Flint had many betrayers

March 17, 2016

Who should we hold responsible for the poisoning of Flint, Michigan? Gregg Shotwell, a retired autoworker from General Motors and Delphi and author of Autoworkers Under the Gun: Live Bait & Ammo, explains why we should look beyond the easy answers.

"The water crisis has also stoked the UAW's social-justice mission, union officials say."
-- Mike Colias, "How GM Saved Itself from Flint Water Crisis," Automotive News, January 31, 2016

"I put The Heretics in the deepest part of hell, though Dante had them spared, on higher ground."
-- Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), The System of Dante's Hell, 1963

PUNDITS EXPRESS astonishment at the perdition of Flint, Michigan, as if the degeneration of a renowned American city is rare rather than emblematic of municipalities throughout the nation. Where have they been? Do they not recall the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis during rush hour in 2007? Can a head in the sand feel so comfortable that they can't feel the tremors, quakes and reverberations?

New Orleans flooded in 1915, 1940, 1947, 1965, 1969 and 2005. Love Canal, Hinkley, California, and the Louisiana Industrial Corridor aren't anomalous cancer alleys. The United States is riddled with environmental depredation.

UAW members join protests outside the Michigan Capitol building
UAW members join protests outside the Michigan Capitol building (UAW Local 598)

The calculated failure of American institutions not only to invest in vital infrastructure but to provide basic care for citizens isn't a shock, it's status quo. Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers [ASCE] publishes a report card for the nation's infrastructure. In 2013, the U.S. got Ds in drinking water, wastewater, inland waterways, roads, schools, dams, levees, aviation, transit and energy.

I guess it's uncivil for engineers to flunk an American marvel of mediocrity like Interstate 35W and other bridges, which were ranked at a C+. The overall D+ grade point average indicates that we did get some Cs in a few less precarious spots, like ports, parks and bridges. Take your hat off, hold your breath and pray to the EPA--we are about to cross the river of denial.

Gun ownership makes a home less safe, according to the statistics, but when a person feels surrounded by perilous social institutions and structural instability, it's natural to reach for a security prop, come as it may--blanket, rifle or bottle of gin.

For all the self-proclaimed greatness and chest-thumping bravado, Americans' expectations are low and receding like opinions pursued by dogged facts. Our characteristic emphasis on individuality and private property narrows and subverts the circumspection of our social purview to a belly-button muse.

The American Dream has shriveled into a gated community--the modern version of the besieged frontier stockade, now struggling to survive on minimum wage. What do you want to bet that more Americans invest in the lottery than the stock market?

The year before Delphi, a spinoff of General Motors, filed for bankruptcy in 2005, management garlanded the factories with a new slogan: "The Future Isn't What It Used to Be." And a sign posted on the demolished Buick City plant in Flint, Michigan, proclaimed, "Demolition Means Progress."

The policy of neglect is the counsel of despair. No wonder we have a volunteer army and multiple foreign wars. The homeland is hopeless. The walls of denial are caving in.

THE DEMOLITION of Flint was in process long before Gov. Rick Snyder poisoned the pipelines, via his emergency manager--a petty dictator dressed in the pert costume of financial rectitude. Who cares what that particular factotum's name is? He doesn't personally matter one bloody digit in the pyramid scheme. He's just another pawn promoted to bureaucratic heaven for his role as partner in criminal conspiracy.

Rampant institutional decay is a symptom of planned obsolescence, not random accidents or cognitive dissonance. The policy isn't haphazard or isolated, it's a universal application of rust un-inhibiters designed to pump up replacement profits. It's the domestic program of the military-industrial complex: a shovel-ready, time-studied detonation device configured to deliver reclamation projects to real-estate developers eager for an urban frontier. The natives are unaccountable collateral damage. Who in TV America cares to linger after pundits have switched to the next disaster?

The legacy of worker degradation and dehumanization was entrenched decades before Snyder, the nerdy puppet of retrograde progress, pounced on the scene and decapitated democracy with a 21st-century guillotine known as "emergency management."

Michigan citizens soundly defeated the smoking gun of Snyder's Shock-Doctrine sheriff with a referendum vote in 2012. The following year, Congressional Republicans ran roughshod over the will of the people and imposed the rule of emergency management--an arrogant act of spite, ridicule and disapprobation that defied the essential American ideals Republicans purportedly revere: freedom, independence, and democracy.

