The Road to Flint
The Right’s 50-Year Anti-City Agenda
There was a time when I thought that emergency management—Michigan’s system of state oversight of struggling cities and schools—might be the best of a number of bad options. When an emergency manager was sent to my own city of Detroit in 2013, seizing authority that would normally be wielded by an elected mayor and city council, I was sad and wary, but also reflective.1 It was an emergency here.
Decades of disinvestment, billions in debt, and the loss of more than half our peak population created a downward spiral that seemed perpetual. Vacant lots, houses, storefronts, schools, and skyscrapers scarred the city. Miles of broken streetlights left tens of thousands of people in the dark. Cash-strapped fire and police services, crumbling infrastructure, and a backlog of more than 11,000 untested rape kits2 put lives at risk. If emergency management could staunch the bleeding—an extreme measure to meet extreme need, undertaken by an outsider who was unconstrained by electoral concerns—then wouldn’t it be worth it? And besides, it was long past time for the state to take some responsibility for the results of its long-simmering neglect of core cities.
It’s not by chance that the U.S. is full of hollowed-out urban centers. Residents are disproportionately poor and people of color, surrounded by wealthier and Whiter suburbs. It traces back to the Great Migration, which brought great numbers of African Americans to segregated cities and pushed the “separate but equal” doctrine to its limit.3 Following years of discrimination, hundreds of cities erupted in the 1960s. One of them was Detroit, where, in the midst of the most lethal uprising of all,4 President Johnson convened the bipartisan Kerner Commission to diagnosis the nation’s urban crisis. In its 1968 report, the Commission urged a reckoning with systemic racism.5 It noted the “massive transition” already unfolding: White people and institutions had abandoned urban centers for the suburbs, creating a destructive “racial ghetto."6 It issued a strong call for integration as “the only course which explicitly seeks to achieve a single nation rather than accepting the present movement toward a dual society.”7
But soon, Richard Nixon was elected president, championing “law and order” and demanding that rioters and criminals be held accountable for the destruction of their own communities.8 It was a perspective grounded in right-wing ideology—that a lack of personal responsibility, rather than racism and concentrated poverty, was the problem with struggling cities, and implicitly, that Black people couldn’t be counted on to govern themselves. Today, the modern-day manifestation of that argument is seen in emergency management, which holds that ailing cities just need a better and more authoritarian leader to get things working again—a presumption that has proved its limits again and again.
And so it followed that Michigan’s emergency management helped steer Detroit through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.9 But in Flint, decisions made under a series of emergency managers set in motion a catastrophic drinking water crisis.10 Meanwhile, without the systemic intervention urged by the Kerner Commission, infrastructure inequality is perpetuating itself, exacerbating the divides that the commission saw coming 50 years ago.
There are 22 states that have some oversight mechanism for distressed cities and public schools.11 Michigan’s law was used sparingly until after the 2010 election of Republican Governor Rick Snyder, when Republicans assumed control of all branches of state government, and soon expanded the law, setting a lower threshold to declare an “emergency.”12 Emergency management suspended the authority of locally elected leaders and gave it to an administrator chosen by the state—and then some, as emergency managers were empowered to make or break contracts and to sell city assets without the consent of local lawmakers or voters.13 (The only thing they couldn’t do was miss bond payments to creditors.)14
In 2011—on Election Day, no less—the state announced that Flint would be the first community to be put under the expanded system.15 A year later, Michigan voters overturned the expanded emergency management law in a statewide referendum, yet the lame duck legislature resurrected it. A few weeks after the referendum, it passed a near-identical version of the law, which Snyder signed.16 This time, it included appropriations, making it immune from going before voters again.17 The state’s rush probably had to do with its plans for Detroit, which would receive its emergency manager a few months later.18 (Flint’s disempowered mayor later told me that he felt that his city was used as a test case for Detroit. “The terrible tragedy of what happened with the water crisis is, it became clear that there were a large number of people who were not acting in the interests of the Flint community,” added then-mayor Dayne Walling. “There was a pretending. There was a pretending to act in the interest.”)19
While under emergency management, changes to Flint’s drinking water system caused contamination with lead, E.coli, and a carcinogenic byproduct of the disinfection process.20 It was also almost certainly connected to a two-year outbreak of deadly Legionnaires’ disease.21 While the switch was celebrated as a path to more affordable water, Flint’s infamously expensive water bills rose even higher.22 A different source of water did not solve the mathematical problem of having fewer and poorer ratepayers to maintain a system that was still sized for the 1960s, when the city had more than twice the population and a flourishing industrial sector to help carry the cost. When Flint’s city council voted to return to Lake Huron water from Detroit, its final emergency manager ignored them, as he was legally allowed to do, given the council’s disempowerment.23 Before he left office, he signed an order prohibiting Flint from modifying any of his decisions until it had been out of receivership for at least a year.24
It took 18 months of community organizing for the state to intervene in Flint’s water crisis,25 and three months more before a full-scale recovery response began.26 The ensuing criminal investigation indicted 15 people to date, most of them from the state environmental and health departments.27 (Four received plea deals.) Two emergency managers were also charged. But the pattern is plain: under emergency management, there is no meaningful accountability or transparency for bad decisions. As legal cases wind through the courts, the state is going so far as to argue that emergency managers are not state officials at all, but local ones.28
Emergency management also disproportionately restricts the voting rights of Black-majority cities and schools. As of 2017, more than half of Michigan’s Black residents and 16 percent of Latinx residents lived in cities with emergency managers.29 Only two percent of White people could say the same.30 Black Michigan residents were five times as likely as White residents to live under an emergency manager between 2009 and 2016.31 The Voting Rights Act forbids disenfranchisement tactics like replacing elected leaders with appointed ones,32 but Michigan’s law seems to slide by on a technicality—it creates an appointed post that supersedes all the elected ones. But the effect is the same: the voting power of communities of color is undercut. And it can go on indefinitely. While emergency managers are given an 18-month term, they tend to resign just short of the deadline. When a new emergency manager is appointed in their place, the clock starts over.
Detroit’s emergency manager was a star bankruptcy lawyer from Washington, D.C. That was unusual. It’s more common to see the same emergency managers cycle through the same Michigan communities again and again. That’s because the biggest crisis in disinvested cities isn’t leadership; it’s a structural and historic crisis, with origins well beyond the city borders—and it includes belief systems about whose lives are valuable, and whether an us-versus-them society is preferable to one that’s integrated and organized for the common good. Emergency managers with modest credentials—they’re only required to have five years of experience in business or a related field33—can tinker with a budget, but austerity is of little use in places that are already cut to the marrow.
In the state and federal Flint water crisis investigations, Michigan’s emergency manager law was routinely cited as a contributing factor.34 While many think the law is irredeemably undemocratic and should be repealed, there have also been a number of proposals to change it for the better. Perhaps there shouldn’t be a single emergency manager, but a three-person panel, including two local officials. Perhaps it should only be instituted if local leaders request it. Perhaps emergency managers should be assigned not to a single city, but to a county, where they would be in a better position to deal with the regional context for urban core disinvestment. The county model would also help remedy the racial disparity of the law.
But to date, no action has been taken. The state has boasted that, by June 2018, no communities were under state oversight for the first time in 18 years.35 And yet, Michigan’s potent emergency management law is the same as it was during Flint’s water crisis—an egregious omission that makes communities more vulnerable, not less.