Flint and the Myth of American Exceptionalism

“I remember when they built cars in Flint and Read more

First Lesson from Flint: Repeal Emergency Management

As the calls grow for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder's resignation Read more

Flint and the Myth of American Exceptionalism

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“I remember when they built cars in Flint and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico”

– Flint resident

 

The reality is setting in that Flint’s lead water poisoning scandal runs deeper than a few bureaucratic “mistakes” by local and state politicians. We watch with horror at every new revelation of official negligence, cover-up and willful blindness. We feel a tinge of guilt, perhaps, when we hear the United Nations chastise the City of Detroit for violating the human right to water. This kind of stuff doesn’t happen in the United States of America? The thing is – it does.

Let’s make a mutual commitment to bust wide open the myth of American Exceptionalism: that age-old mantra which tells us that the USA is the best country in the world. Poverty doesn’t exist here. We’re the freest people on the planet. The stars and stripes forever! It’s the founding myth of our country, at the heart of how we (as mostly-white descendants of Europeans) continue to view ourselves and the complicated world around us. And it’s just not true.

I say “we” as Europeans because the rest of this country figured out a long time ago that the great American Dream was a big nightmare. Blacks learned it from their elders who spoke about the disgraces of slavery, or from Martin Luther King, Jr. who railed against American imperialism and the war in Vietnam (“Somehow this madness must cease!”). Japanese Americans learned it from their forced internment in the 1940’s after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I needn’t even mention where Native Americans learned it from. Hispanics and Latinos learned it from the constant toils of migrant farm work that doesn’t even garner minimum wage with the piece rates paid for buckets or bags of produce harvested. Those with brown skin that are fortunate enough to work waged jobs occupy lower positions and many live in constant fear of eviction by I.C.E. agents. The new majority in the USA – 50.3% of K-12 public school students were non-white in 2014 – understands what the minority doesn’t: this isn’t the land of the free for everyone.

Before you start calling me a traitor to the red, white and blue, let me make one thing clear: I love this country. I love the ideals upon which it stands, as embodied by American revolutionary Thomas Paine (“We have it in our power to begin the world over again”) and civil rights organizer Ella Baker (“Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”) My great-grandparents toiled in these cities to make a better life for me, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other homeland. I’ve been to over 30 countries in the last few years, speaking at conferences and in the streets with activists and change-makers who have propelled revolutions and overthrown corrupt regimes. I ascribe to the theory of change of the great Thomas Jefferson: “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” If there was ever a good time for a revolution in this country, it would be now.

The Flint water crisis has laid bare the travesty of poverty in the United States. One in four children in the state of Michigan lives in poverty. The very essence of life – clean drinking water and sanitation – has been violated for thousands of my compatriots in Detroit, Flint, and so many other cities. When people compare Detroit to a third-world country, they are not far from the truth. And yet their truth might mask a deeper one: our government and our business leaders treat us like “third-world” citizens, and nearly always have. There is no great utopian time in America to go back to, when all people were free – at best, there was a time when American capitalism felt the collectivist pressure of another surging world system, communism, and yielded more to its working people. The Flint sit-down strikes are long gone now, replaced by disaffection and political disengagement. The social contract – a good job for a hard-working person – has been broken. In most of the world, though, it was never signed.

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Source: Michael Thompson, Detroit Free Press

Across the globe, countries of all levels of development have grappled with lead poisoning. The World Health Organization lists lead as one of the “top 10 chemicals of major public health concern.” A study by the Center for International Environmental Law looks at the human rights implications of lead poisoning, which kills 143,000 humans every year. Exposure to lead is tied to poor worker rights and dirty working conditions, high levels of poverty, and over-industrialization. That this is happening in a major American city doesn’t make the reality any different for the thousands of children and adults affected. This is a global problem, and we are no exception to the rule.

