Tag Archives: Solutions Institute

How to Lose Every Argument

Usually, I’m hesitant to lay ultimatums down saying that one tactic or another will never, ever work. That makes a lot of assumptions that I’m not qualified to make, However, I would say that with certain goals, being uncivil harms, not helps, the cause.

This is true for any cause. But it is especially true for the cause of human liberty and social peace.

Defining Civility

Civility has taken quite a beating recently. From being confused with “political correctness,” to being maligned as only the domain of losers, numerous public figures have decided that treating their opponents on either side of the aisle with respect is a thing of the past. In this fracas, civility has often been cast as another term for word policing and censorship.

Civility is a view that the human being you are talking to is your equal.

Yet this definition of civility misses the important reason we developed civil language in the first place.

Civility is a view that the human being you are talking to is your equal. The reason I treat you with respect is because I view you, your opinions, and your ideas as I view myself. No matter how evil or good, uninformed or smart I think you are, if I had your experiences, I could be in your position. I may very well have become you and held your views.

Without this understanding, some of the greatest accomplishments of civilization would have been prevented by the dividing lines of culture.

To put it another way, civility is the humility that if you were born in North Korea, you’d also think Kim-Jong Un had god-like wisdom and power. Reclaiming the position that all of us should be treated as equals to the other is the true definition of civility. The way we speak to each other is the respect developed from that.

As a tactic, though, some have argued that incivility has its uses. It gets attention. It shakes people out of their apathy. Some even contend it won Donald Trump the presidency. The blunt, honest, truth, they call it. I would argue that if our goals are peace and liberty, there are two big reasons incivility has no place in our movement.

Incivility Prevents the Spread of Ideas

Liberty and peace are primarily advanced through the spread of ideas. It was not too long ago that John Locke, arguing that the subjects of the king had inherent rights, refused to put his name on that book, the Second Treatise of Government, for fear he would be hanged for such a radical idea. A mere hundred years later, the Founding Fathers built an entire government based on those ideas. Today, even the word “libertarian” is mainstream, and more people believe in individual rights and self-ownership than ever.

Division prevents the spread of ideas.

Further, nearly every major advance in liberty has been preceded by an advance in our ability to communicate ideas. The printing press, the radio and television, and the internet each have advanced human liberty by leaps and bounds.

And this is where incivility becomes a major problem. Division prevents the spread of ideas, and I’m not sure it’s possible to be irascible, i.e. easily angered, or uncivil, without being divisive. When I divide you, set you apart, say you are not equal to me, you, rightly so, stop listening to me. And that stops the spread of ideas between us.

“Forget” Everything about You

These were the words (more explicit in real life) of Philadelphia woman as she urinated on the American flag this Fourth of July. It contained all the shock doctrine, attention, and brashness praised by opponents of civility. After she got death threats and had a contract put out on her head, the media responded, with everyone from the Daily Mail and The Sun to Breitbart and Fox News picking up the story.

In the face of such an overreaction, there is a tendency to respond in kind. And many writers did, some calling those who respect the American flag “flaggots” and “flag-worshipers” or “admirers of a piece of cloth.” One journalist wrote “you should be offended with your own damnable hypocrisy… calling for the bodily harm of someone committing a nonviolent act against a symbol.”

There’s no need to attack either side for us to agree that harming someone over a symbol is wrong.

This is laying a dividing line down, splitting those who support the flag for what it stands for to them, maybe American values like freedom, liberty, and equality under the law, maybe the only thing they recognized in a foreign country, maybe the last thing they saw draped over their grandfather’s coffin, from those people who see the American flag as a symbol of oppression, genocide, or war.

It is a dividing line that doesn’t need to be laid down, as there’s no need to attack either side for us to agree that harming someone over a symbol is wrong.

This is even a dividing line that doesn’t need to be laid down. Most who support the flag could be easily convinced against those who would cause bodily harm to someone for defacing it, were they not lumped into the same category. They would also be most likely, since they shared similar values, to be able to rein in those who were advocating violence.

I don’t know of a way you can be uncivil – to come from a place where you view the person you are talking about or to as lower than you – without being divisive. They are inherent to each other, as the person targeted is inherently pushed away by such damaging language. When that person is pushed away, rest assured they will lock down, the conversation about our ideas on peace and liberty will end.

The Roots of Tyranny

More importantly, though, we have to recognize the role incivility plays in the roots of tyranny. The roots of tyranny have always been in the beliefs that a group of people deserve fewer rights, are less intelligent, less noble, less pious, less moral than another group. The claim of the inferiority of the other is the one consistent thing that has justified tyranny and force from time immemorial.

We cannot impose tyranny on another person without believing they are lower than us.

Our wars in the Middle East were justified because the Muslims are “savages” and “uncivilized.” Our drug war at home was justified because drug users were considered lower beings than the rest of us. Labor regulations were justified on grounds that some people – you know, those people – just can’t manage their own lives. Chinese immigrants were ruthless and bent on poisoning people, blacks were thugs and uncivilized, and so on.

