for Flint to stay with the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), and rely on the Karegnondi Pipeline (KWA) only as a backup. As the meeting unfolded, it highlighted the key conflicts and dilemmas surrounding the Flint water crisis.
After three frustrating and conflict-filled years, is Flint’s water glass half full or half empty? Are we on the road to finally solving the problem or simply going in angry circles as we search for a solution?
The tenor of the meeting offered reasons to say yes to both possibilities.
Is the glass half full?
Well, based on some aspects of the meeting you might think so—at least at the beginning.
Mayor Weaver and the panel of nine experts gave detailed, well-reasoned answers to most of the questions they faced from the audience. In response to questions about water chemistry, municipal finance and medicine, they laid out the case for staying with the GLWA and responded with specifics to questions from the audience. At the beginning of the forum, those responses were well-received and earned sporadic applause or cheers from the audience.
Also on the “half full” side of the equation, many of the questions from the audience showed an in-depth knowledge of the water issue in Flint. Many audience members asked well-informed questions about water chemistry, the medical effects of lead and other chemicals, and the cost of the Mayor’s decision for Flint taxpayers. For the most part, the responses from the panel were equally specific and respectful of the questioners. Many of the details of the recommendations are outlined in Jan Worth-Nelson’s story in this issue of the EVM.
Or is the glass half empty?
However, as the forum moved into its second hour, the “half empty” side bubbled up and things turned ugly.
The anger of Flint citizens burst out and revealed the depth of their distrust created by the ongoing crisis. More than a few responses were greeted with boos and catcalls from the audience. One individual was led out after an angry exchange. By the end of the meeting, six individuals were arrested. Yet, most of the angry questioners brought with them solid knowledge of some aspect of Flint’s water crisis. The water crisis may have destroyed trust, but it also has turned many citizens into pretty decent experts on water, pipes, plumbing, chemicals, water related medical issues and urban finance.
In the end, it’s doubtful that the forum restored trust or gave any final answers to so many of the questions facing the citizens of Flint.
What can we trust?
But of all the questions raised, perhaps the most important question is this: which explanations should we trust?
Yes, the mayor and those on the panel gave solid, logical and well-documented reasons for the decision to stay on the GLWA. And, if the numbers were correct, it all made sense. Their proposals seemed to assure us that we’d be getting safe, clean water in the most financially responsible manner.
However, there were equally logical and well documented reasons offered for making the switch to the Flint River and the Karegnondi Pipeline a few years ago. The charts and numbers all showed how much money we would save with that decision. Not only would it save money, but it would guarantee a clean, dependable water supply for the people of Flint for years to come.
Several audience members asked to see the actual contract with the GLWA to attempt to make a judgment. What does the contract actually include? Are all the positive projections accurate?
Different sides, real anger
Perhaps the best summaries of the forum were offered by individuals on opposite sides of the water crisis.
Richard Baird, senior advisor to Governor Snyder, who took much of the heat during the meeting, said the citizens of Flint “have no right to trust anyone at the state level until the water crisis is fixed. A lot of people hate Governor Snyder. Your anger is real.”
In the same exchange Mayor Weaver said she had to deal with the problem “to prove it to the people and earn their trust.”
Reflecting that distrust was frequent water protester Tony Palladeno, who is leading a ‘Camp Promise’ occupation of Kearsley Park to protest the water crisis. He said that claims the water was safe were a lie and “We’re not taking this no more. I love Flint,” as he left, surrounded by police. He and his wife were among those arrested.
In the end, give some credit to those who sat in front of an often angry crowd and took the heat, responded to questions, kept their composure, and attempted to understand the anger directed at them.
Yet, also give credit to those who were angry and used that anger to become informed, who channeled that energy into a movement that has mobilized Flint in a way that no other issue has. Let’s hope that once the water issue is settled, that same fire and energy will be directed to rebuilding Flint in a hundred other ways.
EVM political commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.