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“Immoral & Sinful”: Bishop Barber Blasts Mississippi Gov. for Failing to Protect Jackson’s Water

StorySeptember 27, 2022
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We speak with Bishop William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign to get an update on the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, where tens of thousands of residents are still without clean tap water. “It’s an immoral and sinful violation of equal protection under the law and human rights,” says Barber, who led a rally Monday outside the Governor’s Mansion in Jackson demanding the state reverse decades of disinvestment in the majority-Black capital. “Everything we’re talking about was created by bad policy, therefore it can be fixed by good policy.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to also now move in our final minutes to another area of disinvestment. Bishop Barber, before you go, you’re joining us from Jackson, Mississippi. On Monday, you led a rally outside the Governor’s Mansion in Jackson demanding elected officials reverse decades of disinvestment that’s left water unfit to drink in Mississippi’s capital city, where 80% of all residents are African American. Can you talk about the crisis there, another “boil water” order?

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Yeah. And it’s been going on for nearly 50 years. Over 170,000-some residents are without water. And while the city is 82% African American, this is also a dirty, poisonous water for Black people, for disabled people, for white people. We even had a white doctor who suffers from MS talk about, at the rally, how bad this is and what’s going on. Mothers are having to wash their children’s bodies in this water. They do not know what’s in it. The children have not been tested. The water has not been tested. They’re putting Clorox in dirty water.

This is a terrible situation, and it’s an immoral and sinful violation of equal protection under the law and human rights, because at the same time, allegedly, the governor, along with Brett Favre, have now been caught stealing money, taking money, money that was dedicated for poor and low-wealth people, in order to do pet projects. And we don’t even know how deep that is.

It’s also immoral and sinful and a violation of fundamental human rights because the citizens of Jackson — number one, the mayors have always had a plan. This mayor has a plan. People have lied about that. The citizens also were willing to tax themselves. And they did it: They voted to tax themselves. And then the governor and extremist Republican legislators voted — did not allow them to use their own tax money to fix the problem.

There’s something in Jackson. They want that city. They want the airport. They do not want to fix this problem. They want to put a Band-Aid on it and push it out of the media. But people are saying no. We’ve launched Moral Monday there. We’ll be back in two weeks. People are standing up. They’re fighting back. Now there’s a lawsuit, but the lawsuit is misdirected. The lawsuit is going after the mayor, when the lawsuit should really — and the city of Jackson, when the lawsuit should be going after the state and the governor, because it’s the capital city, and it’s the state government of Mississippi that not only has denied people healthcare, denied living wages, but denied every opportunity for Jackson to have its water restored and to have clean water in the capital city of that state. I want people to hear that: in the capital city of that state. And it all began, Amy, 50 years ago, in 1972, around the issues of desegregation. There’s been an attack on that city and its infrastructure ever since then.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Reverend Barber, I wanted to ask you — the new — the EPA — Joe Biden’s EPA Administrator Mike Regan, the first African American to head that agency, announced recently the new Office of Environmental Justice and Civil Rights. And he did so in your home state of North Carolina, in Warrenton, the predominantly Black community that many consider to be the birthplace of the environmental justice movement. What could the federal government do, not only in terms of Jackson, but so many other cities around the country where environmental justice is a burning issue for Black and Brown communities?

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, years ago, my father, William Barber Sr., and people like Ben Chavis and Leon White and Dollie Burwell and others were a part of that movement to stop a company that at night was coming through and dropping PCB in the ditches in front of the people’s homes late at night, and people were coming up with cancer. They ended up having to lay down in front of those trucks to stop it. And they called it environmental racism because they were doing it in a predominantly Black community. But it’s also environmental classism, as well, because that’s a poor community.

And what Secretary Regan announced yesterday was finally — and this is a great first step, is that the government is saying, “We’re going to put 200 employees and billions of dollars in an agency that has power to protect, power to sue, power to stop, power to investigate what’s going on, that has the power to say to corporations, 'You cannot do this anymore to communities, treat corporations like people, and people like things.'” This is an important first step.

And Secretary Regan came to Jackson yesterday and also announced that he has the green light to say to Mississippi government, “If you don’t do right here, we can pull that federal money.” You know, that’s what the federal government can do. They can pull all of the federal money that comes into a state, when a state is engaging in outright racism, outright classism and outright harm toward poor people, low-wage people, disabled people. This is what we have to have. We have to have equal protection under the law. Everything we’re talking about was created by bad policy, therefore it can be fixed by good policy.

And so, here we are in Jackson, but we could go to Oak Flat in Arizona, what’s happening to the Apache people there and their water. We could still deal with Flint. We could go to what’s happening with these pipelines that are being built across the country. I just got a call from a community up in Michigan, predominantly white community — Minnesota, excuse me — that’s having similar problems.

The Corps of Engineers could join with the state and the federal governments to fix these problems, and should fix these problems, because, otherwise, what we’re doing is poisoning people. And to think the fact that a place like Jackson and other places had this going on during COVID, when the one thing that doctors said you needed during COVID was clean water. So we don’t know yet how many people died in Jackson, or got sick beyond where they should have, because of poison water, because it has not been fixed, because there’s been a 50-year Band-Aid approach, because they’ve lied on the mayors of Jackson and said they didn’t have a plan, because they have refused to fix it. This is what has to be explored. One of the things we’re talking about —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds, Bishop.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: We’re talking about getting some public policy experts and doctors to help do that analysis, so that people know really what’s going on and we can fight to change it.

AMY GOODMAN: Bishop William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign and Repairers of the Breach, speaking to us from Jackson, Mississippi, headed to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And we will continue to cover both of these issues. That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

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