The Kairos Center’s roots are in efforts of the poor and dispossessed to speak, fight and analyze for themselves towards building a movement for justice and equality in the United States and world. A particularly deep connection and influence on our work comes from Michigan with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO), a union for welfare recipients and low income people across the state. Leaders from MWRO have been in the forefront of the fight for the human right to water for more than a decade. They’ve worked to connecting the attack on housing, workers’ livelihoods and rights, and democracy to the fight for life and natural resources like water and sanitation in towns and cities across Michigan, especially Detroit, Highland Park, and Flint.
These leaders with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization have helped connect us, and the larger movement calling for a new Poor People’s Campaign, to other leaders in Flint, Michigan. Some of these moms from the organization “Water You Fighting For?” and the United Auto Workers are the very leaders who have been sounding the call of the poisoning of their water for more than a year now.
This past summer, months before the nation turned its attention to the problem, they marched to Detroit from Flint. Their march connected the dots between the poisoning of Flint’s water system and the rate increases and the tens of thousands of water shutoffs in Detroit. The reason that Flint couldn’t afford Detroit water (and switched over to the polluted Flint River) is the same reason that people in Detroit can’t afford Detroit water: the constant attempts by the people in power to manage the ongoing economic crisis by robbing the poor and dispossessed of our basic rights.
These grassroots leaders have forced local and state officials to directly confront the water crisis in Flint. They have partnered with researchers and journalists who have exposed the deadly effects of this crisis to the whole country. And they have teamed up with lawyers to bring to legal and moral account those immediately responsible for the denial of life, democracy, and basic necessities to the people of their state and beyond.
Unfortunately, many of the reports coming out about Flint tend not to feature these grassroots leaders who can teach us all about the plight, fight and insight of those most impacted by poisoned water, corporate villainy, and government complicity. Worse, many of these think-pieces and dispatches, despite good intentions, have in fact contributed to a portrayal of the poor and dispossessed in Flint as helpless and powerless – objects of pity instead of prophets and heroes on the front lines of battle for the future of our society.
They’ve also contributed to the isolation of the struggle in Flint: painting the situation there as exceptional, instead of showing its ties to the economic and ecological devastation and mass poisoning happening all over the country – in rural areas, urban areas, and everywhere in between; in Black, white, Latino, Asian, and indigenous communities; in states with Republican governors and in states with Democratic governors. A leader in Chaplains on the Harbor, which organizes among the homeless in Grays Harbor, WA, recently wrote:
What’s going on here right now – skyrocketing poverty, collapsing infrastructure – is headed to communities all over this country. Don’t study the Harbor because you feel bad for us. Study the Harbor because our present conditions are your future. Study the Harbor because you’re going to have the same fight on your hands soon enough.
The same notion, applied to cities like Detroit and Flint, has been put forward by leaders from the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and others there on the ground for a long time now. It’s dangerous to ignore that expansive and inclusive call, which is exactly what most of the press – left, liberal, and conservative; mainstream and alternative – have been doing.
In an attempt to put forward the moral, political, and strategic clarity of the organic leadership in Michigan, we have gathered together here some of the reports and analysis from grassroots leaders in Michigan and elsewhere about the crisis taking place in Detroit, Highland Park, and Flint, and connections to the leadership of the poor in other kinds of places in other parts of the country and the world. We’re looking forward to deepening those connections when we travel with the Poor People’s Campaign tour of the Midwest, coming in late May.
First, “MWRO’s Position Paper on the Flint Water Crisis: The Consequences of Corporate Control, Austerity and Emergency Management” – Historical insight and analysis, along with a practical program, from the well-grounded leadership in Michigan. Written by state chair of MWRO, Maureen D. Taylor:
The explosion of concern was immediate in that millions of bottles of water started to find a way into Flint, donated by caring fellow citizens from across the country, shocked at this horrible circumstance. The response to this national tragedy demonstrates our lack of clarity about the origins of this event. We don’t see ourselves as a class first, composed of many colors, so we react using the tools suggested by the corporate class who created the crisis. Our fellow citizens in Flint need clean water to drink, for sure. After we deliver bottled water, then what?…
We are facing a systemic disaster that calls for a systemic solution, but we are not there yet. The political call must be adjusted to fit what is needed at this time. We should all demand responses that help solve the immediate situation, and not merely offer Band-Aids no matter how well intentioned. We must continue to deliver water while we demand that these residents be temporarily relocated into nearby communities where the water is clean and accessible. Mobile homes, state-county-city owned houses, vacant apartments, unused military housing – a decent system would have activated use of these and more, offering residents immediate relief and distance from danger. Clinics offering 24/7 access should be constructed near those sites so that round-the-clock health monitoring can take place since the damage done is permanent…
The governor, his party affiliates, his democratic friends, and the corporate entities who were and will be jockeying for contracts that allow them to privatize water and access “cheap” land and existing properties all over Flint for pennies on the dollar are the enemy that we can’t see yet.
