“I couldn’t bathe my kid … after three minutes in the water, her skin would start to break and bleed …”

Out the front of a basement in a church hall, Nakiya Wakes, a young black woman in jeans and sweat top, is telling her story to a circle of locals and reporters, local, national and global, a Japanese film crew fiddling with their gear, a six-foot-seven English doco-maker gangling around.

Behind Nakiya, there’s the usual roll of activists and dignitaries: the radical pastor, union leaders, the uber-activist from outside — Van Jones, an imposing ex-White House adviser, ex-black Trot radical — the celebrity, actor Mark Ruffalo, and two or three scientific experts in bad suits. Behind them, behind us, and along the sides of the walls is water — 24 packs of bottled water in plastic wrap piled high, some ripped open, spilling onto the floor.

There’s the mild tedium of these long, activist press conferences, their genuine importance mixed with a mild worthiness, a slight lag. Nakiya finishes, and then the scientific expert comes to the mic.

“The water here isn’t safe to bathe in, despite what the state government’s said …”

And suddenly everyone’s head snaps to. This is news.

We’re in Flint, Michigan, in a room in the St Mark’s Catholic Church, in the middle of the country’s — and perhaps the world’s — most famous water crisis, currently going into its third year. In 2014, the residents of this mid-size city, 68 miles north of Detroit, found that the water coming out of their taps was stinking, foul-tasting and a pale orange.

They were told to boil it. They found out it was coming from the polluted Flint River, rather than from Detroit, as it had for decades. The switch had been made to save money and signed off on by the city’s emergency managers.

There then occurred the most cynical, incompetent and doomed cover-up, in which Flint’s water managers did selective testing, declared the water safe — and thus, for 15 months, adults and children drank contaminated water with neurotoxic levels of lead (released from old pipes by the corrosive effect of the contaminated water). Who knew what, when, is now the subject of inquiry.

When all this came to light several months ago, all hell broke loose, and Flint became a national story, with huge protests and a rising movement. It helps that the city is iconic in modern US history. In the 1930s it was the site of a long sit-in strike — the place was home to GM’s major factories — that lasted more than a month and did much to define the United Auto Workers as a militant modern movement.

Then in the ’90s, when the factories closed, it was featured in Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, which depicted the descent into poverty that had occurred after the plants were relocated overseas. Flint today is that city a decade or two on — its population declined from 200,000 in 1960 to 100,000 now (try imagining the city you live in with every second house empty and falling down, to get beyond the numbers here. Imagine every second strip row of shops boarded up. Now imagine that for 20 years).

Now it’s become a symbol of the next stage of that process, the collapse of American infrastructure, as 30 years of the policies that caused the factories to depart have led to the failure of the most basic elements of life. The city itself had no representation; it had been put in special administration after going bankrupt, with the collapse of its tax base. Add to this a strong element of racism — Flint is largely black — and you had the makings of a perfect modern fable.

With the residents protesting and the full horror of the story unfolding in media, the place became a site for the usual performance. Major activists and celebs came through, including Ruffalo, who had started a water rights group before he became an A-lister. The Republican governor Rick Snyder made the usual obeisances — “let’s not make a political issue out of this tragedy” — and it all came to a head when, facing a loss in the New Hampshire primary, Hillary Clinton descended onto the town to “hear their stories” and “offer solutions”.

There it sat. Until, after an impassioned speech by Ruffalo, urging Obama to declare Flint a disaster area, with only a touch of Zoolander about it — “the USA is the richest country in the nation!” — the water scientist expert guy came forward and said the water wasn’t safe to wash in.

**

“Hey, uh, well, that was the White House,” said Ruffalo, on the bus, to the assembled crowd at the front. We were being taken on a post-presser tour of Flint, rows and rows of standalone pitch-roof wooden houses.

Place didn’t look too bad, until you realised that everywhere was empty. Rows and rows, with a smshed window here, a collapsed porch there, all empty. Rows of corner shops boarded up. The place was a ghost town. In fact, much of it is gone. A third of the town’s houses have been demolished, creating nice linear parks — after years when they were torched, used by crackheads, etc. The strategy was adopted from post-Cold War East Germany. The houses that remained whizzed by.

I had joined the tour late, lying in, watching Green Acres on TV Land, the channel devoted to old TV shows. Sitcoms from the glory days, in which everyone appearing is dead, including the laugh track.

On the bus, they’d put me up the front with all the wonks, in error. I listened intently. Ruffalo got excited.

“They said it would be absolutely illegal to do what I suggested” — he had called for the town to be designated a disaster area — “but that I should put the heat on- ”

“Congress — did they say Congress?” said Van Jones.

“Yeah, they did.”

Jones laughed. I noticed the English doco-maker’s camera whirring.

“‘Oh please, please, don’t make us do anything’,” Jones said, in a fake strangled voice. “‘We’re just the White House.’ You know that was what they did every day I was there …”

The convenor suddenly noticed, looked sharply at me.

“This is off the record …”

Sorry.

We arrived at the Plumbers Union Local. Piles of packs of water bottles there too, also thousands of commercial water filters in boxes, buckets of new taps, short pipe lengths. The plumbers’ local have been running an emergency service of sorts for the worst affected.

Harold Harrington spoke, the plumbers’ head, in a work jacket and jeans, a slim 50-something man in an Eagles haircut. He looked like every working-class whistleblower in a ’70s movie. “Something’s not right, what they’re telling us to do at the plant.” He’ll be run off the road at night, eventually.

“How long will this take to fix?”

“Well, every pipe’s got to be stripped out of the houses. The river water’s corroded the pipes.”

“How many houses?”

“Forty thousand. In Flint. Plus the schools. And the hospitals …”

Then water scientist guy came to the mic, and kicked the thing to a yet higher level.

“People think drinking is bad, but bathing’s all right. It’s not.”

“What’s the safe level of chloroform for water?”

“There’s not.”

A couple of reporters peeled away and made for the bus, tapping furiously into their phones.

We got back on the bus. We went to hear more stores. Water scientist guy looked at his iPhone. “Hey, friends from all over the country are contacting me. What’s going on?”

“You are, man. You’re the news.”

More stories. More witnessing. I admire this style of protest, its puritan roots, its call to conscience and summoning of inner strength. But there’s a limit. Sometimes I wish they would just haul a truckload of tyres up to Lansing and set fire to them in front of the statehouse. “You want toxins? Here they are.”

**

That evening before the debate, there were protests. They started from several different corners of the city, to converge on the college auditorium where the debate was being held. Campaigns on water joined with those for a $15 minimum wage, for no more police killings, for other things. Black and white, college kids and workers. It joined with the Sandersnistas, who had a 12-foot-high Bernie puppet.

A furious march, with drummers up front, people dancing, chants crossing each other, through the star-blue night. Outside the university, it’s hard to see this as a broken city. But only one GM plant remains. It stopped using Flint River water two months after it was switched on, because it was corroding metal. It might have been tipped off why. Which makes the whole thing a war crime.

“This is the start of something, not the end of it,” Van Jones had said at an impromptu at the plumbers’ union. “This is bringing things together. This is your Montgomery.” Three lines, but it went through people like electricity. No substitute for knowing how to do it.

I tagged along at the end, another someone else’s demo, in the snow at night, always half-wondering why one is here. But only half. This is where history happens, in half-hour instalments, after the skin has started to break and bleed, among the fields of snow, where the houses once were.

Peter Fray

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