Tag Archives: Policy

Dying of Thirst in Flint: On the State-Sponsored Poisoning of an American Community

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Jake May/ The Flint Journal

 

Fecal chloroform, rust, sediment, and lead flowed from thousands of taps for months before local government issued a boil order. Patients complained of rashes and hair loss. Children with signs of lead poisoning crowded clinics while Legionnaire’s disease reared its ugly head. Dramatic reports of water with a funny smell, a sick yellow hue, and a foul taste hummed in the background of this dying industrial city. Physicians such as Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha sounded the alarm about lead poisoning ruining the potential of Flint’s children, while the Snyder administration studiously denied the grim reality on the ground. While this disaster unfolded, Flint’s residents, largely poor and black, languished under the supervision of a parade of emergency managers solely focused on the bottom line. Access to clean water is a fundamental human right. $5 million was the price to revoke that right in Flint, Michigan.

Flint is a city choking on the decay of post-globalization capital flight. The closure of several GM plants in the 1980s devastated the “Vehicle City”. The resultant disappearance of stable, middle-class manufacturing jobs precipitated a cycle of population flight and deindustrialization that continues to haunt the area today. With a population nearly 60% African-American, and a 42% poverty rate, the city was ripe for governmental schemes aimed at stripping away basic services in order to keep a fingernail’s hold on solvency. Enter the era of emergency management.

The saga of Flint’s water crisis is rooted in the destruction of local democracy in favor of an anti-democratic, top-down approach in which citizens aren’t afforded the right to influence public policy. In 2012, the Michigan state legislature passed Public Act 436, a law designed to rescue financially distressed municipalities from themselves. What the law achieved in fact was the creation of the legal and political space for an unelected official, referred to as an emergency manager, to dictate public policy with zero democratic accountability. The language of PA 436 is quite explicit in neutering the power of local elected officials. Section 141.1549 reads:

Following appointment of an emergency manager and during the pendency of receivership, the governing body and the chief administrative officer of the local government shall not exercise any of the powers of those offices except as may be specifically authorized in writing by the emergency manager…

This passage effectively smothered the democratic institutions of Michigan’s most troubled cities by disenfranchising their most vulnerable population, poor blacks. The denizens of Flint, Detroit, and several other poor municipalities with majority-minority demographics have shouldered the devastating effects of this state-sponsored dislocation from democracy.

In the face of lawsuits and heated criticism of PA 436, officials in Lansing called into question local representatives’ capacity to negotiate the terrain of their most pressing public policy challenges. In an almost dismissive defense of local concern, Terry Stanton, of the Michigan Department of the Treasury, was quoted, “making difficult political decisions can be very trying for local officials.” Stanton’s response betrays a noxiously paternalistic view of local elected officials. Wrestling with tough political decisions is  the mandate for city representatives. Should the aftermath of their decisions prove unproductive, residents can petition the institution, hold a referendum, or simply vote officials out of office. Unfortunately, by focusing on the deficiencies of local governing bodies, Lansing failed to take advantage of the opportunity to attack the structural issues that hinder Michigan’s progress.

In 2013, Snyder-appointed emergency manager Ed Kurtz, in cooperation with the Flint city council, backed a vote to sever ties with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department as a cost-cutting measure. It was decided that the Flint River—a notorious dumping ground—would hydrate city residents until the completion of the Karegnondi water pipeline in 2016. Kurtz’s successor, Darnell Earley, rebuffed offers to extend Flint’s contract with DWSD, instead preferring to collaborate with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to obtain the permits needed to switch the city’s water supply to the local river. April 25th, 2014 marked the beginning of Flint’s dance with environmental racism.

Nearly two years later, the national media has turned their spotlight on Flint. Although local media such as the Detroit Free Press and Michigan Radio reported on the crisis from the outset, national outlets focused their human rights reportage on Syria and the various refugee crises gripping Europe. The pace of national coverage of the poisoning of Flint has moved from a localized trickle to a flood of bleeding-heart outrage on the editorial pages of the big players. The unfolding scandal is a study in how the paucity of political influence opens the door to stunningly racist public policy. The majority-black demographics of Flint (and other black cities in Michigan under emergency management) are an inescapable fact that must remain in the forefront of any serious analysis of this tragedy. It’s incredibly difficult to insist that the white residents of say, Grand Blanc, would be stonewalled in the face of pointed questions about local water quality.

