Constituents lobby legislators for better environment, family care and a welcoming state
About 300 members of the statewide community organization Michigan United gathered in Lansing Tuesday for the group’s annual Capitol Day event. Activists were able to meet with their state representatives and senators to lobby for issues they have been fighting for all year long.
Perhaps the most burning issue across the nation right now is the treatment of immigrants. Doug Fleury, an American citizen who suddenly lost Laura, his wife and the mother of their 3 daughters, to deportation. “I’m raising them on my own now,” Fleury said. “The government thinks it’s doing something by separating families. I’m here to stand together with all of you to do what we can to stop it!” He was able to ask his representatives to make Michigan a less hostile environment to people like his wife, starting with making driver’s licenses available to all residents.
Michigan United members came from all over the state, from Grand Rapids to Southwest Detroit where John Atkins lives in his childhood home in the 48217 zip code. “When I look outside my front window, I see the pollution flares from the Marathon oil refinery. It’s so bad, I don’t open my windows in the warm months,” said Atkins. He describes life in this “sacrifice zone” as hard with constant odors and huge oil rigs in the neighborhood. “Emergency alarms sound whenever the plant has problems and our property is worth very little.” He is a leader in a campaign to get the Marathon Petroleum Corporation to treat him and his neighbors fairly and simply buy their homes, now made worthless by its actions, the same way they did for residents of the majority white neighborhood on the other side of the facility. In the meantime, they are asking state legislators to fund an on-call inspection team within the Michigan department of environmental quality (MDEQ) to respond to incidents like the recent discharge of noxious fumes from the refinery that could be smelled for miles.
Likewise, the city of Flint has had to live with dangerous water for over five years now. Roy Fields Sr. was part of the contingent that met with Rep. Sheldon Neeley seeking water that is not only free of lead, but organic contaminants as well. “I am battling a bacterial infection that physicians have said is from Flint water,” said Fields. “Tests show the same bacteria that is in my body was also found recently in my tap water.” Besides more stringent testing of their water, Fields’ delegation also sought to have bottled water delivered to his homebound neighbors until the water works are safe again.
But Michigan United members are increasingly coming from all the places in between the metropolitan cities. “There’s a lot of isolation and division right now in all areas and at all levels of society,” said Susan Matthews. “Too many people across our state are really struggling and don’t have a way to make their voices heard by our government.” Michigan United’s Small Town and Rural Organizing Project seeks to address this. Over the summer, they expect to have about 50 community members and leaders from across the state talk to over 1,300 people, through door-to-door canvassing and dedicated listening sessions.
The political landscape for this Capitol Day is vastly different than in years past, thanks in no small part to the addition of legislators that graduated from the Michigan United Candidate Academy, like Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) who gave the keynote address at the opening plenary. “What we saw here in Michigan is the foundation of a movement,” said Pohutsky. “We rejected business-as-usual politics and instead demanded and took actual steps towards a transformative agenda. We did not adhere to a transactional campaign style, where we promised voters that our candidates were going to save the day as long as they got your vote. Instead, we didn’t focus on candidates at all, because we know that power should not belong to our elected officials, it belongs to the people who elect them.”
Michigan United members were looking forward to welcoming the newest addition to their board of directors, Abdul El-Sayed, the one time gubernatorial candidate and outspoken champion of social justice. He spoke at a rally on the capitol steps following a direct action inside.
When they returned from their legislative visits, members marched down Michigan Avenue and into the office of house speaker, Rep. Lee Chattfield. They had hoped to schedule a meeting with him to discuss changes made to voter initiatives during the “lame duck” period following the elections, but he declined to meet with them. So, all 300 people flooded his office and the hallway around his door to make sure he had the opportunity to hear the impact the decisions made by the chamber he leads has on them.
The crowd chanted “Lame duck! Shame duck!” and someone danced around in a duck costume before Juwan Robinson explained what it’s like for a grown man to live on $4/hr. plus tips. “I’ve worked every job in the kitchen from dishwasher to kitchen manager. I’ve never had a paycheck larger than $626,” Robinson said. “You deserve more!” the crowd cheered. “You guys voted to give us more and they stole that from us. So we are here today to demand they rectify that situation,” Robinson replied.
The protesters then turned into the office of Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mike Shirkey where their protest continued. Criminal justice reform organizer and musical artist, Ed Genesis performed acapella lyrics composed for the moment condemning mass incarceration.
“We elected folks who care just a little bit more about us, but the folks on their way out didn’t just slam the door, they locked it,” El-Sayed said at the rally outside afterwards. “They took away our right to self determination before we even got a chance to vote if we wanted to raise our living wage. They took steps to redo the voter suppression that had been tied into our democratic process in the first place.