I knocked on Mulenga Harangua's door early one day between Christmas and New Year's Day. I was doing a little post-holiday shopping and thought I'd get a couple of those "Detroit, comme ça" T-shirts he was selling. He was slow getting to the door and I banged on it a second time.
"Hold on a minute," Mulenga hollered from inside just before opening the door. "I was busy making some new T-shirts."
"That's just what I wanted to see you about," I said as I stepped inside. "I need some of that 'Detroit, comme ça' gear you were selling."
"Oh, I'm all out of those," Mulenga said as he lifted a piece of newspaper covering a window and peeped outside.
"Are you looking out for the cops or something?" I asked.
"I'm always looking out for the cops," he said. "I was just wondering who might have showed up at my house in your wake. It don't hurt to keep your eyes open. That's a 100 percent organic security system. Nothing beats being alert. Besides, I can't pay for video cameras all around my house. I call my system 'look and see.'"
"So what's up with the T-shirts?" I asked. "Are you making up a new batch? I can wait a little while to get my gear."
"I don't make those anymore," Mulenga said.
"What? I thought you were doing pretty good selling them. You had money in your pocket."
"Yeah, I sold a bunch of them," Mulenga waved his hand dismissively. "But everybody and their brother are putting Detroit on T-shirts, caps, and coffee mugs. It's a massive PR job for the city. But I've moved on to something else."
Mulenga waved his arm for me to follow him into the next room. Actually it was a little warmer in there. There were a few little ceramic heaters powered by candles in there. You know those big candles in a jar that you see in churches with holy pictures on them. He had corrugated cardboard taped up over the windows. All this worked just fine because it wasn't that cold yet. There was a hammock hanging in the corner with a sleeping bag in it.
I raised my sight to the left and saw a rectangle of white cloth. Crude hand-drawn lettering read: Lead-Free Flint.
I scratched my chin and shook my head. Then I sat down on a couple of plastic milk crates that were stacked together. "You got that right," I nodded at the banner.
"I'm not sure about the wording just yet; it's a work in progress," Mulenga scratched his own chin. "At first it was going to say, 'Lead Pencils Not Water,' but that didn't have a ring to it. It's tough."
"Maybe it's because you need to go to the source of it all," I said. "This abomination lies squarely at the feet of Gov. Snyder. No, not at his feet, it's in his heart and soul, his psyche. He was warned that the water from the Flint River would leach lead from the pipes without fixing them for that use. He poisoned the residents of Flint in order to save some money. It's heartless, cruel, and I would hazard to say criminal. He was told that the Flint River water would leach the lead from the pipes. "
"Heartless, cruel, and criminal has kind of a ring to it," Mulenga scrawled the words with a crayon on the wall. "Of course no one knows where that finger of accusation is pointed."
"Point it directly at Snyder, not that he didn't have his cohorts," I said. "When I think back to those very first political ads of his were entertaining with the comic 'it's time for a nerd' approach and I look at the damage he has done to people it scares me."
Mulenga convulsed for a few seconds. "I just thought of him as a precursor to Donald Trump and a shiver ran down my spine," Mulenga said. "One tough nerd came on coy, but look at what he's done. Trump has an even bigger entertainment appeal and based on what he's saying now, I wonder how much further he's willing to go."
"I see why you're shaking; that makes me shaky too," I was glad to be sitting down because my knees were a little weak. "But Snyder is the devil we got right now. Trump is next year's beast."
Mulenga held his hands over the ceramic heater and rubbed them together. "He's been going around the state declaring financial emergencies so that he can overthrow democratically elected representation, but when it comes time to stand up and be accountable, when it comes time to declare a health emergency he's all out of declarations."
"Yeah, he left that one up to new Flint Mayor Karen Weaver," I said. 'I can't remember her exact words ... uh."
Mulenga reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. "I have her exact words right here," he said. "I keep it here to feed my rage when I feel it slipping. She said, 'The City of Flint faces a manmade disaster by switching to use of the Flint River.' Then it goes on to say that 'children have experienced increased blood lead levels.' Now we're getting to the part that enrages me. 'This damage to children is irreversible.'"
Mulenga was shaking and twitching as he read. He looked at the Lead-Free Flint cloth on the wall, reached over, and ripped it off. "This doesn't even come close to what I feel. This is the same shit that's always been going on. They poison poor people. They poison black people. They make us live in the most polluted areas. This is as bad as passing out smallpox-infected blankets to the Indians."
"This is going to be with us for a long time," I added.
"It's a lifetime for those kids," Mulenga said. "Mayor Weaver says this is going to cause a greater need for special education, mental health services, and some accommodation from the juvenile justice system."
"I think that Snyder should be accommodated in the state prison," I said. "All that he's had to say about it is that it's the state's biggest challenge. It may be that Snyder is the state's biggest challenge. He says that now isn't the time to blame anyone. Could it be because he is to blame?"
Mulenga smiled. "Now that you bring it up there is action to hold Snyder responsible for his actions in Flint. There is a #ArrestGovSnyder string of tweets on Twitter with a lot of vitriol aimed at our nerdy guy."
"Maybe you should put that on a T-shirt," I said. "#ArrestGovSnyder does have a nice ring to it. And it gets right to the point."
"You just might have something there," Mulenga agreed. "You know, if you really want them I think I've got a couple of those 'Detroit, comme ca' T-shirts hanging around."
I declined, "You know, a T-shirt with a flippant Detroit phrase on it doesn't seem like quite the thing anymore — how about Snyder's head on a silver platter?"
Mulenga pushed me toward the front door. "Get out of here man, I've got work to do."
My shoulders drooped. I was feeling a bit deflated thinking about the mess in Flint and the lifetime of crap that has been heaped upon its people.
"Don't let it get you down," Mulenga said. "Get mad."
He closed the door behind me, but pulled it open quickly. He flashed a peace sign at me and said, "Go far, spread love."
Then he craned his head and swiveled it around to take a good look on the street. "Just checking," he said. "You can't be too careful."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.