Black and White Keys

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Betsy DeVos is the new Cathie Black

Now that Betsy DeVos has successfully bought herself a Read more

Black and White Keys

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I sat down hesitantly at the piano bench on the church stage. Gerald the ‘Music Minister’ had been playing a soulful gospel interlude – the kind you hear behind heartfelt words of pastoral praise on Sunday morning. What can I play that could even possibly match that deep level of feeling and expression, I asked myself.

Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary /
Pure and holy, tried and true /
With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living /
Sanctuary for You

I had learned the melody at Downtown Synagogue in Detroit a year ago, equally soulful but with a different intention: to thank G-d for the life-giving food we eat each day:

בריך רחמנא מלכא דעלמא מריה דהאי פיתא
Blessed is the merciful One, ruler of the world, creator of this bread.

It occurred to me that I should play this simple melody on the church piano, in the Key of C. I chose the key for its familiarity: most of the notes are white except the ‘blue’ notes: those played slightly out-of-tune for expressive effect. For a pianist, choosing a key is like choosing a bed: you can feel the contours of the song along the board’s slender keys even before you rest your hands on them. The Key of C is my Sleep Number.

I started with the simple melody, slowly and tentatively on the higher register. Eyes wide open, heart pumping. To be witty, I added the major third an octave below. How clever am I!

The church auditorium felt empty, and Gerald stood looming over me. I better add some bass to this, I felt. Left hand pinky and thumb stretch out into octaves and pound out a counter-line below.

Now the middle is missing. Add in some soulful chords around middle C, tightly-packed with 2nds and major 7ths that shake each other like rippling pond waves. Now I can hear the sound filling the room, like a cocoon of safety. I’m almost comfortable.

Stop. It doesn’t feel right, I tell myself. Something’s off. Mid-note I pause.

“Gerald, man, you play this!“

“You’re only hitting the white keys!” he responds.

He sits down, laying his hand on his musical bed. His bed is the Key of Db – all the black keys. He starts to play something flowing and erratic. It vaguely resembles the song I was playing, if you took my song and threaded it through a spaghetti-maker, then looped it around a thousand gold rings in every direction up and down. Like a musical rube goldberg machine.

His eyes are closed.

I’m reminded why I love jazz and gospel music: the spontaneity, the complexity, the collaborative spirit between musicians. No rules, just love and feeling. And the demand for pure authenticity without pretension or pretending.

I am feeling convinced that music could help heal us. From the politics of today. The racism. The fear. The shame. The “other”-ness of the uncertain.

Our buddy Andre whips us out of the musical frenzy with a joke. Gerald looks at me and smiles. My discomfort fades away and we laugh about the black and white keys: it really takes both of them to make the music just right.

Gerald and I are both part of the Bethel Community Transformation Center, an interfaith space in the historic Temple Beth El former synagogue in Detroit that is raising money to build healing and reconciliation dialogue between Jews and Gentiles, blacks and whites, young and old in Detroit. To support our work in the final stretch of our Kickstarter campaign, visit


Betsy DeVos is the new Cathie Black

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cathie black devos

Now that Betsy DeVos has successfully bought herself a seat in the Trump cabinet – and protesters are already making her job impossible – it’s time to start drawing some parallels between the fiasco-about-to-ensue of Betsy DeVos and the fiasco-already-averted of Cathie Black. (For those who don’t recall, Black was the short-lived, cocktail-party-appointed NYC Schools Chancellor under Mayor Bloomberg who inspired a movement against her and the austerity/privatization agenda she came in with. I wrote about that here.)

The similarities are blinding: an elite, out-of-touch corporate education “reformer” appointed by an out-of-touch billionaire businessman-turned-politician with absolutely no public school experience or credentials. Why wouldn’t DeVos face the same startling opposition? Odds are she will.

I wrote a petition over six years ago that helped to galvanize the movement against Black, calling on NY State to deny Cathie the waiver she needed to take the job. Today, I started a similar petition aimed at DeVos, although since she already has the job only her boss or a constitutional act of impeachment can remove her at this point. But don’t fret, Cathie Black already her job too and that didn’t stop protesters, lawyers and policians from joining forces in public pressure to remove her.

