By Harold C. Ford
“Any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich; these are at war with one another.” …Plato, The Republic, Book IV
Nearly 100 persons gathered at the Flint Public Library April 10 as five panelists reacted to the recently released Flint Town, a Netflix original documentary series. The “Community Conversation” represented the first opportunity for Flint citizens to reflect on the series in a public forum, according to Jan Worth-Nelson, editor of East Village Magazine and moderator for the event.
Panelists included: Brian Willingham, writer, pastor and former City of Flint police officer; Isaiah Oliver, president and CEO, Community Foundation of Greater Flint; Monica Galloway, Seventh Ward Flint City Councilperson; Connor Coyne, writer, publisher, Gothic Funk Press; and Detective Tyrone Booth from the Flint Police Department.
The event included six video excerpts interspersed between panelists’ comments.
The event was co-hosted by two Flint institutions long dedicated to the purpose of exploring relevant issues in the public square: the Flint Area Public Affairs Forum, established in 1986; and East Village Magazine, which began publishing in 1976.
Most of those gathered in the room had watched the eight-part docu-series that was two years in the making and released to the public April 2. The series was an inside, riveting ride with some of the 100 officers of the Flint Police Department as they attempted to maintain law and order in a city of 100,000.
The gritty, real-life drama that unfolded in Flint Town is reminiscent of The Police Tapes, a 1977 documentary that chronicled the crime-ridden 44th precinct in New York City’s South Bronx. The Police Tapes inspired creation of the popular police drama, Hill Street Blues, produced by Michael Kozoll and recently-deceased Steven Bochco.
To watch or not to watch:
The level of real-life drama at the Community Conversation was stoked by a polemical consideration of whether or not the series ought to even be seen. For Oliver, the answer was easy. “Right away, I said I’m not watching it because I’m not going to watch other people benefit off of the community that I love,” he said.
Oliver’s distrust was immediately confirmed for him by a short clip that featured a police officer admonishing a young man that he had just arrested:
“You know what you’re doing is not working, right? So if it’s not workin’ brother, why do you want to continue to do it? You killing yourself. The man’s not killing you. You killing you.”
“Everything he (the arrested youth) comes up against, it’s not going to take a hammer to fix it,” argued Oliver. “But the reality is he (the police officer) has a hammer. Sometimes you’re going to need a wrench, a screwdriver.”
“We can’t compete with all of the negative things that existed in this eight-part series,” Oliver asserted. “We can’t share enough positive stuff to offset the negative with that (Netflix) platform. People from across the world are able to see Flint through the lens of that small clip.” (Oliver did eventually confide that he had viewed the whole series.)
Retired officer Willingham had a different take. “I kind of see it as a little bit of denial in our community, because whenever we broach a tough topic, then the first thing we want to jump to is, ’Well, let’s tell a positive story,’” he said. “I think it’s kind of disingenuous with all the reality that’s going on.”
“My thought is, ‘So what? Now what?’ ” Oliver mused. “Now what do we do with it? Because if not, then people just know a whole lot about bad things that are happening in Flint and we’ve done nothing to fix it.”
“We can’t be afraid to first look at the problem and find out why this problem exists and then let’s move on to the solution,” countered Willingham. “I don’t think we’re going to solve it by saying, ‘Oh, let’s ignore Flint Town and tell a good story about the Flint Crepe Company.’ ”
“My goal wasn’t to suggest or ask for a Pollyanna story,” Oliver replied. “I’d like to understand what we’re attempting to accomplish. Right now I can’t support what the end is because I’m not sure what it is.”
“We might miss the opportunity to talk about the problem,” Willingham retorted. “Let’s first talk about structural racism, about the decline of our neighborhoods, the lack of jobs, the failure of the school system, the drugs, and guns.”
“We see a small clip and that’s the context for everything that’s happening in (Flint),” Oliver cautioned. “Context matters a lot and our ability to decide how we use this film to advance Flint is lost.”
“When I find the problem, then I can find the solution,” Willingham reasoned.
For Coyne, “Flint Town is flawed, worthwhile, and important.” He said he found a middle ground, and read excerpts from the review he had written for Belt Magazine:
- “Business owners and residents of middle-class enclaves lament the bleak and claustrophobic images of decay that saturate Flint Town. Many activists accuse the show of abetting police militarization and engaging in poverty porn while it neglects the efforts of everyday citizens to make their city a better, safer place.”
