It's true: President Obama drank Flint, Mich.'s water. It happened at a press conference in Flint, where lead in the drinking water has created a two-year-long health crisis. As a result, says Flint resident Laura MacIntyre, "Everyone seems to think the water situation is fixed."
No, she says. "It's not fixed at all."
MacIntyre, an adjunct sociology professor and a member of the AFT's Lecturers' Employee Organization at the University of Michigan-Flint, is deeply immersed in the movement to fix Flint's water crisis. "A lot of misinformation is being spread that's endangering people's lives," she says. The water has contaminants other than lead, and despite official proclamations, there is no readily available, reliable research that proves it is safe. Researcher Marc Edwards, who played an early role in exposing the lead issue in Flint, recently compared drinking the water there to playing Russian roulette: It could be fine, on the one hand, but on the other hand, it could contain flakes of lead dislodged from old pipes that still need replacing. Many people are still uninformed about water safety and continue to drink unfiltered water from the tap.
The problem in Flint began in 2014 when the city switched to the Flint River as its water source, and that water picked up lead from old pipes. Lead is particularly harmful to children: It can stunt growth, decrease IQ, and cause mental retardation and behavioral problems.
MacIntyre's family, including 10-year-old twins and a 14-year-old high school freshman, still live on the bottled water stacked up in their dining room and porch. (See one of the twin's drawings about life in Flint below.) Many other Flint residents also rely entirely on bottled water. They take sponge baths with it, cook and clean with it, and schedule visits to friends outside of Flint for showers.
MacIntyre is actively protesting the crisis. Most recently, she joined a coalition of unions and community activists in a Week of Action May 16-20. On Monday, she participated in a "die-in" at the Flint water treatment plant (pictured above), drawing attention to lead-related miscarriages among adult women and damaged eggs among girls. On Tuesday, a "bucket brigade" of protesters in Lansing demonstrated the difficulty of living on bottled water by passing buckets from a faucet inside the Capitol building to a 10-gallon drum outside. On Wednesday, Flint residents took showers in a performance art demonstration in Ann Arbor, then protested outside Gov. Rick Snyder's condo there. Residents, including MacIntyre, have testified at congressional hearings, participated in videos like "Faces of Flint," led actions, and used #flintwatercrisis and #flintrising to elevate the issue on social media.
Volunteers from a coalition of labor and other community organizations, including AFT members, have gone door to door to be sure residents know not to drink the water, and they deliver bottled water to those who are shut in, unable to drive or otherwise unable to get their own water.
The coalition is also crafting a union-style labor/community grievance to "make whole" the people of Flint. Some reparations could include health services for conditions like respiratory illness, epilepsy, migraines, miscarriages, skin eruptions and mental health; reimbursement for water bills; and reimbursement for broken appliances taxed by a high level of particulates. The grievance will be delivered to workplaces throughout the Flint area in May.
Meanwhile, the damage is still unfolding. In addition to the harm to infrastructure and health, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver anticipates a big hit to the juvenile justice system in the future, one reason she declared a state of emergency in December. That’s because lead poisoning has been associated with behavioral disorders including impulse management and violence—and Flint’s schools already have a disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions.
In January, the Department of Justice opened an investigation. But the people of Flint, including MacIntyre, will continue to agitate to ensure attention does not waver until real justice is done.
[Virginia Myers/Jake Mays photo]