Hundreds of people from the suburbs rally in Flint to support their own privilege

The following is an opinion piece by Flintside editor Patrick Hayes. Have an idea for an essay or opinion piece you'd like to write for Flintside about life in Flint? Email [email protected].

FLINT, Michigan -- For years, businesses and stakeholders downtown Flint have wrestled with a question: how can they attract more people from suburban Genesee County to visit the many great restaurants, festivals, retail shops, public art, and attractions emerging in the city? Well … we figured it out. Yay?

Hundreds of mostly suburban Genesee County residents ventured downtown on August 18 to argue against the Genesee County Health Department’s decision to require masks for all K-6 students in public schools in the county. Flint Beat’s Santiago Ochoa noted that of the 30ish speakers who made public comments at the Genesee County Board of Commissioners meeting, only one was from Flint. Most arguments took the form of poorly reasoned rhetoric we’ve all seen or heard by now -- that by requiring kids who are not yet eligible for vaccinations to wear masks, we are somehow taking away parental rights to … choose to expose their kids to COVID-19, I guess?

In the many photos of the protests available online, there didn’t seem to be any signs stating the obvious opposite individual rights take -- that allowing kids, particularly from vaccine-hesitant and anti-mask families, to be in school six hours per day unmasked violates the individual rights of kids and parents who would like schools to prioritize caution and safety. 

Driving around and just seeing a few minutes worth of the bizarre scene of kids who barely know why they’re there carrying around weird signs about co-parenting with the government was about all I could stomach. But I do have a few unorganized thoughts that may or may not be worth much. And to slightly paraphrase The Wedding Singer (and super date myself as an old), “Well I have a microphone/[online column] and you don’t!”

Pay attention to who is leading this

Matthew Smith, an aspiring Crank Yanker, very long tie-wearer, chair of the Genesee County Republican Party, and, somehow, a Davison Board of Education member, organized the protest. If you’ve driven through Davison, you’re likely familiar with Smith’s yard signs -- I think he regularly walked into the elections office, looked at open positions, and just said "yes, I'll do all of them" every year before making it onto the school board. Earlier this year, Smith boasted that, thanks to him, Critical Race Theory (which he doesn’t understand) will never be taught in Davison (it never has been). Really doing the work that matters!

Amazingly, he wasn’t even the most ill-equipped school board member at the protest as Grand Blanc’s Amy Facchinelo, an alleged Qanon conspiracy theorist who was … featured? I guess? by Time Magazine after winning election to the board, also spoke.

The fact that people like them have real sway over education policy in their respective communities is terrifying.

I’m not even biased against people who dabble in crazy conspiracies. In fact, I have some affection for it in moderation. I grew up in Michigan Militia country in Lapeer County. I have a family member who never missed an opportunity to pull people aside to talk about the Rockerfellers or Vince Foster. My mom has a time or two casually mentioned aliens interested in harvesting our human emotions because they’ve gone too far down the road of Artificial Intelligence. But mom isn’t running for school board, and I love her but if she did I’d vote against her.

The super important takeaway here: pay very close attention to local elections, which are often overshadowed by larger national or state ones. There are, in fact, examples all over Genesee County of elected officials who are completely unqualified for the offices they hold making decisions that significantly impact our daily lives because they took advantage of a low-turnout election and are now in super influential positions thanks to large chunks of the local electorate not participating.

This is not an individual rights issue

One of my son’s teachers sent a weekly email to parents this week. Along with some bullet points about general classroom policies, it also included this line: “6. I BELEIVE (sic), YOU THE PARENTS, HAVE THE SOLE RIGHT TO CHOOSE WHAT IS BEST FOR YOUR CHILD.” (They were all in ALL CAPS, I preserved that format because if my eyeballs had to get screamed at yours do too).