We cannot impose tyranny on another person without believing they are lower than us. Equality of rights is key to preserving any type of liberty. Equality is what civility starts to bring back. If many of the “proud boys” in the alt-right and members of Antifa sat down at the bar away from politics, they would find plenty to agree on. And both sides having seen the other as human, they would be less likely to use force against the other.

The odds are, if we sat Antifa and the “proud boys” down for a beer, the clash at Berkeley would never have happened. It is only when one group views the other as less than that they are willing to use violence on them.

Civility starts from a position of “we are equal in dignity.” Incivility starts from the opposite position. And all it does is reinforce the divide between whatever sides are in the conversation.

Walk Away

Do you know why we hate lawyers? Because they are the civilized form of a warrior. Prior to legal systems, you would just kill your neighbor if he wronged you. That civility prevents lots of unnecessary deaths.

Do you know why many people hate politics? Because they are on the modern day battlefields. Our ballot box is the pillbox, our elections the great battles across fields of blood, only instead of killing each other with weapons, we are using words.

Beating up your target just turns people on the fence against you.

Lose civility, make it so people think words aren’t enough, and we will go back to the violence of before. That is something I absolutely cannot bear to see happen here, and we are so, so close.

Some people confuse hard truths with a lack of civility. Look at Glenn Greenwald. He tells the truth. He doesn’t hold back. Yet he is still civil. He still commands the conversation always strives for clarity, honesty, sincerity. And because of this, he gains far more respect than if he just spit all over everyone who disagreed with him.

Hard-hitting journalism doesn’t mean you have to beat your target up, and often beating up your target just turns people on the fence against you, exacerbating the problem you were hoping to address in the first place.

Finally, there are people who have no interest in civility. They only want to insult, humiliate, smear, and get attention for doing so. They will always find sparring partners with others who desire the same. What can you do about them?

My suggestion: walk away. There is no good to be accomplished in this realm. Being civil to others, however, serves as a model for others, and a way to gradually change the world to one where there is greater peace and liberty.

Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson

Daniel is the Executive Director at Tax Revolution Institute, the President of the Solutions Institute, and an anti-partisan super activist.

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

The Life of a Flintstone


Shawn Dixon
Founder of Fli-Ladies Empowerment
Seniors out of Pittsburgh in front of Flint City Hall

A little about myself, my name is Shawn Dixon, raised in Flint,Mi, known world-wide for its “water crisis”. I founded Fli-Ladies Empowerment in 2015 once I wanted to do more to help out our low-income community, now being poisoned by its government. The non-profit org. will focus on the empowering of youth all over but mainly in Flint,MI.

The last of July 2016, I embarked on a journey through Flint, while chaperoning our out-of-town guests. For those who don’t know, Flint has been in a state of emergency for its water crisis since 2014, 1,167 days to be exact. That’s when state officials switched Flint’s main water source to the toxic Flint River without proper cleansing solutions. Since then our city has lost several lives due to legionnaires disease, we’ve finally had a few officials charged with alleged manslaughter in 2016 http://www.cnn.com/2017/06/14/health/flint-water-crisis-legionnaires-manslaughter-charges/index.html.  Enough about that, now back to the subject at hand.

Fli-Ladies Empowerment was contacted by Anita Moncrief of Solutions Institute with last-minute plans for me to assist with a group of kids out of Pittsburgh as they took a journey to learn more about the impoverished city of Flint. I had 4 days to set a plan, they already had plans for Friday so I set up Sat..   I began to set up a water distribution or water drop as we call it, for Saturday. Just so happens DeWaun E. Robinson already had an event “Tour de Flint” set up with a guest appearance by Freeway Rick Ross (ex-con and drug lord). Once I connected with a local water distribution center and obtained a donation of 2 pallets of water I then connected with DeWaun to host a water drop alongside him and his event.

Water Distribution during Tour de community.



Unfortunately, I’m still winding down from the non-stop events plus the holiday. I still have tons of photos, and videos to go through, please stay tuned and keep a lookout for ” the Life of a Flintstone” part 2. Then you will find the finer details of my weekend.

THOUSANDS of U.S. areas afflicted with lead poisoning just like Flint and even worse

By M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer | ST. JOSEPH, MISSOURI

On a sunny November afternoon in this historic city, birthplace of the Pony Express and death spot of Jesse James, Lauranda Mignery watched her son Kadin, 2, dig in their front yard. As he played, she scolded him for putting his fingers in his mouth.

In explanation, she pointed to the peeling paint on her old house. Kadin, she said, has been diagnosed with lead poisoning.

He has lots of company: Within 15 blocks of his house, at least 120 small children have been poisoned since 2010, making the neighborhood among the most toxic in Missouri, Reuters found as part of an analysis of childhood lead testing results across the country. In St. Joseph, even a local pediatrician’s children were poisoned.

