Activists in Jackson, Mississippi, are trying to join a federal lawsuit against the city after claiming that a judge who is presiding over the drinking water standards case is ginning up a racial division.
According to AP, on Wednesday, activists from the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign and People’s Advocacy Institute filed court papers asking to intervene in the federal government’s lawsuit against Jackson.
“We feel like our lives are on the chopping block here in the city of Jackson,” Danyelle Holmes, an organizer with the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, told AP. “We could no longer sit by idly as government agencies allow residents to be told that it’s OK to drink unclean water.”
In December, U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate appointed Interim Third Party Manager Ted Henifin to stabilize the city of Jackson, Mississippi’s public drinking water system. The move was made by the DOJ to build confidence in the system’s ability to supply safe drinking water to the system’s customers.
Since then, Henifin has taken steps to improve the water infrastructure, including repairing broken water lines and improving the way the city collects water bills.
In June, Henifin claimed he was not aware of any health risk in Jackson’s drinking water and pointed to water quality reports as proof.
“We have been completely open and transparent with our water quality testing data and are in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act,” Henifin told AP.
He also said he and his team are “committed to public education that focuses on the people of Jackson and helping them understand what is happening with their water and the engineering science, not through the interpretive lens of activists, special interests or agendas.”
But some activists say the messages on whether the water is safe to drink hasn’t been clear, claiming reports of discolored water coming from pipes.
During a July status conference, residents and activists claimed to have a different experience with the water.
“My own personal experience is brown water in my home. When you turn the water on, still running brown,” Danyelle Holmes, with Poor People’s Campaign, told WAPT. “That’s why we’re here today, to ask the judge that we get more open and honest transparency from Mr. Henifin.”
Activists also said they wanted Henifin to look for minority-owned firms when awarding contracts for infrastructure projects, which led to plans to launch a minority contracting program.
But in a July 21 ruling, Judge Wingate, who is Black, downplayed activists’ concerns, claiming they were without merit.
“They have no experience in water management, and no logical rationale why an African American would be better suited to fix a lingering problem, which has gone unsolved for decades by past African American leadership,” Wingate wrote.
Black activists pushed back during Wednesday’s news conference.
“When the judge made his statement that we just want someone Black to fix our water, that is very disingenuous. That’s a disgrace,” Holmes said. “You have a judge who is pitting Black against white, poor against the wealthy, and it’s totally unfair. Whether you’re Black, white or brown, we’re all consuming the same water unless you’re wealthy and have purchased a filtration system, which many of the residents who are predominantly Black cannot afford.”
“I think it’s just unconscionable that it was even brought up,” Brooke Floyd, co-director of the Jackson People’s Assembly, told AP. “The race stuff was ridiculous, and it’s also ridiculous to say that because we are upset our water is not safe to drink, that we should just go sit down and be quiet and take what is given to us.”
History of Jackon’s water crisis
As NewsOne previously reported, in August 2022, Mississippi announced that the city’s water system was failing. Thousands were left without adequate water supply as a result. Jackson has a population of over 149,000 and nearly 85.5% of residents are Black, according to the Census.
Sadly, Jackson’s water issue had been brewing for years. The Environmental Protection Agency warned the city about the water plant’s poor infrastructure in 1970 and 2020, but nothing was done to solve the matter. Over the 2022 Christmas holiday weekend, Jackson’s water plant took another hit when Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba declared a local state of emergency due to low water pressure across certain areas of the city.
The city received upwards of $600 million in federal funds to help fix its water system- all thanks to the $1.7 trillion spending bill that Congress passed in December.
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