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Urban Violence

What Flint’s Water Crisis and Its Gun Violence Epidemic Have in Common

The city has one of the highest murder rates in the country. State cost-cutting measures, like the one that poisoned the Flint River, exacerbate the problem.

Jeffery Hawkins, a 48-year-old pastor at Prince of Peace church and a Flint, Michigan, native, has lost two sons to gun violence in the heat of summer.

In August 2007, his 14-year-old son Dairea Bradley-Hawkins was hit in the chest by a stray bullet as he exited a neighborhood store after buying some candy. Three years later, in August 2010, Hawkins’s 26-year-old son Quantrell Jamerson was robbed and shot in the stomach three times while talking to a friend just around the corner from Hawkins’s church in northwest Flint. Jamerson’s killer was caught and convicted of murder. The person who killed Hawkins’s younger son, though, remains at large.

Stories like Hawkins’s are not unusual in this former General Motors boomtown, nicknamed “Murdertown, U.S.A” by The New York Times Magazine in 2011. According to the FBI, among cities with populations over 100,000, Flint had the highest violent crime rate in the country in 2010, 2011, and 2012. After a brief dip in crime, the city was on track to be one of the most violent cities in America by the fall of 2015, when the city’s man-made water crisis began to capture international headlines. 

The dual calamities of Flint’s poisoned water supply and bullet-ridden streets obviously claim their victims in different ways. But both share roots in Michigan’s record of cost-cutting policies that disproportionately impact people of color living in poorer cities.

In 2009, Michigan enacted a law that allowed the state to take control of struggling municipalities and school districts. The rule has been primarily used on majority-black cities, and Flint is one of them. Roughly 40 percent of its residents live in poverty, and as jobs and residents have fled, the city has been left to fend for itself with fewer and fewer tax dollars, losing $54.9 million in state revenue sharing dollars between 2003 and 2014. It was while Flint was being run by a state-appointed emergency financial manager that the city’s water supply was switched to the Flint River in April 2014 as part of as part of a plan to balance Flint’s books. 

The contaminated, corrosive water came out of some taps light brown, drawing immediate protests from residents; it also ate away at unseen pipes, leaching lead and other contaminants into the water, making the problem worse. It took state and federal officials more than a year to admit the water was not safe. In the meantime an untold number of children suffered brain damage due to lead exposure.

While bad water has been creating public health problems, austerity measures have also affected Flint’s ability to keep its streets safe. With the city perched on a fiscal cliff thanks to a shrinking tax base and state cuts, Flint’s police force has become too short staffed to sufficiently monitor crime: Its ranks have shrunk from 265 sworn personnel in 2008 to 98 today, according to department figures. To make up for the shortfall, the city relies in part on volunteers to watch over their neighborhoods as part of a program called Citizen’s Radio Patrol.

Nationwide, roughly a third of murders go completely unsolved. But Flint has become one of the worst places in the country at solving murders. In 1995, Flint police cleared 76 percent of its homicides. The rate dropped to 50 percent just five years later, according to Flint Journal archives. It has held steady since.

Some housing projects have become so dangerous, locals say, that city buses refuse to stop near them, making it harder for residents there to get to work or school. “We are trying to make lemonade out of chaos right now,” says local community activist Hubert Roberts. “People are dealing with insanity.”

So far this year at least seven people have been fatally shot in Flint, according to the city’s police department. A man found dead outside a vacant home in northeast Flint — across the street from the poisoned Flint River — was the first homicide victim of the year. His murder remains unsolved. In another incident, a 3-year-old boy stumbled on a gun in his home and accidentally killed himself.

Along with a shrinking police force, the city suffers from underperforming schools that graduate just two-thirds of their students. About a third of Flint residents can’t read beyond a first-grade level. The school district educated nearly 50,000 students in 1968, but today serves just a tenth of that, costing it millions in state funding. 

“They design a system where you have people who are not getting properly educated, not being properly trained, so they’re going to act out a certain way,” says Roberts, who mentors area youth and ex-felons.

As in cities across America, shootings in Flint only increase with rising temperatures. “The first good, hot day we normally expect a homicide,” says Jiquanda Johnson, a local reporter for who covers how crime impacts Flint’s worst neighborhoods. She says summertime shootings became so commonplace at Flint nightclubs that one club owner decided to shutter his business several years ago for fear of having another death on his conscience.

Now, residents are worried that the destabilization brought on by the water crisis could make this summer especially violent.

“You should go to some of these meetings when they’re talking about water, they’re becoming violent,” says Ira Edwards, a pastor at Damascus Holy Life Baptist Church who’s worked with local and state police on Michigan Faith in Action, a nonprofit on safety initiatives to stem violence in Flint. Edwards recalls a meeting about the lack of clean drinking water at the city’s main bus stop last year getting heated, with shoving matches and police escorting residents out. But the reduced presence of police in neighborhoods raises the odds that other, everyday tensions may flare into gunfire.

Barbara Biggs, a 52-year-old Flint native is the founder and CEO of Stop the Violence, Increase Education and Peace. She is also the mother of two slain sons, each killed in separate shooting incidents in Flint. “It’s going to be way worse, it’s obvious,” says Biggs. “You’ve contaminated the whole city and the youth and they were already going through their own struggles.”

[Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call]