I Don’t Know What to Say About Flint

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Jake May/AP

 

By Cheri-Leigh Erasmus

Over the last few weeks the water crisis unfolding in Flint, Michigan, has weighed very heavily on my mind. Needless to say the thought of citizens, and especially children, being exposed to lead and possibly other toxins and diseases would make most people deeply concerned. But the main reason for my huge disappointment is found in my foreign background.

As a South African expatriate residing in the USA, I have endured countless Americans ask me questions about the availability of the most basic amenities and services on the African continent as soon as they hear where I come from. Regardless of the fact that my upbringing differs only very slightly from that of the average middle class citizen here, I do not take offense to the assumption that living in the USA affords me opportunities I would have never had as some believe. For many years the only exposure some citizens of first world countries had to Africa centered on images of famine, drought and civil unrest. All of us have seen the pictures of women and children walking miles to fill a bucket of water in a river or out of a communal well, and over the years many nonprofit organizations and development agencies have invested heavily in creating the infrastructure necessary to ensure safe drinking water for millions of people in developing countries.

I am not discounting the water crises in many other countries, but I do find the crisis in Flint abhorrent, because this could and should have been prevented in one of the most developed countries on earth. It is hard to digest that elected officials created a situation that threatened the livelihood of their constituents, sat by and covered up what can be seen as gross negligence and misconduct. All of this happened in our backyard while large sums of money continue to go into this very cause outside the USA. How does a city in this developed country open their taps to water more toxic and dangerous than the water in those images of Africa?

At what stage does charity begin at home? I am not ungrateful for humanitarian aid, but at the same time it is hard to swallow the lead-filled pill which is Flint while so many Americans still see developing countries as needy and lacking in the most basic of services. Flint is the perfect example of how much need there is and how easily a blind eye is turned to disenfranchised citizens right here on US soil. As an outsider now on the inside, watching this unfold has left me speechless, utterly disappointed and even enraged. I just don’t know what to say about Flint, and quite frankly, I’m not sure how I’m going to respond the next time I get asked about the availability of the most basic necessities in my home country.

cle headshot 2 Cheri-Leigh Erasmus is a nonprofit professional in the leadership development sector. An avid traveler and lifelong learner, she cares deeply about access to education and human rights.

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Part III: #AutoErase

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#Auto Erase legislation signed into law by North Carolina Republican Governor Pat McCrory went into effect, December 1, 2015. It was first introduced by state Senator Floyd McKissick who garnered support from his Republican colleagues by including language about identity theft and wrongful identification. The road in North Carolina wasn’t easy. It sailed through the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives.

“If anyone believes their voice doesn’t matter, they are wrong! When it stalled,” in North Carolina where Charles went to high school, “I asked my mother to have her bridge club friends call, and my high school friends to send emails. Their calls and emails, I believe, helped move the legislation that had sat for months. I received an email from the co-Chairs of the judicial committee and they called to say they were scheduling my legislation. It was voted on and passed.”

I wondered and asked how he moved forward without making it about race. “They were looking for a tall, bald, black man. I fit that description.”

Even I, someone who often steers from the race debate, can see it plainly like those who champion #BlackLivesMatter, that race did play a part in this.  But, in Charles is a valuable “strategy” lesson, often forgotten in the Civil Rights movement discussion.

Activists in the sixties who marched, were often beaten and killed by police officers. But they didn’t turn back.  Their strategy was to bring attention and increase awareness. Their sacrifice made it possible to  advanced landmark Civil Rights legislation.  Fifty years later their efforts also make it possible for Charles to convince a southern legislature to pass #AutoErase legislation.

Today, can be drawn from the sixties today, of Blacks being killed by police officers.  But now, although Officer Darren Wilson got away with the murder of Michael Brown, the Black Lives Matter movement has propelled a national conversation. And we see, body cameras funded by municipalities and states in South Carolina, because of advocacy and an outcry about the senseless murder of Walter Scott by Officer Michael Slager.

Charles during the interview, said emphatically, “I Survived!” Words Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Oscar Scott and Laquan McDonald and will never say.

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The post, I read before meeting Charles three months later.

“When I talk to high school students, I tell them, if they are in a situation like mine, don’t fight the battle there on the street. In my situation, it didn’t matter. No matter how many degrees I have. Or that I wasn’t involved in a crime. They didn’t want to hear it, they had their guy. Tall, bald and Black. Thankfully, I lived to see another day. That’s what I tell young people, live to see another day, and then fight that battle.”

Charles is fighting that battle by going to conferences like the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) and National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL). This year, both passed policy resolutions supporting #AutoErase.  He intends to use them to get support from other national organizations like the American Bar Association.

#AutoErase will also become the law in Illinois January 1, 2016.  Arizona, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and South Carolina introduced #AutoErase legislation this year. It died in committee in Arizona but will be reintroduced in 2016. The Rhode Island House of Representatives passed it but the Senate did not. It too, will be reintroduced in 2016.   It is still alive in Pennsylvania and South Carolina where legislators will take up the legislation in 2016.

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Draft legislation has been crafted in Michigan by Representative Bert Johnson. In Ohio, Florida, Maryland, Georgia, Wisconsin, Tennessee, New Jersey and the US Virgin Islands, legislators have promised to introduce it during next year’s legislative sessions.

Former professional tennis player, James Blake’s who was mistakenly tackled and handcuffed by police in a Manhattan hotel just like Charles.  This just another example of overzealous police officers misuse of the public trust because to them someone “fit the description.” The police culture of power has existed too long. It has permeated the upper and lower echelons of our society and should be replaced with the idea of responsibility of protecting not destroying the public trust.

Whether it was the overseer policing slaves, to the officer wearing a cloth over his head, hanging and shooting Blacks, during segregation, it is wrong. Today, with no whip or hood, officers have without repercussion, shot unarmed men and women. Charles survived, but his good name was damaged, at least for a little while, by officers, who said he fit the description.

His journey to right this wrong, has him on a crusade to make sure this never happens to anyone again. He can use your help, so that this doesn’t happen to you, or anyone we know. Please follow his journey, and if you can, support his cause to make #AutoErase the law of the land!

Check out some of the interviews Charles has given about his arrest. And share his story with your friends.  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqeqKHHceEwwwYDWknKD5sg

Follow him @CharlesBelk on Twitter and Facebook.  His nonprofit is Fitting the Description and use the #AutoErase and #FittingtheDescription or visit www.fittingthedescription.org.

Stay up to date on what’s going on in your state by sharing your info on these sites. And if you want to help Charles, please reach out to him and/or call your state legislator and find out if they know about #AutoErase. Together, we can make a difference!

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Charles Belk is President/Producer at I Will Make You A Star Productions and Adjucnt Professor Pierce College.  He is the founder of the organization and executive director of Fitting The Description.

Atiba Madyun is President of The Madyun Group (TMG), a Public Affairs firm in Washington, DC and creator of Cognitive Relevance (CR) and Party Politics (PP). Follow him on Twitter @atibamadyun or Like Atiba Madyun on Facebook.