Of course, Betsy DeVos is much, much more dangerous than Cathie Black – DeVos is a lifelong advocate for all of the privatization that would defund and destroy public education: vouchers to put public money into private and religious schools, education tax credits, charter schools and all the rest – reforms she herself calls “radical.” But that’s all the more reason to let the fight begin…

This Week, Millions of People Made America Great Again

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Photo: Jews in Detroit protest against Fritz Kuhn, Nazi sympathizer dubbed the “American fuehrer”, circa 1930

Photo: Jews in Detroit protest against Fritz Kuhn, Nazi sympathizer dubbed the “American fuehrer”, circa 1930

What a week it has been! It began last Saturday, January 21st, 2017 with the Women’s March in over 500 cities. With estimates of 3.3 million proud and peaceful participants, it may have been the single largest demonstration in U.S. history. The images on social media of vast oceans of brave, joyfully-defiant women (and men) in pink hats with a plethora of signs hearkened back to the days of the Women’s Suffrage Movement of the late 1800’s/early 1900’s, the labor protests after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, the civil rights movement crescendoing in the 1960’s… the list goes on.

It didn’t end with the Women’s March, either. All through the week, acts of beautiful defiance emerged like whack-a-moles: Standing Rock protests rocked the American heartland when Trump’s White House announced plans to resume the failed Keystone XL and DAPL oil pipelines; the State Department’s entire senior administrative team resigned en masse before Trump’s new Secretary of State – and former ExxonMobil CEO – Rex Tillerson could even begin; and under increasing public pressure the State of California announced it would consider withholding tax transfers to Washington if Trump didn’t back down from his threat to suspend federal block grants from sanctuary cities that protect immigrants.

Then, on Saturday night, came the sweet cherry on top of this week’s beautiful American pie: Trump hastily tried to implement his ban on immigrants and refugees from 7 Muslim-majority countries – with the chutzpah to even include legal resident green card holders! – and New Yorkers lept out to JFK Airport en masse to resist. Resistance “came out of nowhere,” said filmmaker Michael Moore, and soon airports across the country were jammed with sign-wielding protesters and refugee “Welcome Teams.” The protests continue into today as I write…

In short, this week millions of Americans awoke to the reality that their self-evident, essential freedoms were under attack by an imposter president – and they stepped up to defend them! How beautifully human (and American) of them.

Protest for freedom and dignity is what makes America great, and Trump has succeeded in sparking it. He’s brought together Jews and Muslims, men and women, LGBTQ folks and their straight allies, even Republicans and Democrats. By villainizing the media, he’s given journalists – whose entire industry appeared to be collapsing under market forces of consolidation, privatization, and automation – a second wind and a raison d’etre: to keep him and his administration honest! And by challenging the core values of our democracy, he’s dealt us cynical and jaded Americans the shot of epinephrine needed to leap into action for our common welfare. Thanks, Donald, for helping us (and not you) make America great again!

The road ahead back to sanity and towards human dignity will be a long one: we will first have to deal with the lasting damage this illegitimate administration has inflicted by isolating its impact and contain its spread. Protests at airports and other border crossings will grow larger, and hopefully smarter: more immigration lawyers, strategic work actions and shutdowns, mutual aid in support of separated families, and more. We’ll have to harness at once both the urgency to confront and resist Trump and the clairvoyance to envision the world after his short-lasting rule.

The international damage done to the U.S. reputation will have to be healed even as we heal the real internal rifts within our country that brought us to this moment: Trump would not have won the support of so many Americans if he hadn’t capitalized on the real systemic failures of our top-heavy economic system that the establishment Democrats barely even mentioned. A complete overhaul of the Democratic Party, beginning with new leadership at the top, is the first step. In parallel, growing third-party and non-party power will be just as critical because the political party system itself has grown less and less representative of a diverse, tech-savvy, and increasingly mobile electorate.