After months of what the Flint Water Advisory Task Force characterized as state agencies’ “…aggressive dismissal, belittlement, and attempts to discredit these efforts [to expose lead contamination] and the individuals involved,” Governor Snyder finally requested a federal declaration of emergency last month. President Obama quickly signed the declaration, which will free up $5 million in federal aid for the next 3 months. In a bid to influence the optics, Snyder also activated the Michigan National Guard to distribute bottled water and filters to desperate residents. He gave a speech apologizing to Flint residents, and then released 274 pages of emails related to the disaster. Snyder’s emails provide a window into the state’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge that the Flint River is toxic. In fact, concerned residents and groups were accused of using reports of lead poisoning as a “political football”. One email from a local pastor even warned of the potential for civil unrest.

Governor Snyder has released an estimate of $60 million to replace all of the lead piping in Flint. If the project is fully funded, total replacement would take at least 15 years. The logistics and financing of such a massive undertaking have yet to be ironed out. As of today, Flint has to get by with bold declarations of support that are paper thin. The House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform has heard testimony from Flint officials and one resident on the disaster in their city. Governor Rick Snyder and Darnell Earley were notably absent from the hearing. Snyder was not invited to attend, and disgraced former emergency manager Earley defied a congressional subpoena.

There was the trademark outrage from ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings (Md.), who quoted song lyrics and implored the witnesses to reflect on the devastating impact on Flint’s children. Meanwhile, partisan fissures emerged over two issues—first, House Republicans did not invite Snyder to testify at the hearing (nor did he volunteer to show), and second, Senate Democrats blocked an energy bill because it doesn’t earmark funds for disaster relief in Flint.

 

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Courtesy of Mlive.com

Although Flint switched back to the Detroit water system in October, the decaying infrastructure of rusted out piping continues to present a health hazard. Lead continues to leach into the water from local pipes. Recent testing by researchers with Virginia Tech found lead levels that meet the threshold for hazardous waste. In another blow to relief efforts, the EPA has notified the city that the consumer-grade Brita and Pur water filters being distributed are not up to the task of blunting the flow of lead that in some areas exceeds 150 parts per billion. Thus, residents will need to continue to rely on bottled water for cooking and bathing. Because Flint is a food desert, residents are particularly dependent on sustained governmental action to provide clean water. They can’t simply roll into the nearest Wal-Mart to stock up on water. There are quite literally, no other options.

Governor Snyder needs to resign effective immediately. The Michigan State Legislature should immediately repeal that odious law, PA 436. Finally, Senate Republicans should open the purse and fund extended disaster relief for Flint. Anything less is yet another tragedy.

 

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Hillary Clinton vs. Black Lives Matter

Just watched this two-part video of a backstage meeting between 2016 Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton, and several activists from the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.

I actually garnered a lot more respect for Clinton after seeing this exchange. Her focus on relentlessly tackling policy changes was spot on. Obviously, her family’s complicity in promoting race-based mass incarceration is noxious, and her current bid for the presidency is troubling.

I respect the #BlackLivesMatter movement and believe that their existence is critical to spurring the sort of “national conversations” that the corporate media always insists we need. However, we can recite stats about prison populations, the vestiges of slavery, a lack of adequate education and housing, institutionalized racism, micro-aggressions, and anti-black police violence all day long (and those conversations will never stop). The movement is hyper-intellectual, which is critical to its current success and national legitimacy. We know our shit. It’s not simply a swarm of black people running around incoherently yelling about “the man”.

But, what I’m ready to see is a platform. A draft bill. A candidate. A policy roundtable. A white paper. Something more tangible that catalyzes forward movement on the legislative side.

We have the intellectual butter. We need the policy guns.

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Will Someone Please Think of the White Women?! Or, why Patricia Arquette is a tone-deaf bitch.