Their primary axiom seems to be: Never let an ideal, let alone compassion, stand in the way of profit, or persecution of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched, the homeless, the tempest-tossed or the refugee.

I'd like to blame the political cuckold in the grey suit with the pigeon mask, but face it, folks: Snyder is more pitiful as a scapegoat than he is as a leader.

Snyder has all the charisma of a worn-out shoe from a Payless store. He's not a leader, he's a poseur. Snyder emotes the studied poise of a remote-controlled automaton. He doesn't bite, bark or sniff curiously. The big-belly, cigar-smoking corpo-rats at the keyboard could replace him with a drone, but for now at least, he's cheaper and easier to manipulate. He almost looks human, except for that seam across his forehead and the pellet-size zombie eyes embedded above a plaster white nose. He looks more like a clay target than a human.

ON THE other hand, UAW officials shouldn't escape indictment. Mike Colias at Automotive News wrote an article that read:

"The water was rusting the [engine] blocks," Dan Reyes, president of UAW Local 599, which represents the plant's nearly 900 workers, recalled in an interview last week.

Members began asking: "If it's too corrosive for an engine, what's it doing to the inside of a person?"

GM detected the problem shortly after Snyder's budget-hatcheters switched Flint's water supply to the river that GM had putrefied for decades.

"That's about the time their questions about the safety of the water--used inside the factories for food preparation, coffee, showers and drinking water--grew louder," Reyes said.

After the emergency manager ordered the switch to Flint River, residents noticed visible and odiferous changes in the tap water. Children developed rashes and hair loss. A group of Flint activists including Rev. Alfred Harris of the Concerned Pastors for Social Action; Melissa Mays, a mother of three who co-founded the group Water You Fighting For; and Trachelle Young, a former Flint city attorney; alerted authorities.

Snyder's technical hacks at the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) said the water was safe to drink despite the fact it looked like fluid scooped out of a muddy tire track and smelled like bad dope.

Never watch a con man's slippery smile. Keep your eyes on his hands.

While Snyder's cronies continued to treat Flint's children like river rats, they courteously supplied purified water coolers for workers at Flint's State Office building.

In June 2015, the activists unsuccessfully sued to force the government to switch back to Detroit water. Then the grassroots activists conducted their own tests under the auspices of Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor. A dangerous level of lead was revealed.

State officials refuted the results until Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician, released a study that proved high levels of lead in the blood of Flint children. It wasn't until October 2015, after increased outside agitation, that Flint was reconnected to the Detroit water system, but the damage had been done.

GM, on the other hand, managed to slip like money through the red tape and get reconnected to clean water back in 2014.

Mike Colias at the Automotive News reported that union officials claimed the water crisis had stoked the UAW's "social-justice mission." "In their eyes, we're expected to have all the answers," Reyes said. "They want to know that someone is fighting for them, fighting to find a solution. That's what we're doing."

The UAW can't hide behind a truckload of donated bottled water. The city that gave birth to the United Auto Workers union has been riddled with bullets of deceit since GM first piped chemical waste into the Flint River over 100 years ago. UAW officials are complicit in the duplicity. They were there, on site, they had prior knowledge, and they chose sides. Every step of the way along the trail of lies, the heretics were there.

WE NEVER expected the government--and let's face it, either lesser-evil Democrats or morally exclusive Republicans--to protect Flint's citizens. General Motors knew the water was too dangerous for engines, let alone humans, but who would ever expect the corporation that has publicly pulverized Flint day after day, week after week, decade after decade, to rise to the citizens' defense?

The only institution with the clout to raise a hue and cry that would resound around the world, the UAW, stood mute as palace guards, while the children of Flint were poisoned in front of their eyes.

Sure, I would delight to see Snyder and his rich cohorts hanged, drawn and quartered. But the people who betrayed the citizens of Flint are not our known enemies, but our friends, our compatriots, our dues-collecting union pie cards.

UAW officials have access to the same information as GM. The UAW has health-and-safety reps in the plant, and working side by side with salaried personnel at the GM-UAW Center for Human Resources. Snyder's henchmen may have concealed information from citizens, but the UAW has a periscope, an inside eye and an ear to the information pipeline.

