The Flint water crisis remains one of the worst blights on the nation’s environmental record; residents of the depressed Michigan city are still being advised to use bottled or filtered water, despite the state’s declaration in April that Flint’s water now tests below federal action levels (michigan.gov/snyder/0,4668,7-277-57577-465766–,00.html). .
Officials don’t expect to finish massive infrastructure projects for at least two more years, and widespread skepticism about the water’s safety endures.
What happened in Flint was not just an environmental disaster; it was also a crisis of democracy, a fact underscored throughout Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s absorbing new book, “What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City.” Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, was one of the whistleblowers whose research linked a change in Flint’s water supply to astounding lead levels in the city’s children, and forced government officials to take action. She will discuss the book with LA Times journalist Geoffrey Mohan at the Central Library in Downtown LA Wednesday night.
Hanna-Attisha manages to build some suspense, detailing the institutional politics and behind-the-scenes tension she and a caffeine-fueled team of residents at Hurley navigated while secretly conducting tests that proved their vulnerable patients were drinking poisoned water. By the time she sheds her illusions about Flint’s weak-spined mayor and raises a baby bottle at her first press conference, you can feel the explosive impact when she warns a throng of reporters and politicians of the dangers of “what you don’t see.” Her indignation is fueled by the awareness that “moms, activists, pastors, and even our kids” had been speaking out for a year about the city’s water, to no avail.
“Why wasn’t anyone in government listening to them?” she wonders. “Was it because they were poor and predominantly black? Or was it because there was no reason for government to listen to the people because Flint was no longer a democracy?”
Hanna-Attisha’s work earned widespread accolades; Time Magazine named her one of the Most Influential People in the World in 2016, alongside civil engineer Marc Edwards, a corrosion expert and crucial ally whose earlier battles with the EPA, the CDC and municipal government during the 2004 Washington, DC water crisis deepen the book’s thematic subtext. (Not to mention concern about national water standards.)
Key to Flint’s water crisis was Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s decision to essentially strip Flint’s municipal government of its powers by appointing an emergency manager whose mission was austerity at all costs. Differences in water treatment and transmission systems were not sufficiently considered when Flint’s water source was switched from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River. Citizens had no power to remove the appointed emergency managers whose decisions caused lead to leach into their water supply, and who were accountable only to the governor. Hanna-Attisha blames Flint’s crisis on “the ideology of extreme austerity and ‘all government is bad government.’”
“In my mind,” she writes, “it wasn’t a coincidence that DC and Flint are both places, in different ways, that lack adequate political representation — places where democracy is far from complete. … In Flint, with an unelected emergency manager in charge … layers of accountability and responsibility had been stripped away.”
An Iraqi immigrant born inEngland to scientists who fled Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, Hanna-Attisha grew up riding bikes, acing tests and learning environmental activism in suburban Detroit, where her father supported the family for decades with his GM job. Weaving her family’s “saga of loss and dislocation” into her role in publicizing the Flint crisis illuminates her ethical commitment to her patients and community, and her outrage at how the system is betraying them.
“As it had for so many immigrants over the centuries, the promise of America worked for my family. We’d left a country that was broken, unsafe, unpredictable, and oppressing its own people for a country that allowed us to thrive. My parents didn’t have much when they arrived in the United States, but they were able to use their educations to find good-paying jobs, buy a house in a safe neighborhood, and educate [my brother] Mark and me at Michigan’s excellent public schools and universities. The American Dream — buoyed, backed, and underwritten by the choices of the American people, expressed through their democratically elected government — worked for us in so many ways that it no longer works for my kids in Flint — and maybe was never meant to.”
Peppered with parts-per-billion statistics, her language is nonetheless conversational, and occasionally amusing. Her shock at discovering that Edwards is a conservative Republican is a bit comical, though it also triggers worthy self-examination. Despite their different political philosophies, they were united in their belief that “if you weren’t on the right side of a public health crisis, you were a bystander to a crime.”
“What mattered wasn’t politics or political philosophy — it as Flint’s kids. That was ground I was willing to stand on with anybody. And it was a good piece of ground to occupy … I was a true believer when it came to government. I had faith in its ability to protect rights, promote equality, and mitigate historic injustice. So much of my life and advocacy rested on that.”
Despite the faith-shaking machinations of various public figures, the book ultimately affirms those values. At a time when citizens nationwide feel betrayed by elected representatives, we need more examples of civic heroism like this.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha discusses “What the Eyes Don’t See” at the LA Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium, 630 W. 5th St., Downtown LA, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 11; free admission, but reservations are required and unclaimed reservations will be released at 7. Info: (213) 228-7500. monahannaattisha.com, FlintKids.org, MSUHurleyPPHI.org, lfla.org/event/what-the-eyes-don’t-see