The morning of June 14, 2017 began ordinarily enough. My older daughter, home from school for the summer, was fighting with her sister over some Legos in the living room, it had been too hot to sleep well the night before, and I couldn't get the coffee brewed fast enough. Then, turning on my computer, I found myself unexpectedly staring at a photo of former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley in a plain gray shirt, looking morosely down toward the floor. It was Earley's booking photo, posted by MLive.com as part of their coverage of the Flint Water Crisis.
That morning, Earley and four other defendants — Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Drinking Water Chief Liane Shekter-Smith, former district supervisor Stephen Busch, and former Flint Water Department Manager Howard Croft — were all charged by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the Flint water crisis. Involuntary manslaughter is punishable by up to 15 years in prison, and/or a $7,500 fine, says the attorney general.
If these sound like grave charges to be leveled against state and municipal appointees and department heads, the situation they address is correspondingly grave. I live in Flint today. I remember, viscerally, the sick feeling I got in my stomach when the drinking fountains were all shut off in my daughter's school after they had tested high for lead.
I have seen friends, some working multiple jobs, others in single-parent households, already struggling to feed and clothe and educate their children, almost break down under the stress and anxiety of another dire worry. I've watched the orange water come gushing out of fire hydrants and bathtub spigots and kitchen sink faucets, while authorities at multiple levels of government assured us this water was safe for drinking and cooking. And, as the present case illustrates, the water crisis is not only implicated in injury, but in the death of Flint residents.
That’s why I take little satisfaction from these charges.
The manslaughter charges are fair — but I don’t feel vindicated
In 2014, the City of Flint, under state management, committed to a new drinking water source instead of water treated and supplied by the City of Detroit. In the interim, Emergency Manager Earley signed the order to use the Flint River for drinking water. This river water, more corrosive than the lake water supplied by Detroit, was not properly treated. It was later shown to have leached lead into the drinking supply, resulting in spikes in lead levels and lead poisoning in children. Officials at the local, state, and federal level attempted to downplay or deny this contamination and when the story finally broke in July 2015 it became an international scandal.
While lead poisoning is the most infamous consequence of the Flint Water Crisis, other public health emergencies emerged contemporaneously, among which the most serious was an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, a deadly form of pneumonia. Twelve people died of the disease, including 85-year-old former auto worker Robert Skidmore, named in the suit. The attorney general's office, in making these charges, is linking the Legionnaires' outbreak to the water change and laying the responsibility for Skidmore's death at the feet of Lyon, Shekter-Smith, Earley, Busch, and Croft.
I don't dispute the fairness of these charges. For as long as the investigation has been ongoing, the evidence has pointed to a combination of disregard and collusion at the state level, abetted by incompetence at the local level and indifference at the federal level. And if our concept of justice requires issuing proportional consequences for criminal actions, then the years these men and women might spend in prison is a reasonable response to the years they stole from Robert Skidmore and 11 others, as well as the other 75 people afflicted with Legionnaires' during the outbreak, to say nothing of the 8,000 Flint children, including my own two precious daughters, exposed to lead through contemptuous and gross negligence.
Yet I feel little vindication here. Everyone I have spoken with about the subject agrees with me. While my friends and neighbors welcome the investigation, there are a couple of elephants in the room.
First, any investigation that does not involve the governor who imposed the law that took away our local control, who appointed the emergency manager who ordered the change of water source, who also appointed the officials who misled the public, and who managed to remain either obtusely in the dark or diabolically silent the whole time, is deficient.
Second, any investigation that does not question the legitimacy and effectiveness of a law that disenfranchised Flint residents while simultaneously and literally forcing them to purchase poison water, is missing the point.
It is good and important that Lyon and Earley and the others will have to stand in court and account for their actions, but they are still small players on a very large stage. If the attorney general really wishes to promote justice, he'll have to set his sights higher, on a reckless governor and an illegitimate law. (In the meantime, we Flintstones might be forgiven our cynicism that this case bodes well for Schuette's political fortunes.)
Finally, all the justice in the world will not bring back Robert Skidmore or the other victims of the Legionnaires' outbreak. There is no sentence or punishment that can undo the learning difficulties and stunted growth and nervous system damage that affected children will struggle with for the rest of their lives.
For that matter, there is no sentence or punishment that can rectify the combination of factors that led us to this moment in the first place. As the water crisis, now in its fourth year, has dragged on, those of us with good jobs, in stable neighborhoods, have tried to adapt. We test our water, we test our children, we drink from bottles that we pick up weekly from the local point of distribution and, if we're really lucky, we have friends or family in the suburbs who bring us in a few gallon jugs each week. Why chance it?
For those who are unemployed, or isolated, or trapped in slowly disintegrating neighborhoods, the interminable crisis is much more serious. It is one more burden upon many, from the scores of abandoned houses awaiting funds for demolition to the dozens of closed schools and shuttered businesses forcing residents to commute further and further for class, for work, for groceries, to the slashes in state funding that have forced the city to cut back in its police and fire departments. For many Flintstones, the water crisis is more than an inconvenience.
And we're tired.
We're all exhausted by it.
A while ago, I heard that some Lansing legislators had started tossing around a new term: "Flint fatigue." They were tired of hearing about the city and its ills proceeding from the Flint water crisis. Tell me about it. I, too, am tired of hearing about the water crisis and I'm tired of talking about it. Year after year, I'm tired about worrying about my own children and my friends’ children. I’m tired of the injustice and the manipulation and the deception and the excuses. I’m tired of our local decisions being vetted by a state government that does not trust us, when that state government itself has been profoundly untrustworthy. Flint fatigue is real. Ask anyone who lives in Flint.
Much of Flint feels lonely and ignored — like nobody has cared about it in a long time
On the evening of June 13, I had little idea of what the next day would bring. I didn't know that the attorney general was preparing to drop his bombshell announcement or that a news cycle reoriented around the Trump investigation and the Paris accords would even care. I decided to take a walk through Flint's Eastside, where my best friend grew up and where I lived for several summers in my 20s.
As I walked, I passed block after block of waist-high grass. The houses there had been abandoned, and many of them burned and finally demolished. The house I had lived in was also long gone. Most of the others on that block were empty, shattered, and broken. Stripped electrical and telephone wires dangled down over the street. The neighborhood felt very lonely and ignored, and like nobody had cared about it in a long time.
As I walked I passed two boys — 10, maybe 12 years old — standing on one of the few patches of sidewalk that hadn't been overgrown. They were throwing a locked bicycle chain to the ground repeatedly, trying to break it. There wasn't any bike to be seen, and there wasn't any point to their game, either, except to break the chain. They thought they were strong enough, so they kept hitting it on the ground, and pulling on it, and stomping on it. Eventually, I couldn't see them anymore, but I could hear that metallic jangling sound long after they were out of sight.
I like to think that they finally broke it.
Connor Coyne is a writer. He has authored two novels, Shattering Glass and Hungry Rats as well as Atlas, a collection of short stories. His website is ConnorCoyne.com, and he can be found on Facebook and Twitter @connorcoyne. He lives in Flint with his wife, two daughters, and an adopted rabbit.