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In Grand Rapids, ACLU of Michigan to honor doctor & journalist for uncovering Flint water crisis

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

The crucial work done by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician, and Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter, to prove the city of Flint was being poisoned by lead in the water will take center stage at the ACLU of Michigan's annual Standing Together for Justice luncheon at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids.
In a city where children, and adults, have been poisoned by lead in their own drinking water, where trust in government is completely nonexistent, where parents sink under the weight of wondering what kind of a future is in store for their sickened sons and daughters, where some people still cannot drink even filtered water, there are, investigative reporter Curt Guyette says, those who deserve to be lifted up as the heroes of a time that is nothing less than a tragedy: the people of Flint.

“One part of the story that tends to be missed by a lot of the media covering this is how much of the credit should be given to the residents of Flint, who continued to not believe the lie that their water was safe and do whatever they needed to get to the truth,” says Guyette, the ACLU of Michigan’s investigative reporter who broke the story of Flint’s water crisis and whose reporting will be featured at the ACLU of Michigan’s annual Standing Together for Justice luncheon at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids next Wednesday, May 18. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician “whose studies of blood lead levels in the city’s children were a linchpin in revealing the contamination of city’s water supply,” as the ACLU writes, will be the guest speaker at next week's luncheon.

It was, Guyette stresses, the people of Flint who sounded the alarm after witnessing their water turn brown following the city’s emergency manager’s—an unelected leader with extraordinary power who was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder—decision in 2014 to save what he expected to be about $5 million by switching the city’s water supply from Detroit to the dangerously corrosive Flint River. It was the people of Flint who, when seeing the brown, smelly water pouring from their faucets, wouldn’t accept the repeated line from state officials who insisted the water was safe to drink, even while the state was quietly sending its own employees in Flint bottled water.

It was the people of Flint who have been lied to time and again, who have faced sickness, who have been cavalierly, and fatally, ignored—but who have refused to break. In the face of tragedy, this city of 100,000 people keeps going, and the fact that Flint is finally getting the attention it so long ago deserved is a testament to the residents’ humanity and resilience, says Guyette.

Curt Guyette“A fundamental part of getting to that truth was residents taking the lead in conducting these scientifically rigorous tests of their own water that proved the lead levels were way higher than the state was claiming,” Guyette says of the nearly 300 tests residents conducted in their homes as part of the research led by Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech who brought a team to Flint to look into the water problems there in mid-2015. Guyette too helped with gathering this data.

By the time this research was being conducted, Guyette had produced a documentary, which was released in June 2015, about the extensive concerns regarding the water in the city. The film prompted Miguel Del Toral, an employee at the Environmental Protection Agency whom Guyette describes as an “unsung hero” in the Flint water crisis, to leak a memo that shed light on how state officials’ lead testing was delivering artificially low results—something which Guyette went on to confirm by filing Freedom of Information requests with the state. Edwards too confirmed this with his research, which was published last September.  Around the time of Edwards’ research, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician, conducted tests that proved Flint’s children were being overwhelmingly poisoned by lead. The pediatrician found that the percentage of Flint children with elevated levels of lead in their blood doubled following the water supply source being switched to the Flint River.

After all of this, the constant alarm-sounding from residents, the reporting by Guyette, Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s lead tests, Edwards’ research, the state, finally, had to concede that something was very wrong. And, following in Guyette's footsteps, the media, particularly Michigan Public Radio and the Detroit Free Press, began to cover the story of astounding incompetence on the part of the state government, the role of an emergency manager who had incredible power to make an alleged cost-cutting decision on behalf of the residents who did not elect him, nor have a say in his appointment, environmental racism (the majority of Flint’s population is African American), and more.

The national spotlight was finally being shone on the devastation that the state’s own government wrought—and, for nearly two years, repeatedly denied. Finally, the country was paying attention to a deep-rooted problem that is still far from being over.

“For women and children, you can’t even drink the water, even if it is filtered,” Guyette says. “It’s unfortunate that [President Barack] Obama came and drank the water, because that sent the signal that it’s safe for everybody to drink—but it’s not. Drinking Flint’s water is like playing Russian roulette because pieces of lead could still shake loose. That’s the part of the story that should not be lost, what the people of Flint are going through, have gone through and continue to go through.

“I think the people up there have been absolutely traumatized by this,” continues Guyette. “Your own government poisoned your water and then tried to cover it up and attacked people trying to tell the truth about it. To have your children exposed to something that is going to negatively impact them for their whole lives—there’s guilt there, even though you’re not culpable.”

Flint and the crucial role of investigative journalism

While Guyette is humble about his role in breaking the news, emphasizing the collaboration with the residents and others, like Edwards, it’s a crucial point that he was at the forefront of the reporting on Flint in his role as, at that time, the ACLU’s only investigative reporter (since then, the ACLU of Texas has added a similar position).

