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Poisoned City: Flint and the Specter of Domestic Terrorism

Posted on Mar 4, 2016

By Henry A. Giroux / Truthout

Nicholas Smale / CC-BY-2.0

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This piece first appeared at Truthout.

In the current age of free-market frenzy, privatization, commodification and deregulation, Americans are no longer bound by or interested in historical memory, connecting narratives or modes of thinking that allow them to translate private troubles into broader systemic considerations. As Irving Howe once noted, “the rhetoric of apocalypse haunts the air” accompanied by a relentless spectacle that flattens time, disconnects events, obsesses with the moment and leaves no traces of the past, resistance or previous totalitarian dangers. The United States has become a privatized “culture of the immediate,” in the words of Zygmunt Bauman and Carlo Bordoni: It is a society in which the past is erased and the future appears ominous. And as scholar Wendy Brown has noted in Undoing the Demos, under the rule of neoliberalism, the dissolution of historical and public memory “cauterizes democracy’s more radical expressions.”

Particularly now, in the era of Donald Trump, US politics denotes an age of forgetting civil rights, full inclusion and the promise of democracy. There is a divorce between thought and its historical determinants, a severance of events both from each other and the conditions that produce them. The growing acceptance of state violence, even its normalization, can be found in repeated statements by Trump, the leading Republican Party presidential candidate, who has voiced his support for torture, mass deportations, internment camps and beating up protesters, and embraced what Umberto Eco once called a cult of “action for action’s sake” - a term Eco associated with fascism. Ominously, Trump’s campaign of violence has attracted a commanding number of followers, including the anti-Semitic and former Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke, and other white supremacists. But a death-dealing state can operate in less spectacular but in no less lethal ways. Cost-cutting negligence, malfeasance, omissions, and the withholding of social protections and civil rights can also inflict untold suffering.

Flint provides a tragic example of what happens to a society when democracy begins to disappear.

The recent crisis over the poisoning of the water supply in Flint, Michigan, and the ways in which it has been taken up by many analysts in the mainstream media provide a classic example of how public issues have been emptied of any substance and divorced from historical understanding. This is a politics that fails to offer a comprehensive mode of analysis, one that refuses to link what is wrongly viewed as an isolated issue to a broader set of social, political and economic factors. Under such circumstances shared dangers are isolated and collapse into either insulated acts of governmental incompetence, a case of misguided bureaucratic ineptitude or unfortunate acts of individual misconduct, and other narratives of depoliticized disconnection. In this instance, there is more at work than flawed arguments or conceptual straitjackets. There is also a refusal to address a neoliberal politics in which state violence is used to hurt, abuse and humiliate those populations who are vulnerable, powerless and considered disposable. In Flint, the unimaginable has become imaginable as 8,657 children under 6 years of age have been subjected to potential lead poisoning. Flint provides a tragic example of what happens to a society when democracy begins to disappear and is surpassed by a state remade in the image of the corporation.


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A more appropriate way to analyze the water crisis in Flint is to examine it within wider contexts of power and politics, addressing it as a form of domestic terrorism - or what Mark LeVine has called in a different context a “necropolitics of the oppressed.” This is a form of systemic terror and violence instituted intentionally by different levels of government against populations at home in order to realize economic gains and achieve political benefits through practices that range from assassination, extortion, incarceration, violence and intimidation to coercion of a civilian population. Angela Davis details much of this violence in her new book Freedom Is a Constant Struggle.

Some of the more notorious expressions of US domestic terrorism include the assassination of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton by the Chicago Police Department on December 4, 1969; the MOVE bombing by the Philadelphia Police Department in 1985; the existence of Cointelpro, the illegal counterintelligence program designed to harass antiwar and Black resistance fighters in the 1960s and 1970s; the use of extortion by the local police and courts practiced on the largely poor Black inhabitants of Ferguson, Missouri; and the more recent killings of Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice by the police - to name just a few incidents.

