While some praise the candidate’s visit for bringing attention to the city as its water crisis continues, others see a candidate plying a cause ‘just to get votes’
Hillary Clinton has made every effort to make Flint her own. The water crisis afflicting this predominantly black Michigan city – ignored by Washington politicians for years – has become another battlefield in a progressive war between Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Race, class and the environment matter again in an issues-based, neck-and-neck race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Looking past Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire, where Sanders is tipped to win, and toward the March primary states where she will be counting on African American support, Clinton made a symbolic campaign stop here on Sunday.
“I feel blessed to be here but I wish it were for a different reason,” she said, as she took to the stage at the House Of Prayer Missionary Baptist church, flanked by purple-robed members of a choir and surrounded by a sea of nodding heads.
“But I am here because for nearly two years mothers and fathers were voicing concerns about the water’s color and its smell, about the rashes that it gave to those that were bathing in it. And for nearly two years Flint was told the water was safe.”
Her words drew applause and shouts of amen. But though Clinton supporters turned up for Sunday’s service, simply identifying the problem was not enough for some.
Not everyone in a city where the words “FLINT LIVES MATTER” appear next to bullet holes in windows wants the lead in their children’s drinking water made into a photo-op, a kind of Hurricane Katrina for a more liberal nation’s eco-justice age.
Interviews with residents before, during and after Clinton’s visit revealed fear of a candidate helicoptering in on the campaign trail, attempts to salvage a modern economic and environmental crisis that is Flint’s own, and few answers for a city being abandoned by its residents.
If she’s bringing 35,000 hydroelectric filters, I’ll love her for it. But that’s not what she’s about to do
Arnette Rison III
“Don’t jump on a cause just to get votes,” said Flint Lives Matter organiser Calandra Patrick, as Clinton’s jet arrived in town. “It doesn’t matter to me if she makes an appearance or not – it doesn’t matter to me one bit.”
Arnette Rison III, a 47-year-old independent contractor, put Clinton’s visit in starker terms: “If she’s bringing 35,000 hydroelectric filters, I’ll love her for it. But that’s not what she’s about to do.”
At the church, though the topic was serious, the mood was jovial and warm. Clinton stood before a packed audience and spoke emphatically about the moral imperatives of the situation, saying: “The children in Flint are just as precious as the children in any other part of America”.
The introduction she received was light, the pastor joking that the baptismal water was from the Flint river but he had experienced no rashes, only a little ash. The audience response ranged from lovingly enthusiastic to fierce.
‘A little after the changeover I noticed the smell’
It was the spring of 2014 and something wasn’t right with the water. Officials had switched from Detroit’s water system to the Flint river to save money, and though Patrick’s tap water was still running clear, she knew something was amiss.
“A little after the changeover I noticed the smell,” Patrick said. Every time she turned on the shower, there it was again. So she did what anyone worried about being alone in her feelings would do: she posted about it on Facebook.
“It’s funny: when you just put stuff out there and start asking questions, other people are like, ‘Yeah, I noticed it too!’”
Almost two years later, the 41-year-old Flint native turned to Facebook once again to help set up the Flint Lives Matter Tailgate, a bottled water giveaway at city hall on Saturdays for the needy, aimed at supplementing the work of fire stations and local churches.
“We don’t have a limit,” Kevin Palmer, another organizer, said. “We ask people what they need and we give it to them.”
But there remains an element of political protest – of rebellion – to the new cause célèbre of progressive Democrats.
A man piling water into his car erupted into chants decrying Rick Snyder, the Republican Michigan governor on whom Sanders has called to resign: “Hey hey! Ho ho! Governor Snyder has got to go!” A woman sold Flint Lives Matter T-shirts. The event’s online invitation page drew a straight parallel to Hurricane Katrina: “Both abandoned by the government and left to die from dirty water.”
An ‘unconscionable’ and ‘infuriating’ situation
Clinton may have come late to Flint, but she came strong.
After lead levels were determined to far exceed environmental regulations, people beyond Michigan’s borders knew the water could cause permanent brain damage in children.
