Flint Water Warriors remember Tony Palladeno, silenced by COVID

By Ben Pauli

Contributing Flint Water Warriors include Joelena Freeman, Rhonda Kelso, Gina Luster, Vicki Marx, Melissa Mays, Colette Metcalf, Trina Redner, Christina Sayyae, Dan Scheid, Bruce Stiers, Andrea Watson, Tonya Williams, Deb Conrad and Maegan Wilson.

On January 10, 2022, Flint lost one of its preeminent native sons, Tony Palladeno, to complications from COVID-19. As Tony lay in the ICU at Hurley Hospital on a ventilator in the weeks prior to his passing, prayers and well-wishes from far and wide flooded social media.

Tony Palladeno. (Photo by Dan White)

One could almost feel the collective will of a city straining to pull him through to safety, to help him muster what strength he had left for one last fight. I was not in the room, of course, but there’s one thing I’m sure of: Tony fought until the end. He wouldn’t be Tony otherwise.

Tony will no doubt go down in the annals of Flint history as one of the city’s great personalities, a character among characters. He as much as anyone embodied the city’s pathos—its pain, its disappointment, its sense of abandonment and neglect—but also its resilience, its determination, its fire.

And for as much as he suffered and strove, he could be incredibly lighthearted and playful, quick with a joke and one of his inimitable Tonyisms. In his wryest, crudest, most jovial moments, Tony was probably the closest thing Flint had to a Falstaff, leavening the atmosphere with witty and winking commentary and bringing the roil of the streets into every room he entered.

Among other things, I am grateful to Tony for teaching me about listening. Everyone who knew Tony heard him say, at one time or another, that he wasn’t being listened to, that his concerns weren’t being heard. His response was generally to talk more, and talk louder: not uncommonly, right up to the point where he was forcefully escorted out of the room.

His emotional way of speaking and occasional outbursts of anger could belie the fact that he was a deep and nuanced thinker. (For every “I’m done” and “they’re killin’ us” there was an “I’m not saying it’s all bad…”) Just when you started getting the feeling of déjà vu—of watching the same old Tony Show—he would hit you with something that made you stop, and think, and reconsider.

In the course of one soliloquy he could provoke everything from eye-rolls, to laughter, to insight and empathy—sometimes all at once. Those who didn’t listen to Tony, and listen carefully, missed out on a lot.

They missed out not only because Tony could help you see things in a new light but because his knowledge of the community was virtually unrivaled. I thought that one day I might pitch him a book idea: The History of Flint—As Told by Tony Palladeno.

Tony Palladeno speaking to the media in 2015. (Photo source: MLive interview)

What an informative tale that would have been—not to mention an amusingly skewed and humorous one. When Tony came to speak to my students at Kettering, his gloss on the city’s pre-industrial era was: “tiny beavers and big trees…no offense.” Tiny Beavers and Big Trees. That should have been the title of Chapter one.

Most of all, Tony was someone with heart. There was no secret about that: it was right there on his sleeve for all to see, pretty much all of the time. His love for his family, his friends, and his city was palpable. No one was prouder of being from Flint than Tony, and no one prouder of the East Side, in particular.

Who will give the tours of the neighborhood now? Who will tell his story the way he told the stories of so many bygone people and places? If the outpouring of memories from Tony’s loved ones and comrades over the past few days is any indication, his legacy is in good hands.

Because as much love as Tony gave others, he got it back from the very many people who admired his unique spirit and dogged determination to make Flint a better place.

Reminiscences of Tony

Joelena Freeman

“If you take a minute just to imagine, a dauntingly large sea of chanting warriors armed with empty water bottles inside the rotunda at the Capital in Lansing, belting out the phrase “Do your jobs! Open the pods!”

Tony cud be seen and heard loud and clear. He was a rock within our community and a strong voice for the people! He never seemed to miss a beat to be able to stand up against those who harmed us Flint residents.

He spoke loud for others who cud not. He was big guy with a huge heart and wasn’t afraid to shed his tears of passion whenever we won or whether we lost a battle against the perpetrators of our beloved Flint community of citizens.

I watched Tony express himself ways no others could. We all watched. I was proud to walk the line with him. He was a fighter for justice and for the people, always. It won’t be the same without you my friend and fellow water warrior…I miss you already…”

Rhonda Kelso

“Tony stood up for all of us!!”

Carma Lewis

“This is the day I realized that Tony could do no wrong in my eyes.” Full video of Tony Palladeno can be viewed at this link – www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTusc6TFSOA.

Tony Palladeno speaking to former City of Flint Mayor Dayne Walling in 2015. (Photo source: MLive video.)

Gina Luster

“Those late night City Council Meetings…. EPIC! He would try to get through to Eric through Me! Lol… What a task! We’ve definitely lost a Warrior!”

Vicki Marx

“Tony was a warrior and fought ferociously for his city whether it was water or the privatization. Those of us who were lucky enough to call him friend all knew that he was a grizzly bear with a heart bigger than the city he fought so hard for. I’ll miss being your driver and bodyguard my Friend.”