All of this amounts to building a visionary left in the United States, something akin to the populist party of the early 1900’s that paved the way for FDR’s New Deal. Can the popular revolt against Trump be channeled into a principled, visionary left revolution of values? Since Trumpism is built sturdily upon the notion of the Forgotten Man/Woman of the American heartland ravaged by NAFTA and Free Trade, this revolution will be inherently rural as well as urban/suburban. It will also be extremely local in nature. Cities and their mayors have become major power players over the past decade, building massive non-official influence through 501c3’s and innovative public-private partnerships as our creeping federal stalemate has opened up a vacuum of vision and leadership in the country. A visionary left will find alternatives to community-fracturing gentrification that will bridge city and suburb, even exurb – something akin to the populist party’s solidarity of farm workers, factory workers, and students.

The constitutional crisis our country finds itself in requires no less than a total rethinking of the broken “American dream” paradigm of the last century. If it took a pompous bigot like Donald Trump for us to come to that rude awakening, so be it. We should celebrate the challenge he’s laid out for us even as we recommit ourselves to fighting for justice and dignity every single day. We’ll be carrying on the best in this crazy country’s tradition by doing so.

prayer // fasting \\ vision

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Today I fast. A simple, ancient act. As it is written in Joel 1:14,

“Solemnize a fast, Proclaim an assembly; Gather the elders—all the inhabitants of the land— In the House of the Divine, Cry out to the Creator.” 

In those times, the land was rapidly being consumed by locusts. Drought and hunger had descended on all the people. The wheat and the crops of the field withered, and there were no grapes for wine or animals for sacrifice: “Offering and libation have ceased from the house of the Lord”.

Fear descended on the people. Like the fear that pervades today. And the calamities that ensnare us in webs of doubt and shame and anger and righteous indignation. And the protests erupt.

Tomorrow I will protest – what better way to fulfill the Sabbath, שַׁבָּת, literally to rest, to stop working, (also to strike like a union!). The world’s oldest protest. Tomorrow I will raise my voice and march and gather with thousands more to recommit myself to building a more just world and reject hatred. Tomorrow.

Today I fast. To clear my mind and focus inward. To find the strength in my history and my heritage to keep resisting when so many others say fall in line. To internalize the drought and the hunger and the suffering of so many millions of G-d’s people in this world.

The passage Joel in Prophets is not simply about calamity, but also about hope. Deep, stubborn, relentless hope. As when G-d says to Joel:

I will pour out My spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and daughters shall prophesy;
Your old men shall dream dreams,
And your young men shall see visions.

Maybe G-d is telling Joel that it is precisely in times of deep communal calamity that visionary thinking prevails. In times of plenty, the grapes grow big and the cattle fat, and man can stockpile and adorn this world with material things galore. When that vanishes, we are reminded to whom the vine and the meat ultimately belong. And we are reminded that G-d’s bread only comes forth from the earth in true partnership with mankind, acting in concert with each other. If that partnership frays, we go hungry.

So today I fast. To stomp irreverently on fear. To rekindle hope.

Peace and love,


Chill Out, America. This Too Shall Pass.

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Photo: A somewhat thoughtful take on the 2016 United States Presidential Election


The third and final presidential debate came to an end like a screeching kamikaze plane exploding on the heads of the American electorate. The only thing missing was the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a food fight. And in the sad silence after I turned off the twitter – what’s a TV again? – the words of Stephen Colbert after the “Commander-In-Chief” Town Hall on the Intrepid warship came to mind: “just cut the lines and let it drift out to sea!”

Seriously, though, chill out. We’re going to be fine. 

This country has had nearly 220 years of straight peaceful transfers of political power during elections. In fact, Americans are smart enough to know that questioning the validity of an election to the point of rioting doesn’t help anyone but the people already in power: when was the last time a true popular revolution started by violently contesting an election? Let’s look at history:

  • The Cuban Revolution started after an election in response to a fascistic former army Sergeant Fulgencio Batista seizing power when he found out he’d lose. (Did you hear that, Trump supporters?)
  • The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 saw student groups and anti-communists take to the streets non-violently en masse to establish a parliamentary republic. Some had previously been arrested and beaten many years before when they non-violently boycotted an (actually-rigged) election. (There’s some hope for you non-voters and third-party supporters out there…)
  • The American Revolution began where elections weren’t even allowed in the colonies – and fought for the right to vote (albeit it most of them fought for that right exclusively for white, land-owning males). When the revolution won them independence, they bickered for years about how to best create a system of peaceful transfer of political power – and political duels like the one that killed Alexander Hamilton sparked an anti-dueling movement. (Can we just stop it with that creepy, threatening rhetoric you two?!…)

So there’s a long history of ‘We the People’ being quite skeptical of those in power on all “sides”, and not playing into their game of riling us up against each other every few years. Here I’m reminded of a wise African proverb: When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. 

