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Flint Residents Outraged as Charges Dropped in Deadly Water Scandal That Poisoned Majority-Black City

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Eight years after the deadly Flint water crisis began, the state’s Supreme Court has thrown out charges against former Governor Rick Snyder and eight other former officials for their complicity in the public health emergency. Snyder’s administration made the decision to switch the city’s water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure and then failed to protect residents from the resulting lead and bacterial poisoning in the majority-Black city. “It really feels like justice is becoming an illusion for Flint residents,” says Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising. “No one is being held accountable, no one is seeing justice, no one is seeing reparations in Flint,” adds her fellow activist and Flint resident, Melissa Mays. Democracy Now! first spoke to the two organizers in 2016 in our documentary, “Thirsty for Democracy: The Poisoning of an American City.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

We end today’s show in Michigan, where on Tuesday the state Supreme Court threw out charges against Republican former Governor Rick Snyder, his former health director and seven other former officials for their role in the deadly Flint water crisis. The court ruled unanimously the judge who issued the indictments lacked authority to do so, because he acted as a, quote, “one-person grand jury.”

Judge Richard Bernstein wrote in a concurring opinion, quote, “The Flint water crisis stands as one of this country’s greatest betrayals of citizens by their government. Yet the prosecution of these defendants must adhere to proper procedural requirements because of the magnitude of the harm that was done to Flint residents,” unquote.

Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud, who helped lead the Flint prosecutions, said, quote, “These cases are not over,” and vowed to prove the allegations in court.

In 2014, Flint’s unelected emergency manager, appointed by Governor Snyder, switched the city’s water supply from the Detroit system, which Flint had been using for half a century, to the corrosive Flint River as a cost-saving measure. Soon after, Flint residents complained about discolored, foul-smelling water. First, the water was infested with bacteria. To treat the bacteria, the city poured in chlorine, which created cancerous chemical byproducts. Then a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, which is caused by a water-borne bacteria, spread through Flint, killing 12 people, sickening dozens, one of the largest recorded outbreaks in U.S. history. The change in Flint’s water supply also caused widespread lead poisoning in residents, particularly children, in the majority-Black city.

In a minute, we’ll get response from two Flint residents who Democracy Now! first met in 2016 in Flint. We spoke to them for our documentary, Thirsty for Democracy: The Poisoning of an American City. This is Melissa Mays.

AMY GOODMAN: How have you been affected by the poisoned water?

MELISSA MAYS: Well, all three of my sons are anemic now. They have bone pain every single day. They miss a lot of school because they’re constantly sick. Their immune systems are compromised. Myself, I have seizures. I have diverticulosis now.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Flint resident Nayyirah Shariff with the Democracy Defense League and Flint Rising, speaking to us in 2016.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what the big challenge is today?

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, there’s many people who don’t know like what to use with their water, with the lead in their water. Then, also there’s the challenge of accurate information, so that’s the need of us going door to door, handing out accurate information, lifting up like everyone’s stories, because everyone has been impacted by this water crisis, and to make sure that they have their basic needs met, so fresh water, filters, like replacement filters. So we’re also delivering those, too.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, a coalition of activists and advocates working to fix the Flint water crisis, back in 2016 when Democracy Now! went to Flint. She’s joining us now from Detroit, along with Melissa Mays, resident of Flint and organizer with the same group, with Flint Rising.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Nayyirah, let’s start with you. Your response to the throwing out of the conviction [sic] of the governor of Michigan and his officials?

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Yes. I mean, this is the second time for some of these officials of being charged. And it really feels like the illusion — like justice is becoming an illusion for Flint residents.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you talk about — could you also respond to this and speak specifically about the role of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel?

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: I mean, this really feels like a slap in the face, because she ran on a platform that she was going to bring justice to Flint residents, and, you know, like less than six months of her taking office, like, the charges against folks were being dropped. And it took over a year for the next set of charges to be brought up, and now this is being dismissed.

And it’s really offensive, because one of the other things I wanted to lift up is, even though the Supreme Court said that this one-person grand jury is unusual, I mean, it’s pretty common, like, in poor communities within Michigan. There are dozens of cases right now — they’re active cases — that went through a one-person grand jury. So it really feels like there is one justice system for poor residents, including, like, residents in Genesee County, and another justice system if you’re the former governor or department head for the state of Michigan.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s bring Melissa Mays into the conversation. You’re in Flint right now. You and Nayyirah were really the leaders at the time, at the height of the poisoning, whether we’re talking about Legionnaires’ disease or we’re talking about the lead poisoning of children. Melissa, lay out the scope of the problem, what happened in Flint.

