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There’s still no justice for Flint

Bishop Bernadel Jefferson
Progressive Perspectives (TNS)

Every community in this country has a story to tell about poverty. It’s not just about not having money — often it means lacking safe water, clean air or even a voice.

For my community in Flint, Michigan, it means all of those things.

In Flint, between 2014 and 2016, our state government under former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder delivered toxic, lead-poisoned water to our homes as a cost-saving measure.

One of my grandchildren was an honors student in third grade. He’d won a special scholarship for a trip to Washington, D.C. But as he drank and bathed in the brown poison our government said was safe for consumption, his grades plummeted to Ds and Fs. He lost his opportunity.

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Stories like my grandson’s are tragically common here. Mothers miscarried. Babies died. A Legionnaires’ disease outbreak sickened 90 people and killed at least 12, and that’s likely an underestimate. In total, nearly 100,000 people in our Black-majority city were exposed to lead. Even now, the kids who were exposed are struggling in school.

In 2016, my grandson finally got to go to Washington, D.C., when I took him with me to see the congressional hearings where Snyder was grilled about the water crisis.

I had been at Snyder’s office with other community members in 2015, presenting expert evidence that there were unsafe levels of lead in our water. And yet, there he was telling Congress that he was not only ignorant of the crisis but had no hand in creating it.

Eventually, Snyder and four others were indicted, but they’ve yet to face trial. Flint’s poisoned residents also won a $640 million settlement in 2020, but not a penny has been distributed yet. Lead poisoning victims still face paperwork challenges and a difficult burden of proof, since many doctors didn’t initially associate early cases of illness with the water poisoning.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder testifies on the tainted water scandal in the city of Flint, Michigan, during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 17, 2016. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Even now, polluting projects are still going up in Flint. A wood-burning biomass plant near a Flint elementary school, for example, is causing pollution associated with high asthma rates. And an asphalt plant is currently under construction near a low-income Black neighborhood — right across the street from the housing project where another one of my grandchildren lives.

What if she can’t breathe the air?

Fortunately, poor communities also know how to fight back. I’m a bishop and a fighter for the rights of all people, no matter what they look like or where they live. And many in my community are doing the same.

When word got out that the asphalt plant was being built without public input or an environmental impact report, Flint’s Saint Francis Prayer Center formed the Coalition to Stop Ajax Asphalt Plant. CAUTION, a group I organize with, joined in.

Together, we got more than 340 testimonies calling on leaders to cancel the plant. We’re now working with city council members and environmental justice organizations to save our community from further harm. And our fight isn’t unique. There are communities like ours all over the country — maybe yours is even one of them.

It isn’t right that we should have to fight so hard simply for our children to have safe water to drink and safe air to breathe. But across the country, we’re fighting back, and you can join us.

On June 18, we’ll be joining with the Poor People’s Campaign in a Moral March on Washington, D.C., led by faith leaders and people impacted by injustices. You can join us there, watch online or find out more information on how to get involved at

We need you. My grandchildren need you. And yours will, too.

— Bishop Bernadel Jefferson is a member of CAUTION in Flint, Michigan, and a supporter of the Poor People’s Campaign: A Call for Moral Revival. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.