Last year, the city of Flint, Michigan, burst into the world spotlight after its children were exposed to lead in drinking water and some were poisoned. In the year after Flint switched to corrosive river water that leached lead from old pipes, 5 percent of the children screened there had high blood lead levels.

Flint is no aberration. In fact, it doesn’t even rank among the most dangerous lead hotspots in America.

In all, Reuters found nearly 3,000 areas with recently recorded lead poisoning rates at least double those in Flint during the peak of that city’s contamination crisis. And more than 1,100 of these communities had a rate of elevated blood tests at least four times higher.

The poisoned places on this map stretch from Warren, Pennsylvania, a town on the Allegheny River where 36 percent of children tested had high lead levels, to a zip code on Goat Island, Texas, where a quarter of tests showed poisoning. In some pockets of Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, where lead poisoning has spanned generations, the rate of elevated tests over the last decade was 40-50 percent.

Like Flint, many of these localities are plagued by legacy lead: crumbling paint, plumbing, or industrial waste left behind. Unlike Flint, many have received little attention or funding to combat poisoning.

To identify these locations, Reuters examined neighborhood-level blood testing results, most of which have not been previously disclosed. The data, obtained from state health departments and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tracks poisoning rates among children tested in each location.

The resulting portrait provides a granular look at places where decades-long U.S. efforts to stamp out lead poisoning have fallen short.

“The disparities you’ve found between different areas have stark implications,” said Dr. Helen Egger, chair of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Child Study Center. “Where lead poisoning remains common, many children will have developmental delays and start out behind all the rest.”

In children up to age 6, the CDC threshold for an elevated blood lead level is 5 micrograms per deciliter. Any child who tests high warrants a public health response, the agency says; even a slight elevation can reduce IQ and stunt development.

Nationwide, the CDC estimates that 2.5 percent of small children have elevated levels. In the communities identified by this analysis, a far higher rate of children who got tested had lead poisoning. In most cases, the local data covers a 5- or 10-year period through 2015.

Reporters visited several of the trouble spots: a neighborhood with many rundown homes in South Bend, Indiana; a rural mining town in Missouri’s Lead Belt; the economically depressed North Side of Milwaukee. In each location, it was easy to find people whose lives have been impacted by lead exposure. While poverty remains a potent predictor of lead poisoning, the victims span the American spectrum – poor and rich, rural and urban, black and white.


Most U.S. states disclose data on the percentage of child blood tests that show elevated levels of lead. Yet this data, often for statewide or county-wide populations, is too broad to identify neighborhoods where children face the greatest risk.

Instead, Reuters sought testing data at the neighborhood level, in census tracts or zip code areas, submitting records requests to all 50 states.

U.S. census tracts are small county subdivisions that average about 4,000 residents apiece. Zip codes have average populations of 7,500. In each area, a relatively small number of children are screened for lead poisoning each year.

Reuters found 2,606 census tracts, and another 278 zip code areas, with a prevalence of lead poisoning at least twice Flint’s rate.

The test results allow for local analysis, pinpointing neighborhoods whose lead poisoning problems may be obscured in broader surveys.

For example: Across Maryland, 2 percent of childhood lead tests were high in recent years, just a small fraction of the rate in the worst-affected Baltimore tracts. In Flint, while 5 percent of children citywide tested with high blood lead levels, the highest rate was in the downtown zip code, where about 11 percent tested high.

“I hope this data spurs questions from the public to community leaders who can make changes,” said epidemiologist Robert Walker, co-chair of the CDC’s Lead Content Work Group, which analyzes lead poisoning nationwide. “I would think that it would turn some heads.”

The findings, Walker said, will help inform the public about risks in their own neighborhoods and allow health officials to seek lead abatement grants in the most dangerous spots.

There isn’t much federal help available. Congress recently directed $170 million in aid to Flint. That’s 10 times the CDC’s budget for assisting states with lead poisoning this year.

The nationwide map constructed through this analysis has empty spaces: The available data includes 21 states, home to around 61 percent of the U.S. population. Health departments in some states didn’t possess the data or respond to records requests. Others wouldn’t share it, saying they weren’t required to, or citing patient privacy laws.

Even with these gaps, the data shows that despite broad national progress in curbing poisoning, lead hazards continue to imperil many communities.

Since the heavy metal was phased out from paint and gasoline in the late 1970s, children’s average blood lead levels have dropped by more than 90 percent. That success story masks a sober reality in neighborhoods where risk abatement has failed.

“The national mean doesn’t mean anything for a kid who lives in a place where the risks are much higher,” said Dr. Egger.


St. Joseph, Missouri, is filled with old homes that for a century featured lead paint and plumbing. From 2010 to 2015, more than 15 percent of children tested in seven census tracts here had elevated lead levels – well beyond the Missouri average of 5 percent.

