Civil Rights Commission convenes meeting and first hearing in Flint


Photo 1: Members and staff of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission include, left to right, Linda Lee Tarver, member; Agustin V. Arbulu, Director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights; Arthut Horwitz, co-chair of the commission; and Rasha Demashkieh, the other co-chair.


Photo 2: Testifying was an emotional experience for many of the Flint residents who came out to tell the Michigan Civil Rights Commission their stories.


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

In a situation as damaging to a community as the Flint water crisis has turned out to be, it is natural to wonder whether citizens’ civil rights have been violated.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) decided to find out. At its January meeting, the Commission voted to “investigate possible discrimination with regards to the Flint Water Crisis” through a series of hearings.

The first was held last Thursday at the Riverfront Center in Flint.

Prior to the hearing, the Commission held its regular monthly meeting, led by co-chair Rasha Demashkieh, who is a pharmacist from Port Huron and commission member since December 2011.
Even during that meeting, members of the public made some important claims about discrimination against people with disabilities leveled at activities of the department itself.

The first, a Mr. Hart, noted that there is still a gap between what blind people want as far as receiving materials in Braille and other accessible ways from Michigan departments, in particular mentioning the Department of Health and Human Services. He added that blind people also cannot use the state website.

He then proceeded to say that he and a group of people carrying leaflets to protest that situation were prevented from attending an event celebrating 25 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act, held in Lansing. “That’s like the State of Michigan holding a Martin Luther King event and allowing the state police to put up rules to keep African-Americans out,” he said.

He was followed by Diana McKittrick, who is the Director of Communications Access Services, which offers interpreting services for the deaf in the Flint area. Speaking herself through an interpreter, McKittrick noted that she was angry over the letter she had received from the Department of Civil Rights in response to her complaint about the skill level of interpreters used at a meeting of the MCRC, and the policy regarding interpreter skill levels. She felt the letter’s language was dismissive of the very serious issues she had brought up.

Following her remarks, after public comments period was closed, commissioners noted that they took the complaints seriously.

Commissioner Linda Lee Tarver’s response included her saying, “I would ask my fellow commissioners and our chair to consider an ADA?101 course for us to make sure we understand the law.” Commissioner Ricardo Resio added, “Those are very serious accusations that we as a commission take very seriously.”

The commission also heard a report from the Attorney General’s office liaison, Ron Robinson. He told them he was following an age discrimination case accepted by the Court of Appeals, Barbara Smith v. Countryside Townhouses, which MCRC reviewed.

Also on the regular meeting agenda was approval of the procedural rules and agenda for the public hearing to follow. Both passed unanimously.

The Michigan Constitution of 1962, which created the MCRC, gives it the power to administer oaths, require witnesses to appear and records to be submitted, and to issue orders.

Demashkieh’s co-chair Arthur Horwitz, the  the founder and president of Renaissance Media which publishes the Detroit Jewish News, delivered a brief history of MCRC’s involvement in Flint.

He noted that it was 50 years ago, in 1966, that the MCRC investigated the adverse impacts urban renewal was having on the city, which it found to be “rigidly segregated with many in the black community living in squalid conditions,” according to Horwitz. He noted that although it was not called environmental injustice at the time, the commission also called for investiating harmful effects of fumes and deposition from industrial operations on property and public health in African-American sections of Flint.

The following year, MCRC also investigated the police department.

After introduction of the other commissioners — Mumtaz Haque, Deloris Hunt, Laura Reyes Kopack,  and Bradley Voss, in addition to Tarver and Resio — and a welcome from Sylvester Jones representing Mayor Karen Weaver, Horwitz noted that the department’s Director of Law and Policy Daniel Levy would serve as clerk and swear in those who wanted to give testimony.

There were well over a hundred community members present at the beginning of testimony. As many testified, it became clear that there were urgent, on-going issues falling under the jurisdiction of the MCRC still taking place.

According to those who testified, chief among them is the problem people with disabilities, older adults  and those in poverty face in obtaining the bottled water offered as an alternative to drinking the lead-laced tap water.

Distribution of the water is spotty and often involves transportation that people do not have, as well as presenting identification. To obtain it in quantities sufficient for bathing, feeding pets, and cooking often requires heavy lifting, so many who could otherwise walk to distribution centers find walking back with their load daunting. One resident even brought a case of water and had the commissioners lift it so they had a better idea of the challenges.

Witnesses also indicated that not only have they felt discrimination based on getting representatives of the state to pay any attention to their plight, but the mistrust that followed that is likely to last for decades.

“Psychologically, it has tampered with me and my family,” said one college student. “I’ve been diagnosed with H. pylori too.”

After the public comment period, Michigan state agency personnel commented as a panel.

Horwitz said this would be the first of at least three hearings in a continuing quest to determine the contributions of racism, environmental injustice, and other discrimination to the crisis in Flint.