Connecting the Dots: From Katrina to Flint

At first glance, the dual tragedies that engulfed New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina and the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, appear to have little in common. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Bush administration’s failure to govern, the world was awash in shocking images of thousands of poor people, mostly Black, stranded on rooftops, isolated on dry roads with no food or packed into the New Orleans Superdome desperate for food, medical help and a place to sleep. Even more troubling were images of the bloated bodies of the dead, some floating in the flood waters, others decomposing on the streets for days and others left to die in their homes and apartments.

“We don’t have just a water problem. We’ve got a problem of being stripped of our democracy as we’ve known it over the years.”

Flint, Michigan, also represents this different order of terrorism and tragedy. Whereas Katrina unleashed images of dead bodies uncollected on porches, in hospitals, in nursing homes and in collapsed houses in New Orleans, Flint unleashed inconceivable reports that thousands of children had been subjected to lead poisoning because of austerity measures sanctioned by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and imposed by Ed Kurtz, the then-unelected emergency manager of Flint. The poor Black populations of both New Orleans and Flint share the experience of disenfranchisement, and of potential exclusion from the institutional decisions that drastically affect peoples’ lives. They live the consequences of neoliberal policies that relegate them to zones of abandonment elevated beyond the sphere of democratic governance and accountability. Both populations suffer from a machinery of domestic terrorism in which state violence was waged upon precarious populations considered unknowable, ungovernable, unworthy and devoid of human rights. Such populations have become all too frequent in the United States and suffer from what Richard Sennett has called a “specter of uselessness,” one that renders disposable those individuals and groups who are most vulnerable to exploitation, expulsion and state violence.

In New Orleans, state violence took the form of a refusal by the Bush administration to invest financially in infrastructure designed to protect against floods, a decision that was as much about saving money as it was about allegiance to a violent, racist logic, cloaked in the discourse of austerity and willfully indifferent to the needs of the powerless and underserved in Black communities. In Flint, austerity as a weapon of race and class warfare played out in a similar way. With the imposition of unelected emergency managers in 2011, democratically elected officials were displaced in predominantly Black cities such as Detroit and Flint and rendered powerless to influence important policy decisions and their implementation. The recent deployment of emergency managers reflects the frontline shock troops of casino capitalism who represent a new mode of authoritarian rule wrapped in the discourse of financial exigency. As the editors of Third Coast Conspiracy observe:

For more than [a] decade now, Michigan governors have been appointing so-called “emergency managers” (EMs) to run school districts and cities for which a “state of financial emergency” has been declared. These unelected administrators rule by fiat - they can override local elected officials, break union contracts, and sell off public assets and privatize public functions at will. It’s not incidental that thevast majorityof the people who have lived under emergency management are black. Flint, whose population was 55.6% black as of the2010 census(in a state whosepopulationis 14.2% black overall), was under emergency management from December 2011 to April 2015. [Moreover] it was during that period that the decision was made to stop purchasing water from Detroit and start drawing water directly from the Flint River.

Rather than invest in cities such as Flint and Detroit, Governor Snyder decided to downsize the budgets of these predominantly Black cities. For instance, according to a Socialist Worker article by Dorian Bon, in Detroit, “Snyder’s appointed manager decided to push Detroit into bankruptcy ... and gain the necessary legal footing to obliterate pensions, social assistance, public schools and other bottom-line city structures.” In Flint, emergency manager Kurtz followed the austerity playbook to downsize Flint’s budget and put into play a water crisis of devastating proportions. Under the claim of fiscal responsibility, a succession of emergency managers succeeded in privatizing parks and garbage collection, and in conjunction with the Snyder administration aggressively pushed to privatize the water supply. Claire McClinton, a Flint resident, summed up the larger political issue well. She told Democracy Now!: “And that’s the untold story about the problem we have here. We don’t have just a water problem. We’ve got a democracy problem. We’ve got a dictatorship problem. We’ve got a problem of being stripped of our democracy as we’ve known it over the years.”

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