And a word to those of us with privilege – either because of our race, gender, class or otherwise. It is actually a beautiful acknowledgement of privilege to fight against faux populism and pandering and remind Americans that nobody in the political class is perfectly-attuned to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised. Nobody speaks perfectly for “the little guy”, the regular Joe Shmoe. History’s path is strewn with skeletons of the victims of every ‘-ism’s broken promises. Let’s cut the savior mentality BS!

So whether you’re voting for him, her, someone else, or nobody at all, let’s keep a bit of our human composure and dignity as we watch our so-called leaders descend into ridicule. Let’s practice that age-old democratic principle of not-giving-too-many-f*&#s about electoral politics, and focus on the kind of voting most of us do the other 364 days a year: with our feet, our dollars, our protest signs, our words, and our bodies.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am an independent voter who will be casting his ballot for Hillary Clinton this election – with nose somewhat plugged. If only Bernie…

Chad Rochkind: A Jail at Michigan Central Station is Detroit’s Dumbest Idea

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This article by Chad Rochkind originally appeared on the Detroit News blog, before it was removed without explanation on Wednesday, August 17, 2016. It appears re-printed here with permission from the author. (UPDATE Below)


Michigan Central Station. Photos: Peter Kyte (at left) & Barbara Jacobson (at right)

It’s hard to know where to begin when critiquing proposals that are bad on pretty much every level. Unfortunately, that’s the task at hand after the Detroit News published Nolan Finley’s absurd column suggesting that the solution for the Wayne County jail debacle is to move it to Michigan Central Station.

Finley’s proposal makes no sense from an urban planning and architectural perspective, an economic development perspective, a public space perspective, a cultural vibrancy perspective, or social justice perspective. It’s shocking that the Detroit News decided to publish something so clearly backwards in it’s thinking and destructive to the years of efforts by organizations, business owners, and residents on the ground in Corktown and Southwest Detroit.

Urban Planning

From an urban planning perspective, a jail at Michigan Central Station would be a tremendous misuse of one of Detroit’s most iconic assets. What would it say about our values and our vision for ourselves as a city if this incredible icon was used for such purposes? Nolan Finley’s proposal is a failure of the imagination—one that presumes any development is good development, It is completely insensitive to geographical and historical context. Geographically, Michigan Central Station is visible from many neighborhoods throughout Detroit: Downtown, Brush Park, Midtown, Corktown, North Corktown, Hubbard Farms, Hubbard Richard, Mexicantown, and much of Southwest Detroit. To have a jail loom in the skyline would deeply impact our mental maps of the area, and it would be a symbol to all of these neighborhoods that we value locking people up more than we value active civic life. That is to say nothing of the fact that Michigan Central Station would become an even greater divider between these communities at exactly the time we are striving for greater connection. Historically, Michigan Central Station was the Ellis Island of Detroit—the landing pad of freedom for immigrants from Ireland, Greece, Malta, Italy, and Mexico. A jail would not only erase this history, but it would tarnish it by replacing freedom with bondage.


