Chanting “no pipes, no peace,” more than 500 people marched on the Flint water treatment plant today, protesting the slow pace of restoration of clean drinking water in a city with undrinkable, lead-contaminated water.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition led the march, with the civil rights leader invoking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as angry Flint residents and supporters from outside the city assembled at the water plant.
“Dr. King would be proud,” he said of the peaceful protest of the public health disaster that has left some Flint residents sick and unable to drink their tap water. Many also fear bathing in it despite official assurances from the state that it’s safe for hygienic use.
Jackson likened Flint to a crime scene perpetrated by the government.
“It’s time to fight back,” Jackson told the crowd, recalling the fight for the right of blacks to vote and how the appointment of municipal emergency managers in Michigan circumvents that right.
Flint was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager in April 2014 when the city switched its source of water from Detroit's water department to the more corrosive Flint River, which, with anti-corrosive additives, eroded protective layers in pipes and leached lead into the water supply.
There was plenty of anger over the state's role in the water crisis, with several participants holding up signs calling for Gov. Rick Snyder to resign or be recalled or jailed.
Protesters left the Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle, about a mile from the water plant, and marched in a call to rebuild the city and its water system. Jackson urged leaders across the nation to use the Flint crisis as a clarion call for rebuilding aging infrastructure, from roads to water pipes, and to remove lead pipes and lead from homes.
Jackson and other speakers said that a national push to fix the nation’s aging infrastructure could also mean jobs for distressed cities like Flint, where 40% of residents live in poverty. The march’s theme was moving the city from bottles to pipes to reconstruction.
Marchers walked on stretches of Industrial and East Stewart avenues, past the barren landscape of the former Buick City site, the sprawling General Motors manufacturing complex that the automaker closed, taking with it the jobs that once made the city prosperous.
Betty Johnson, a longtime Flint resident who’s a nurse, carried an anti-Snyder sign and said in an interview that her children and grandchildren live in the city and have suffered health consequences, including hair loss and skin rashes. She blames the city’s water for lung infections that began around the time the city switched water sources.
Johnson said Snyder “should be tried, just like anyone else would be.”
“If anyone else did this, they’d be in court,” she said. “They’d have to give an answer. They’d have to be accountable for what they did.”
Johnson said any other state, federal or local officials responsible for the disaster also should be held accountable, not just the governor.
Snyder representatives say the governor is committed to fixing the crisis and will not resign, arguing that calls for him to leave office are a distraction from recovery efforts.
But several participants said they were less concerned with the politics than getting the problem fixed quickly.
Linda Purnell, who lived in Flint when the water switch happened but has since moved to nearby Mt. Morris, said she wants top officials to start immediately fixing the water, “not next month, not next week.”
“I hope that the officials realize how significantly important it is for all people to have their basic needs, and water is a basic need,” Purnell said. “It is totally inhumane for any one or anything – our pets, too – to be denied fresh water.”
Flint resident Dan Williams said he wants the water crisis to be resolved "soon, yesterday soon."
"It just needs to be fixed – that's what it boils down to," he said.
Jackson told the Free Press after the march that there must be a full investigation of failures by the Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan’s health and environmental quality departments in handling the water switch and not alerting the public to early signs of lead and Legionnaire’s Disease. An outbreak of the severe pneumonia suspected to be linked to the water supply sickened 87 people, 10 fatally.
“The state and federal governments did not do their jobs,” he said. “And then there was an attempt to cover it up, and that’s where the crime comes in.”