By Michael Mascarenhas
Special to East Village Magazine
Oct. 12, 2017 marked the third annual “Imagine a Day Without Water,” a day dedicated to advocacy and awareness of water insecurity in the United States.
Given the ongoing water crisis in Flint, the day provided an opportunity for Detroit and Flint activists to hold a press conference to draw attention to their efforts to ensure safe and affordable water in their communities.
The meeting, attended by several dozen people, took place in the basement of the Berston Field House on Saginaw Street. “This is a historic building for Black people,” reflected Debra Taylor, co-founder of We The People of Detroit. “My dad and my uncle played baseball here back in the 40s and the 50s.”
“There is a lot of history [here],” Taylor said. “This was the side of the town where Black people could live back then too.” So it was fitting that the meeting took place there.
“On behalf of the Flint Strong Stones, I want to offer a warm welcome” announced Lyndava Williams, co-founder of Raise It Up. Quoting Martin Luther King, she began, “Our lives begin to end the day we became silent about the things that matter.”
“And so,” Williams continued, “as the Flint Strong Stones, we will not be silenced. That is our motto…We are here today for a purpose to bring awareness, which we hope will spark the passion, and, in turn, provoke action.”
Williams explained the Flint Strong Stones are part of and supported by the Michigan Round Table, a coalition of grass roots organizations, individuals, and institutions dedicated to confronting systemic racism in their communities and the state of Michigan.”
“We do some powerful work,” Williams said, “but we also love each other.”
Also present were Gwendolyn Winston, the coordinator of Race2Equity Healing Stories Project and Stacy Stevens, co-director of programs at the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion; Monica Lewis-Patrick, CEO from We The People of Detroit; Angela Stamps, program coordinator for Kentakee Athletic and Social Clubs; and Juani Olivares from the Genesee County Hispanic Latino Collaborative.
The introduction was followed by a poetry reading by Kayla Shannon from the Flint-based Raise it Up youth organization.
“They used our homes as a weapon to shoot lead bullets into our bloodstream and call it an accident,” she said, “A war they waged without our permission.”
This war, Shannon concluded, did not “broke something” but rather “provoked something.” “We have been fighting for years to keep our heads above water so warfare is nothing new to us…Sit back and watch us do what we are best at because nothing has ever be handed to us easy or simply.”
The sense of community resilience and solidarity expressed in Shannon’s poetry reading was palpable in the room, revealing to the general public that in this basement war room these activists are just beginning to fight back.
Shannon’s reading was followed by a careful analysis of the 2017 Michigan Civil Rights Commission Report on the Flint water crisis by Angie Stamps, program coordinator of Kentakee Athletic and Social Clubs.
“It is a long read,” she said, “but it was a tough read because I have been studying history for a number of years, particularly African American history here in the United States.”
After reading the report, Stamps said, “I felt like it was 1895, 1872, or even 1693 … it was the same [racist] principles at work but just in a different form.”
Stamps’ observation about how racism occurs in contemporary United States is indeed perceptive. Her interpretation echoes that of many scholars who are attempting to develop a better theory of contemporary racial oppression, one that shows racial oppression’s deep yet subtle structures, its various strategies and reproductive tendencies. Emergency management for Stamps and many activists in the room is the most virulent form of contemporary racial oppression.
Citing widely from the Civil Rights Commission report, Stamps concluded “the Flint Water Crisis is the product of over 75 years in the making. Some form of emergency management may be necessary from time to time, but we will not cure the disease if we only treat one symptom.”
Juani Olivares from the Genesee County Hispanic Latino Collaborative spoke next, voicing the heightened concern of the Hispanic community in Flint given the recent ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids in the area.
Olivares reported there still are families in Flint that don’t know of the water crisis. “Much of the information is in English and the information that has been translated into Spanish is often done so poorly,” she explained. Many in the Hispanic community do not have access to cable or the Internet, and this lack of information and awareness continue to be a problem in the community, she said.
Moreover, in the wake of nationwide raids to target DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, which allows some immigrants who were brought into the United States as children to stay, has sent this community underground away from the water PODS and food pantries that are highly surveilled and where current identification is usually a prerequisite to safe food and water access, Olivares said.
Whitney Frierson, another youth from Raise It Up, then read another powerful poem. Her ability to draw together diverse theoretical strains like gentrification and urban black dispossession and to make them artfully mesh was as exceptional as it was moving.
Acknowledging the “lived reality of our children and our youth,” Monica Lewis-Patrick emotionally reflected, “We don’t have to imagine a day without water, because we are actually living that reality.”
Imagine A Day Without Water is a national campaign. “What we know right now,” Lewis-Patrick explained, is that “across this country about 11.6 percent of the American population are living without water security.”
She added that projections from Michigan State University predict that in the next five years about 36 percent of the American population will not be able to afford their water.
“We know this because now” – here Lewis-Patrick paused – “we have become the experts on water.”
In Detroit more than 100,000 households have been shut off from water, and because of emergency management, “nobody can tell us how many of those households have been restored,” Lewis-Patrick stated.
“What we know in Detroit is that it took organizers and leaders, much like what happened here in Flint, to prepare the data and the research to alarm their neighbors and their own government that they were being poisoned in Flint, and that they were slowly being killed in Detroit by the lack of access to water and sanitation.”
“So we could not allow this day of Oct. 12, 2017 to go by without having our say. And if it is one thing I know about the Flint Strong Stones,” Lewis-Patrick said, “We are going to have our say. We are going to have our say.”
Sitting through this small gathering of powerful women leaders, I was overwhelmed by their passion and perseverance. I also recognized that what I heard and what the media will report on today and in the days to come will only capture a small sliver of their continuing struggle to not only right the wrongs of the past, but to ensure their freedoms and rights are protected in the future as well.
Michael Mascarenhas, associate professor in environmental science, policy and management at the University of California – Berkeley, is at work on a book based on the Flint water crisis. He is the author of Where the Waters Divide: Neoliberalism, White Privilege and Environmental Racism in Canada; as well as New Humanitarianism and the Crisis of Charity: Good Intention on the Road to Help. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.