Dr. Cynthia Brownfield’s family lives in a Victorian home on Museum Hill, overlooking City Hall. Built in the 1880s, it has restored tiger-stripe oak floors and an antique clawfoot bathtub.

As a pediatrician, Brownfield treats lead-poisoned children. A decade ago, her children were among them. Soon after moving into the home in 2006, her two youngest daughters tested high.

“It was dramatically shocking to get a call from the health department,” said Brownfield, who had sought to make her home safe.

Inspectors found the home’s old windows released tiny plumes of lead dust. There was lead in the tiles near the fireplace, the original stenciled wallpaper and the bathtub. The family did extensive work to fix the hazards.

Residents take pride in preserving old homes, said St. Joseph’s community development manager, Gerald McCush. But many aren’t aware children can be poisoned during renovations. Others ignore explicit warnings.

McCush, a certified lead inspector, says his office told one family that sanding paint off their walls was poisoning their son. “The dad said we were full of baloney,” he said. “He wasn’t going to stop working.”

The Mignery family’s situation helps explain why problems persist.

When Mignery moved into an old, affordable home, the mother of four was aware of dangers like street crime. She didn’t know the neighborhood also had alarming rates of lead poisoning. Over the past five years, 20 percent of tested children in the census tract showed poisoning.

At son Kadin’s one-year doctor visit, Mignery was told his lead levels were so high that, without quick intervention, he would need to be hospitalized. An inspector visited the home and found the culprit: old peeling lead paint.

The family could only afford a partial fix. “It wasn’t easy having to repaint all the rooms downstairs,” she said. “We want to do the outside here, too.”

Children in at least 4 million U.S. households are exposed to high levels of lead, the CDC says.


Lead continues to plague many industrial cities in the Midwest.

In Milwaukee last year, 11.5 percent of children tested had elevated lead. In a half dozen depressed North Side census tracts, about a third of tests showed poisoning from 2010 to 2014. One in 10 was highly elevated, at 10 micrograms per deciliter or more.

Childhood poisoning victim Brandon, now 20, lives with his mother DeeDee in an old two-story home. The family agreed to meet a reporter but asked that their last names not be published, citing the stigma attached to lead poisoning.

Across the street is the old rental house where, as a baby, Brandon was exposed to peeling lead paint. Health records show that before age 2, his levels reached nearly 10 times the current CDC threshold. He was hospitalized and received chelation treatment. The drugs remove heavy metals from the body and help prevent further damage, but once a child is exposed, the impact can be irreversible.

Brandon, who is easily excited, was at turns cheerful and mournful during an interview. He never finished high school and hasn’t held a job. He has cognitive impairment, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and outbursts of anger. He was recently arrested after a dispute with a convenience store clerk over soda pop, and is now on probation.

“Ever since I caught the lead, I’ve been messed up in the head. I can’t control my anger or feelings,” Brandon said. “I could have been better than I am.”

A mile away, in Milwaukee’s census tract 88, Isaiah Martin, 18 months old, recently ingested old paint in a family home and on the porch outside, where he loved to watch a neighbor’s dog. Isaiah’s initial lead test, in June, showed a level four times higher than the CDC threshold.

“As a first-time mom, I freaked out,” said Isaiah’s mother, Shantrice, who moved her family to an apartment in another neighborhood.

Milwaukee’s health department inspected Isaiah’s old home and has monitored his lead testing. The city’s poisoning rates remain high, but are improving as public health officials and outreach groups combat the problem.

Federal law requires owners of homes built before 1978, when lead paint was banned, to disclose hazards to tenants or buyers. Pamphlets and warning statements, however, can’t make the dwellings safe. Laws that can require owners to remediate lead from properties vary across the country.

Milwaukee frequently takes legal action against “slumlords” who rent dangerous properties, said Health Commissioner Bevan Baker. He also said childhood blood screening has more than doubled in the city since the late 1990s.

The city still has 135,000 prewar dwellings with lead paint, and 70,000 with lead water service lines. Most of its poisoning occurs in a few zip codes, where Baker says $50 million has been spent to protect children.

“We need to do more,” said Baker.

On a recent evening, hundreds of people lined up in a cold drizzle at Kosciuszko Park on Milwaukee’s south side, where poisoning rates are also high. The Sixteenth Street Clinic, a non-profit, was giving away tap-water filters.

Among them was Rebeca Velazquez, a mother of five. Her 5-year-old daughter was recently diagnosed with lead poisoning. “I don’t want to take a risk with her,” Velazquez said, motioning to her youngest child, age 4 months.


Like Brandon, many children with lead poisoning fall into a vicious cycle: Cognitive deficits breed poor school performance, high dropout rates, few job opportunities, and brushes with the law.

Last year, one man mired in that cycle met a notorious end. At 25, Baltimore resident Freddie Gray sustained a fatal spinal cord injury in a police van, setting off months of tension in the city and fueling the national debate over policing in black communities.

