Throw the Book at Rick Snyder for Poisoning Flint’s Water

Former Michigan governor Rick Snyder suspended democracy for the majority of the state’s black residents, then oversaw Flint residents’ poisoning in the city’s ongoing water crisis. As of today, he’s facing well-deserved criminal neglect charges.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder speaks to the media regarding the status of the Flint water crisis in Flint, Michigan, 2016. (Brett Carlsen / Getty Images)

Michigan’s attorney general Dana Nessel charged Republican former governor Rick Snyder with two counts of willful neglect related to the Flint water crisis today. The charge carries a maximum penalty of up to a year in prison. Snyder pleaded not guilty. Several former senior Snyder aides were also charged, and Nessel has said more indictments may be coming.

The charges are long overdue. In 2014, while under the authority of an “emergency manager,” appointed by Snyder, the City of Flint changed its municipal water source. Rather than buy water from the City of Detroit, which has a massive water plant roughly seventy miles south, Flint would now pump its own water from the Flint River (and eventually, the plan said, from Lake Huron).

This seemingly mundane infrastructure decision would have dramatic consequences for the impoverished city. In a decision approved by state regulators, Flint officials failed to properly treat the water coming from the new source. The water from the Flint River quickly corroded the city’s old lead pipes, putting dangerous amounts of lead and other chemicals into the water supply.

The water was so bad that GM stopped using Flint’s water in its nearby factories because it was permanently damaging the company’s heavy industrial equipment. Even then, city- and state-appointed officials resisted switching the water supply back to a safer source.

It is difficult to overstate the damage Snyder and his cronies did to the city of Flint, which was already impoverished as a result of decades of white flight, factory closures, and disinvestment. A dozen people died of Legionnaire’s disease and many more were sickened. Toxic chemicals known to contribute to cancer have now been in the water for years.

The New York Times reports that more than thirty thousand children were exposed to dangerous levels of lead, leading to a school system in which 28 percent of children require special education services, almost double the rate the year before the crisis began. Fertility decreased by 12 percent while fetal deaths rose by 58 percent. The city’s residents went without clean water for three years at an absolute minimum, with many residents expressing skepticism to this day that the city’s water is safe.

While the minor charges are arguably too little and too late for tens of thousands of Flint residents whose lives have been permanently altered, Snyder’s prosecution is an important step in ensuring a similar debacle never happens again. But an even more critical step is for Michigan residents to resoundingly defeat the neoliberal politics Snyder embodied.

Democracy Out, Capitalists In

For the duration of his two terms in office, Snyder was hell-bent on selling off public wealth for private profit, a reckless and deeply unpopular program that was only possible because he effectively suspended democratic government for the majority of the state’s black residents.

Specifically, he used a Michigan law allowing the governor to appoint “emergency managers” over school districts and cities. Emergency managers were legally accountable only to Snyder and had essentially dictatorial powers to overrule democratically elected officials, cancel contracts, and sell public goods to private capitalists.

Under Snyder, the cities of Benton Harbor, Pontiac, Flint, and Detroit — which together comprise the majority of the state’s black population — were all under emergency management, along with some of their school districts.

As Dianne Feeley wrote in Jacobin,

[I]n 2011, Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill strengthening the law’s provisions and appointed emergency managers (EMs) to rule over deindustrialized cities and school districts — all of which had majority African-American populations. Flint, having lost half of its population to surrounding suburbs, was 57 percent black and had the highest poverty rate in the state. It was to have three emergency managers. The EMs sold public property, slashed public workers’ wages and pensions, and closed community centers. Any semblance of democracy was disregarded.

From the beginning residents protested the law, holding meetings, marches, press conferences, and demonstrations. They pointed out that much of the deficit had been caused by cutbacks to revenue-sharing required under the Michigan Constitution, and denounced the racist character of the law’s implementation.

In November 2012, Michiganders repealed the emergency manager law in a statewide referendum. Seventy-five of the state’s eighty-three counties voted to dump it. But legislators, in a lame-duck session, passed a nearly identical bill designed to block a future referendum, and Snyder quickly signed the legislation.

The mechanism that would help unleash a public health disaster in Flint was now firmly in place.

It’s worth dwelling for a moment on the lengths Snyder and Michigan Republicans went to in order to make sure black Michiganders had no way to stop the state from selling off their collective wealth. Even after a statewide referendum repudiated Snyder’s use of the emergency manager law and repealed his ability to wield it, Snyder and the Republican legislature simply passed an identical law weeks later. This time they included a special provision to make sure voters couldn’t strike it down.

The contempt for voters was flabbergasting. But that’s what it took to enact Snyder’s neoliberal program of attacking workers’ rights and selling as many productive public assets to private capitalists as possible, while cutting government services and benefits for public workers.

Most people don’t like those policies, and they’ll punish politicians who push them when given the chance. Snyder’s solution wasn’t to win people over, it was to make sure the people who would get screwed couldn’t do anything to stop him.

The Flint water crisis was only the most visible, and most deadly, example of a broader attack that the rich, led by Snyder, conducted on the poor and working class in Michigan, as well as civil servants in the state. It was only because the people involved had no say that he was able to get as far as he did in transferring collective goods into private hands.

In fact, Snyder and his proxies waged a prolonged campaign to undermine Detroit’s water system, wrest it from the majority-black city’s control, and push it toward privatization. It’s reasonable to ask if the whole Flint fiasco was rooted as much in an attempt to strip Detroit of a large customer as it was in the stated motive of saving Flint money.

It’s gratifying to see Snyder held accountable today. But ultimately, he is just one tool in the rich’s massive toolbox. With millions of dollars to pay for legal fees at his disposal, it is unlikely he’ll face any real consequences aside from a well-deserved hit to his reputation.

More importantly, there are hundreds of politicians like him — in both parties — in Michigan and beyond. Many of the worst things Snyder did were perfectly legal. The only way to truly defeat people like Rick Snyder is to do exactly what he feared most: organize, defeat them at the polls and on the picket line, and banish them from public life.