On April 25, 2014, a group of prominent Flint politicians and administrators, along with representatives of state government and local media, gathered at the city’s water treatment plant on the northeast side of town to commemorate the switch of Flint’s municipal water source. For over forty years, residents of Flint had been drinking Lake Huron water treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) and distributed through a Detroit-owned network of pipes servicing much of southeast Michigan. While “Detroit” water (to use local shorthand) was by all accounts a stable, high-quality supply, Flint was purchasing it at a premium. Over the previous five years, DWSD had raised wholesale water rates over 200 percent, and with the City of Flint’s retail markup factored in residents were paying water bills more than two-and-a-half times the national average.1 To stabilize runaway rates and give the city at least partial ownership of the system that delivered its water, in March 2013 Flint’s elected officials declared their support for a plan to construct a new, regionally controlled Lake Huron pipeline under the aegis of the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA).2 The next month, DWSD expressed its displeasure with the decision by issuing a termination-of-service notice, effective in a year’s time. With the completion of the new pipeline slated for 2016, Flint was faced with the need to secure an interim water supply.
When it was announced that water diverted from the Flint River and treated at the city’s own treatment plant would provide the necessary stop-gap, many residents were incredulous, sure that it must be a “joke.”3 Not only had the river served as a dumping ground for decades’ worth of industrial pollutants, it was popularly known as a repository for shopping carts, old cars, and the occasional corpse. Despite the instinctive aversion that the river elicited in many residents, however, by the summer of 2013 plans were underway to get the Flint Water Treatment Plant into full working order in anticipation of the switch.4
Proponents of the switch argued that using the river was not as counterintuitive as it seemed. From 1917 to 1967, after all, the river had served as the primary source of Flint’s drinking water, and even after the city entered into its long-term relationship with Detroit it served as Flint’s state-mandated backup source. Furthermore, the main considerations that led Flint to opt for Detroit water in the first place had more to do with capacity than quality. Although the river had easily accommodated the city’s needs through the first half of the twentieth century, by the end of the 1950s industrial expansion and residential growth had increased demand beyond what the river could comfortably sustain. Now, after decades of economic disinvestment had stripped Flint of its thirsty factories and half of its population, it was more plausible to argue that its water requirements could be met by the river.
Turning to the river during Flint’s time of need, then, could be billed by advocates as a reinstatement of past practice rather than a radical innovation. This was not lost on those present at the switchover ceremony. From a podium in the foyer of the water treatment plant, flanked by basins of treated river water making its last stop before flowing out to residents, Flint Mayor Dayne Walling called the switch “a historic moment for the city of Flint to return to its roots and use our own river as our drinking water supply.”5 Although the use of the river would be temporary, it would have the effect—or so Walling and others claimed—of empowering Flint to take long-term charge of its water. Under the pending arrangement with the KWA, Flint would receive raw lake water rather than the pre-treated water it was used to, and would be solely responsible for treatment. Practicing on Flint River water would give the city an opportunity to bring its water treatment plant up to speed and fine-tune its treatment methods before assuming this responsibility. The cost savings Flint would realize by keeping its water source close to home and avoiding Detroit’s increasing rates would help finance the necessary capital improvements at the plant.
Of course, these rationales counted for little if the people of Flint could not be convinced to drink the water. In the lead-up to the switch, authorities at the state and local levels sought to assuage popular fears by repeatedly reassuring residents that the treated river water met all federal guidelines and was comparable to Detroit water in quality. Representatives of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) told residents that they “shouldn’t notice any difference”6 beyond an increase in the “hardness”7 of the water that might make it more difficult to produce a lather while showering and bathing. City officials painted a similarly heartening picture. During the inauguration of the new water supply, Mayor Walling acknowledged that there had been “a lot of questions from our customers,” but insisted that “the water quality speaks for itself.”8 Addressing the public in the days after the switch, City Spokesperson Jason Lorenz reinforced the message that the water was “of great quality.”9 These were the first in what would become a long line of assurances over the next year and a half that the water was not only safe but eminently drinkable.
On several key occasions, such claims would be driven home by high-profile authorities performatively consuming the water on camera. The first such instance formed the climactic moment of the switchover ceremony. After being accorded the honor of pressing the button that shut off the feed from Detroit—prompting cheers and applause from those assembled—Mayor Walling proposed a celebratory toast. With the exclamation “Here’s to Flint!,” he and the other participants raised glasses full of freshly treated river water and, with no apparent hesitation, drank them down. Viewers watching the evening news that day witnessed an event designed to suggest confidence and consensus, pitched as a triumphant moment in the city’s history.