Admitting we are not exceptional does not necessarily condemn us to eternal poverty. When we realize that much of the world lives the same realities we do, we can look outward for guidance. We can avoid the same patterns of blind obedience to leadership and creeping corruption that keep billions of the world’s people in poverty. We can demand more of our leaders, or replace them with new ones, because we can acknowledge they are as imperfect as those “regimes” our media derides abroad. And maybe – just maybe – our leaders might eschew the same cold, careless indifference that so many world governments show to their poor and demonstrate true leadership in raising Flint and Detroit back up out of the ashes.

Michigan Governor Snyder and Nestle Announce Partnership to Keep Flint Pipes in the Ground

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Part 2 in a Series. Read Part 1

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, struggling to regain public trust after admitting ultimate responsibility for the Flint water poisoning crisis, announced today an innovative new partnership with Nestle® to keep Flint’s corroded lead pipes in the ground indefinitely and provide clean bottled water to all residents for a low monthly fee. The campaign, titled Everyone Drinks!, will be free for the first year to all residents thanks to generous but unspecified corporate donations to Governor Snyder’s Moving Michigan Forward Fund.

The urgent need for millions of plastic bottles of drinking water in Flint became even more apparent Friday, as new water test results show that the state-provided filters could not ensure safe lead levels for residents, especially pregnant women and children. At the same time, millions of Americans are asking how they can quickly help in a way that doesn’t require too much thinking about the systemic nature of poverty and the corruption of democracy in this majority-black and poor city.

Said Nestlé spokesman John Stanton: “We’re proud to partner with the Governor on this long-term plan to make sure these corroded Flint pipes never get replaced with new publicly-funded municipal infrastructure, so that this horrific tragedy never happens again. We’re here for the long haul, Flint!”

The reduced-cost Nestlé water will be provided to residents at only 750 times the cost of Flint municipal water pumped from Lake Huron, a discount of nearly 25% of regular bottled water, which costs 1000 times more than tap water.

Said Snyder spokesman Daniel Evenmore: “Nestlé has graciously agreed to be our sole partner for all Flint bottled water needs, and we’re proud to announce the creation of a new Nestlé bottling plant in Michigan along with overly-generous tax incentives. This shows our commitment to making sure that the world’s largest freshwater source gets to even our poorest residents – one bottle at a time”

Bottled water can be picked up from local schools and fire stations, after providing valid picture ID along with passport, credit card, birth certificate, proof of insurance, signed pledge of allegiance and affidavit swearing to never sue the state of Michigan for possible complications from Flint water ingestion.

As a show of corporate social responsibility, Nestlé also agreed to extract 3 liters of water from the Great Lakes Basin to produce the plastic and treated water necessary to sell a 1-liter water bottle.

First Lesson from Flint: Repeal Emergency Management

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Water shutoff protests in Detroit in 2014 (Photo: WSJ)

Water shutoff protests in Detroit in 2014 (Photo: WSJ)

As the calls grow for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s resignation – last night he was heckled out of a bar in his hometown of Ann Arbor – we should also keep our eyes and protests laser-focused on the racist and anti-democratic emergency management (EM) law he imposed that made Flint’s water crisis even possible.

This week, the NAACP listed repealing EM as top priority on its list of 15 things to be done to help Flint. Michigan democrats introduced legislation to repeal the law, which was bolstered by Snyder in Public Act 4 of 2011, and then voted down in a 2012 statewide referendum by the voters of Michigan. The Republican-led state legislature brought it back by attaching it to an appropriations bill that is immune to voter referendum. In short, the voters of Michigan have already struck this thing down. The elected officials now need to do the same.