In the 1990s, starting at age 2, Gray lived in a row house in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester area tainted with old lead paint, according to a 2008 lawsuit filed by Gray and his siblings against the property’s landlord. He was exposed and suffered developmental problems, the legal filings say. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount.

Gray’s former home sits in an area where children’s lead exposure has persisted at shocking levels, testing data shows.

In several nearby census tracts, elevated lead levels were found in between 25 percent and 40 percent of children tested from 2005 to 2015.

Cleveland has similar problems. In the city’s east side St. Clair-Superior area, nearly half of kids tested in the last decade had elevated lead. The state health department refused to provide census tract testing data; the news agency obtained the information from the CDC.

“Cleveland is my home, so it’s deeply personal every time we see new numbers on lead exposure in our neighborhoods,” said U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Brown has pressed federal and state agencies to increase childhood blood testing rates and fund more lead abatement efforts.

Pennsylvania has a dubious distinction. The state contains the most individual census tracts – 1,100 in all – where at least 10 percent of childhood lead tests were elevated over the last decade. In 49 different tracts, from inner city Philadelphia to capital Harrisburg, at least 40 percent of children tested had high lead.

Those figures are disturbing – but not surprising – to health officials in the state.

“I believe that,” said Dr. Loren Robinson, Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary for health promotion and disease prevention. “Beyond the history of industry, our state has some of the oldest homes in the country.”

The state’s health department has partnered with schools, daycare centers and nonprofits to remove lead from properties, and is working on drafting new municipal codes to ensure rental properties are free of lead hazards, Robinson said.


Even in some of the highest risk areas around the country, many small children go untested for lead, Reuters reported in June. The gaps make tracking poisoned children more daunting.

In South Bend, Indiana, where health officials face a cash crunch, lead testing is in sharp decline even as existing data points to a serious problem.

In one tract there, 31 percent of small children tested from 2005 to 2015 had high levels – more than six times Flint’s rate last year. The area, 1.5 miles southwest of the University of Notre Dame’s idyllic college campus, is home to about 250 children. Filled with old dwellings, it has one of the highest poverty rates in town.

Dr. Luis Galup, a pathologist and the county health officer, said funds to tackle the problem in South Bend have dwindled. “We are the lowest of the low in terms of public health funding,” he said.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg said the evidence that poisoning is widespread in parts of South Bend could cause public health administrators to seek more state funds or reallocate resources.

“It’s an eye-opener,” he said of the Reuters study. “As a community with lots of low income residents and lots of old housing, we’re vulnerable … The county health department does everything they can just to keep up with child immunizations and restaurant inspections.”

The county, with around 265,000 residents, has two nurses and one environmental inspector tasked with lead poisoning prevention. Thinly spread, they conduct home inspections only when a child’s lead levels reach double the CDC’s elevated threshold.

Finding those children is getting harder.

Housing and Urban Development grants that paid for South Bend lead testing ended in May. For years, the local Women, Infants and Children program, or WIC, conducted hundreds of childhood blood lead tests annually. That testing, which has stopped, relied on outside funds from HUD and others.

South Bend pediatricians and the local Head Start program still order screenings, but many children go untested.

“I bet there are hardly any tests being done now,” said WIC program director Sue Taylor. “The funding dried up.”

Edward Brown Jr., 2, was first tested last year. He’d been living with his mother, Victoria Marshall, in a central South Bend home. An inspector found lead paint inside and contaminated soil outside.

Marshall says Edward’s blood lead reached 90 micrograms per deciliter. Levels that high can be life threatening, provoking seizures or coma. Edward’s blood levels have receded since he was hospitalized for a week.

Now in a new home, Edward danced around and shared applesauce with his baby sister. He has met many of the typical developmental milestones for his age. Still, Marshall worries.

“He’s got a lot of energy. Some people say he might have ADHD,” she said. One-in-five cases of ADHD may be linked to lead poisoning, a recent American Academy of Pediatrics report concluded.


In Missouri, it’s a six hour drive southeast from St. Joseph to rural Viburnum in Iron County, situated in a mining district known as the Lead Belt. Viburnum’s tract had the sharpest rate of elevated childhood tests in the state, or 30 percent since 2010.

“Really? I didn’t know about it,” said Viburnum Mayor Johnny Setzer.

Mark Yingling, an executive in charge of health and safety at The Doe Run Company, which operates nearby mining and smelting works, said the high rates were “news to me.”

Doe Run deploys safety measures, Yingling said, such as washing all of its trucks that may come into contact with lead, and containing tailings and emissions. Lead workers shower and change outfits at the end of their shifts, to avoid tracking toxins into their homes.

Health officials haven’t recently informed Doe Run of any local children with lead poisoning, he said. Iron County’s health department said it isn’t required to provide such information, and never has.

In fact, lead contamination in the community is pervasive. The Environmental Protection Agency has mandated so-called Superfund cleanups of two contaminated lead sites in and around Viburnum.

