Michael Steinberg ’83, the Legal Director at the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), came back to campus to speak of the work that he does through the non-profit organization. He focused on topics regarding racial and economic injustice, specifically new debtors prisons, the Flint water crisis, and police brutality. He described the legal action the Michigan ACLU is taking in response to these issues.
The ACLU is a grassroots organization dedicated to defending the rights of all people, particularly people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community, and prisoners.
“The ACLU of Michigan is our state’s guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country,” the organization’s mission statement reads.
Steinberg traced the roots of his activism back to his freshman year at the University, when he found himself exposed to the issues of the world. As a student, he was arrested for protesting the nuclear arms race and was acquitted with the help of an ACLU lawyer.
He began his talk with the topic of a phrase he coined as “new debtors prisons,” which refers to putting people who cannot afford to pay their court fees in jail. For debtors, this inevitably spawns a vicious cycle. When people are unable to pay, they not only face jail time, but also unemployment and the loss of their homes due to an inability to pay rent. In extreme cases, the court will remove these individuals’ children from the family.
“It’s a downward spiral for people who are put into jail for no other reason than being poor,” Steinberg said.
Although in 1983 the Supreme Court found such sentences to be unconstitutional, the issue continues to this day. This year, Steinberg’s team is suing a judge for implementing this policy, which led to the death of a man in jail who was there only because he was too poor to pay the fees.
The talk then transitioned to a case the Michigan ACLU has been working on since early on in the development of the issue: the Flint water crisis. The Flint water crisis stems from a Michigan emergency manager law, which allows the state to intervene when financial distress is present, giving them the license to take over entire municipalities and their school districts. All five of the cities that have been taken over were occupied for the most part by low-income and minority populations. These districts were cut off from funding and as a result went into states of distress.
The Michigan ACLU hired an investigative reporter to explore the corruption of these emergency managers that were sent to the five cities. Flint was one of them. In Flint, the emergency managers decided to try cutting spending by switching their water sources from Lake Huron to the Flint River, which is highly polluted. Residents soon began to complain about rashes and losing hair, but the government didn’t have appropriate accountability measures and emergency managers claimed the water was safe for consumption.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came in and tested the water, discovering that it had high levels of lead, rendering it unsafe for consumption with possibilities of illness and death. The lead levels turned out not to be a result of the new water source, but the fact that there were no phosphates in the water, making it highly corrosive because of the old lead pipes that were being used.
“The corrosive nature of the water caused lead to disintegrate and go into the water and eventually people’s homes,” Steinberg said. “Increased levels of lead means that the children of Flint are in for a long haul.”
Increased levels of lead causes behavioral problems, learning problems, and it brings down IQ levels. There is also a direct correlation between lead poisoning and crime rates. The Michigan ACLU responded with a lawsuit that calls for the replacement of all lead pipes.
Steinberg also spoke to racial injustice cases and police brutality. He has worked on cases regarding affirmative action, a “biking while black” case in Detroit that dealt with black youths being falsely accused of stealing bicycles, and the case of Milton Hall.
Milton Hall was a bright, successful man who suffered from mental illness. He lived well in spite of his disability, but eventually found himself homeless. When the management of a local convenience store he frequented changed, he got into a dispute with the manager. They both called the police on one another, and police officers let loose a dog on Hall. Instead of deescalating the situation, the eight white cops took out their guns. Forty-six bullets were fired and Hall was shot 14 times, killing him and leaving the community bereft.
“It’s things like this that make me do what I do, and unfortunately we do not have to look far for examples,” Steinberg said. “But the ACLU is here to prevent our country from devolving into a police state. What it is right now is not what our country should be like.”
Noah Kahan ’19, an event attendee, found the message of the event to be particularly poignant.
“I thought the talk was a significant event for me to go to because I got insight into the work so many people do to bring justice to the lives of so many people whose stories are forgotten,” Kahan said.
Steinberg earned a B.A. from Wesleyan University in 1983 and graduated from Wayne State University Law School in 1989. He is the founding director of the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Clinic at Wayne State University Law School. He has served as Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan since 1997, and he also teaches public interest litigation and is a Public Interest/Public Service Fellow at the University of Michigan.