Flint City roller derby team refuses to be broken by water crisis

Latria Graham

Jilly Shark, Kategory 5, AshTray, Jojo McBruiseher, Block Mamba and SlapHer Sally take a break during final practice before their bout against Grand Raggidy's B-team on April 6.

One by one the women trickle in, rolling their gear bags behind them, flopping down on the stage of a church's rec center turned gymnasium. Each goes through her own personal ritual--socks, skates, pads, helmet, assembling their armor and preparing for practice.

Coach Cotton arrives with a long piece of corded rope, which helps create a regulation sized flat track outline of blue masking tape. It is time for the team to turn nothing into something.

The women in gear preparing for battle are the women of the Flint City Derby Girls. They are mothers, wives, sisters, caregivers and friends. The group is an enduring symbol of the heartbreak their city can experience. The government seems slow in offering the retribution the city deserves, in the wake of the water crisis, so they seek resolution on the track. 

The Flint City Derby Girls' uniforms are a public declaration that Flint will not die, that they aren't going anywhere. The team is revolutionary, simply by existing in a landscape that doesn't expect them to survive.

Their practice space is the training center of the modern athlete, for women hewn of bone and flesh who run into one another at full speed, or at least as fast as their skates will take them. This isn't your mother's roller derby. Gone are the fishnets, tutus and the theatrics that accompanied Roller Jam contests in the 1990s. Roller derby is a full-contact sport where two teams compete against one another in a contest of strategy and brute force, where skaters who score points by passing members of the opposing team.

As practice starts, Diplo's "Revolution" begins to play:

The worst is over

The monsters in my head are scared of love

Fallen people, listen up!

It's never too late to change your luck...

And the women are drawn into the rink for their warm-ups. The skaters glide around the oval, demonstrating fluent strides around the makeshift track. The sound of the wheels on their skates meeting the linoleum creates a constant hum.

***

Flint's water crisis isn't the first blow to the city. It's just the culmination of social, racial and economic issues that have plagued the area. This team should have folded two years ago, when it was out of money and couldn't afford a practice space. The women lost bout after bout, sometimes by as much as 200 points, but they have spirits that refuse to be broken by circumstance.

The troupe draws on the community's toughness as they fight their way back onto the derby scene. Each skater can rattle off the statistics that newscasters report: that Flint was the most dangerous city of its size in the United States from 2010 to 2013. That one in 14 homes is vacant. That more than 40 percent of residents live beneath the poverty line.

Still the water issue is an unspoken specter, residing on the periphery. The world won't let the team forget, even though they try not to bring the water situation to practice. Reminders are everywhere. Billboards have cropped up on Dort Highway, a road many skaters take to practice, informing residents that boiling water doesn't make it safe. One of the skaters, Susan Doty (aka H2Whoa), works in the environmental sector, and she does her best to keep the team informed of the current state of the water, and help correct misinformation. She answers questions about their test results.

Latria Graham

Crystal Wilson, aka Block Mamba, sports two stickers on her helmet. The first is from Flint OBGYN, a Flint City Derby Girls' sponsor. The other #greatergood is the team's motto.

In a cost-saving move in the spring of 2014, the city stopped using Detroit water from Lake Huron and switched its main supply to the Flint River. Flint water was so abrasive that it scoured the lead off the inside of pipes and into the water supply. The group spends weekends delivering cases of water to those that might need it.

In the summer of 2014, before the government confirmed her fears, Ashley McDermaid (aka AshTray), knew something was up when her cats wouldn't drink the water from their bowls; they often attempted to drink out of her water bottles. Multiple team members reported that their pets wouldn't drink the water they were given from the tap.

Two years later, Rebecca Lopez, (aka Cammie Flage), a blocker and the team's treasurer, found water delivered to her door. She was mailed a letter in January of 2016 that notified her that she was receiving water from the Flint water source. She had thought her water was from the Burton water supply because she lived in a township across the street from Flint. The testing done on her water didn't indicate that lead was a problem, but the results indicated that her household was exposed to an abnormally high amount for copper, which can lead to digestive problems in the body. In fact, her son Anthony was having gastrointestinal issues. "The doctors couldn't find what was wrong with him," she says, but since they've switched to bottled water, his complaints have gone away. 

Still the problem persists. Water bills arrive every month, and water in Flint is expensive. The average Flint resident pays $150 a month for water and sewage utilities, about eight times more than the national average.

Residents are paying for water that they can't cook with, bathe in or even feed to their animals. Water filters are hard to come by. Shower filters are almost non-existent. According to McDermaid, things are improving. She remembers waiting for an hour in water distribution lines, only to drive away with one case of water. Now the wait is less than five minutes, and the National Guard hands out more than one case at a time.

