In Flint, Michigan you hear a lot about the word “trust.” Trust that the State of Michigan is sorry and has your best interests at heart (despite poisoning you). Trust that “transformation manager” Rich Baird, a Snyder advisor, cares about you because he is from the city of Flint (despite making more than 3 times what the average Flint household makes per year). Trust that back-door deals and meetings behind closed doors is the only way to get things done in this crisis because if you just trust the state (and city of Flint administration) blindly, you’ll be just fine.
This demand for blind trust is met with outrage, cynicism, and activism. The tipping point of this cynicism: on January 10th, 2017, the city administration, state, and Environmental Protection Agency held a closed-door meeting in Chicago (which the city tried to rectify by holding a half-assed Flint community meeting-about-the-meeting).
The continual exclusion of the city council and the refusal to let even a few community representatives (a citizens advisory board if you will) sit at the table to make these decisions has driven people to activism, outrage, and protest.
So when I heard about the Town Hall meeting that Flint Mayor Karen Weaver had planned April 20, 2017, I was optimistic. She had announced a week earlier that the city had come to an informed decision about where it would purchase water going forward, but was still very interested in the community’s response. A town hall meeting to me seemed like a strong indication that the mayor was serious about including the community on decisions going forward.
That was until I stepped foot in the House of Prayer church on a cold, rainy Thursday on the north end of the city.
I have to admit that I was initially skeptical of having a town hall meeting in a church. The city has a city hall that can fit hundreds of citizens and we also have plenty of other public venues in the city: Mott Community College, the University of Michigan-Flint, and the city’s esteemed Whiting Auditorium are viable alternatives. But I went in with an open mind; after all, much of the city’s population is concentrated on the north end, so it seemed totally plausible to me that the choice of venue was more about location than religion.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I entered the sanctuary of the church to find no less than 15 officers, most in SWAT regalia, but others in city issue uniform, and a few (the mayor’s security detail) in dress attire with a badge pin on the lapel of their suit coats. I became uneasy.
Why were so many police necessary at a community event in a church? It didn’t take long for that question to be answered by none other than Timothy Johnson, the city’s chief of police.
“I’m not gonna play with ya’ll tonight!” were the words he uttered as he then instructed men (and only men) to remove their hats in the sanctuary, that there would be no foul language (as this was a church) and that if anyone was asked to be removed he was escorting them to the back door, and then if they interfered any longer with the meeting he was taking them to the jail. (By the end of the evening a half-dozen people had been arrested.)
If the opening prayer wasn’t enough of a reminder that the Town Hall meeting was going to be restrictive, play by religious doctrine, and seek to suppress the perspectives of many residents of the city, the Police chief’s warning made it clear. Which begs the question: was this meeting really about hearing community concern?
It would seem that if the mayor (and state) were interested in hearing the perspectives of all of the city’s residents that they would’ve found a venue that would be able to accommodate the anger, frustration, concern, militancy, and religious diversity of all of the city’s residents.
Anyone who violated the religious codes was in trouble, even though people who don’t attend a contemporary Black church may not even know these codes. Choosing a church would only make sense if the aim were to pit city residents against other residents. And that’s EXACTLY what this did.
If you were a man and refused to take your hat off in the sanctuary, you were asked to leave and if you refused, you were arrested. If you cursed, you were asked to leave, and if you objected, you were arrested. If you were loud or angry, you were asked to leave, and then subsequently arrested if you objected.
The most disheartening part: that so many of the city’s residents bought into these religious appeals. Arguments like: the church wasn’t the “right” venue, but if you didn’t like it you shouldn’t have come; that the church has “rules” and if you don’t respect them then you should have been asked to leave (or arrested), were all arguments that were heard both in the pews of the church, and in the discussions that followed outside of it.
Those who defended church rules for the meeting missed that these rules meant that people lacked the ability to deliver their message, to air their grievances, without frustration, despite the Water Crisis being an issue that has decimated their family and community. Even if the entire room agreed with you outside of the church, people were unable to hear you in it because they were blinded by contemporary formalities that exist in the church.
This suppression is both genius and heinous.
Genius in the sense that it suppresses any opposition to establish plans for the city moving forward, but heinous because it does little to answer questions about health insurance, water quality, and poverty.
Thursday night’s Town Hall in the city of Flint was an opportunity to build trust and to move forward as a community. Instead, it was the reiteration of the same petty tactics, strategies, and behaviors that created the distrust in this city.
Let me be clear, until Mayor Weaver, Governor Snyder and the State of Michigan include citizens, the city council, and community activists in the discussions and decision-making processes moving forward, they don’t deserve our trust.
Because trust is more than Rick Baird parading around as being from the city, it’s more than believing in Mayor Weaver because she attends your church functions, it’s more than the state throwing some frivolous amount towards a disaster that they created.
Trust is about inclusion – and throughout this entire process have we been included?
(Aaron Foote is a graduate student and longtime Flint resident writing a doctoral dissertation on the Flint Water Crisis. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)