A Burning Limo
On a single day—January 21, the day of the Women’s March on Washington D.C.—a limo was set on fire. The act of arson was a contained incident. Most protestors spent the day marching, holding signs, and chanting their frustrations. Yet, that didn’t stop the limo image from surfacing everywhere.
Flames engulfing a car is eye-catching after all. When the burning vehicle also symbolizes the volatile climate of a divided nation, it’s sensational and newsworthy. And possibly, aside from or in addition to both of those factors, burning cars are click bait.
That’s how news cycles work.
I’ve been thinking about this because 2 days before the Women’s March, I spent the day in Flint, Michigan, thinking about other aspects of the news cycle. Like what it might feel like if your day in the limelight was over, if the cameras had come and gone, and YET your city was still in need, still experiencing crisis.
I wondered what it might be like to protest not just one day, but for a thousand days strong.
Protest isn’t just something you do, that you check off your to-do list for Flint Water Crisis activist, Nayyirah Shariff. When the needs keep piling up, it becomes a way of life. And maybe that doesn’t attract too many cameras 1,000 days in.
Yet, Nayyirah keeps smiling as tension engulfs her city where the water supply was contaminated due to failure to treat water from the Flint River.
Nayyirah and I slipped away to her office, the headquarters of Flint Rising. There is background noise--people talking, someone shouting. All this doesn’t phase someone like Nayyirah whose office shares building space with a warming shelter that offers refuge from cold winter temperatures. None of this and none of what is happening on the national scene--who was elected, what he says, how his childish tweets now get more notice than the wounds of her entire city--seem to slow her down.
“Do you know that major media outlets keep publishing timelines of the ‘main events’ of the Flint Water Crisis without mentioning all of the protests and activism going on here?” Despite her point being clear, Nayirrah is still able to smile at the irony as she delivers the question.
How the People of Flint Started Organizing
In 2013, Nayyirah was part of a group that founded the Democracy Defense League. This grass roots group formed to fight for Flint residents’ right to have a say in their own city whose oversight had been handed to state appointed emergency managers.
Then, Nayyirah says, she fell into helping found another needed group called Flint Rising.
“A group of us found out that the undocumented community here in Flint didn’t even know the water supply was contaminated. Months later, some of them started getting calls from their countries of origin telling them not to drink the water.” Nayirrah laughs incredulously. “Can you believe it? They had to be told about the water issues by people a thousand or more miles away because there were no materials printed in Spanish!”
Nayirrah and a colleague--along with other local organizations serving the Hispanic community--immediately mobilized. They began recruiting people who could speak Spanish to go door-to-door, canvassing to educate people not to drink the water.
The Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation translated the state’s materials into Spanish, she says. And Nayyirah and her friends contacted the Environmental Protection Agency and got new materials designed to distribute.
After witnessing firsthand all the misinformation that had spilled into the undocumented community, Nayyirrah and her colleagues determined to become a source of accurate, updated information for area immigrants. “We did regular canvassing and have held weekly community meetings around a variety of topics to provide information.”
But there has been too much work to do for Nayyirah to stop there.
Not long after their canvassing efforts, Nayyirah was told that the city’s water distribution locations were turning away people who could not produce IDs. “Do you hear this? Officials were holding out on giving away freely donated water. Cher had donated water, Snoop Dawg had donated water, Puff Daddy had donated water. But some people still couldn’t get to water.”
“Understand,” Nayyirah says, “that while this is happening, residents were still paying their water bill. Even though the water was poisoning them. They were, in effect, being told they had to pay to be poisoned.”
Outrage over these conditions led Nayirrah and others to form Flint Rising, a group whose decisions are made by Flint residents. This group works to stop the water bills, to put a moratorium on water shut offs, and to advocate for long-term health services for those who experienced illness as a result of the contaminated water.
As we talk, Nayirrah slips into a passionate, but determined diatribe. “There hasn’t been a community wide, door to door health assessment. There hasn’t been property assessment. People’s homes have been devastated by water. Water using appliances in the pipes in their homes are corroded because of toxic water. People who have home owners insurance are trying to file damage claims, but are being denied because the city is under a state of emergency. Their policies are being dropped.”
Every word is pronounced emphatically, as if banging on the internal drum that beats inside this woman’s hard-working soul.
1,000 Days and Counting
It’s apparent Nayirrah is a protestor, every bit the equal to the women who stormed the nation’s capitol. And, it’s worth noting, hers—as of today—is a 1,020-day demonstration. She’s woken up and fought for desperate fellow residents for over 1,000 days.
I ask her how activists manage to go on, how she keeps smiling, how she keeps a sense of humor.
“I have to keep on.” She replies, her voice matter of fact. “If we don’t keep moving, keep talking, then our voices get drowned out. People start to think the Flint Water Crisis is over. But we need them to know it’s not.”
It’s still a hardship for the elderly or sick to pick up bottled water at local stations, she says. And 18% of the population--Nayyirah claims--don’t have transportation. “Yet even though the Attorney General’s office is bringing up the city’s appointed Emergency Managers on charges, the city and state are literally fighting the federal court order to deliver door to door.”
She describes the city’s refusal to follow the federal court order as straight-up diabolical. But it is evident, she will not be pushed into silence regardless of where national attention rests.
“You gotta come back in February.” She tells me as we’re wrapping up our conversation. “We have some good things planned.”
Good things. Good things in the midst of so many bad things. But alas, I’m not confident the cameras will be there to catch them.
Are good things sensational enough?
Does someone who shows up for their hurting city every day, and keeps smiling, generate enough clicks?
When I look up the term “sensational” on Webster’s, I note that it means “exceedingly or unexpectedly excellent or great.” And honestly, just a side note to anyone who is listening: I can’t think of a better way to describe the work of Nayyirah and her colleagues.
It’s plenty sensational.
You can read more of my observations from my most recent visit to Flint, along with ways to help, HERE.