Marvin Gilliam sits comfortably in his living room, not appearing particularly concerned or worried about the Flint water crisis that has been dominating local, national – and even international – headlines in recent weeks and months. Although the Gary, Indiana native has been a resident of Flint for more than a half century, Gilliam takes the longer historical view of the situation when he talks in his slow, carefully deliberate, and exceedingly polite tone about an event that has further devastated his already devastated community beyond a level that most would have even believed possible.
“This is not something that happened suddenly,” he said. “This is a rape of a community that is basically naïve and has been in a state of shock and they have not recovered,” from the demise of the auto industry upon which Flint so heavily depended for so many years.
“Things are not as frantic as you may think. This is a natural progression of when things start to go bad. This is just like your car. See, if one thing starts to go bad, just keep on driving it. And then something else gonna go bad. And then just keep on driving it. And then something else gonna go bad. And then pretty soon, the car is gonna stop. Now the question is, can you repair it? Or must you replace it? What makes y’all think that ain’t the situation here in Flint?”
Outside a fire station on a bitter cold Saturday, a steady traffic stream of humanity could be seen going in and out of the doors to grab cases of bottled water and filters to deliver to nearby cars. The question of how such a governmental failure could have occurred weighs heavy. But inside that fire station, Flint residents were focused on more immediate concerns as they were given patient instruction on how to install the new filters and how to test their own water quality to make sure they weren’t still being poisoned.
Not far away, filmmaker/activist Michael Moore held a rally downtown in front of City Hall that attracted an estimated 200 people, not all of whom were fans. Without the benefit of a microphone, a megaphone or a sound system it was difficult to hear Moore’s words. But what could be heard by those close enough to hear was vintage Michael Moore.
“My friends, can I just define the word terrorism? I mean, the state has poisoned 102,000 people. …Do you realize that international terrorist organizations still haven’t figured out how to do that? Right? ISIS wouldn’t know how to poison 100,000 people. But the governor of Michigan did it with the stroke of a pen. To save $15 million that is now going to cost $1.6 billion to fix.”
Michigan’s 34th District State Rep. Sheldon Neely, who was standing nearby circulating among the crowd of protesters, wasn’t quite so vitriolic, but he was no less angry and certainly no more forgiving.
“The response from Gov. Snyder and the State of Michigan has been anemic at best. The biggest response we’ve had has been from the generous people coming together throughout the country and the world to help support us. But the response from the state is lacking.
“I think Gov. Snyder should resign. Make it easy for the people. I think he should move forward and do the right thing. This is an emergency management failure that he has to own.”
Speaking of spectacle, it would be difficult not to mention the rather bizarre appearance of the white 18-wheeler trailer truck parked nearby. Painted in large black letters on the side of the truck it said, “Trump, Making America Great Again.” A roughly drawn image of a seemingly frowning Trump was sketched alongside the words. Trump supporters apparently thought the image of their guy coming to the rescue with crates of water would be a good idea.
And then, of course, there is the spectacle of the Genesee County Sheriff out helping to deliver water to the people – and using prison inmates to assist in the effort. Truly desperate times call for truly desperate measures.
The entire story of what has happened with Flint and its water – and Flint as a whole – is a complicated one, but what it comes down to isn’t complicated at all; in order to save a few bucks, the lives of an entire community was deemed expendable by their own state government.
At the end of the day, what happened in Flint is in many ways the end result of policies put in place by Gov. Snyder. But, as Gilliam pointed out, the still evolving Flint water tragedy is a tragedy that was probably inevitable. Something like this was likely going to happen sooner or later. We can start with the commonly known fact that the Flint river has been a danger for a number of years, and the reason why it has been a danger for a number of years is because of all those years of corrosive chemicals being dumped into the water by the factories. And then, of course, there was all that soot and grime being belched into the air that had to be inhaled by Flint residents such as Barbara Wilkins, who has lived in Flint all of her life.
“You know when I was growing up, I lived over on St. John Street between the Flint River and the Buick factory, and St. John was like it was Buick the whole length of St. John back during the ‘50s and ‘60s. They called it the St. John area. And it used to be you couldn’t even see your hands sometimes because it was so much smoke over there, and then it be soot. And, you know, we used to hang our clothes out on the line, and you had to hurry up and get your clothes off the line before all this soot and stuff get on your clothes.
“I was talking to some people, we all grew up together, and we were like, we’re lucky we’re still alive after all that smog and soot. We were breathin all that mess.”
These days, Wilkins has difficulty walking around her small but tidy home where she now lives alone and has occupied for more than 40 years, and her back gives her some trouble. Her back problems are why she often likes to soak in the tub, which has been a part of the home ever since she moved there in 1976. But now she’s worried about whether to continue that, even with a new filter, because ever since the switch to Flint water, she noticed the paint in her tub has started to “buckle.”
“I ain’t never seen it come off like this before,” she said.
But even worse than that is the rise in deaths from pneumonia that she says has been occurring since the switch to Flint water.
“I have a friend that works in intensive care, at Hurley (Medical Center), and she said it’s been a lot of young people that have died from pneumonia in the past couple of years. I mean like in their 30s and 40s.”
Interestingly enough, there was this tidbit reported on the ABC News website on Jan. 14 describing the outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease that has recently been reported in Flint:
“The naturally occurring bacteria legionella can cause a dangerous bacterial disease if it is inhaled. The bacteria are generally spread through water droplets, usually in the summer or early fall, and have been linked to air-cooling towers, pools, hot tubs and even water misters at the grocery stores, since the light mist can be an ideal transport for the bacteria to enter the lungs.
Most people exposed will not get sick, but older people and those with compromised immune systems are at risk for developing a serious infection or pneumonia [emphasis added].”
“We had been talking about that before all of this stuff,” said Wilkins. We weren’t even talking about the water. We were just talking about how a lot of people had been dying of pneumonia.”
Although she received one of the new filters being given out by the city, Wilkins says she still does not trust the water. Besides, she said the filter for the sink fell off and she isn’t quite sure how to re-attach it. She said she’s waiting on her daughter from Ohio to arrive to help her out. Many Flint residents have complained that the filters for both the sink faucets and the showers are all one size, which means many of them don’t fit. Which means a trip to Home Depot or some other store to find a filter that hopefully will work. Or perhaps, if they have the funds, they take Mr. Gilliam’s approach and have a filtration system installed in the basement.
“I still don’t trust that water. I even started giving my cats bottled water,” said Wilkins.
Additional reporting for this story provided by Julia Ruffin.