A magical mystery tour of American austerity politics in Michigan

Jun 24, 2015 at 1:00 am
A magical mystery tour of American austerity politics in Michigan

With photos and reporting by Eduardo García

This spring, amid the hullabaloo of Proposal 1's demise and Ben Carson's presidential campaign debut in Detroit, no one seemed to pay Gov. Rick Snyder's national economic tour too much attention.

That is — until they caught the name of his new nonprofit funding the tour.

"Making government accountable: The Michigan story!" the nonprofit declared.

Some roared. Others were more dismayed.

"It would be funny if it weren't so sad," commented one former educator who had spent the last few years watching as the adjacent town's entire school district was dissolved and replaced by a charter school company, which subsequently quit because, according to the town's emergency manager, "the profit just wasn't there."

The aim, Snyder said, was to sell "the Michigan story to the rest of the country."

But to many, this prospect — and the peculiarly named nonprofit behind it — sounded as ridiculous as Jeb Bush launching a super PAC dubbed "Making Iraq free: The Bush family story."

But was the ridicule and eye rolling valid? Was the idea of Michigan's government being dubbed "accountable" really an Orwellian turn of phrase, as one Detroit resident insisted.

There was only one way to find out.

For two weeks, photographer Eduardo García and I crisscrossed the state on our own tour Magical Michigan Tour to survey the state Snyder was selling.

And for sale it was. From slashed school districts to water crises sparked by cost-saving measures, we explored swaths of the state where health, education, law enforcement, and even democracy itself was on the chopping block.

So hop aboard our very own version of a psychedelic tour bus, because what follows is undoubtedly surreal.

Water wars in Flint

Just as we arrive, the march spills off the sidewalk in front of the city council building.

"Stop poisoning our children!" chants a little girl as the crowd tumbles down South Saginaw Street, the city's main drag. We're in Flint, a place that hit the headlines last year for its brown, chemical-laced, possibly toxic water. A wispy white-haired woman waves a gallon jug filled with pee-colored liquid from her home tap. "They don't care that they're killing us!" she cries.

We catch up with Claire McClinton, the formidable if grandmotherly organizer of the Flint Democracy Defense League, as we approach the roiling Flint River. It's been a longtime dumping ground for the riverfront factories of General Motors and, as of one year ago today, the only source of the city's drinking water. On April 25, 2014, on the instruction of the city's emergency manager, Flint stopped buying its supplies from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and started drawing water directly from the river, which meant a budgetary savings of $12 million a year. The downside: People started getting sick.

Since then, tests have detected E. coli and fecal bacteria in the water, as well as high levels of trihalomethanes, a carcinogenic chemical cocktail known as THMs. For months, the city concealed the presence of THMs, which over years can lead to increased rates of cancer, kidney failure, and birth defects. Still, it was obvious to local residents that something was up. Some of them were breaking out in mysterious rashes or experiencing bouts of severe diarrhea, while others watched as their eyelashes and hair began to fall out.

As we cross a small footbridge, McClinton recounts how the city council recently voted to "do all things necessary" to get Detroit's water back. The emergency manager, however, immediately overrode their decision, terming it "incomprehensible."

"This is a whole different model of control," she comments dryly and says she's now working with other residents to file an injunction compelling the city to return to the use of Detroit's water. One problem, though: It has to be filed in Ingham County, home to Lansing, the state capital, rather than in Flint's Genesee County, because the decision of a state-appointed emergency manager is being challenged. "Under state rule, that's where you go to redress grievances," she says. "Just another undermining of our local authority."

In the meantime, many city residents remain frustrated and confused. A few weeks before the march, the city sent out two notices on the same day, packaged in the same envelope. One, printed in black and white, stated bluntly: "Our water system recently violated a drinking water standard." The second, in flashy color, had this cheery message: "We are pleased to report that City of Flint water is safe and meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines ... You can be confident that the water provided to you today meets all safety standards."

As one recipient of the notices, the Rev. Dr. Deborah Conrad, the pastor at Flint's Woodside Church, says: "I can only surmise that the point was to confuse us all."

McClinton marches in silence for a few minutes as the crowd doubles back across the bridge and begins the ascent up Saginaw Street. Suddenly, a man jumps onto a life-size statue of a runner at the Riverfront Plaza and begins to cloak him in one of the group's T-shirts.

"Honey, I don't want you getting in any trouble!" his wife calls out to him.

He's struggling to pull a sleeve over one of the cast-iron arms when the droning weeoo-weeooo-weeoo of a police siren blares, causing a brief frenzy until the man's son realizes he's mistakenly hit the siren feature on the megaphone he's carrying.

After a few more tense moments, the crowd surges forward, leaving behind the statue, legs stretched in mid stride, arms raised triumphantly, and on his chest a new cotton T-shirt with the slogan: "Water You Fighting For?"