How is the EM law racist? It’s simple: look at the breakdown of cities currently or formerly under EM (Snyder claims all 15 are out of EM, but that’s disingenuous because all have a “receivership transitional advisory board” with final say over all contracts and city operations):

  • Benton Harbor (90% black)
  • Detroit (82% black)
  • Ecorse (46% black)
  • Allen Park (2% black)
  • Flint (57% black)
  • Hamtramck (19% black, 22% Asian)
  • Lincoln Park (6% black)
  • Pontiac (52% black)
  • River Rouge (50% black)
  • Detroit Public Schools (84% black)
  • Highland Park School District (94% black)
  • Muskegon Heights School District (78% black)

Cities under state Consent Agreements (to avoid EM):

  • Highland Park (94% black)
  • Inkster (73% black)
  • Royal Oak Township (95% black)
  • Wayne County (41% black)
  • Benton Harbor Area Schools (90% black)
  • Pontiac Public Schools (52% black)

In total, over half of the African-Americans living in Michigan have had their voting rights taken away by the EM law, compared to only 2% of whites. By taking away the power of black elected officials to run their cities, the EM law completely deflates the power of black votes. The recent partial repeal of the Voting Rights Act in the south doesn’t even come close to disenfranchising black voters as badly as Michigan’s EM law. This is straight racism.

The worst indictment of EM, though, is what happens under its watch:

  • Benton Harbor – pristine waterfront privatized, city park converted to private golf course, crony contracts given to city company Whirlpool, government whistleblower sentenced to 2 to 10 years in prison
  • Detroit – water shut off on thousands of low-income families, largest tax foreclosure in the history of the United States
  • Flint – mass lead poisoning through tainted water
  • Detroit Public Schools – mass school closings, inhumane conditions in schools, state avoiding repairs because of intent to sell school buildings, mass teacher sick-outs and threatened strikes
  • So much more…

Last week, under pressure, Flint’s state oversight board voted 5-0 to return limited powers of appointment to elected Mayor Karen Weaver. She still has to submit qualifications in writing to the board for their approval, though, and the elected city council still has no say in the matter. This is a token return of power, not what Flint’s Mayor needs to get her city out of the crisis the state put it in.

It’s time to repeal Public Act 4 and rid Michigan of emergency management for good. If Snyder wants to save any face and preserve a modicum of positive legacy in this state, let him be the governor who resigns with his head held high after returning democracy to the state he stole it from.

The Flint Crisis is Not Just About the Water. It’s About Poverty.

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Flint residents visit a local fire station to pick up donated water being distributed by the Michigan National Guard. Photo: Justin Wedes, 1/16/16

The Detroit News ran an editorial this week titled ‘Cooperate for Flint’s Future’, in which the board makes the case that Michigan and the country need to “stop shouting and pull together to help the people of Flint.” According to the article, “the problem in Flint has been recognized, and is being addressed.” But has the problem really been recognized, and is it being address?

What those who bring cases of bottled water to Flint might be missing – however well-intentioned they might be – is that the real crisis here goes deeper than the dirty Flint River. Just as a band-aid won’t heal a bullet wound, fixing Flint (or metro Detroit’s) water crises without addressing the underlying problem of social and economic divestment won’t bring a bright future back to Michigan. At best it will delay the brunt of the pain until a new administration is elected/appointed, and at worst it will give us a false sense of resolution to yet another in a series of escalating social crises.

Neither can we solve this crisis by treating it like a natural disaster. Real natural disasters are treated like brief anomalies by relief agencies, where the goal is to restore the state of things before the disaster. Yet the crisis in Flint began long before the switch to dirty water, and even before the imposition of emergency management – two disasters stacked upon an already-disastrous situation. I’m reminded of the words overheard in Sandy-stricken New York or Katrina-stricken New Orleans: things weren’t OK here before the storm.

The first step in solving a problem is to understand it. The problem here is poverty: a lack of good-paying jobs, quality schools, and good housing. A city of 100,000 residents without a major grocery store. Poverty drives social alienation and despair, leading to distrust of, and disengagement from, the political system: only about 15% of adult potential voters in Flint and Detroit participated in recent years’ elections. (Certainly some of this disparity is from active voter disenfranchisement, not just disaffection.) Emergency management, which stripped what little remained of the power of the vote from residents by imposing unelected state leaders over them, accelerated this alienation – why should I vote if my vote doesn’t even count? When people can’t/don’t vote on issues that affect them, a vital safeguard against things like public utility poisoning is eliminated. To say that all Flint residents need is water filters is to miss the forest for the trees.

