FLINT, Mich. – On a cloudy April day in 2014, Flint City Council members and other elected officials gathered in the city’s once-defunct water treatment plant to celebrate.
Dayne Walling, then the town’s mayor, ceremoniously pushed a button to stop the flow of treated Lake Huron water from Detroit for the first time in nearly 50 years. Water from the nearby Flint River began gushing into Flint’s 700-mile-long pipe system instead. The politicians raised glasses of water and toasted the historic change.
Wantwaz Davis — the recently elected city councilman from Flint’s 5th Ward — did not join in on the toast.
“I was in the corner like, ‘Nah, I’m not drinking that,” Davis recalls.
The councilman has been one of the fiercest opponents of the decision to switch to the more polluted and corrosive Flint River, made before he was elected, while the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. His calls nearly two years ago for a federal investigation into the water crisis seemed like a long shot, but, then again, Davis’ entire political career has been improbable.
In 1991, when he was 17, Davis shot and killed Kenneth Morris, a man he suspected of sexually assaulting his mother. Davis said he didn’t intend to shoot him until he saw Morris reach for his pocket. But a judge sentenced him to up to 50 years in prison for second-degree murder. He grew up behind bars, teaching himself to read and write so he could understand the letters sent to him from family and friends.
When he emerged a free man 19 years later, in 2010, he was blown away by Flint’s decline.
“It was nothing that I remembered,” Davis said. “A lot of these homes were dilapidated. And crime was at the highest level that I ever imagined it to be in my city. And it just looked like a poor city.”
He struggled to get a job, crying to his grandmother when he was turned away again and again after interviews that seemed to go well until his criminal record came up. He felt like he was being discriminated against and would never be able to succeed.
That’s when Davis began showing up to City Council meetings and getting involved in local politics. He wanted to advocate for other felons in the city — by his estimate, 28 percent of the population — who were trying to move on from their past.
“After my five minutes was up, they used to throw me off the mic and say, ‘Your time is up, Mr. Davis,’” he recalls of the meetings. “So I would say, ‘OK. But I will run for City Council in the next election.’ They blew me off. They said, ‘Yeah, you’re a convicted murderer, whatever.”
Davis campaigned vigorously, knocking on thousands of doors, and eventually beat out five opponents for a surprise victory. The local Flint newspaper had never reported on Davis’ felony prior to the election, prompting a public apology from their editor. But Davis says he told everybody while out campaigning his entire life story, and that the newspaper didn’t write about his past because they didn’t take him seriously enough as a candidate to write much about him at all.
“I became the first person in the history of America to ever go to prison for murder and get elected in government,” Davis said. (We attempted to verify this with several political historians, but no one knew for sure. Former President Andrew Jackson killed at least one man in a duel but was never convicted of a crime.)
Davis was a controversial figure from the start. He seems entirely free from the political urge to be diplomatic and deferential. He referred to Flint’s water problems as “genocide” to the media and in letters to the U.S. Justice Department, Gov. Rick Snyder and the United Nations, long before anyone was paying attention. “People [were] texting me calling me a moron,” Davis said of that episode.
“The reason I used the word, it didn’t stem from a racial standpoint. It was more about class. It was more about the low- [and] moderate-income people. The poor people — whites, blacks, Hispanics, Chinese — we are the ones who are ill affected by this water. Not the people with the money. The people with the money can leave and come back. Or move to outside counties.”
Flint’s water issue is personal for Davis on several levels. His wife, Stephani, developed what looked like large black burns on her stomach last year. One expert told Davis the marks could have been caused by the high chlorine content in the Flint water, which was needed to kill the E. coli and other bacteria that popped up only a few months after the switch. Davis is also personally affected by Flint’s uniquely high water bills, a complaint I heard from nearly every resident I spoke to in the city. At one point, he owed $3,000 for water, which was placed as a lien on his house. He’s lowered the bill to $600 but worries for his poorer constituents who can’t pay their bills.
“This is by design,” Davis contends of the high cost of water. “To run them out of here systemically.”
Davis’ gut told him not to trust the river as a water source; as a resident he knew “what this water has been through.” At Flint’s height in the ’70s, tens of thousands of people worked for auto companies along the river, and local residents worry that industrial contaminants remain in the water. The councilman watched, horrified, as problem after problem surfaced. First, E. coli was discovered just a few months after the switch. In September 2014, another boil-water advisory was issued because of high levels of coliform. Last January, the city announced that there were too many cancer-causing trihalomethanes (TTHMs) in the water and that boiling the water only intensified their effects.
It wasn’t until last September that outside researchers said the corrosive Flint River water was causing the city’s old pipes to leach lead and iron into the tap water. Lead can cause brain damage and is especially harmful to children. The county also noticed a spike in Legionnaires’ disease.
Davis sought outside help again and again. Starting in June 2014, he sent the exact same letter to the Justice Department, addressed to then-Attorney General Eric Holder, every Monday morning.
“This letter is in deep regards of the atrocities the residents of the city of Flint, Michigan, have unconstitutionally and deliberately been placed under,” Davis wrote. He said the city emergency manager law forced Flint to live under a “dictatorship” and begged the federal government to intervene.
He received a reply several months later, telling him to contact the state police.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced it will investigate how and why Flint’s water was poisoned for so long. Gov. Rick Snyder has apologized several times. Water bottles and filters are being delivered to every home. The world is paying attention.
“Now they’re here. Now they’re doing a federal investigation. But nobody gives me credit,” Davis said. “I was fighting from day one.”