What would not become clear until much later was that even some of those who took part in the photo-op harbored gnawing doubts about the city’s readiness to assume the role of treating river water. One was Mike Glasgow, the treatment plant’s laboratory and water quality supervisor, who a mere eight days before had protested in an email to the MDEQ that “if water is distributed from this plant in the next couple weeks, it will be against my direction,”10 cautioning that more training and staff would be necessary before the city was properly equipped for the task. Glasgow’s warning was even more prescient than he could have known at the time. Over the next year and a half, he and his colleagues would find themselves on the front lines of a struggle against a variety of contaminants in Flint’s water supply. In August and September 2014, they discovered total coliform bacteria in water on the city’s west side, indicating a risk of E. coli contamination and hinting at dangerous weak spots in the city’s water infrastructure. Attempts to eliminate pathogens in the water system with extra chlorine generated hazardous levels of trihalomethanes—carcinogenic byproducts of interactions between chlorine and organic matter referred to popularly as TTHMs—and brought the city into violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The worst was yet to come, however. In summer 2015, activists revealed that the city had a serious problem with lead in its water, a consequence of the MDEQ’s failure to mandate the corrosion control needed to prevent the river water from damaging lead-bearing plumbing. Some deemed the population-wide exposure that resulted the worst environmental disaster in the United States since Hurricane Katrina.11
As the media began placing the people and events surrounding the water crisis under the microscope in the fall of 2015, it became clear that there was plenty of blame to go around. MDEQ employees not only misadvised local utility workers about water treatment but conspired with them to obscure the city’s lead problem. Employees at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services made misleading claims about blood lead levels in an effort to dampen growing alarm. US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials failed to act with urgency when indications of lead contamination began to appear. Local politicians treated residents’ concerns about the water dismissively and reiterated that the water was safe when there was reason to believe otherwise. Private contractors hired to assess the viability of the river water as a municipal supply, upgrade the water treatment plant, and recommend solutions to water quality problems failed to prevent the crisis and did little to end it.12 All of these individuals and entities own some of the responsibility for what happened.
But it is equally true that they all acted within a context shaped by other, arguably more important, actors. Many of the key decisions made about Flint’s water during the period in question were made not by utility workers or regulators, not by local politicians or contractors, but by Flint’s state-appointed emergency managers (EMs). In fact, since December 2011, when the State of Michigan took over the city’s government in order to rescue it (said state officials) from financial collapse, unelected EMs had been making unilateral decisions about virtually the full spectrum of city affairs. In total, four EMs with mandates to cut costs and increase the efficiency of public services governed Flint between 2011 and 2015. All four added their fingerprints to the string of decisions that led up to and exacerbated the water crisis. It was EM Michael Brown who set Flint on a path to join the KWA pipeline project a year before the City Council’s vote on the matter. It was EM Ed Kurtz who made the de facto decision to use the Flint River as a temporary water supply while the pipeline was completed. It was EM Darnell Earley, the first to shout “Hear, hear!” in response to the mayor’s toast at the water treatment plant, who called the river “the best choice for the city of Flint going forward” and oversaw the implementation of the switch.13 It was EM Jerry Ambrose who ignored the City Council’s symbolic vote to return to Detroit water in March 2015, calling it “incomprehensible.”14 Residents would continue to drink Flint River water for another seven months.
Except for those who didn’t: those who shunned it from the beginning, or were repulsed by changes in its color, taste, or smell, or suspected it of making them sick, or who were warned off it by friends and neighbors or by early reports of bacterial contamination and TTHMs. Not all of these residents joined what I will refer to in this book as the water “movement” in Flint—the loose collection of people and groups that vocally protested the condition of the water, demanded that the city cease using the river, helped reveal the existence of systemic contamination, and fought to ensure that residents got what they were owed after the crisis was officially recognized.15 But those who did join the movement came to realize that fixing their city’s water crisis—and preventing similar crises in the future—would require more than just better treatment methods and new pipes. It would require confronting a deeper crisis of democracy.
At first glance, the Flint water crisis has all the hallmarks of a classic environmental justice scenario: A population vulnerable for reasons of race and class. Contamination through human activity of a natural resource essential to life. Residents with little or no background in activism catalyzed into action by their personal experiences with the contamination. Mendacity and feet dragging by “experts” and officials in response to demands for remediation. A popular effort to uncover threats obscured or overlooked by these same experts and officials. All of these aspects of the crisis will receive attention in what follows.
What first stood out to me about the struggle for environmental justice in Flint, however, was what made it distinctive: everyone, it seemed, was talking not just about water, but about democracy. Students of the environmental justice tradition may protest that democracy has long been a central concern of environmental justice activists. I concede the point, and will return to it in chapter 1. But still, there was something unique about the salience of the theme in Flint. Democracy was constantly on the lips of even those who were new to activism, who felt compelled to join the water movement not for ideological reasons but out of burning concern for their own well-being and that of their families. Activists saw the denial of democracy—as personified in Flint’s EMs—as the most fundamental cause of the crisis and a major reason for its extent and severity. Likewise, they saw the restoration of democracy as an objective that was complementary to, or even a precondition of, a full recovery from the crisis. At times I caught glimpses, also, of a more radical democratic vision, one that sought to deepen democracy by building off the popular energies liberated by the crisis, the grassroots associations formed in response to it, and the new political consciousness sparked by it. Given my academic background in the study of political thought and social movements, what I encountered in Flint was an unusually intriguing confluence of ideas and action.