This is the analysis MWRO wants to share in hopes that we might one day construct steps to unite us and get us on the same page as we fight these devils who would destroy humanity, poison children, challenge our collective futures, and harm mother earth all in the name of profit.
And in this video, a Flint resident describes the conditions on the ground in detail:
Second, “We are in pitched battle”, a collection of quotes from leaders from Detroit, Louisiana, West Virginia, and India, all drawing on struggles of the poor and dispossessed for access to clean water. These statements are taken from an event that we held in November 2015 on the world-wide fight for the human right to water.
Third, a presentation by the late General Gordan Baker, a leader in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the first Vietnam draft resister in Detroit, and a longtime social movement leader and organic intellectual of the poor and dispossessed. He talks about the crisis of increasing poverty facing all of us and the history of the dispossessed organizing for change in this nation, taking the history in Michigan and Detroit in particular as his central thread. The presentation offers some much-needed historical depth for responses to the water crisis. Recorded at the 2010 US Social Forum in Detroit by the Media Mobilizing Project:
Part I (starts at 10:47):
Fourth, a note from Chicago-based movement lawyer and long-time organizer Tony Prince, who has been in relationship with the leaders in Michigan for decades, coming out of some of the same organizations:
Years ago, both Luis Rodriguez (poet Laureate of Los Angeles and former candidate for Governor of California) and I worked for National Lead (NL Industries) in Vernon California. Luis was a blast furnace operator and I was a caster/refiner. It was like working in hell on earth. The longer term workers all suffered from lead poisoning. We had to give daily urine samples and weekly blood tests. When your blood/lead level reached a certain point, you would be moved to a “less” polluted part of the plant such as the battery saws. Later, when your blood/lead level was “down” you would be returned to your normal duties in the middle of a grey cloud of permanent nerve damage and death. The doctors lied: the lead never left your system, it was absorbed by the bone marrow where it could not be detected until it was too late. Years later, the smelter was sold to Exide where in the last few years it became the focal point of massive community protests after lead was found in the soil of the surrounding working class communities. Today, the lead plant is at the epicenter of the largest cancer cluster in the state of California and the State EPAQ estimates close to one million people are at risk.
The Exide struggle broke out just as Luis’ bid for Governor was getting underway and with Luis’ direct experience in the plant, it became a major focus of the campaign. We learned that the same company had virtually destroyed a city in Mexico which experienced then what the children of Flint are experiencing now. The children of Salinas face a similar, but less publicly disclosed crisis in the carcinogenic pesticides that leach from the fields (Salinas is a major agricultural center in California) into the school drinking fountains. When he was on the Board of Education – and after he was illegally removed from that post by court order – Jose Castaneda, a leader in Salinas’ extremely poor, mostly immigrant community, led the fight to stop this silent slaughter.
The situation in Flint, the broader water struggle in Detroit, the intensification of repression – and resistance – of the homeless in Salinas, California all show the potential for unifying leaders around these basic human right issues across color lines, urban and rural, north and south, on both sides of the border in the direction of revolutionary change. The connection of the Flint crisis to the Emergency Manager Act shows the political nature of the fight with universal lessons.
Fifth, a chapter from our book, Pedagogy of the Poor: “A Case Study on Organizing: The Struggle for Water in Postindustrial Detroit“. This chapter looks at the economic and political history of Detroit and other post-industrial cities in Michigan, as well as the long and on-going organizing efforts of the poor and dispossessed there to counter the attacks against them, build power locally, and lay the groundwork for a national and global movement of their class. Written by Chris Caruso in close collaboration with the leaders in Michigan.