On 11 January, Clinton called the Flint water crisis “unconscionable”; a few days later, she appeared on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show to call the situation “infuriating”. She was the first candidate to bring the subject up in presidential debates and she even suggested one of the four additional Democratic debates should be held in Flint, in order “to shine a spotlight on what’s happening there and in places like Flint around the country”.
That will now happen, in March.
On Sunday, Clinton seemed at pains to emphasize her lasting commitment to the issue, saying, “I will fight for you no matter how long it takes,” and, “This has to be a national priority, not just for today and for tomorrow.”
It’s a beautiful thing! It’s nice to see she’s committed enough to come here
Patricia Torrey, 54
It was perhaps a “pre-buttal” to the attacks she expects to receive for supposedly appearing to care so much about Flint when the optics for doing so are so good.
“This is no time for politics as usual,” she said. “Flint should start making the repairs you need to restore safe water as soon as possible.”
For 32-year-old Lorenzo Lee Avery Jr, though, it was a disingenuous visit: “Honestly, she not coming to help,” he said. “Feels like she coming for the entertainment.”
His mother, Patricia Torrey, was standing over his shoulder. She strongly disagreed: “It’s a beautiful thing!” said Torrey, 54, adding that she was a Clinton supporter, all the more so heading into Michigan’s 8 March primary. “It’s nice to see she’s committed enough to come here.”
Casey Lester, 31, who lives in Flint but runs the restaurant Max & Erma’s in Detroit, was unimpressed by Clinton’s commitment. His wife, Marcella Lester, a 28-year-old applications analyst at Henry Ford Health Systems, took the campaign bait.
Though like her husband, she typically votes Republican, and may well do so in this election, Marcella Lester said she was pleased by Clinton’s hastily scheduled trip.
“I think it’s good to get the attention,” she said, “because we need as much as we can get.”
‘Nothing lasts, not even marriage’
Most people you talk to around Flint just want to know how politicians like Clinton and Sanders intend to help them. Because they do need help.
Kevin Palmer, a Flint Lives Matter organizer and father of five, pulled up a sleeve to reveal a surprisingly pale and scaly inner elbow. He avoids the water as much as he can, but the rashes persist. Worse than the physical harm, he said, was the financial. Having bought his house for $190,000 in 2012, Palmer said, it was now worth “nothing”.
His brother Eddie Palmer, who runs a car audio and stereo repair shop, has fallen on tough financial times, too, to say nothing of the rashes and boils. Audio Unlimited had lost 40% to 50% of its clientele in the two years since the water was switched, he said, and he doesn’t have it nearly as bad as the restaurants, at which he won’t even eat.
Every month, he said, people tell him they’re leaving – moving to Ohio or Arizona or even California. While he had no intention of shipping out himself, Palmer said he couldn’t blame them.
Carolyn Harper, 77, is planning to move to South Carolina, to be closer to her son. In the meantime, she is stuck in Flint, depending on bottled water that is too heavy for her to carry home.
“That ain’t going to last,” she said, gesturing at bottles at a water treatment site near her house. “Nothing lasts, not even marriage.”
She has outlasted three husbands now, and just about all of her friends have skipped town. Her house, on West Pulaski, has a bullet hole below the front window, a reminder of when there was a dope house across the street. But now the biggest problem is the water that flows from her taps.
She poured a glass, to hold up to the light. It was a pale shade of yellow, and slightly frothy. Asked if she thought it smelled faintly of minerals, she laughed – Harper can’t smell a thing.
Calandra Patrick, the Flint Lives Matter organizer, sees the combination of crises in starker terms.
“It’s genocide and gentrification. The inner city of flint is predominantly black. I don’t know where they get these 57% figures, but the inner city of Flint is 90% to 95% black. It is.”
Rison, who has two daughters and a grandchild, just wants to leave. But he finds moving financially impossible. He hasn’t even had his house appraised, because he knows it won’t be worth anything.
“Nobody wants to come to Flint,” he said.
Except, apparently, Hillary Clinton.
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