- “…if Flint Town is guilty of tedious and repetitive ruin porn, it also shows the beauty of the city in a way that outsiders commonly neglect…the cameras capture the breathless hush of snow falling against a pale street light, or fingers of lightning that dwarf the largest buildings, or blooms of fireworks shimmering overhead when viewers anxiously expect gunfire. These are the images I connect with beauty in my hometown, and I have seldom seen them communicated so well by anyone who isn’t from here.”
Political control vs. artistic control:
Oliver also expressed concerns about control of the film’s message:
“I wasn’t part of the decision-making to do the film. I wasn’t a part of the production crew and I’m not sure what the motives were. And I think that’s part of the concern. You see a clip about the community that you love and you’re not part of the decision-making about how it’s going to be used and how it’s going to impact the community.”
A retort directed to Oliver came from longtime community activist Terry Bankert during the Q & A session: “We are a tough town in tough times. To go into the future why must we protect the present? Why not give the police view? Why must you control that view?”
“It’s not about controlling the view as much as it’s controlling the brand,” Oliver replied. “Who decided that this view was going to be shown? And as a resident of this community, I don’t have control of the brand and I’m not sure who does.”
“You can’t have a story that’s truly neutral,” warned Coyne.
“They (filmmakers) were allowed to come in an effort to show how the City of Flint Police Department policed a city that was in the top three most violent cities in the country,” Booth explained. “We did not have any control over the direction the filmmakers or the directors went…This (current) administration would not allow the access that was given…We can’t control what was in place prior to this administration.”
Galloway said she was “alarmed” by a contract already in place when a new administration arrived at City Hall with the election of Karen Weaver as mayor in 2015 and the subsequent appointment of Tim Johnson as police chief. Weaver and Johnson jointly issued a press statement about Flint Town which read, in part:
“Camera crews followed Flint police during the height of the water crisis. Johnson inherited the project when he became police chief after a previous administration approved it. He allowed filming to continue as a way of giving the world a close-up view of how Flint residents reacted during the water crisis and how police soldiered through with limited resources.”
Upon its conclusion, some attendees buzzed about this strand of the community conversation that hinted at censorship. Public discussions of the role of artists during times of political and social tension might find guidance in the words of Toni Morrison as published in The Nation magazine:
“Dictators and tyrants routinely begin their reigns and sustain their power with the deliberate and calculated destruction of art…”
Structural failures and systemic racism:
A good measure of common ground was arrived at by panelists in pinpointing structural failures and systemic racism as root causes of the problems depicted in Flint Town.
“Where in America do you have a police force that police under the weight of (Flint’s) structural failures and inequity?” asked Willingham. “Schools are failing, there’s liquor stores on every corner, the economy is what it is in Flint, drugs, guns, violence.”
Oliver agreed. “I have no trouble with the facts of this (Flint Town) because the facts are true,” he said. “We don’t talk about the fact that two percent of African-American boys that go to Mott Community College ever finish…not because they can’t get into college, but because they don’t have the wraparound supports when they get there…We don’t talk about the systems, that glass ceiling that people bump up against, and get pushed back down again.”
Galloway recollected an experience at the Michigan Civil Rights Commission that once again confirmed for her the challenge of the color line. White participants peppered her with racially loaded comments such as: “Your people have come so far. Your people are needy. Your people are used to not having what they need.”
“If there was really equality,” Galloway conjectured, “you would look at my children like they’re your own.”
“Basically we’re talking about two different America’s out there,” concluded Willingham. “Affluent society expects the cops to keep that society separate from their world.”
Flint Town is Every Town:
“Let’s talk about the fact that this (Flint Town) is not just about Flint,” Willingham advised. “It’s about 900 murders in 15 months in Chicago. It’s about riots in Baltimore and Ferguson. What’s going on in Flint is going on in every urban city across the country.”
