How to ignore a mass poisoning in America: The Flint water crisis outrage gets even worse

A new cache of emails released by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder show just how little his administration cared

Published January 21, 2016 10:45PM (EST)

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder  (AP/Carlos Osorio)
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (AP/Carlos Osorio)

A "political football."

That's how Dennis Muchmore, the former chief of staff to Michigan governor Rick Snyder, described the crisis over the water in the city of Flint in a September 2015 email. The water, which was from the Flint River and which was shot through with poisonous amounts of lead from old, leaking pipes, had wreaked terrible havoc on Flint's residents for nearly 18 months at this point. It had caused people to begin violently vomiting in the night. It was making people's hair fall out in great clumps. It was stunting children's growth and causing potentially irreversible brain damage. It was even too dangerous for car parts.

To Muchmore, though, Flint's nightmare was something to sneer at. Many government officials, he wrote, thought that

"some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children's exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football claiming the departments are underestimating the impacts on the populations and particularly trying to shift responsibility to the state."

That email is part of a larger cache of correspondence about Flint that was released by Snyder on Wednesday night. It is perhaps the most damning example of the cavalier way that Flint was left to poison itself to death, even as residents raised holy hell about what was happening to them. When Michigan wasn't ignoring them, or telling them they were wrong, it was trying to figure out how it could evade accountability—or, in Muchmore's words, seeing how to reject efforts to "shift responsibility to the state."

Sadly for him, Muchmore admits that, technically, the state—and not Flint itself–was ultimately responsible for the decision to begin using water from the Flint River in April of 2014. "We’re not able to avoid the subject," he laments. A better person might not have written these things, but Flint was not given the luxury of being governed by such people.

It is no surprise that Flint was treated with this kind of appalling indifference. That is nothing new. You'd be hard-pressed to find a starker example of the serial indignities doled out to poor people and people of color in the United States than the history of Flint.

As one of the main centers of the auto industry, Flint played a central role in America's postwar rise to global economic dominance. It was rewarded for this by being promptly tossed on the scrap heap when deindustrialization swept across the country. Then, when Michigan's financial crisis began spiraling out of control, the state decided that Flint's citizens—along with people in lots of other cities that just happened to have large poor, black populations—no longer deserved even basic democracy, and handed power over to a string of unelected "emergency managers." (Among other things, one of those emergency managers ignored Flint's City Council when it voted to switch back to the city's previous water source.)

Given all of that, it would have been more surprising if Flint's crisis had been taken seriously. Once you've decided that people are incapable of responsibly exercising their right to vote—you know, the kind of thing they used to say to keep women and black people from the polls back in the day—it's not a huge step to deciding that they don't possess the skills necessary to understand when their own water is poisoning them.

Snyder—in an eerie parallel to that other Midwestern villain, Rahm Emanuel—has gone from overseeing this orgy of cruelty to emotionally promising to stick around and fix the mess. In a recent speech, he floridly apologized for letting Flint down and assured everyone that he understood the gravity of their predicament. However true that may be, he surely understands the gravity of his own predicament far more. Snyder is not the first rich, racist man to oversee a government that favors other rich, racist people and leaves everyone else to drown, but he is the one in the driver's seat right now. It's hard to see how he can stick around. With any luck, he'll be bounced from his office soon enough. Ensuring that the people of Flint are treated as human beings and not the detritus of Michigan's lost glory years is a more difficult task.

By Jack Mirkinson

Jack Mirkinson is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @jackmirkinson.

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Flint Water Crisis Lead Poisoning Michigan Public Health Rick Snyder