What do the people of Flint need? I toured Flint several times last year with the Detroit Water Brigade, a non-profit organization I co-founded in 2014 to aid and advocate on behalf of the thousands of Detroit residents without access to tap water in their homes and businesses. Local activists in Flint, faced with a population in deep poverty with some of the highest water bills in the state, had taken to doing what only now is the government doing: sharing water with people. The poor picked up donated water from local churches. A local trailer park within eyesight of the now-famous Flint water tower was disconnected from city water for non-payment, forcing its residents to pump water up from a well in a nearby cemetery. In a kind of cruel irony, some of the poorest residents of Flint may have been spared the worst effects of the lead-poisoning over these last few years because they were disconnected from the city system for non-payment. The crisis goes way back.

Flint water protesters outside Lansing City Hall. Photo: Chad Livengood, Detroit News

Flint water protesters outside Lansing City Hall. W. Bloomfield is an affluent suburb of Detroit. Photo: Chad Livengood, Detroit News

Governor Rick Snyder is right when he says “government failed you…by breaking the trust you placed in us,” but I wonder when he believes that failure began. It surely goes back decades, to the traitorous retreat of the auto industry from Michigan to cheap labor countries, accelerated by government policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and now the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). More recently, in a misguided effort to stem the hard effects of the global financial crisis, our state government tightened the belt of austerity and reenforced their policies with anti-democratic “emergency management” laws, rather than invest in our greatest asset: the people of Michigan. These failures preceded Governor Snyder, and they’ll follow after him unless we get serious about healing bullet wounds – and stopping the bleeding.

The Detroit News editorial board also erred in positing that “angry protests and mass demonstrations” have served their purpose, and now is not the time for “angry personal attacks and the politicization of this issue.” People are angry, but they’re also right and we must listen to them now more than ever. The fact that the Flint “issue” has become politicized is a positive sign that people recognize its importance, and it is pure cynicism to suggest that making the Flint water crisis a presidential issue won’t help fix it. We have seen the power of protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter to transform the agenda of both party’s presidential political debates, and to suggest this won’t help fix urgent issues like income inequality and police accountability is exactly the kind of defeatism that stifles political participation in our country. Let the protests and the vigorous debate ensue!

Flint’s water crisis should be seen as the final proof that government austerity policies have indisputably failed. It should also be the clarion call to a rising generation of American youth – diverse, intelligent and optimistic – that it is our time to step into the political fray. Just as newly-elected Flint Mayor Karen Weaver rode into office on a pledge to treat Flint’s crisis like the national emergency it is, we must think big and bold about the kind of government we want to rebuild in our shaken state. And that – more than any amount of bottled water or lead filters – will put us back on course to eliminating this shameful 21st century poverty.

 

 

How Bernie inspired me to learn Yiddish

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Yiddish children protesting against New York City's lack of child labor laws in 1909.

Yiddish children protesting against New York City’s lack of child labor laws in 1909.

Friends,

It’s almost too easy to become cynical about the state of politics today, but a little while back I read an interview in – of all places – the Christian Science Monitor that made me think:

As a child, Sanders said, being Jewish taught him “in a very deep way what politics is about.”

“A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election in 1932,” the senator said. “He won an election, and 50 million people died as a result of that election in World War II, including 6 million Jews. So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important.”
(Source: ‘Bernie Sanders: ‘I’m proud to be Jewish‘)

I often think that my generation, brought up in a time of relative world stability when compared to the ravaging world wars of our elder generations, forgets just how fragile democracy can be. During the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, most would believe that country to have been practicing the democratic principles of the Weimar Constitution: historian William L. Shirer described the Weimar Constitution as “on paper, the most liberal and democratic document of its kind the twentieth century had ever seen”. Hitler’s rise to power happened within a democracy, not by outside forces or a coup d’etatElections have effects.

