Buffeted by crises, will Flint turn out to vote?

John BIERS
·4 min read

Having endured everything from a toxic water crisis to a bruising hit from Covid-19, the voters in majority-Black Flint, Michigan, could be forgiven for their skepticism towards politicians at election time.

The city has long had an activist streak, staging one of the first sit-down strikes in America at General Motors in the 1930s and, more recently, hosting street protests by Black Lives Matter.

Then there are Flint's "Water Warriors" who exposed a lead poisoning scandal in the face of government denial and dissembling.

In 2016, low vote counts in Black communities in the industrial Midwest and beyond paved the way for Donald Trump's upset win. 

So a key question for predominantly African American cities like Flint as Election Day approaches is whether Black voters will demand a bigger say this time around.

Large turnout among a demographic disgusted by Trump's handling of a coronavirus crisis that has disproportionately afflicted their communities is certain to play in Democratic challenger Joe Biden's favor. 

"Anything is better than the Trump administration for health," said Kent Key, a racial and ethnic disparities researcher at Michigan State University, who lost eight family members to Covid-19.

Key also called out Trump's refusal to condemn white supremacists and extremists like the Michigan men who wanted to kidnap Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer in a plot foiled by authorities this month.

"This administration has given a lot of extremist groups a lot of fuel," said Key. "I have never seen (racism) like I'm seeing it now, playing out, just overtly, not even subtle. Just in your face."

But Biden himself faces questions over his record, especially his marshalling of 1994 Senate legislation that included long prison sentences for many non-violent drug crimes, worsening the problem of mass incarceration.

Biden has pledged to reform the system, but some are skeptical.

"I don't know that they're offering what they should as far as the African-American population," said activist JoJo Freeman, who is considering leaving the choice for president blank on her ballot.

"I don't see an answer with either one of them."

- Parallels to water -

Complicating matters in Flint is a lingering distrust of the authorities following the devastating 2014 shift in water supply from Lake Huron in Detroit to the Flint River.  

The move, reversed in 2015, was executed by a series of unelected emergency managers at the behest of Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who had vowed to run government like a business. The city had seen its tax base shrink from its glory days as a major center for GM and other companies.

Snyder and his administration dismissed complaints that the water was making residents sick, acknowledging the problem only when tests by activists and local doctors showed unsafe lead exposure. Many still don't trust the water.

"Our government lied to us," said activist Claire McClinton, who sees parallels between Snyder's statements on the water and Trump's posture on the coronavirus. 

"We were told in Flint 'the water is fine.' With Covid we were told 'it's not that serious. As a matter of fact, it's a hoax.'" 

McClinton backed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, but is now urging friends to vote for Biden.

Another Sanders backer, Cleophus Mooney, voted independent in 2016, but backed Biden this time, faulting Trump's handling of Covid-19. The virus killed an aunt and cousin and repeatedly delayed Mooney's plan to get married.

"I'm hoping Biden can stick to his guns," said Mooney, who praised the former vice president's stances on education and raising taxes on the wealthy. "If he's the wrong man for the job, then we'll just go through four more years of hell."

- Need for results -

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Flint by a wide margin, but garnered about 8,000 fewer votes than Barack Obama did in 2012 amid lower overall turnout. Trump won Michigan by about 10,700 votes.

"The apathy among voters has been very, very strong," said Pastor Chris Martin, who is leading the get-out-the-vote drive in Flint. 

"We're doing well, but not well enough, and we're not looking at polls because we looked at polls last time and we were caught off guard."

Dewaun Robinson, the president of Flint's Black Lives Matter group, said younger voters are mixed.

While some are energized by the Democratic ticket, others are skeptical over pledges by Biden and running mate Kamala Harris on sentencing reform and other changes, such as decriminalizing cannabis.

Robinson, who is working with Martin to boost turnout for the Democratic ticket, met Harris earlier this month while she was visiting Flint. Harris is the first woman of color on a major US presidential ticket.

Robinson told Harris, "you have to have a Black agenda," he recounted. "She knows that and they're working on that."

"At the end of the day, people still want to see something tangible," he said. "If we give you our vote... then we're going to need you to perform."

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