MELISSA MAYS: Well, listening to our interviews from six years ago, not a lot has changed. Basically, the state is still making all of the decisions for us. They’re making the decisions about us without us. They have not even finished replacing our service lines. And with our federal lawsuit, our Safe Drinking Water Act lawsuit, this should have been done by 2020. But here we are, dragging it out, because the state is doing everything they can to avoid paying things. And actually, Flint Rising right now is going to an additional 1,419 homes that the city and state never even reached out to to get their pipes replaced. So that’s still going on. People still don’t have healthcare. We are still having to get people proper information.

So, again, the state has also spent tens of millions of dollars of our tax money to avoid justice, to drag out the civil cases, to drag out the criminal cases. And again, three years ago, almost to the day, Attorney General Dana Nessel threw out all of the criminal cases, that had been built for three years prior to that. And many of those were actually moving forward to trial for manslaughter, actual serious charges. But she tossed them out with no good reason — political issues, I guess. But again, this isn’t a political issue; this is a human rights issue.

We’re day 2,988 now without clean and safe water in Flint. And no one is being held accountable. No one is seeing justice. No one is seeing reparations in Flint. Our homes, our bodies, our lives are still damaged and destroyed, and the people responsible are getting away with it, because, like Nayyirah said, they have a — rich white folk and government have a whole different justice system than the rest of us.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Melissa, could you speak specifically about the federal Safe Drinking [Water] Act lawsuit, your lawsuit, to replace all of the lead in water service lines? What’s the status of that?

MELISSA MAYS: So, so far, there’s still thousands of homes remaining that have not been dug up. Basically, the pipes haven’t — the galvanized steel and lead service lines have not been replaced. We settled this in 2017, and it was supposed to be done by 2020. But the current mayor and the state went ahead and put a halt on it. They blamed COVID, even though the digging would be outside. And now they’re just dropping their hands, saying, “Uh, no, we’re done.” So we have to continue to go to court to push this, to say, “No, you have to take this out.”

And again, remember, service lines are only one piece. Unfortunately, our outdated laws only cover the service line, which is the pipe from your house to the street. The distribution mains in the street that are also damaged and destroyed and rupturing aren’t being replaced. And the interior plumbing inside of homes is also not being replaced. The plumbing, appliances, fixtures — all the things the water, the corrosive water, ate and destroyed, not being touched, so we’re having to do it ourselves. In my house, I have a bathroom that had to go down to the studs, and my kitchen had to go down to the studs, during COVID, because the water ate through lines and destroyed our floors, our countertop, our cabinet. I mean, it just goes on and on.

So, it’s continual punishment for living in Flint. And yet, while right now the infrastructure bill is going forward, thanks to the work that Flint residents have done to raise the issue and to push it, they’re not doing it right in Flint. And the problem is, if they don’t do it right here, they’re going to do this mess, this halfway, you know, piecemealed mess, across the country. And we can’t stand for that. So, Nayyirah and I are part of a greater coalition to fight to make sure the infrastructure bill is implemented right, with the right licensed plumbers, and make sure that people are safe, so this work isn’t in vain and people aren’t left worse off by a terrible job done and corners being cut, like what’s being done in Flint.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Nayyirah, the Michigan Supreme Court threw out — and I said before the “convictions.” It’s the indictments against the governor and a number of his aides for the deadly Flint, Michigan, water crisis. Court ruling 6 to 0 the judge who issued the indictments did not have the authority to do so. That doesn’t mean that this case is thrown out, that it was just done procedurally wrong. So, how do you move ahead, on the one hand, holding these officials accountable, up to the governor, and then how you move ahead with dealing with this crisis today? I mean, talking about the lead poisoning of the children of Flint, a majority-Black city, what this means for the future, and ultimately — you’ve called this, actually, a crisis of democracy, because Snyder empowered unelected town managers that he put in place in mainly Black cities of Michigan to run your city and others.

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Yes. Well, you know, like, when the Supreme Court voided those indictments, it was really like a slap in the face. It just really felt like — you know, like, when are we going to actually receive justice? And in the eyes of many Flint residents, justice for them isn’t getting their lead service line replaced or — you know, today is actually the last day for residents to fill out their paperwork to be part of the civil lawsuit. It’s not that. It’s actually seeing someone convicted and going to jail for poisoning 100,000 Flint residents. And then, also, unfortunately, you know, the systems that created Michigan’s emergency management law is still on the books. And they’re actually looking to tweak it, because the city of Flint, Michigan —

AMY GOODMAN: Nayyirah, we have 15 seconds.

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: OK — is going under financial distress. So, this is something that is going to be ongoing, and we have to continue to fight in the streets for justice that we deserve.

AMY GOODMAN: And we will continue to follow this, as we did with the documentary, Thirsty for Democracy: The Poisoning of an American City. You can go to it online at democracynow.org. Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, and Melissa Mays, resident of Flint and organizer with Flint Rising.

That does it for our show. A very happy birthday to Isis Phillips! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Stay safe.

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