Meanwhile life keeps happening, regardless of the status of the water. Last year Lopez, a mother of three, lost her rent money, so the team pooled resources to try to replace it. "We couldn't raise all of the rent money because we're still a struggling team, but it helped. Everybody gives what they have," says Janna Elmslie (aka Tyrannojanna Wrex), a blocker and the team's president.

Latria Graham

Rebecca Lopez, aka Cammie Flage, and Katie Fehr, aka Slapher Sally, strap on their gear in a makeshift locker room April 9.

"It's literally the team and my family that keep me going," says Lopez.

Jessica Bateman, (aka Crazy Diamond) feels the same way. "Sometimes bad things happen, terrible things, and derby is your family," she says. When her son died unexpectedly in November of 2015, the team rallied. The sport emphasizes the need to connect with something bigger than themselves.

After the news the team tried to keep some sense of normalcy, and went to Wednesday night practice as usual, but they couldn't skate. Everybody stripped off their gear and went to Jessica's house to spend the night. On the day of the funeral, the entire team came to the service in their Flint City gear. They take turns doing one another small favors.

Still when a third of your team is unsure of the toxicity of the water pouring from the taps in their homes, sometimes it's the little things that matter. The group spends weekends delivering cases of water to those that might need it.

Latria Graham

Katrina Pickett, aka Kategory 5, examines her gear ahead of the bout against Grand Raggidy's B team on April 9 at the Rivertown Sports Complex, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

"I didn't trust the water from the moment they switched water sources, so I started buying and drinking bottled water then, but I still made coffee with [tap water]. I showered in it," says Coach Cotton, nicknamed by the team as the "Heart of Flint." He remembers when he heard about the switch from Lake Huron's water to Flint River. The change and subsequent knowledge of the water's toxicity upended his daily routine. Now when he is thirsty for water in the middle of the night, he has to remember to grab a bottle, not a glass. It's the process of undoing years of conditioning.

Five of the members on the team (including Coach Cotton) live within Flint's city limits. Even for those whose water is deemed "safe," everyone knows somebody affected by the latest manmade disaster unfolding in their town.

"I maintain that derby finds people when they need it; that's what my father taught me about sports, that it was meant to be a transitional phase, to take you from one place to another, " says Brian Thomas, (aka Hell Ocho), one of Flint City's assistant coaches.

Crystal Wilson (aka Block Mamba), a blocker, credits the sport with giving her structure and boosting her self-confidence. She made the team last year, and learned how to embrace dedication and sacrifice as part of a positive and committed group of men and women.

***

On the second Friday of every month, the city holds ArtWalk, an event where a number of art galleries and bars open their doors to the community and host artists and live music. At the April ArtWalk under the orange glow of the streetlights, the team walks from gallery to gallery putting up posters and informing patrons of their first home game. They talk about art; tonight one of the featured pieces is a repurposed sculpture created local schoolchildren from plastic water bottles. They laugh about the strangeness of life. On the walk the team gravitates toward the Flint River, and they stand at its edge, telling all that they knew of its history to one another. They can't escape the water. They're drawn to it.

Latria Graham

The Flint City Derby Girls pose with the Nidaros Roller Derby team from Trondheim, Norway, on April 9 at the Rivertown Sports Complex, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The skaters talk about what "used to be." They point to large empty blocks that hold nothing but grass and the beginnings of trees that grow in the cracks of the concrete slabs. In their neighborhoods, one house will be occupied and the next will be abandoned, boarded up and stripped of its copper, of any metal.

The day after ArtWalk the team heads to Grand Rapids, Michigan. The trip presents the team with a few hours of relief from worrying about how to drink a glass of water or shower after every workout, every practice, every game. The bout gives Flint City a chance to focus on the game, on something happening outside the city limits. They've come to the Rivertown Sports Complex to play Grand Raggidy's B team, the Grand Raggidy Attack. Flint is slated as the underdogs. They're almost always the underdogs.

Coach Cotton has been waiting nine years for this moment, for the chance to prove that his team can take one of the top teams in the state. Grand Raggidy Roller Derby has been around since 2005, and is one of the original founding leagues of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association.

The water talk follows them. In the locker room as they're getting suited up for the game, the women trade quips about the best tasting water. Rebecca insists it's Sparkletts: "that's the good stuff. I don't know where it comes from, but that's the best tasting water." Janna nods in agreement. This is their way of dealing with the problem: make light of the things you can't change. Change the things you can.

Related Content