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Who Decides: People Power Vs. Non-Elected Emergency Managers

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The toxic water in Flint has vividly brought to light the toxic consequences of right wing republican thinking that government should be run like a business. It has also shown us something about the poisoning of our own thinking.

It took the poisoning of children to get the majority of people in America to recognize something profoundly ugly has been going on in Michigan. This is because our culture does not do well with complexity. We like our politicians loud, our heroes strong, our victims pure, and our villains beyond redemption. This tendency toward one dimensional characters and simple sound bites has been exploited by the corporate elite to obscure the realities of emergency management in the lives of people.

With Flint, suffering cannot be denied. It cannot be explained away by easy racial stereotypes. Lead laden water was knowingly allowed to flow into homes. It poisoned children, created a public health crisis, and possibly caused deaths.

In contrast, in Detroit, 91,000 households have experienced water shut offs thanks to the policies initiated by Emergency Manager Orr and continued by Mayor Duggan. More homes have been shut off from water in Detroit than have received poisoned water in Flint. Children, elders, pregnant women, high school kids, renters saddled with previous bills, and unscrupulous landlords have all been shut off from life giving water.

Yet this tragedy, condemned by the United Nations as a human rights abuse, has been intentionally complicated by corporate powers. They have suggested that people are choosing cable TV rather than paying water bills. They have suggested people just want free water. They have suggested that people need training programs to know how to balance budgets. They have suggested we have a culture that needs to be changed. The corporate elite have played on racial stereotypes and prejudices against people who are poor to justify a policy that is unthinkable in most advanced countries.

Until Flint the corporate elite pushed the primary principle of emergency management. It says, “People cannot be trusted to make decisions about what is best for them.” Economic theorist Jamie Peck explained this idea as central to “austerity” politics emerging globally. “Strict fiscal discipline and government spending cuts is the only way to restore budgetary integrity—thereby securing the confidence of the investor class, appeasing the jittery markets and paving the way to growth.”

We have all seen the application of this idea in Michigan as Emergency Managers moved into city after city to “discipline” the people by removing mayors, city councils and elected school boards. Then we watched decision after decision justified as “necessary.”

But in Flint, there is simply no excuse for poisoning babies. This act has brought us face to face with a policy that strips cities of their assets and turns public responsibilities into private profit. Every step along the way, people have suffered. School closings, loss of services, widespread layoffs, destruction of public parks, loss of basic access to transportation, have all been explained away. Often those who suffer the consequences of these choices have been blamed for them.

But Flint has put an end to all that. Children have been victimized. But Flint citizens are not victims. They are survivors. They are fighters. Their effort to organize, to document, to agitate, to challenge again and again the “truths” of the corporate elites ultimately brought this crisis to light. Flint strips away all the corporate efforts to claim emergency managers are necessary. But Detroit reminds us that we should not have to wait until babies die, to know that people, not technocrats, know what is best for themselves and their families.

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