About a couple of weeks ago, I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed when I suddenly stopped on this:
Right next to it was the question “Why aren’t we talking about this anymore?”
This was a reasonable questioning considering the consequences of the city government’s negligence. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder issued an apology promising to provide a solution, but a significant amount of damage had already occurred. Even after a state of emergency was declared on both the state and federal level, Michigan state officials attempted to block efforts to switch the water supply from the Flint River. Though they switched the water back to the Huron River this year, Flint residents still reside without suitable drinking water. They continuously rely on bottled water for basic necessities like showering and cooking.
Unsurprisingly, the tribulations inflicted upon the citizens of Flint greatly resembled that of the water protectors at the Standing Rock. Since April 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protested the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The tribe argued the pipeline threatened to pollute the reservation’s water supply and ancient burial grounds. Despite possessing an 1891 treaty, the United States Army Corps of Engineers planned to construct a pipeline in Lake Oahe. What followed was #NoDAPL, a grassroots movement resisting the government’s efforts to damage the reservation’s only water source.
The more I researched the demonstration in Standing Rock and #NoDAPL, the more I discovered that the parallels with the Flint Water crisis was uncanny:
- Capitalism involving a basic necessity
Capitalism was the foundation of the initiatives that affected both areas and its use of water. In Flint, city government officials claimed Flint could no longer afford to purchase water from Detroit Water and Sewer Department. Thus, to save $5 million over less than two years, the water supply was switched from Huron Lake to the heavily polluted Flint River, knowing it was contaminated with high levels of lead. The irony was that the city ended up spending more money in the long run: Governor Snyder sent $28 million to Flint for supplies, medical expenses, and infrastructure upgrades. He also budgeted an additional $30 million to the city of Flint towards bill credits and local businesses. The City government officials also had to hire attorneys to combat the ongoing lawsuit pending against them.
As far as Standing Rock, the pipeline was nearly completed when the efforts were halted by the Sioux tribe, neighboring Native tribes, and protesters. Though the Energy Transfer Partners and federal government officials claimed the supposed quality of the DAPL, history showed otherwise. Numerous publications reported that these oil pipelines tended to burst and pollute the water source, leaving the water completely unusable. In fact, The Huffington Post reported that the North Dakota oil pipeline exploded, leaking approximately 150 miles into the Ash Coulee Creek near Belfield.
- Intentional Exclusion of the Citizens
In both controversies, the marginalized groups affected were deliberately excluded from the decision-making process. The folks in Flint received no notification from city officials about the termination of Detroit Water and Sewer Department’s services, the change in water source, or the circumstances leading to their erroneous decision. If anything, it wasn’t until brown water rushed from the tap that residents suspected that something was amiss. Despite outcry from the residents, Governor Snider and city officials insisted for two years that the water was safe to consume. Yet that was untrue and they were forced to admit that Flint River was contaminated. The City of Flint is predominately Black, so accusations of environmental racism soon surfaced. Considering the absence of urgency displayed and the assumption that the impoverished neighborhoods lacked the inner resources to protest, it is safe to conclude that this would have never gone down in the suburbs.
Historical, generational, and environmental oppression was prevalent throughout Standing Rock. Not only were the Sioux tribal leaders unaware of the pipeline’s construction, but the tribe’s 1891 Treaty was violated courtesy of the state and federal government. When the Sioux tribe filed a suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in July, it was denied in September. Unfortunately, the disregard of Native voices, their culture, and overall identity is all too normalized. The Standing Rock Sioux reservation itself had been the result of an 1889 treaty violation. During the same period, tribal spiritual practices were under attack as government sanctioned security attempted to arrest those performing cleansing rituals on reservation property. In the early 20th Century, Native children were abducted from their homes and forced to adopt Christian European conventions. The list of atrocities against the Natives is extensive and rooted in White superiority—as is the history of racism and systematic oppression against Black people in regards to commodities.
- Government involvement (or lack thereof)
The Flint water crisis and Standing Rock was supported by the federal government and that of their individual states. As previously mentioned, city government officials made the decisions regarding the water supply switch. Yet when investigators sent the Environmental Protection Agency reports on the Flint River’s contamination levels, the federal agency dismissed the results by declaring the water suitable for consumption. It took the controversy reaching a critical point and the mainstream media for the Obama Administration to finally intervene. And it wasn’t like the federal and local government were oblivious the entire time. Four government officials—including one from the Environmental Protection Agency—lost their employment due to their mishandling of the crisis.
In regards to Standing Rock, not only was the DAPL approved by the local government, but overseen by federal government factions such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The Army Corps of Engineers greenlighted the pipeline project and attempted to disregard the sovereignty of the Sioux tribe. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration did nothing to cease the Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts, only intervening (to some degree) when physical safety of water protectors became jeopardized.
- Violation of human rights
The human violations in both areas were considered two of the worst my generation had ever witnessed, resembling dystopian short films.
In Flint, generations of children under the age of five were unknowingly poisoned with lead, which caused significant neurocognitive damage. Due to the high levels of lead in the Flint River, approximately 6,000 to 12,000 children tested positive for high levels of lead poisoning. In addition, ten people lost their lives to Legionnaires’ Disease while 77 were affected. Citizens were denied assess even to contaminated water due to their justifiable refusal to pay the water bill. Both a local and federal state of emergency was declared, but only after the mainstream and independent media highlighted the controversy. Though they switched the water supply back to Huron Lake two years later, the residents still alleged that the water was unsafe.
In Standing Rock, water protectors were mauled by security attack dogs, shot with rubber bullets, tear gas bombs, bulldozers, and long range acoustic devices that potentially damaged the hearing of some of the demonstrators. The brutality resulted in many water protectors getting seriously injured, causing permanent physical damage in some instances: Protestor Sophia Wilansky’s left arm was amputated after she was shot with a concussion grenade. Standing Rock frontliner Vanessa Dondun (also known as Sioux Z) permanently lost sight in her right eye after a tear gas container struck her in the face. Were it not for the Facebook Live feeds or independent news blog publications, the inhumanity inflicted upon tribal members and protectors would had gone unreported.
The Flint water crisis and the North Dakota pipeline are examples of what occurs when the government disregards the people. The industrial complexes supposedly designed to enforce democracy chose to negate complete accountability for the well-being of those harmed until the situation reached a critical point. Meanwhile, the citizens affected were either gaslighted into believing the poison destroying their bodies was imaginary or severely brutalized for resisting. Similar resistance campaigns like the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicano Movement, the Red Power Movement and many others were spearheaded by people of color forced to protect their honor, right to basic needs, and to simply exist. Be that as it may, these efforts also made us resilient freedom fighters ready to defend what rightfully belonged to marginalized people.