This morning in Flint, Michigan I stood together with our community and legal partners to announce the Center for Constitutional Rights’ latest challenge to Michigan’s undemocratic and racially discriminatory emergency manager law. The people of Flint, along with half of the entire state’s Black population, have been deprived of one of the most fundamental rights afforded citizens in the United States: the right to elect those who govern them and who make policy decisions that directly impact their lives. The result for them has been that their children have been poisoned, literally poisoned, by the decisions of their unelected emergency managers.
At issue in our legal case, Phillips v. Snyder, is the power of the governor to appoint unelected emergency managers that replace democratically elected mayors and city councils. While citizens can still go to the polls and cast ballots, at the whim of the governor they no longer have the right to determine who actually runs their city or town. They have been denied the right to “meaningful participation in the political process,” in the words of the United States Court of Appeals. This is a violation of the First Amendment, the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, and the Guarantee Clause of Article IV of the Constitution.
But this case isn’t about abstract constitutional principles – it’s about the very real-world consequences when those principles are violated. In Flint, the emergency manager made the fateful decision to switch to the Flint River for the city’s water supply in order to save money, without the corrosion-control treatment that would have prevented lead from leaching into the pipes. The result was a full-scale public-health disaster that has left thousands of children with lead poisoning and resulted in nine Legionnaire’s Disease deaths.
It would be hard to overstate the undemocratic nature of this crisis – the current emergency manager law was passed by the state legislature a month after Michigan voters repealed a nearly identical law—but this is only half the story. The law is invoked to replace elected officials almost exclusively in low-income communities of color. While 50% of Michigan’s Black residents are under emergency manager control, only 2% of its white residents are. Emergency managers are imposed on majority-Black municipalities, but equally financially distressed white towns are allowed to continue to be governed by their elected officials. This race-based disenfranchisement violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
No matter how loudly some people deny it, the killing of Black men, women, and children by police is an issue of structural racism, as is the usual outcome that the killings are found to be “reasonable” (as in the case of 12-year-old Tamir Rice). The poisoning of Flint’s children is similarly a result of systemic racism. Just how little Black Flint lives matter was revealed with the news that state officials began quietly providing bottled water to state workers in Flint a full year before the National Guard was activated to distribute drinkable water to city residents. And while #ArrestGovSnyder is a popular hashtag, so far accountability for the public-health crisis seems about as likely as justice for Michael Brown’s, Eric Garner’s, Tamir Rice’s, or Ramarley Graham’s killers.
Challenging the law that made the Flint water crisis possible is only one part of the fight. Right now, residents are organizing to keep each other safe from water contamination through a vast network of community efforts, even as they push for the governor to be held accountable for the deaths and illnesses. The people of Flint are protesting constantly – using the one form of democracy that no government can strip from them.