From an architectural perspective, Finley’s proposal would be a complete misuse of one of the most beautiful historic buildings, not only in Detroit, but in the United States as a whole. The Warren & Wetmore and Reed and Stem beaux-arts classic is revered across the globe. To put such use in use a building would make us the laughing stock of the world. Michigan Central Station is the spiritual twin of Grand Central in New York City. It’s often forgotten that Grand Central once stood in disrepair, and if not for the spirited efforts of engaged citizens (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis among them) that building would have faced the chopping block. However, it’s a fallacy to believe we should redevelop every abandoned building in Detroit for any reason that pops into our head the night before a column is due. Michigan Central Station can be an asset in its current state, simply if it is reframed in the public mind. The so-called jail solution is no solution at all. It represents the same failed, top-down, big-box, silver bullet thinking that has plagued this city and this region for decades. If Michigan Central Station must be redeveloped, it need not be developed all at once. Why not open the lobby and place a bar on the roof? Why not look at the example of Memphis’ Tennessee Brewery redevelopment that took place through a series of gradual, piecemeal updates that included a biergarten and screening room in a building at the same scale as Michigan Central Station. Too often, we wait for large-scale investment to get anything done in this town, when the reality is we can make like life better today by using a lighter, quicker, cheaper approach. That’s the proper way to begin to redevelop Michigan Central Station—as a place of gradual becoming, rather than as a place where dreams go to die. We must forge a new relationship with this uniquely Detroit architectural wonder. We can reframe our relationship to the building from blight to beauty, but a jail at the site is the worst of all possible worlds.

Economic Development

From an economic development perspective, both Corktown and Southwest have been stitching together walkable, locally owned business communities that we can be proud of on both sides of Michigan Central Station. These two neighborhoods are experiencing the kind of economic growth that should be replicated throughout Detroit. Finley’s proposal would effectively halt the progress we have seen in these neighborhoods over the past decade and more. We should be thinking about how our existing assets can be used to anchor our neighborhoods’ growth, not stymy it—particularly when the city is just emerging from bankruptcy.

Public Space

From a public space perspective, Michigan Central Station sits at the foot of Roosevelt Park, which has the potential to be a truly iconic public space, specifically because of it proximity to, and visual relationship with, the classic beaux-arts building. Both Corktown and Southwest have initiated a planning process around the future of the park, one that has various relevant government agencies already at the table. This effort would die if the park was anchored by a jail, and the $3 million that the Detroit Recreation Department has earmarked for improvements in Roosevelt Park would be wasted.

Cultural Vibrancy

From a cultural vibrancy perspective, do you know who says, “let’s hang out around the jail!”? No one. Any attempt to uplift the distinct and vibrant cultures on both sides of Michigan Central Station would effectively end if the building were transformed into a jail. Say goodbye to the dreams of music festivals, or movie nights, or playscapes, or any of the other things that contribute to rich cultural life in cities.

Social Justice

Lastly, from a social justice perspective, we should be shutting down jails rather than building them. That the county finds itself in a $100 million hole is nothing compared to the countless lives (particularly those of men of color) that have been ruined by a bias and unjust criminal justice system. To honor imprisonment with a building as beautiful and regal, and as central to our public consciousness, as Michigan Central Station would be to uplift the worst aspects of our society—the aspects most in need of serious reform, which have torn our communities apart, rather than lifting them up. Additionally, the Michigan Central Station site is difficult to access without a motor vehicle, meaning the people who most often have to interact with the criminal justice system (the poor) will be at an even greater disadvantage. A socially just jail site, if there can be such a thing, must be accessible to people who can’t afford a car.

Michigan Central Station has a future, though it has yet to be written. That future may be an abandoned building with a reframed relationship to the public (like the Coliseum in Rome) or it could be redeveloped to meet the needs of a new era using new tactics of development. What we do know is that no matter what, absurd and destructive proposals like the one proposed by Nolan Finley must be lambasted, mocked, and ridiculed before they can be taken seriously and take root in the halls of power. Otherwise, we will destroy everything that has the potential to make Detroit a leader in 21st Century urban development that we all know it can become.

Mayor Duggan likes to say that every neighborhood has a future. If Nolan Finley got his way, we’re not so sure that’s true.

UPDATE: Since I (re-)posted this article, Nolan Finley – who also serves as Editorial chief at the Detroit News – has explained via Twitter that the article was taken down “because it was factually inaccurate. This was not my proposal as you claim. Nowhere in the piece did I claim ownership. That was clear. You got the facts wrong.” Mr. Finley has proposed to Mr. Rochkind to re-submit the post without attributing the jail proposal to him.

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.


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 water crisis

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.



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