As I return from the holidays, I’ve noticed two stories in the news that I just happen to have written about in the past year.
The first of these comes from Flint, Michigan. I’ll refer you to Andrew Highsmith’s Demolition Means Progress for the definitive history of that community and the connections between housing, schools, industry, and institutional racism that have created much of the city’s current state of crisis, which today manifests in the form of acute lead poisoning from the city’s water supply. This poisoning is a direct result of decisions made by appointed emergency managers to draw the city’s drinking water from the Flint River in order to realize a cost savings by withdrawing from a service contract with Detroit’s water utility. Corrosive industrial wastes in the river water have caused lead from antiquated pipes to leach into the water supply, resulting in drastically elevated blood lead levels, particularly in the city’s children.
This is bad enough in itself. But what’s worse is the rapidly mounting evidence that a series of emergency managers and Governor Rick Snyder, who appointed them, ignored both qualitative complaints by residents of bad taste, foul odor, and rashes caused by contact with the water, and quantitative measurements of lead contamination. If statements made by high-ranking Michigan officials are true, the prioritization of cost-savings over public health are reckless indeed.
Jim Lynch of the Detroit News reports:
Dennis Muchmore, Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief of staff, was quoted in a July 22 Department of Health and Human Services email expressing concern about the handling of the water crisis, according to documents obtained by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards through open records requests.
“I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint,” Muchmore wrote in an email exchange. “I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving from the (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) samples. … These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).”
Despite such concern at the highest levels of Michigan government, lower-level officials continued to downplay the severity of Flint’s drinking water problems for almost three more months. It would take until mid-October for DEQ’s top official to admit mistakes were made and for Flint to be switched back to a different water source.
In August, evidence would begin to surface of rising levels of lead in the blood of Flint’s children. It wasn’t until October that Snyder’s administration moved to switch the industrial city’s water source back to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s Lake Huron from the corrosive Flint River.
I wrote about the anti-democratic nature of emergency management in an article published by American Studies last spring. I didn’t focus on Flint, but did note the ways that state legislatures have advanced austerity and the hollowing of the public sphere in direct conflict with urban democracy. In Flint, the stakes are as high as life and death.
The second story of note is the re-introduction of legislation in Georgia, as House Resolution 964, to amend the state’s constitution to allow Atlanta’s northern suburbs to separate from Fulton County and form Milton County, breaking away from the poorer and majority-Black city and South Fulton. Rep. Brad Raffensperger of Johns Creek has written his proposal to limit the amendment to allowing the re-creation of a formerly existing county, which would allow north Fulton to separate without enabling a rush of secession movements in other counties (Milton County merged with Fulton County in 1931 while facing financial ruin). The proposal contains some wiggle room in that it requires only “generally similar” boundaries, which would allow parts of Sandy Springs below the Chattahoochee River to also secede, so it’s clear that this reverence for the old Milton County, which was impoverished and rural rather than today’s gilded exurb, is simply a matter of political convenience.
Similar legislation has been a perennial symbolic gesture that has failed to gain sufficient support, but north Fulton legislators who keep introducing it are tapping into deep discontent from their affluent constituents. I’ve argued (in the Journal of Urban Affairs) that this discontent is rooted in systemic racism in the region, and laid out (in the Journal of Urban History) the ways that a 1991 tax revolt crystallized white suburban anger at Black political leadership as a perennial source of discontent.
It should be noted, as Arielle Kass at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes, that Raffensperger also pre-filed legislation to double Fulton County’s property tax homestead exemption, which would drastically reduce county revenues. This is, of course, of a piece with a broader conservative north Fulton political agenda: delegitimize Fulton County government, limit its scope with fiscal restrictions, and foment political polarization while privatizing services in the northern half of the county. If secession fails, then the rest of the agenda–insulating the property of north Fulton residents from decisions made by Atlanta and south Fulton voters–remains intact.