And what happens between elections also has effects. I yearn to understand how the Holocaust began, and that question is wrapped up with the history of my ancestors: Jews from Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and all of Eastern Europe. I went to the library and picked up books on the history of modern Jewish politics: the bund ( Jewish worker unions), and the concurrent birth of the Zionist movement for a Jewish nation with the convening of the first Zionist Congress at Basel, Switzerland in 1897. My mind started racing.

I realized that I had learned much about Theodor Herzl and the founding of the state of Israel, but I hadn’t learned much about what happened before that, and the plight of the so-called diaspora of Jews that in the 19th century had spread across the world. Most importantly, I hadn’t learned about the most important historical political conflicts within Judaism – the fights for the soul of what it means to be Jewish. The two I’ve spent the most time working to understand are: (1) nationalism (Zionism) versus localism (Bundism) and (2) assimilation (the Haskalah movement and the Reform movement, for example) versus non-assimilation (preserving tradition, the Orthodox movement, etc.). They both led me to the realization that to truly understand the history of my faith, I would have to learn an old (but new for me!) language: yiddish.

So here I go, learning the mamaloshen (literally, the mother tongue). Visiting my Bube’s (grandma’s) yiddish club each week. Going to the schvitz (traditional Russian bathhouse). Watching the hilarious web series Yidlife Crisis. This is such a beautiful language, full of down-to-earth and domestic phrases, each revealing a popular culture of a very different time and place.

And yet – with modern politics beginning to show signs of repeating itself – maybe not that different…

Peace,

Justin

PS – If you have any suggestions or resources for aspiring yiddish speakers, please don’t hesitate to reach out!  Zay gezunt – Stay well!

Why It’s Time to Move On To Bernie

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UPDATE – The vote is now open. Anyone who has ever signed a MoveOn petition or signed up on their site is eligible. VOTE here!

Allow me to recap a little history for the new year. The progressive organization MoveOn.org began 17 years ago when two software engineers passed around an email petition to  “censure President Clinton and move on” from the uber-partisan attacks against Bill. Today, MoveOn has a membership (really an email list) of over 7 million members and is an influential player in the Democratic party. Today, MoveOn made a very big announcement: they’ll be holding a presidential endorsement vote starting this Thursday at noon. If one of the democratic primary candidates captures 66.7% of the vote – open to all who’ve signed up (for free) on MoveOn.org before noon on Thursday – that candidate will capture MoveOn’s endorsement and a major boost in the 2016 Democratic primary election.

This is really good news for Bernie Sanders. Bernie’s still sailing on the momentum of his Democracy for America endorsement, another organization founded by a Clinton supporter – Howard Dean. MoveOn’s endorsement of Bernie would be game-changing, just as it was for Obama in 2008. It would also symbolize the beginning of the end of the Clinton dynasty, and a move to a more progressive era of politics in America.

There’s no doubt the Clintons have left their mark on Democratic politics, but it’s time to close the book on their era. MoveOn’s endorsement of Bernie would do just that.

The Democratic party is moving to the left, just as the Republican party is sprinting to the far-right. The days of centrism and neoliberal, soft-on-Wall-Street policies are over: the latest financial crisis and its stalled recovery show the need for bold economic action akin to FDR’s New Deal. The Clintons can’t provide the grassroots energy for that movement, but Bernie can.

That’s why I’m asking you to help make Bernie the MoveOn.org endorsed candidate for president. Sign up at MoveOn.org (their emails aren’t actually that bad, and you can always unsubscribe later if they bug you) before Thursday if you haven’t already and spread the word: Let’s #MoveOnToBernie!

Killer Mike + Bernie Sanders Talk Capitalism and Socialism

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A beautiful short video showing the kind of intelligent discourse that the #FeelTheBern political revolution is provoking. And in barber shop chairs at the Swag Shop in Atlanta nonetheless! 