Arquette Oscars Speech

Patricia Arquette accepts the award for Best Supporting Actress
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty

During her acceptance speech at the Oscars last Sunday, actress Patricia Arquette made an attempt to rally white feminists by calling for equal pay. On the surface, Arquette’s standard issue rallying cry was the sort of policy-lite that could be hashtagged and memed for days. However, things went south backstage when she was asked to elaborate her onstage comments. In a breathtakingly ignorant move, Arquette asserted that white women had done their part in agitating for the civil rights of “everybody else” (read: blacks and gays)—and now it’s their turn. Her response betrayed a fundamental flaw in mainstream, American feminism—the repeated failure to acknowledge the socioeconomic ramifications of intersectionality. In other words, the movement’s failure to recognize that one can be both a feminist and a poc and even, by god, LGBT. She offered the following wisdom behind the curtain:

“And it’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now”.

 

In her self-righteous bid to briefly don the “activist cape”, Arquette denied the ongoing struggle of people of color and LGBT citizens. Her reflexive universalization of the experiences of leisure-class white women revealed an unsophisticated understanding of the fight for equality. The actress’s failure to recognize the interplay of race, class, and gender mirrors broader issues within feminist movement.

Black feminists in the academy long ago recognized the immutable reality of intersectional identities. Pioneering work by Kimberle Crenshaw (who coined the term intersectionality) and bell hooks, among many others, attacks the notion that one has to be either a feminist or a woc. Most feminists of color recognize that systems of oppression do not operate in isolation, and thus reject the dictate that the struggle for minority rights is a separate and competing agenda.

Unfortunately, the popular imagination still clings to the framework first put forth by Betty Friedan. This is a framework centered on middle-class, college educated white women. Today, the daughters of Friedan’s peers want to lean in and be compensated appropriately for it. Essentially, these women want to compete on the battlefield of capitalism and achieve financial parity with their white, male counterparts.

Arquette’s appeal conveniently ignored the fact that black women and Latinas routinely earn less, dollar for dollar, than their white peers. An analysis of Census data conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that while white women earn 78% of the earnings of their white male counterparts, black women only earn 64%, and Hispanic women make even less at 53%. A quick look at the numbers muddles Arquette’s simplistic argument for fair pay.

The data collected by AAUW shows that race has an almost decisive impact on the lifetime earnings of women of color when compared to those of white women. Furthermore, deeper analysis of the numbers demonstrates that higher education amongst women of color does little to mitigate the persistence of the pay gap. Arquette’s use of a heteronormative, white, male-vs-female dualist framework to attack gender-based pay discrepancies erases the unique challenges faced by women with intersecting identities.

Ultimately, rather than taking a moment to seriously question an economic system that is highly stratified and marked by crippling inequality, the actress instead chose to unconsciously endorse a mode of production that must necessarily keep a significant percentage of the population on the bottom rungs. Instead of insisting on parity in a grossly unfair system, Arquette would have been better served to call for the structural changes that would make such concerns largely null and void. Perhaps next time Patty, you can struggle for women across the race-class-sexuality spectrum.

Actually…don’t bother. Intersectional feminists can agitate just fine for our damn selves.

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The EU Finally Musters the Courage to Poke the Bear

In a coordinated move to further punish Russia for its material and diplomatic support to rebels in Ukraine, the United States and leaders from Germany, Britain, France, and Italy agreed to a new, relatively tougher round of sanctions.

Today’s decision is a bold move for the European Union, considering their earlier reluctance to impose sanctions anywhere beyond select high-level Russian officials. President Obama announced at the White House today a round of initiatives designed to put the squeeze on Putin’s administration, with sanctions targeting the banking, energy, and defense industries. According to Reuters:

In Brussels, diplomats said ambassadors from the 28-member European bloc agreed to restrictions on trade of equipment for the oil and defense sectors, and “dual use” technology with both defense and civilian purposes. Russia’s state run banks would be barred from raising funds in European capital markets. The measures would be reviewed in three months.

However, in a nod to the EU’s ongoing strategic trade partnership with Russia, certain agreements made prior to today’s authorization of new sanctions will be honored. Furthermore, Russia’s natural gas stores, upon which the Europeans have a critical dependency, will remain sacrosanct. This move becomes particularly compelling when considering the participation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Deutschland has made no secret of its reluctance to threaten Russo-German trade relations by adopting the deployment of sanctions as a first principle in weakening Russian influence in Crimea.