Like Willingham, most Flintstones are aware of their city’s David impact upon the Goliath national narrative in the 20th and 21st centuries. While a mere 100,000 of 326,262,126 Americans lived in Flint at the moment this sentence was drafted, the litany of national conversations inspired by its citizenry is breathtaking and includes:
- formation of General Motors (early 1900s);
- launch of an after-hours community school model (1935);
- a two-month labor strike that confirmed the birth of the United Auto Workers (1936-1937);
- first African American mayor of a major U.S. city since Reconstruction (1966);
- first municipality in the nation to adopt an open housing ordinance (1967-1968);
- release of the movie Roger & Me (1989);
- Flint water crisis (2014-2018).
Add Flint Town to the list.
Missing money state and local:
Galloway’s four-year tenure as a Flint councilperson has included an active role in the Michigan Municipal League (MML). “I’ve learned a lot in the last four years,” she said. “That league has shown me the injustice of our state government.”
“If you look at our urban communities, you see millions of dollars of revenue sharing taken from them,” charged Galloway. As of 2014, the actual amount was $6.2 billion, according to a report by the MML. Flint’s share was $54.9 million.
“Everything we’re dealing with in our community is money,” said Galloway. “And it’s not like there’s not enough money. It’s just that our community isn’t seen as a community that deserves to have those dollars.”
The impact of revenue sharing on urban law enforcement is obvious to many, including Galloway. “If just a portion of (those dollars) were actually given to the municipalities like they should be, we wouldn’t have four cars policing our entire city.”
Many Flint citizens continue to believe that a local public safety and police services millage passed in November 2016 was for the purpose of hiring new officers and that the money was misplaced. “The millage money was actually necessary to maintain the police officers that we have,” Galloway explained.
“Had that millage not passed, there would have been 13 or more layoffs that would have taken place,” confirmed Booth. “Not one person under this administration, having received that millage, was laid off. In fact, there’s been some hiring in terms of personnel on top of that millage.”
Hell and glue:
Fair or not, the city depicted in Flint Town is one living on the edge and barely hanging on. “The city is goin’ to go down,” said one anonymous Flint citizen matter-of-factly in one of the excerpts shown during the forum. “It’s done for. It’s goin’ to burn to hell.”
Another lamented the slow response time by police officers as men shot up their neighborhood filled with kids. “They want shit like this to happen in Flint. They want all of us to kill each other so it won’t be no more shit they have to come to.”
Flint officer Robert Frost lamented the lack of resources as he surveyed a glutted control board: “We have four cars on the road, for 100,000 people, and there’s 50 calls on the board, and it’s climbing…We’ll never get this caught up.”
Booth confirmed the dilemma faced by Flint’s officers. “We understand people have complaints, we’re short of staff, we don’t have the equipment that we need, we don’t have the resources,” he stated. Then he alluded to a comment by Flint Deputy Chief Devon Bernritter in Flint Town. “They (Flint residents) don’t give a shit about our staffing problems,” said Bernritter.
“What they care about is when they press those three numbers (9-1-1) someone will come and aid to their complaint,” said Booth. “It doesn’t matter that the bullet proof vest may be expired…that maybe the cruiser we’re driving may quit halfway through the shift.”
“The police officer is the most accessible leader in the city,” Willingham observed. “Police officers are bombarded and they carry a weight in Flint due to the failure of all the other institutions around them…Flint could be in a state of chaos, a state of riots and disorder, and I hold the Flint Police Department responsible for being the glue that holds this community together right now.”
Shining light on the police department:
Flint Town co-creator Jessica Dimmock told Newsweek, “I hope people who are anti-cop feel different watching this. I hope people who are solely pro-cop also feel differently watching this. That’s our biggest hope.”
Coyne lauded “…the shared perspective of its officers of color (and) episodes (that) introduce us to Dion and Maria Reed, a mother and son going through training together, and seasoned officers Brian Willingham and Scott Watson, who as African Americans working for the police in a majority African-American city are able to express a perspective on their work that seems to elude both the civilians they serve and their white colleagues.”
Oliver feted the work done by the city’s law enforcers. “We know that they’re hard workers, and we know they’re creative, especially units to address very specific issues in our community.”
The evening’s loudest applause followed the final written comment of an audience member as read by moderator Worth-Nelson: “For me as a Flint citizen, the biggest takeaway from the series is more respect for and understanding of the Flint Police Department.”
EVM Staff Writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.