What I’m Thankful for This Year

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I’m thankful (in no particular order) for

  • The sun and the moon
  • Moving escalators
  • The Detroit riverfront
  • #BlackLivesMatter
  • The India Arie Pandora station
  • My mother
  • Carrot cake
  • My father
  • The Bundists, and Yiddish
  • Compassion
  • Awkward activist interventions on presidential speeches
  • Disagreement, controversy
  • Not making lists
  • A girlfriend who makes lists
  • Love
  • My sisters
  • My uncle, even when we disagree
  • Collard greens
  • #SyrianRefugees
  • Latinos
  • People who make fun of Donald Trump
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Sunsets
  • G7(♯11♭9) (G-B-D-F-A♭-C♯)
  • Harmony
  • A moderate amount of chaos
  • Good sleep
  • Life

‘Bern It Up’ REMIX by DJ Steve Porter

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Gotta tip my hat to DJ Steve Porter on this one. Also, Bernie doesn’t sound too bad for a Jewish boy from Brooklyn…

1000 Days Since Sandy

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Residents of Red Hook, Brooklyn during Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge. (Photo: Brokelyn)

This week marks the third anniversary of a moment that changed so many lives – including mine – forever. On October 29th, 2012 Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge hit New York City and for days poured destruction onto the city and the surrounding states. Thousands of people were displaced, homes flooded, nearly $100 billion in damage caused, and the lives of already poverty-stricken people were thrown once again into even deeper disarray.

Those were the weeks when my youthful idealism slowly alchemized to a hard, burning realism. Poverty is easy to ignore for too many of us: we build highways over immigrant and working-class neighborhoods to move quickly from the suburbs to the city. With perhaps only the best of intentions, we fund police to criminalize poverty and homelessness into jails. Then we fund foundations, religious institutions and non-profits to provide for the needs of those who aren’t served by our deeply-rigged economic system. All of this is done with white gloves on, and we congratulate ourselves when “official” rates of joblessness and homelessness decline slightly – not because we’ve built a more humane, equitable society but because government rigged the metrics to exclude those too hopeless to even search for work. Still, the poverty endures.

It’s only when the flood waters come in that the deep trenches of the class and racial divides in our cities are fully revealed, and Sandy did just that. Sandy revealed the deep and systemic poverty that lives in the shadows of Wall Street in New York City: the Rockaways, Coney Island, Red Hook, Chinatown, and Long Island, Bergen County in New Jersey. Like Hurricane Katrina before it, Sandy’s destruction carved out the already-existent contours of abandonment in our country.

And the response was … absolutely beautiful. #SandyVolunteers from across the region, even the country, heeded the call of the almost-defunct Occupy movement reincarnated as a people-powered, grassroots disaster relief network. Some 70,000 volunteers braved weather, closed-down streets, gas shortages and mental and physical exhaustion to ferry supplies and expertise to the hardest-hit areas. From my little vantage point holed up in a makeshift relief center in a church, the whole city seemed to be activating to come to the aid of the neediest. It was truly solidarity in action.

For months, I dedicated my life to the relief effort – turning down paid work and nearly driving myself into financial ruin without a thought in my mind of doing anything else. Like the occupation a year early, this was the most important thing happening in the world at the moment. I know I wasn’t the only person to feel that way. So we toiled away to set up dispatches and registries and shuttle people and supplies to the front lines while working with unions and advocacy groups to demand a more just and equitable recovery. Arguably, we succeeded in some respects though there is still so much work ahead: today, we have an administration much more committed to the hungry, the homeless and the displaced from Sandy. But vigilant we must remain.

As I sit in my office in downtown Detroit today, a thousand miles away from the storm, I reflect on all the ways that Sandy changed me. The Detroit Water Brigade was deeply-informed by our Sandy work, and I continue to think of Detroit as a “disaster without water” that demands the same kind of broad humanitarian relief effort to recover and again become a world-class city. Still, I think of how disasters affect the poor the harshest. And how a culture that values people over profits will never be able to respond to disaster like one that truly values human lives above all. It’s reassuring to feel that today so many others feel that way like me, many more than did before Sandy.

Keep fighting, and loving,

Justin

PS – Will you join me in pitching in $10 today to support The Action Center of Far Rockaway on the front lines of Sandy recovery work?

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