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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Flint Water Charges Address the Symptom, But the Disease Grows

Earlier this week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced criminal charges related to the Flint water crisis.  Among those facing charges are two individuals who served as Emergency Manager over the city, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose.  These individuals participated in decisions that created the crisis to begin with (by switching the source of Flint’s water supply), and then deepened the crisis by ignoring all sorts of warning signs, including the outcry from the city’s residents.

While bringing charges against those who consciously prioritized finances over the health of Flint’s residents is a decent start, we should all be clear: the battle is not over.  The people of Flint are still fighting for clean water, battling for government funding necessary to solve long-term infrastructure need, and protesting ridiculously high water bills and threats that water services will be cut off if bills are not paid.

But as grossly unjust the specific situation in Flint is, there is a larger issue which must be addressed in order to prevent catastrophes like what we’ve seen in Flint from becoming the new normal.  There is an existing disease which, with the impending presidency of He Who Shall Not Be Named, threatens to metastasize into something far more dangerous and, quite literally, deadly.  It is a disease which attacks democratic institutions in much the same way that a biological disease might attack a human organ.  This disease is the trend of state takeovers of local control, and in the case of Flint and other Michigan cities, it shows itself in the form of “emergency management”.

The State of Michigan’s ability to take control of the city’s water supply stemmed from a law which allows the state to takeover cities and school districts that are facing financial trouble.  Michigan had allowed for such takeovers for years, but when Republican Governor Snyder and the state legislature expanded the takeover powers in a 2011 version of the law, voters in the state repealed the policy via referendum.  The governor and the legislature responded with a 2013 version of the law, which basically allowed for the same things but with different wording.

Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia have emergency manager laws.  The map above can be found in a larger infographic provided by the Council of State Governments.  Many of these states have large cities with heavy populations of Blacks and/or Latinos.  The matter of removing local power and control from local residents is troubling enough at the theoretical level.  However, when the implementation of such policies generally involves taking power from Black and Brown communities and placing it in the hands of White lawmakers who are often Republicans, many view the policy as old school racial disenfranchisement.

Such takeovers have not been limited to financial crisis.  Several states without “fiscal emergency” laws have processes by which the state can take over a failing school district.  Georgia’s governor and legislature just attempted to pass such a law, but it was defeated in a statewide referendum. 

In addition to the potential spread of emergency management or state takeover policies, the country is now facing another potential form of coup—one spearheaded by the great state of North Carolina.  December 16, 2016 is likely to become a date that will live in infamy.  Some may remember this as the day of President Obama’s final press conference of the year, or the day that news chatter dominated by the FBI joining the rest of the intelligence community in concluding that not only did Russia interfere with the U.S. presidential election, but that it did so in an attempt to support He Who Shall Not Be Named.  Others will remember that date because of the extraordinary measures the overwhelmingly Republican North Carolina legislature used to weaken the powers of the incoming Democratic governor.

In an “emergency session” which was supposed to address disaster relief, the Republican legislature passed two bills (SB4 and HB17) which among other things:

  • Reduce the number of political appointments controlled by the governor from 1,500 to 425, and requires that the governor’s Cabinet appointments face approval by the state Senate
  • Modify the makeup of local and state boards of elections so that Republicans will control the boards in even years (i.e. years with presidential elections and/or other major offices up for election)
  • Limit access to the NC Supreme Court, which, in the recent election, became majority progressive.  So what better way to minimize the third branch of government than to limit the number and types of cases that can make it there?

These actions were taken by a legislature which is arguably illegitimate due to a court ruling which found that the legislative district lines resulting in the current legislature are illegal and which ordered new elections to take place in 2017.  Add on top of that the fact that the legislation was signed by a lame-duck governor who had just lost his re-election bid, and you essentially have what many have called a coup—not a military coup, and not a bloody coup, but a coup nonetheless.  More than 50 protesters were arrested at the North Carolina legislative building during the two days of debate and voting on the bills. 

And yet, while this was taking place—while a very much “not normal” usurpation of political power was taking place—the major news networks went about their business as if it were just another day.  As Media Matters reports:
None of these details, however, have been reported on any national broadcast news programs since Wednesday. A review of the December 14 and 15 editions of ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS’ Evening News, NBC’s Nightly News, and of the December 15 and 16 editions of ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS’ CBS This Morning, and NBC’s Today found no mentions of the attempted power grab. Local affiliates of all three networks did cover the story.

In short, the very nature of democracy is being transformed right in front of our eyes.  Acknowledging this is not to say that American democracy has ever been perfect, or even close to it.  But what we are seeing now, as changing demographics are challenging the White majority’s ability to dominate an honest majority rule system, is an attempt to change the very nature of democratic institutions in ways that go beyond voter suppression of demographic groups (which is also on the rise with the gutting of the Voting Rights Act).  Much the way the Electoral College is a structural feature built to offset the unpredictability of the popular vote, conservatives are testing the waters with other structural mechanisms to offset gains by people of color and progressives, particularly at the local level.

And if we are not vigilant and proactive in regards to these efforts, our communities throughout this country can end up just like Flint’s water—poisoned and out of our control.

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