Russell Simmons has been chronicling his recent visit to Flint, Michigan, on Instragram. Photographs like Simmons’s (and those from countless others floating around social media) are putting faces to the exceptionally terrible—and criminal—crisis that’s been unfolding in Flint for at least over a year.
Sure, when we read accounts like Michael Moore’s that detail the intentional poisoning of Flint residents (who are at a minimum 60 percent Black), we cringe and shift in our seats. But photos of the people of Flint make us weep, and make us question whether our protests and pleas about Black lives mattering are being heard at all.
That moment of weeping came for me when viewing this photo from Simmons of Flint resident Nakeyja Cade, and reading his accompanying caption:
Just met Nakeyja who is using government provided filters that are totally ineffective, as we tested them ON THE SPOT .. she has 2 children both of whom have lead poisoning. One does not speak at 3yrs old. And the other already tested very positive and has had seizures. The deeper I dig the nastier it gets. #FlintWaterCrisis #aquahydrate #rushcard
Reading about Nakeyja and her babies, and how the State of Michigan is bamboozling her with faulty water filters that they know won’t fix her children’s illnesses or the dangerous water supply they’re knowingly providing her, runs me hot as hell. And it is through this hot anger that I realize how important it is that we address what’s happening in Flint as a Reproductive Justice issue, and thus a feminist issue.
“What is Reproductive Justice?” some may wonder.
In 1994, as the Clinton administration implemented its Health Care Reform to ensure that all US citizens and permanent residents had affordable health insurance, Black women gathered in Chicago to discuss the health of women of color. They had just attended the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, where global activists agreed that reproductive rights are essential to social justice. After much organizing, these women collectively named themselves Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice, and the term Reproductive Justice was born.
The organization SisterSong is a product of the aforementioned meeting of the minds, and they define Reproductive Justice as: [T]he human right to have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments. Over the years, we have expanded RJ to include the human right to bodily autonomy from any form of reproductive oppression.
Often, when we hear about Reproductive Justice in mainstream media, the conversation centers on abortion and women’s ability to have safe access to them as a human right. With recent attacks on Planned Parenthood and threats to government funding for the national healthcare provider, the hashtag (and subsequent chronicling of abortion stories) #shoutyourabortion was a hot topic in the streets and online. Black feminists (including this writer) not only shared their own abortion stories, but protested with fervor concerning the importance of abortion access for every woman.
And I’m wondering where the mainstream (and especially White) feminist leaders and organizations are when we talk about Flint. Who is standing up for Nakeyja (and women like her) who are losing their right to birth and mother healthy children?
Certified clinical sexologist and sex therapist Dr. TaMara Griffin reminds us that, although most research on lead poisoning focuses on how it affects children, women’s reproductive organs are also dangerously affected by it. Griffin writes:
Studies show that lead may be taken in through direct contact with the mouth, nose or eyes. Studies also show that lead may be absorbed through mucous membranes. As a mucous membrane, the fallopian tubes, uterus, vagina and vulva are also quite adept at absorbing chemicals. Introducing toxic ingredients, such as lead, can have damaging long-term effects on women’s sexual and reproductive health and wellbeing.
What are these long-term effects? To name a few: infertility, miscarriage, preeclampsia and pregnancy-induced hypertension, premature delivery, low birth weight and stillbirth.
We must additionally focus on the women of Flint who might’ve had healthy children prior to being lead poisoned, but whose children have now ingested lead, and why, as much as we are trying, bottled water will not help.
As Michael Moore reminds us:
[Y]ou cannot reverse the irreversible brain damage that has been inflicted upon every single child in Flint. The damage is permanent. There is no medicine you can send, no doctor or scientist who has any way to undo the harm done to thousands of babies, toddlers and children (not to mention their parents). They are ruined for life, and someone needs to tell you the truth about that. They will, forever, suffer from various neurological impediments, their IQs will be lowered by at least 20 points, they will not do as well in school and, by the time they reach adolescence, they will exhibit various behavioral problems that will land a number of them in trouble, and some of them in jail.
I wish I could be more hopeful. I wish I could believe that we are not witnessing state-sponsored terrorism as it is executed on the people (and women and children, especially) of Flint. I wish I could believe that White feminists really, truly believe in the intersectionality that Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced to us to way back in 1989.
But here we are, again. And again, it seems that all we got is us.
Sign the petition where the badass women at MomsRising.org are demanding justice for Flint. Also, necessitate the arrest of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder here. Let’s take our understanding of Reproductive Justice and apply it fairly to the women and children of Flint, today.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter at @jonubian.