And Doe Run and other mining firms are currently under federal orders to clean up lead contamination from 150 properties in the region and test the soil at 250 more. The order, issued by the EPA in June, says these activities should “prioritize” properties where children have had high lead tests.

Among the spots the EPA ordered to be cleaned or tested: playgrounds, daycare yards or other places where small kids gather.

For some locals, poisoning is a cost of living in this mining town. They use a colloquial term for the syndrome – getting leaded. “You can get very leaded,” said Antonin Bohac, a mechanic at the nearby Brushy Creek Mine. “But I make good money.”

Bohac said he was nearly taken off the job a few years ago after he was poisoned himself, with a lead level four times higher than what federal officials consider healthy for adults.

Who’s to Blame for Poisoning of Flint’s water?

For LeeAnne Walters, the first sign of trouble came in the summer of 2014, when her 4-year-old son Gavin developed rashes after coming into contact with the water.

In July, Gavin and his twin, Garrett, both suffered scaly patches of skin that peeled after bathing. Several months later, Walters noticed her hair was falling out in large clumps that collected on her pillow and in the shower. Even her eyelashes were falling out.

By that time, the water coming out of her faucet was a dark rust color.

That November, tests of the water in her Flint, Michigan, home revealed that the concentration of lead was 104 parts per billion. The level at which the Environmental Protection Agency recommends updating pipes or adding anti-corrosives is 15 ppb, but some experts say that no level of lead is safe to ingest.

Her family immediately stopped drinking the water. Nonetheless, tests conducted on Gavin four months later revealed a blood-lead level of 6.5 micrograms per deciliter. Anything above 5 micrograms indicates lead poisoning.

“Anger doesn’t begin to cover it,” the mother of four says of her feelings about the situation. “I want the people who allowed this to happen to be held accountable.”

Walters, like numerous other Flint residents, is suing as a result of the disaster. But whether and when anyone will be held accountable is a lingering question for her and thousands of others affected. With lawsuits and criminal prosecutions being added to court dockets, there’s plenty of finger-pointing.


Flint’s now infamous water problems stem from an ill-fated attempt to save money by disconnecting from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which had provided the city with water from Lake Huron for decades.

Faced with budget deficits, Flint was ordered into receivership in 2011 by Gov. Rick Snyder. The move enabled him to appoint a series of emergency managers to run the troubled city, which had seen its population shrink to 100,000, from double that figure in the 1960s. Today, 41 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line in the struggling city, which is 57 percent black, 36 percent white and 4 percent Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

One of those emergency managers, Darnell Earley, was in charge of the city in April 2014, when officials made the disastrous decision to switch water sources from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The move was supposed to be an interim measure through 2016, when a new pipeline would let the city connect with the Karegnondi Water Authority, which drew its water from Lake Huron.

Government officials repeatedly assured Flint residents that the water was safe. In fact, however, the Flint River was so corrosive it ate away at the pipes in the city, causing lead to leach into the water supply, poisoning the city’s residents—including 9,000 children younger than 6. While lead can be toxic to anyone, its effects on young children are particularly devastating. The well-documented array of symptoms caused by lead poisoning in children includes damage to the nervous system, bones, kidneys and hearing, as well as speech and language impairments.

Later, during state legislative hearings on the crisis, it emerged that Flint’s water hadn’t been treated with chemicals that would have made it less corrosive to pipes, a fix that would have cost only $150 a day. But before anti-corrosion chemicals could be added, the city needed to upgrade its equipment, which would have cost an estimated $8 million.


In addition to dangerous lead levels, the Flint River also may have had more pollution than Lake Huron: Soon after the switch, E. coli bacteria were found, prompting advisories to boil the water. Officials boosted the chlorine levels to control the bacteria, but a byproduct of chlorine is trihalomethanes—which can pose independent health risks, especially in people with compromised immune systems.

Melissa Mays. Photograph by Wayne Slezak.

On top of those problems, Flint also saw an increase in Legionnaires’ disease, which sickened 91 people and claimed 12 lives after the city switched water supplies. This was an extraordinary number: Typically, between six and 13 cases per year are confirmed in Genesee County.

At General Motors’ Flint plant, the water was so corrosive it rusted engine parts. The car company was able to disconnect from the Flint River in December 2014 and hook up to the water used by nearby Flint Township.

Flint residents didn’t have this option. Families had no choice but to accept water from the Flint River until October 2015, when the city reconnected to Detroit Water and Sewerage. That move came several weeks after Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, reported that the percentage of children in Flint with above-average levels of lead in their blood had almost doubled since the city stopped using water from Lake Huron. In one Flint neighborhood with especially high amounts of lead in the water, the proportion of kids with lead poisoning had tripled from 5 percent to almost 16 percent.

Even after the city reconnected to Detroit Water and Sewerage, the crisis continued. In January 2015, the federal government declared a state of emergency, which remained in effect until this August. By then, lead levels in Flint’s water had fallen between 50 and 80 percent.