Guyette, a Pennsylvania native who has long lived in Detroit, started working for the ACLU as an investigative reporter in 2013, after being fired from the Metro Times, a Detroit alt-weekly where he had worked for nearly two decades. His forced exit, which came after he told another journalist that the paper was being put up for sale, comes at a time when the journalism landscape is shifting dramatically, and, already, other ACLU chapters are taking note of the kind of groundbreaking work being done by an ACLU-affiliated reporter.

“It’s not without debate: Should someone like me be called a journalist?” Guyette says. “Nonprofit journalism is pretty well entrenched and is playing an important role at this point. In Michigan, you have Bridge Magazine, which is doing stellar work, and they’re based on a nonprofit model. Nationally, you have Pro Publica, or Mother Jones magazine, but the difference between those efforts and what I’m doing is they were set up to be journalistic enterprises and follow, in a way, the standard for journalism, which is independence and coming from a neutral place.

“What’s different about what I’m doing, and what’s somewhat more controversial, is we’re an advocacy organization,” he continues. “The question, and it’s a legitimate question, is: can you consider someone who works for an advocacy organization a journalist?”

To this, Guyette says yes.

“The approach I bring to this job is that of a journalist,” he says. “My mindset is that of a journalist. I think the work reflects that. So, I don’t have any control over how people want to classify it. I just have control over the work itself.”

Plus, working with a massive nonprofit like the ACLU gives Guyette the time and resources that very few journalism organizations have these days.

“It’s not a secret that mainstream newspapers, in their financial struggles, often cut back on investigative journalism,” Guyette says. “Part of the reason for the ACLU to hire an investigative reporter was to fill that void in the mainstream.”

And, the reporter notes, it’s nonprofit journalists who really brought home the reporting on Flint.

“Michigan [Public] Radio gets a lot of credit for picking up and amplifying what I did,” Guyette says. “They did it very quickly. It’s somewhat interesting that, in a way, I have a dual role: I am in competition with other reporters, I still want to be the person breaking stories, but I’m also here to get the information out. My role is to help other reporters as well, and I’m happy to do that.

“Michigan Radio has done an excellent job,” he continues. “It’s interesting they’re also a nonprofit. In terms of nonprofit journalism, the nonprofits clearly led the way in exposing the problems in Flint.”

Additionally, the reporter notes that Flint has highlighted just how important investigative journalism is in a world that often seems hellbent on making it disappear.

“There’s a lot of things that Flint has shown, including how crucial a role investigative journalism can play in both exposing wrongdoing and also helping to make things better,” he says. “...Having the ACLU of Michigan help to expose what’s really going on helped stop people from being lead poisoned. On the other hand, this whole issue is rooted in real tragedy. When people in government say, ‘We’re going to fix this,’ there are some things that can’t be fixed. The damage done to children can be mitigated in school, or other wraparound services, but when you lose IQ points, that’s not something that can be fixed. People had miscarriages because of this. There are some things that can not ever be fixed.”

With his position funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation, Guyette was hired by the ACLU specifically to report on Michigan’s emergency manager law, which essentially allows the state to remove local control and hand that power over to emergency managers to address a financial crisis. The law has existed for years, but it was rarely used during the administrations of Gov. John Engler and Gov. Jennifer Granholm. However, once Snyder took office, that all changed, with one of the first bills Snyder signing in 2011 being a more powerful version of the emergency manager law, something that residents have long cried foul about, particularly as individuals pointed out that emergency managers have usurped power from local officials in areas where black residents make up the majority of the population.

“Taking away democracy and replacing it with autocracy has been a disaster,” Guyette says, who notes that the “sense of outrage” he can feel over Flint “can serve as fuel.”

“There’s the sense of wanting some form of justice for the people of Flint, who were subjected to this,” he continues. “The people of Flint are totally innocent victims in all of this. They didn’t vote for a City Council and mayor who said yes, switch to that [emergency] manager. That decision was inflicted on them by the state.”

As Guyette points out in one of his most recent articles, even the governor’s own bi-partisan task force named the emergency manager law as playing a key role in the Flint water crisis, with the task force writing that “... the facts in this case point to the reality that state government, as the entity in charge of Flint decision-making, failed to protect the health of the city’s residents.”

The same state report goes on to say that “this failure must force us to review the EM law and the general approach to financial problems.”

While the people of Flint seem broken, their trust in government seemingly forever shattered, that does not mean they are not picking themselves up and continuing to right this trench of wrong that the government has dug for them. The government may have tried to dig their graves, but the people of Flint will not lie in them.

“The credit, the credit for all of this goes to the citizens of Flint,” Guyette says in reference to uncovering the water crisis. “That’s where it all began. It was a group of people who were relentless in pursuing the truth that was the foundation for all of this coming to light.”

The ACLU of Michigan's annual Standing Together for Justice luncheon will be held from 11:30am to 1:30pm on Wednesday, May 18 at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids. Online registration for the event is closed, but you can contact mbejian@aclumich.org to find out whether seats are available. For more information about the luncheon, you can go here.
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