That’s a pretty open-ended statement! I asked for clarification of what it meant. At its most charitable, it comes off as support for parents expressing similar sentiments that mask mandates violate their rights to make choices for their children. At worst, it was a not-so-subtle dog whistle that at least in her class, she wouldn’t enforce the mask requirement. I didn’t really get clarification, but I did get reassurance from the school’s principal that it would be enforced.

But here’s what I find much more troubling: framing it as an individual rights issue is actually just wrong. In the same email the teacher sent me, she included a note about her classroom policy around snacks and the times students are allowed to eat them. What if my kid is hungry earlier than the allotted time? Does it violate his individual rights to make him wait?

My daughter’s favorite and most comfortable pair of shorts are her “zombie shorts.” She’s a little creepy in an adorable way and cut slits all over a pair of her shorts for no apparent reason other than she would like to be a monster. They would undoubtedly violate a school dress code. But that’s how she’s most comfortable. You see the conundrum here, right? As a parent concerned about her individual rights, I have to allow her to wear them, violate the dress code, and show half of her underwear to the entire school. It’s wild that we’re basically seeing The Simpsons “if it feels good, do it” line serving as how many people understand The Constitution right now.

Masks are slightly uncomfortable. That’s not an unreasonable opinion. There are also dozens of other things that are slightly uncomfortable in the course of a school or work day that we don’t hold protests and wave snake flags about. Why is this the line in the sand?

There are legitimate, medical reasons why some people, especially kids, can’t wear masks. Those kids are, and absolutely should be, able to opt out of mask mandates for those reasons, and be met with empathy and understanding. “Missing smiles” or whatever other cornball nonsense people plastered on signs is unfortunately not a valid reason. 

My kids’ mom is an ER nurse in Flint. She’s seen more and more patients admitted each day with COVID-19, and she’s also seen those patients get younger and younger as the Delta variant has spread. She’s not alone, either. There are a lot of healthcare workers in Genesee County. I see scenes like the protest this week and think, “Have any of you ever met a single person who works at a hospital here? Have you ever had a conversation with them, or heard about what they’re seeing and experiencing, or about the horrendously bad information people consume and believe before they get sick? Do you care?”

The most demoralizing part is that I am confident I know the answer to that last question.

There’s always a root issue

Here’s the biggest thing I was struck by looking at a gaggle of mostly white suburbanites invading a city they usually forget exists: this reeked of privilege. They only care about how they’re personally impacted at any given moment, and have no interest in understanding greater context.

There are real, tangible issues of inequity students face in public education. Twice already this August, Flint students have had school canceled because it is too hot in their old, poorly ventilated buildings. During a pandemic where the virus can spread through the air, imagine how much more at risk kids going to school in a building with poor ventilation are? A mask mandate is pretty important in that scenario. 

Last summer, I covered and attended several rallies in Flint, protesting the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police. Let’s just say there didn’t seem to be a big suburban representation or show of support at those rallies. 

And before you shout “false equivalence” at me, I actually agree with you. Police killing unarmed citizens is actual authoritarian, state-backed violence. That is a real, tragic, and easily understandable violation of individual rights. Requiring kids to wear masks in school to reduce the risk of infecting other people with a deadly virus is not. The silence on the former while simultaneously shouting about “Nazi Germany” (as some commenters did, according to Ochoa’s story) on the latter is glaring albeit unsurprising. 

A growing number of us, particularly white people, just simply opt out of the realities, the inequities, the barriers, the injustices, faced by residents in the very city they were protesting in, without the faintest interest in learning or attempting to understand or seek out anything except information that supports their own personal experiences and poorly drawn conclusions.

The reality is community dies when empathy, compassion, and a willingness to take care of each other dies. That’s what we are witnessing now, and it is the greatest thing the pandemic has exposed -- the culture of “me” and “my needs first” is what we in growing numbers worship above all else. You don’t even have to believe me. They brazenly say it themselves. This appalling quote from Clio resident Gavin Monk in Dylan Goetz’s Flint Journal story really says more than I ever could: “I do not care if the pandemic is killing millions. They do not have the right to take my rights away.”
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