Indeed, an oft-overlooked, yet vitally important element in the ongoing drama of Putin’s latest expansionist push is Germany’s deep and varied economic ties to the Eurasian giant. Indeed, as Mitchell A. Orenstein observed in Foreign Affairs, the Russo-German economic partnership is likely to have a decisive influence on both the contours and nature of any future EU policy towards Russia.

Today, Russia is Germany’s 11th largest export market, after Poland. Russia sells Germany gas and oil and Germany sells Russia expensive cars, machine tools, and manufactured products. A trade embargo or asset confiscations would sting Germany more than any other European power — except Netherlands where Royal Dutch Shell has substantial interests — and far more than the United States. So would a gas cutoff or embargo.

However, tempering this new public relations blitz touting the embrace of “sectoral sanctions” is the reality that the EU counts Russia as a vital partner in investing, arms sales, and energy supplies. Thus, placing too strong a vise grip on Russian industry will undoubtedly precipitate a toxic ripple effect across Western Europe. Foreign Policy notes the following:

The EU will likely restrict each industry slightly, rather than imposing a full ban — such as an arms embargo. That approach would help address the fundamental problem of different EU countries relying more on Russian business in different industries. London’s financial district, for instance, has many ties to wealthy Russian businessmen, whereas in France it’s the defense industry that could suffer if it can’t fulfill a $1.6 billion deal to sell warships to Moscow. The new measures could also target technology provided by Western companies that Russia relies on in its energy sector, which the United States has also considered.

The abiding reality is that the Europeans can only take sanctions on Russia so far before hurting themselves. Thus, the collective desire to decisively cripple an already-weak Russian economy is likely to remain at a simmer, instead of an all-out boil. The Europeans can’t afford to cause self-inflicted pain on their tender economies— and beyond that, force is clearly out of the equation. So what’s the endgame for the West?

The American public will be understandably outraged at the mere suggestion of putting boots down in a far-flung European locale to fight a pumped up menace from the Cold War era. We are battle fatigued from the ongoing chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, with congressional midterms approaching, and a presidential election looming over our discourse like a red- white- and blue cloud, chest-thumping rhetoric about reigning in a recalcitrant Russia is likely to gain steam.

However, any cynical attempt raise the specter of the big, bad, heavily accented Russian wolf in order to justify the deployment of even the most minor contingent of American troops will destroy the political capital of the poor shmuck who dares to suggest it. And so we circle back…what is the end game here?

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Rick Perry and Muscular Statecraft: Prepping for 2016

The ongoing immigration saga precipitated by the bloated influx of thousands of children from Central America has provided a platform for Texas Governor Rick Perry to superficially flex what some consider his newfound national security bona fides. At a press conference on Monday, Perry announced that he was authorizing the dispatch of approximately 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in order to stem the tide of desperate refugees.

Perry’s move serves three functions: chiefly, he draws a sharp distinction with President Obama, and by extension congressional Democrats, by appearing to take decisive action on immigration while Congress attacks the details of Obama’s $3.7 billion emergency funding request. Second, the dispatch of troops can be seen as a bold reaction to conservative media claims of rampant criminality and disease brought on by undocumented immigrants (claims that have more of a basis in xenophobic sensationalism than fact). Finally, this latest gambit can be used to burnish his reputation as the proponent of a muscular policy that an ultra-conservative base can rally around. Yesterday, the NY Times noted the following:

By seeking more military resources at the border, Mr. Perry may also be trying to repair his standing among some conservatives who had expressed doubts about his willingness to be tough on immigration. During a Republican presidential debate in 2012, the Texas governor defended in-state tuition for immigrants in the country illegally and said of those who disagreed: “I don’t think you have a heart.”

Perry’s tripartite scheme is clearly intended to catapult him to the forefront of the 2016 presidential contest. However, what’s most striking about the coverage of Governor Perry’s recent announcement is that there’s been virtually no examination of the impact on Hispanic voters of what some may consider a racist policy.

Instead there have been wry jabs at his new “hipster glasses”, mentions of his time spent being “tutored” by republican intellectuals, and even quick looks at his new exercise regimen— all in an attempt to gauge his preparation for the bitter slog that promises to be the 2016 election. Muscular though it may be, the Governor’s shortsighted policy move is guaranteed to poison the presidential well.

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