The Cost of Justice: Rick Snyder and the Flint Water Crisis

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Story by Tessa Schutt, Reporter

Photo courtesy pexels.com

January 2021 saw two misdemeanor charges levied against former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder for willful neglect of his duties in office in regards to the Flint water crisis. Eight other former officials were charged, including Michigan Department of Health and Human Services employees, who are accused of culpability in deaths from Legionnaires Disease infections caused by the contaminated Flint River.

This past January, preliminary approval was also granted to a $641 million settlement introduced by Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. This case seeks to provide financial restitution to the residents of Flint adversely affected by the crisis. If settled, this agreement would resolve all 18 lawsuits pending against the state, and would be the largest settlement in the state’s history, with $600 million in settlement funds being provided directly by the State of Michigan. With provisions for compensatory damages for minors affected by the exposure, the settlement is, at the least, an acknowledgment of liability by a state whose former officials had fervently denied the existence of the situation, let alone their culpability therefor. 

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission, established in 1963 “to investigate alleged discrimination against any person… [and] to secure the equal protection of such civil rights without such discrimination,” published a comprehensive analysis of the Flint Water Crisis in February 2017 that examines the case in terms of environmental racism, and explores avenues of delivering environmental justice.

This report describes three types of justice: procedural justice, or justice concerned with “meaningful involvement in decision-making;” distributive justice, or justice concerned with the “fair treatment of environmental justice communities;” and corrective justice, or justice concerned with “allow[ing] victims of environmental injustice the chance to seek redress.” 

The furthering of criminal prosecution and early approvals of financial settlements beg the question of whether justice has been served in the case of the Flint water crisis. While these attempts at corrective justice through the prosecution of those culpable, and attempts at financial reparations are acknowledgments of moral and legal responsibilities to Flint citizens, one thing is abundantly clear to those affected: “the money is not justice.” Flint citizens, and residents of cities like it — that is to say cities that are red-lined, primarily-Black, impoverished, and politically disenfranchised due to disadvantageous obstacles like Michigan’s Emergency Management laws — are not in the clear because of post-facto attempts at justice. 

The onset and development of the Flint Water Crisis, occurring in Flint, Michigan from 2014 to the present, is a direct result of the refusal of legislators to deny and ultimately reverse damaging, structurally-violent legislative decisions to change Flint’s water source and improve the rapidly-declining human condition in Flint. These actions, carried out by state-appointed Emergency Managers without the consent of elected Flint city officials resulted in a major health crisis in the city of Flint whose effects, particularly on those who were minors at the time, will continue to present themselves long after infrastructural and political reparations have been made. 

To avoid ever again confronting horrors like those wrought by the Flint Water Crisis, voters and legislators must make every conscious effort available to them to redress these disastrous laws and engage disadvantaged communities in meaningful ways, providing power from the ground-up to the people who are affected directly by the choices of state and federal legislatures.

Categories: Opinion, The Saint

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