Concern for civil rights led a journalist working for the ACLU to expose one of the nation’s largest public health crises.
Veteran investigative reporter Curt Guyette was hired by the ACLU of Michigan to document the impact of the state's radical emergency manager law. The measure undermines representative democracy by taking away the power of locally elected officials and allowing a state appointee to take complete control of school districts and cities.
In the course of reporting on the law, Guyette identified one of its most egregious outcomes: the story of how a toxic water system poisoned the people of Flint. The scandal also raised serious concerns about racial and class bias.
Guyette first went to Flint because the city was under the control of an unelected emergency manager who was appointed by the Governor. Guyette met residents who were up in arms about the low quality and high cost of their water.
Working with residents, community groups, and volunteer scientists, Guyette helped reveal that Flint residents were right to complain: Their water was massively contaminated ever since the city’s water source was switched from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in 2014.
But, thanks to the state’s sweeping emergency manager law, and the denials and intransigence of public officials and elected leaders, residents of Flint were hard-pressed to bring about change. Enacted in 2011, Michigan’s emergency manager law enables the Governor to appoint emergency managers to cities and school districts that are financially distressed. These managers have broad powers to suspend the authority of mayors and city councils and to administer and legislate in their place. The ACLU of Michigan opposed the emergency manager law as a threat to the civil rights of Michigan residents. The Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment provides that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction "the equal protection of the laws.”
The emergency manager law means that some residents don’t have access to representative democracy. While jurisdictions all over Michigan faced budget troubles, only jurisdictions comprised mostly of poor people and people of color were forced to surrender their right to representation by an elected official. Taken together, the cities under emergency management represented about half of Michigan's black residents — and only about one-tenth of the state's overall population.
In a 2012 report, “Unelected and Unaccountable,” the ACLU of Michigan detailed the harmful effects of residents losing the ability to elect their leaders or to hold them accountable for their decisions. Read in the context of the Flint contamination crisis, the report’s findings appear prescient.
In January, the ACLU and others filed suit to ask a federal court to step in and secure access to safe drinking water for the people of Flint. Alleging violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the lawsuit asks a federal court to compel the city and state officials to follow federal requirements for testing and treating water to control for lead and to order the prompt replacement of all lead water pipes at no cost to Flint residents.
“Flint is Exhibit A for what happens when a state suspends democracy and installs unaccountable bean counters to run a city,” said ACLU of Michigan legal director Michael Steinberg. “In a failed attempt to save a few bucks, state-appointed officials poisoned the drinking water of an important American city, causing permanent damage to an entire generation of its children.”
Join us! June 23, 7:00 at Town Hall Seattle: Curt Guyette will share how the tragic events in Flint, Michigan unfolded, how racism and the suspension of a democratic process led to the crisis, and the efforts to hold government officials accountable for thier misdeeds. Doors open 6:30pm. Tickets $5 and available through the links below.