As photos from the now infamous Flint water town hall meeting hit the internet last week, I immediately recognized 3 familiar faces in the crowd: Melissa Mays, Dr.Laura Sullivan, and Nayirrah Shariff.
These clean water organizers were present as Flint Police arrested 6 people on Thursday, April 20 during a town hall meeting on the city’s north side. I caught up with clean water advocate Melissa Mays to get a local perspective about what happened.
“The Town Hall was supposed to be the residents' chance to actually have input,” Mays explains, “but everything went sideways.”
This meeting, it seems, had a rather unconventional start. Flint police Chief Tim Johnson began with a special request. "Please don't be in here trying to disrupt this meeting, because if you do I'm going to escort you out and I'm only going to take you to the back door and then you're going to jail. I'm not going to play with nobody tonight."
He also asked attenders to remove their hats because the meeting was hosted in a church.
Mays, who grew up in church, says she understood why the police chief had asked men to remove their hats in the church’s sanctuary. But others who were perhaps unfamiliar with church customs were frustrated by the request. They felt there should have been signs posted about the new expectation. “There seemed to be tension in the room from the start so this just added to it.” Mays said.
Mays emphasizes the meeting had an important purpose. Mayor Karen Weaver was supposed to share a new recommendation. She suggested the city stay with Detroit as their water source rather than switching to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA).
“We were excited to hear that we won't be facing yet another water switch before all the science and research is known.” Mays says. However, Mays notes there are huge financial implications. Until recently, Mays says the State of Michigan was footing the bill for water from Detroit, but on March 1st, residents had to begin paying for Detroit water...as well as the bond payments for the KWA.
The meeting didn’t go as planned however and some residents felt limited in their ability to provide feedback.
Mays reports there was an unusually high presence of police, which may have been present due to a rumor that an armed militia group planned on attending the meeting. “That would explain the numbers and the bulletproof vests being prominently displayed. It just did not set a good tone from the start.”
This was unfortunate because, while there has been much about Flint’s water record that Mays disagrees with, she actually wanted to hear the Mayor’s recommendation. “I agree that we are in no way ready to treat our own water because our plant is severely outdated. I also agree that we are not ready for a water source switch. Our infrastructure is falling apart and so much stabilizing work needs to be done before anything else. Plus we have not been shown the safety of this new source as it is an unproven pipeline.”
Understandably, Mays insists the residents don’t want to be “guinea pigs” again. “We are tired of our safety and well-being coming in last under corporations' profits.”
While Mays acknowledges residents were clearly upset, she questions whether arrests were the right response. “Seriously, after nearly 3 years of the same-old, same-old and looking at the people on the panel dismiss our questions, I think it's a perfectly reasonable response to be upset. I'm furious.”
Mays observed one of her good friends drug out by security and Mays says the woman was bruised pretty badly in the altercation. She found it difficult to hear Richard Baird, a top aide to Governor Snyder, claiming they cared about Flint while “a disabled woman was being tackled by 3 men.”
As for Flint’s current state, Mays says they are making progress, but there’s still a lot of room to go. “We had to sue the State to get them to agree to replace all lead and galvanized service lines and force them to keep the water PODS (points of distribution) open so people could pick up water.”
She’s also concerned by reports that in addition to 12 people who died from Legionnaires, more than 170 others died from “bacterial pneumonia” which Mays believes could be related to the bacteria levels in the water as well.
“The State and EPA still refuses to test for bacteria, which is far more terrifying to us than lead at this point.” Mays explains. Even though today marks 3 years, 1098 days since residents have had clean water, there is still a lot to be done according to Mays. “We still need ALL service lines and mains replaced, all interior plumbing and appliances replaced, our poison water bills refunded, and Medicare for all.”
“We know that we have a long battle ahead of us. So please don't forget about Flint.” Mays pleads, “We need your help to share out the truth and actual resident stories because they need to fix us properly so that will be the handbook for recovery when the next city gets destroyed like this.”
You can read more about Flint’s ongoing water crisis here.