Melissa Mays

“Tony has been a solid and constant rock for Flint starting long before the Water Crisis. In the past 7 years I’ve known Tony, I was honored to see and work alongside such an incredible advocate, friend, family man and the dedicated rabble rouser for justice he truly was. Tony’s positive impact on Flint is permanent and he will be missed.”

Colette Metcalf

“Side by side we fought The Water Sssnakes. Tony fought fiercely for his family and community, long before the Flint Water Diaster. Beautifying and cleaning Flint especially his beloved Kearsley Park.

Thank you to his family for sharing Tony and Leah with us as we hunted those water snakes. Tony showed the world how strong Flintstones are. Till my last breath I too will fight for Justice for Flint.

Tony they can’t silence you even in death, Water Warriors will continue to fight, we will say your name and remind them We WON’T Back Down. A compromised immune system is one of the many health effects of lead poisoning. Yes Covid-19 will be written as your cause of death.

We know the truth of how bad you were poisoned by Flint Water and I for one will remind those responsible if not here on earth their judgement awaits. Rest easy my brother.”

Trina Redner

“Flint lost a warrior, his absence will be felt & loss a deep blow to those he stood with.”

Christina Sayyae

“Tony would always put his community in his heart. He carried the weight of what happened personally. More people need to stand and never back down like Tony. I remember so many times when i was well enough to fight still he would always show up.

If he saw you needed a hug or we can do this. He was there. People need to be brave like Tony. People need to care about there nieghbors and community like tony.

We can build a beautiful future without the lies of the gov being like Tony.” “My kids and i will miss him deeply.” “He was a role model. My heart is broken. We will never forget him.”

Dan Scheid

“I remember Tony at the Whiting for the info session prior to the cultural center millage vote, reminding the panel of arts directors of their responsibility of seeing that the seats in that auditorium were filled with Flint’s poor, should the millage pass.”  [An account of that 2018 meeting, including Palladeno’s comments, can be read here.]

Bruce Stiers

“[Tony] was a stand up guy with a beautiful heart and a rock solid family.” “I’ve asked if possible that the flag at City Hall be lowered to half staff..and a moment if silence at the next council meeting for our Fallen Warrior.”

Andrea Watson

“Tony was true through and through, wanted us to fight if not for ourselves our children, grandchildren and other’s! I was always afraid, no longer!”

Tonya Williams

“We deff lost a Flint hero. Tony will always hold a special place with many. He is a true Flint hero.”

Maegan Wilson

“Tony was a lead Flint water warrior who made his voice heard. He organized, trained and equipped others to fight for clean water. He was truly dedicated to exposing the Flint water crisis and will be greatly missed.”

Deb Conrad

“Tony was larger than life. I know we probably disagreed on a whole lot of stuff–except that people should have clean, safe, affordable water. It was a pleasure to be in the street with him. Even when the “street” was indoors at a church.”

East Village Magazine

In a July 2018 article concerning a town hall meeting held about the arts millage Tony had some iconic and poignant quotes. EVM offers the link to that story and some of Tony’s quotes here:

…”Several speakers voiced concerns that the city’s cultural institutions have not always reached out adequately to underserved communities, and will need to aggressively do so if they are receiving millions of dollars of public funds.

Eastside neighborhood activist Tony Palladeno, a highly recognizable figure during the water crisis, spoke up for access to  the arts from what he called “the forgotten rotten neighborhood of Flint” which literally begins just across Robert T. Longway from the Cultural Center.

“I was that second grader in the third row that never knew what an oboe was,” he said, recalling being exposed to the arts in elementary school. “I heard a kettle drum pounding for the first year in my heart — it still does it.”

In 2018 Tony raised his voice of concern at a town hall concerning the arts millage. At the time the photo was taken Tony is saying the following, “I lived in a decent neighborhood with elders that looked out for everyone. Didn’t know we were poor until they told us. I loved my neighborhood, like you should. Doubt has set in now. The times have changed, but my love has not.” (Photo by Patsy Isenberg)

But the public school arts programming when he was growing up–and in fact, the physical schools themselves, several speakers noted–have disappeared.

“Walker, Homedale, Whittier, Central — GONE,”  Palladeno said. “You understand what I’m saying to you?  But I was that kid in the second grade that got a piece of this–and this should be available to everybody.”

Still, Palladeno said he has concerns that as a group of private, non-profit institutions a push for adequate access for the public might not yet be second nature.

“You are looking at the city of Flint here,” he said.  “I/we are Flint.  I/we expect something for our children and our elderly.  I get to look from a burned out neighborhood for not one year, not two years — twenty years ago we got abandoned.  Not once has anybody from this building [The Whiting] come into that neighborhood.

“I am for this, just for the simple fact that you might bring the elderly in with the kids for somebody who never heard an oboe before,” Palladeno said.

EVM guest writer Ben Pauli is the author of Flint Fights Back: Environmental Justice and Democracy in the Flint Water Crisis and is a professor of Social Science at Kettering University.

Author: Tom Travis

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