FLINT, Michigan -- A group of local artists in Flint painted a Black Lives Matter mural on Martin Luther King Boulevard over the weekend. That in itself isn’t particularly noteworthy outside of Flint — people around the country have painted similar murals on public streets or other prominent spaces as rallies continue to force the country to finally reckon with our racist history. Which is more accurately described as our racist present.
What was noteworthy, albeit in an infuriating way, were social media reactions when the story began to be shared. Eric Woodyard, a NBA reporter for ESPN who grew up in Flint, shared an aerial photo of the mural. Dozens of people bombarded his mentions to say some variation of “Flint can paint a mural but they don’t even have clean water?”
The striking lack of self awareness of random Twitter people (many of them white people) jumping into the mentions to lecture a Black journalist like Eric who grew up in the city, has told some of its most powerful stories during his career, and still has family here, is flat out obnoxious.
It’s also just the latest example of people using Flint’s water as a catchy meme to score social justice points. Do a Twitter search at any time for “Flint still doesn’t have clean water” and you’ll see a collection of people working some form of that line into various causes or grievances they’re advocating. Often, those people have only surface level knowledge (if any) of Flint and its demographics. Flint to them represents nothing more than some news clips they saw in 2016, and some Tweets they periodically see in the years since every time some random wants to pretend they’ve been following the water story this whole time.
Reacting to the same barrage that Eric faced this morning, Jahshua Smith said, “My partner is from Flint and she always points out how people topple over themselves to tourist-splain Flint and talk over the people who are from there.”
If you’re truly interested in advocating for Flint and its people, DO NOT DO what the people in Eric’s mentions did to him. As he later pointed out, the local government didn’t commission the mural as a hollow attempt to placate protestors without actually making any sort of substantive change — an incorrect conclusion drawn by many of the people in his mentions. A group of local artists and residents wanted to do it, and did so with the help of a great nonprofit that has helped bring hundreds of beautiful murals to the city over the last year.
Now, if you want to debate whether or not a mural actually does any good, have at it. But what’s the point of art if not to call attention to social issues on a grand scale? Artists should make art that captures the spirit of the moment we’re in while engaging people, right? A huge Black Lives Matter mural on a main street in the city certainly accomplishes that, and it most definitely doesn’t let the government or police off the hook or less accountable for reforms they, at least in Flint, have promised to residents.
It is true, there are residents in Flint that still don’t have pipes replaced. But pipes are the actual fixable problem. Most residents have clean water, and the work of replacing pipes is at least something tangible that can and is being fixed, although nowhere near as fast as it should’ve been. So tweeting “Flint still doesn’t have clean water” is hollow, and doesn’t actually articulate what the structural disadvantages the most vulnerable residents here face, and have been facing for YEARS before Flint water became a national talking point.
Instead of talking about the water, talk about the lead poisoned kids who, already struggling to get the education and nutrition resources they need, face even more structural disadvantages now through no fault of their own.
Start asking why Flint residents pay some of the highest water rates in the country — and why they were well before the water crisis.
Ask some questions about how and why a state government took away decision-making power from local elected leaders, and how that has consistently been allowed to happen in predominately Black communities in Michigan.
Understand that, even before the water crisis, Flint residents were hurt by environmental racism, structural inequities in housing, in schools, in policing.
Caring about Flint requires more than just proving your wokeness by Tweeting a tagline at people who actually live here.