The American public has been shocked to discover that the people of Flint, including children, have been being poisoned with lead by their municipal water supply since April of 2014. The questions of who took the decision to draw water from the heavily polluted Flint River, and why, have been fiercely debated in recent months. But one thing seems clear. The Flint public was deprived of an effective voice and had difficulty being heard. In essence, Flint’s population was under colonial rule because its local democratic institutions were sidelined by the state. For similar reasons, the population of Gaza, under Israeli occupation and blockade, is facing a severe water crisis. In both places, local people have been deprived of autonomy, and they face a severe public-health crisis as a result.
Michigan has become more and more immune to public input. The state once had a Michigan Water Resources Commission, a Michigan Toxic Substance Control Commission, and a Michigan Environmental Review Board. A Republican governor established the latter in the 1970s to ensure that there would be “a public forum where citizens had standing without hiring a lawyer.” In the 1980s and 1990s Governors James Blanchard and John Engler gutted those commissions and the MERB. Other than the rich, Michiganders lost standing.
Then when Governor Rick Snyder came into office, he split the Department of Natural Resources from the Department of Environmental Quality, which had the effect of making the latter more technocratic and less open to public feedback. He also immediately reduced their total funding by nearly 11 percent, telegraphing his lack of interest in things like state water quality. As a matter of political philosophy, the MDEQ was pervaded by a dislike of regulation, so that department officials took a minimalist approach to water purity and disputed any challenge to their consensus that Flint water was just fine.
The Michigan Republican Party in 2011 passed the notorious Emergency Manager Law, which allowed the governor effectively to seize control of municipal governments and school boards with budget over-runs, and to appoint an outsider with a charge to impose austerity and fiscal discipline. Michiganders, outraged, struck the law down by a referendum vote in 2012. The Republican majority in the state legislation reinstated the law and forbade further referendum challenges. Critics charged that the law was implemented in a racially invidious manner. By 2013 half of the state’s African-American population was being ruled by the governor’s appointed viceroys. Moreover, the conviction of the emergency managers that there was enough money in some of these communities to provide the governance necessary to residents’ well-being, if only it was properly managed, was misplaced. Austerity is not always compatible with effective police, fire departments, and public health.