Words Matter by Tom Sumner

Words Matter by Tom Sumner

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Sunday, 23 April 2017
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Three years ago state and local officials in Flint, Michigan switched the municipal water system from treated water (piped from Detroit) to drawing its water from The Flint River. That decision, and the fact that Flint’s water treatment facility was not equipped to handle the corrosive nature of river water (like approximately 2 out of 3 U.S. cities do), pulled the trigger on what has become known as The Flint Water Crisis.

Six Flint residents who attended a town hall meeting for public comment on the future source of municipal water last week hosted by Flint Mayor Karen Weaver at House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church were arrested – for being disrespectful. According to officials (and Flint Police) they were using inappropriate language and wearing hats.

Does that seem funny to you? If it does, you’ll love this. Over the weekend, Flint City Councilman Eric Mays gave Camp Promise of Flint protesters a lecture in decorum. Yes, this is the same Eric Mays who has been arrested for being disruptive (aka disrespectful) on more than one occasion. (It’s happened often enough that Councilman Mays should just bring his own handcuffs to meetings he attends.)

These residents have made camp in Flint’s Kearsley Park in an effort to establish a Standing Rock style occupation. Spending the night in police custody doesn’t appear to have deterred them. In fact, the arrest seems to have bolstered their credibility in the protest community, despite the fact that no official charges were filed.

National media (big and small) have picked up on the Flint Water Crisis and celebrities from entertainment, sports and politics have come to Flint bearing bottled water and photo ops. Investigations and law suits from government agencies, water activists and the media have tripped all over each other in attempts to assign blame for the tragedy. And, to determine who should pay to make it right.

Local officials blame the state and say the state should pay, state officials blame the feds and say the feds should pay. I don’t have a degree in finance or public administration, but I’m pretty sure that all of the money being talked about came from taxpayers. It should be used for them.

The Tax Foundation identifies tax burdens state by state and admit that there are many taxes levied in the form of licenses, registration fees and things like water rates. Water rates in Flint are among the highest in the country. Local officials cite the high cost of water being due to the poor condition of the water system and the large amount of water that goes “un-metered” and pours into the ground to the tune of over 30% and for maintenance on the failing infrastructure.

So, money has been paid for maintenance that wasn’t done, water that wasn’t received and for water that was received but couldn’t be used without causing a variety of health hazards and has been considered a factor in more than a dozen deaths. Three years of that would make anyone want to go to a town hall meeting and cuss like a sailor while wearing a hat – even in a church.

That being said. I think that words matter.
Three years of tweets, memes and slogans has only served as snapshots of the panic and fear that people in Flint feel in a political system that seems to have mastered superficial listening. At a time when transparency is touted but rarely practiced, choosing the right words to express your thoughts and listening closely to what’s being expressed are critical in establishing effective communication. You have to ask yourself, “Did President Trump say ‘bigly’ or ‘big league’?”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated civil disobedience as a way to bring about much needed gains in racial equality. In order for civil disobedience to be civil, it has to be civilized. Many of those gains have been lost in diminishing civility and attempting to share information through emotional outbursts.

I don’t know anything about public policy, but permit me to make a few suggestions…

  • Elected officials from City Hall to the State and National Capitol should spend a weekend at Camp Promise or Standing Rock or sleeping with homeless people. Don’t talk. Just Listen.
  • Protesters and activists for issues like clean air & water to civil rights & equality to health & education should make your case in the most articulate terms. Paint a word picture of exactly what the solution looks like and identify the specific actions to accomplish it.
  • Republicans and Democrats should find and adhere to their roots.
  • Voters should work for an equitable apportionment and then actually vote. And if you’re not happy with Republicans and Democrats, investigate third party and independent options.

I know they’re just words. But, words matter.

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