As of mid-2016, numerous lawsuits had been filed in federal and state courts against Michigan and Flint officials, including Gov. Snyder. Some have been brought as class actions, while others were brought on behalf of individual parents, such as Walters. Nonprofits, including the NAACP and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have also sued.

“It’s incredibly troubling to see how long the situation persisted, and to see how long government officials at every level were aware of the problem before any meaningful action was taken,” says Dimple Chaudhary, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC is asking for an injunction that could require the government to replace all the lead service lines in the city at no cost to Flint residents.

“There are still open questions about how damaged the pipes are and how the system will be able to implement corrosion control,” Chaudhary says.


Melissa Mays, lead plaintiff in several of the class actions, says many Flint residents have suffered the kinds of physical ailments that warrant compensation.

“Everybody I talk to is sick,” says Mays, who helped launch the activist group Coalition for Clean Water.

Two years ago, Mays worked for five different radio stations as a music promoter and went to the gym at least four days a week. Now she suffers from debilitating arthritis, bone spurs and seizures, and she recently had polyps removed from her stomach.

Her three sons, ages 11, 12 and 17, have brittle bones; her middle child recently broke two bones in his wrist. Her husband now has dizzy spells so severe he’s missed work.

While there’s no real question that the water was contaminated, it’s not yet clear whether Flint residents will be able to prove their illnesses were caused by the water, as opposed to other factors. And even if they can, obtaining civil judgments against a state governor and other heads of agencies won’t be easy, given that Michigan confers immunity on its high-ranking officials for decisions made while carrying out their responsibilities.

Sovereign immunity, an established common law concept, protects government entities and their employees from civil lawsuits. Michigan codified that principle in its Governmental Tort Liability Act, which provides that the governor and heads of agencies are immune from liability for torts committed in the course of their duties.

By contrast, the statute allows for suits against lower-level officials who have acted with “gross negligence”—defined by Michigan’s immunity law as “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.”

Some plaintiffs are attempting to defeat an immunity defense by contending that government officials violated the constitutional rights of Flint citizens. A federal civil rights law, 42 USC S 1983, provides for civil rights lawsuits against state actors regardless of immunity laws.

But the plaintiffs in Flint may face an uphill battle in a civil rights case, according to Peter Hsiao, an environmental lawyer with Morrison & Foerster in Los Angeles. “I think a court is going to look very critically at a claim that these actions amounted to a violation of civil rights,” he says.

The plaintiffs in Flint raise several different constitutional claims, including allegations that officials violated residents’ rights to due process of law by endangering their “fundamental liberty interest to bodily integrity,” as well as claims that officials engaged in racial discrimination.

One of the civil rights claims that’s drawing attention centers on allegations that officials affirmatively created a situation that endangered residents of the city. That theory, known as “state-created danger,” dates to the 1989 Supreme Court case DeShaney v. Winnebago County, brought on behalf of a 4-year-old boy who suffered brain damage after being beaten by his father. The boy’s lawyers argued that child welfare authorities who were monitoring the home violated his civil rights by failing to protect him from his father.

The Supreme Court rejected that position but wrote in the opinion that government employees could violate people’s civil rights by affirmatively endangering them.

Subsequent decisions elaborated that government employees must act in a way that “shocks the conscience” before they’re liable for violating people’s rights by creating a danger.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in Flint believe they can meet those standards. Michigan officials “made a deliberate decision not to use standard processing of the water to make it safe,” says Michael Pitt of Royal Oak, who represents plaintiffs in several of the lawsuits.

“Not only did they create the danger; they prolonged it,” he says. “Unfortunately, people died because they lied,” he adds, referring to residents struck by Legionnaires’ disease. “And maybe some people are going to die from the lead poisoning.”

Pitt notes that a federal judge refused to dismiss a recent lawsuit alleging that officials with the Philadelphia Housing Authority created an environmental hazard that endangered residents in that city.

In that matter, three families who resided in the Hill Creek Apartments say employees of the Philadelphia Housing Authority exposed tenants to asbestos. The employees allegedly discovered asbestos while fixing leaky pipes and crammed the substance into a wall instead of disposing of it.

Michael Pitt. Photograph by Wayne Slezak.

Lawyers for Michigan’s governor argue that the cases against him should be dismissed. Among other arguments, they say the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Cincinnati only recognizes the state-created danger concept when the state causes a risk of individuals being harmed by “third parties.”

Contaminated water, Snyder’s lawyers argue, is not a third party. However, plaintiffs countered in a brief filed in September that “It is illogical to claim that public officials cannot be held liable for creating a danger and injuring a plaintiff, whereas they may be held liable if they created or increased a risk of harm that was carried out by a private third party.”


Proving that Michigan officials’ decisions amounted to a civil rights violation also could be difficult because doing so will require proof that the problems with Flint’s water were the result of misconduct that surpasses simple negligence.