People living in Flint have a right to expect that the UAW would not only warn them and advocate on their behalf, but fight like hell for them--fight like Reyes said to "find a solution," fight like the people of Flint fought for the UAW in 1937.

The old UAW would have struck GM until all the citizens of Flint had access to the same water as the corporation. A full-scale strike alarm would resound around the world in one day. Shut off the profit faucet, and one day is all it would take to jack the wheels in motion. Instead, activists struggled against bureaucratic recalcitrance for another 10 months after GM got clean water for its engines.

If the water damaged engines, what the hell did it do to children? UAW officials knew the consequences, and as a result, they deserve to be damned to the lowest precincts of Dante's System of Hell--the one reserved for heretics and traitors--not heralded as heroes of bottled water purchased from the very corporations that want to privatize the most basic necessity of humanity.

I will concede that the Democrats are the lesser evil if readers will concede how the lesser evil was historically complicit in the administrative segregation that set the foundation for Flint's demise; complicit in redlining housing districts and supporting segregated schools; complicit in confining African Americans to the dirtiest most dangerous jobs; complicit in the job destruction and displacement inherent in NAFTA; complicit in abandoning the people of Flint in the hour of their need.

Democrats and the UAW supported tax abatements for GM while GM decimated employment and polluted the river. Democrats and the UAW turned their heads when the citizens of Flint felt the scourge of the Shock Doctrine firsthand--hard, fast and treacherous. When the citizens of Flint needed a fighter in their corner, the UAW and the Democrats supported cooperation with the bosses. Damn their voices. Damn their lies.

THE FINGER of blame is a point of distraction not direction. We are wise to understand the history of collaboration with the enemy, rather than rest on rebuke and retribution against scapegoats like Snyder and hard-hearted Republicans compelled to persecute the poor and the dispossessed.

Without accurate knowledge of the history of betrayal, we will continue to believe that the UAW and the Democrats have our back. We will continue to be defeated by virtue of our faith in a unionism missing the class consciousness that constitutes true solidarity and honest, heartfelt revolution.

I am not afraid of compassion. Yes, I do mean heartfelt, arm-in-arm revolution. Not the bullshit paper revolution pontificated by academics, but the muddy, gritty, shop-floor, stand-on-your-feet-all-day revolution that puts the needs of working people, their children and their grandparents above the bottom line.

A revolution that demands the needs of farmers, agricultural laborers, butchers, food handlers, nurses, teachers, manufacturing workers--the builders and repairers of our world who are also the consumers and who depend on the vital resurgence of basic necessities like clean air, water and soil--gain priority over the commodity traders hyperventilating over dollar signs at their computer terminals.

God bless Bernie Sanders. The man hits the nail on the head: money has perverted democracy. But the only leaders capable of leading us out of the morass of lies and bribes are the rank and file in collective direct action.

We can't vote for representatives, however kind and smart and well-intentioned they may be, and expect revolution. We need to exert our own power as the force that drives the economy directly. We need to exert the most basic, the most common rule governing survival of the fittest: solidarity.

If our ancestors believed in dog-eat-dog capitalism, we wouldn't be here to argue about relative comforts. We survived as a species because our ancestors knew instinctively that personal survival depends on solidarity and the common welfare. If we all have clean air, water, shelter, reliable sources of nutritious food and basic health care, we will thrive and prosper. If these basic needs are hoarded, the whole tribe is threatened, and personal safety and prosperity depend on the tribe, not the individual.

At one time, people couldn't see beyond their own tribe. Perhaps early communities felt threatened by the encroachment of new people, although the history of Native Americans' encounter with the first European settlers defies this hypothesis.

But in this day and age of global climate change, global economics and global refugee crisis, how can we expect to kill our way to justice and peace? How can we expect to bomb our way to prosperity? How can we expect to build a wall of comfort to surround our fear of human suffering?

"No justice, no peace" isn't a picket line chant or an old-fashioned slogan, it's a code for survival. Flint was the heart of America in 1937. The heart of America is on a gurney in a dirty hallway down in the basement of a dilapidated, god-forsaken hospital on the outskirts of political rhetoric. Flint is bleeding to death.

We don't need emergency management. We don't need a leader. We need the old religion: solidarity.

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