“One of the problems with establishing a substantive constitutional violation is that you have to make the case that the conduct goes beyond a simple tort,” says Robert Allen Sedler, a law professor at Wayne State University. “That may be a heavy burden.”

Sheldon Nahmod, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, says the litigants likely will have to show that the government officials followed at least a “de facto” policy—meaning that they “were aware of the risk and continued in their course of conduct.”

Nahmod, author of the treatise Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Litigation: The Law of Section 1983, adds that there isn’t a great deal of precedent on the subject because environmental matters typically are dealt with in court through enforcement of environmental laws.

Proving a civil rights violation isn’t the only hurdle for the plaintiffs. Government officials also argue that a separate federal statute, the Safe Drinking Water Act, precludes all other causes of action. That law, originally passed in 1974, aims to comprehensively protect the country’s drinking water.

In April, U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara agreed with that argument and dismissed a civil rights lawsuit brought on behalf of several Flint residents and a local business. That case, Boler v. Earley, was filed in January by prominent Baltimore attorney William H. Murphy, who recently struck a $6.4 million settlement for the family of Freddie Gray—a 25-year-old who died after suffering a spinal injury in police custody.

The suit, which names a host of official defendants including Darnell Earley (one of the former emergency managers of Flint), Gerald Ambrose (another former emergency manager of Flint), Dayne Walling (former mayor of Flint), the city of Flint, Gov. Snyder, the state of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, contained allegations that Flint residents’ constitutional rights were violated.

O’Meara ruled that the Safe Drinking Water Act precluded the plaintiffs from pursuing civil rights claims. “The crux of each of plaintiffs’ constitutional claims is that they have been deprived of ‘safe and potable water,’ ” O’Meara wrote. “Plaintiffs’ allegations are addressed by regulations that have been promulgated by the EPA under the SDWA.”

Dimple Chaudhary. Photograph by David Hills.

He relied on a 1992 decision, Mattoon v. City of Pittsfield, by the 1st Circuit at Boston, which also found that the Safe Drinking Water Act precludes civil rights lawsuits resulting from water contaminations.

“Comprehensive federal statutory schemes, such as the SDWA, preclude rights of action under Section 1983 for alleged deprivations of constitutional rights in the field occupied by the federal statutory scheme,” the appeals court wrote in Mattoon, which stemmed from a lawsuit on behalf of 68 Berkshire County, Massachusetts, residents who alleged they came down with giardiasis, commonly known as “beaver fever,” after drinking contaminated water.

The Michigan plaintiffs are appealing O’Meara’s decision.


Even if officials like Snyder are immune from damages lawsuits, the plaintiffs have other possible avenues of recourse. Some, such as Walters, are pursuing lawsuits against outside firms, including the Houston-based engineering firm Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc. and Chicago-based Veolia North America, which reviewed the water distribution system. Both of those companies are also facing civil lawsuits by state Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Melville, New York, attorney Hunter Shkolnik, who is representing plaintiffs in one of the class actions, says he hopes Congress will create a fund to compensate Flint residents. He says his firm has hired lobbyists on Capitol Hill.

“We’re working the halls,” he says. “We’re getting very good traction there.”

Even if high-ranking officials are never held liable in civil court, criminal charges are possible. The attorney general recently indicted three low-level officials—Mike Glasgow, Stephen Busch and Mike Prysby—on charges including conspiracy to tamper with evidence. The complaint contains allegations that officials manipulated test results by telling residents to “pre-flush” the taps before gathering water samples that were tested for lead.

Glasgow, the laboratory and water quality supervisor, pleaded no contest to willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor, in early May. He said he will cooperate with an ongoing investigation that could result in charges against other officials.

In July, Schuette charged six additional state employees with misconduct and willful neglect in office. Schuette hasn’t yet said who else he is investigating. But some residents hope the probe reaches the very highest levels of government.

“The emergency manager, to me, was simply the method of the madness. The madness was the governor,” says Trachelle Young, a former chief legal officer for Flint who now represents some of the plaintiffs suing over the water contaminations.

Young was one of the first lawyers to sue over the switch to the Flint River, in April 2015. She represented a coalition of community members who sought an emergency injunction that would have required the city to switch back to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. In June 2015, U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III in Michigan denied the request, writing that the plaintiffs’ legal theories weren’t yet developed.

Like others in Flint, Young is hoping to see more government officials involved in the water contaminations charged with crimes. As for the civil suits, Young says damages could be broad-ranging—from paying to replace pipes to medical monitoring to compensation for decreased property values.

Even though the lead levels in water overall had decreased by late summer, some say plenty of work still needs to be done.

“People still can’t drink their unfiltered tap water,” says the NRDC’s Chaudhary. “That’s really serious.”

And pockets of Flint still show unacceptably high levels of lead. “There are still hot spots,” Walters says. “There are a lot of things that need to be done. The longer it goes on, the worse the damage is.”

“The remedy’s going to be difficult,” Young says. “We’ve got people who will never trust water again.”