In the remainder of this introduction, I will explain the methodological reasons for positioning this book at the intersection of environmental justice and democracy. As will become clear, my emphasis on these concepts is part of my attempt to capture empirically the activists’ distinctive perspective on the water crisis in language that was meaningful and evocative to the people on the ground in Flint. I hope to demonstrate that this perspective—aside from being inherently worthy of documentation as part of our collective memory of the crisis—offers a valuable analytical asset to scholars who wish to understand the crisis better. I also use the central concepts of the book as portals into the scholarly literature, through which I pull in other useful concepts further afield from the everyday language of activism, and offer up lessons from Flint I believe to be of more general significance.
The core elements of this book are derived from ethnographic immersion in the response to the water crisis in Flint, particularly the activities of water activists and of scientists studying the city’s water quality and embroiled in controversies involving activists. I personally became a resident of Flint in June 2015, when the city was still drawing its water from the Flint River, and I am one of many residents whose young child was exposed to the water, but my lived experience of the crisis is not what I am calling the “ethnography” at the heart of this book. My main objective is to understand the crisis from the perspective of the water activists who were especially involved in the response to it. My own residence in Flint of course enriched my understanding of what life was like on the ground in the city from mid-2015 on, and it factored into my positionality as an activist-scholar in important ways. Simply living in Flint was not, however, nearly enough to provide my ethnographic material: I had to make a special effort to enter into the activist community, gradually building relationships and trust and evolving from a fly on the wall into a full-fledged participant observer.16
I am not, I must admit, an experienced ethnographer, but I knew enough about ethnography—and, by the time of my initial foray into water activism in January 2016, enough about Flint—to know that this process would be gradual and delicate. For one thing, I was a latecomer, getting involved at a time when the crisis was attracting significant national attention, thereby opening myself up to suspicions of opportunism or at least the “Johnny-come-lately” epithet sometimes applied to people and groups who weren’t in the fight from the “beginning” (however defined). Furthermore, I appeared on the activist scene as a white middle-class man at a time when activists were taking advantage of the national spotlight to elevate the stories of poor people of color—especially women, who they argued had suffered special harms from the water and whose agency as leaders of the water movement they made a point of celebrating. While I thought of myself (somewhat arrogantly, I suppose) as someone with special skills and resources to contribute to the movement, the activists were far more interested in the symbolic capital offered by residents with the right kind of look, background, and story. It was all I could do early on to demonstrate that I, too, could be useful, and it was frustrating (though illuminating) when some of my early offers of assistance were met with indifference.
Another complication was that my institutional position at Kettering University was at least as much a liability as an asset. The activists’ feelings about Kettering ranged from mixed to openly hostile. Some accused the school (the largest private landowner in the city) of perpetrating an ongoing “land grab” around the fringes of campus, gulping up dilapidated properties for its own purposes, including the formerly public Atwood Stadium (given to Kettering in exchange for repair work by EM Mike Brown in 2013). More generally, I found that activists saw Kettering as being mostly unconcerned with residents beyond its immediate neighbors and complicit in plans by local elites to turn the city into a “college town.” Many believed that the school had downplayed the severity of the water crisis for fear of losing enrollment.17 Thus, even as I worked in a variety of ways to build bridges between the university, activists, and Flint residents, my credibility hinged on showing that I was not “controlled” (an accusation leveled at me by an activist convinced at one point that I was part of a “CYA” effort) and that I had some critical distance from my own institution.18
To overcome suspicions about my character and intentions, I very consciously avoided giving any impression that I had a personal or official agenda or was more entitled to speak authoritatively about the crisis on account of my credentials, training, or position. I drew inspiration from what the sociologist Alice Goffman calls “social shrinkage”—a technique aimed at minimizing the impact of one’s difference within an unfamiliar social setting.19 One can justify such minimization methodologically as being conducive to purer observations, but in my case it grew out of the realization that it was the necessary starting point on what would be a longer journey toward acceptance and participation. In truth, I didn’t have to be very proactive about “shrinking” myself. I sat through numerous conversations about politics at activist meetings where no one thought to ask the PhD political scientist for his opinion. One activist described the activist culture in Flint to me as “anti-intellectual.”20 At the very least, what I encountered repeatedly was an indifference to credentials that reflected the deeply egalitarian sensibility typical of Flint activism. It was a sensibility I found inspiring on a moral level, but sometimes problematic on an organizing level for its tendency to undervalue academic knowledge and the strategic advantages of status, access, and power. Whereas water activists in Detroit have forged productive relationships with local academics, leading to impressive collaborative work on water shutoffs, foreclosures, and emergency management,21 nothing comparable exists in Flint, and Flint activists gave no indication that they felt this to be a limitation.
Perhaps it was a twinge of vanity that made me expect a slightly more enthusiastic welcome into the activist ranks, but the reality was that I was already starting to doubt the value of my own supposed expertise in the face of the water crisis’s confounding complexity. In some ways, this doubt was a continuation of an earlier humbling experience. In the fall of 2015, a few months after moving to Flint, I joined the Flint Charter Review Advisory Committee, a body of residents that met regularly with elected charter commissioners to contribute to the first review and revision of the city’s governing document since the 1970s. At first, I was encouraged by my ability to draw upon my political theory background for guidance. Following the second meeting of the group, I helped rewrite the charter preamble to incorporate more explicit rights language—including, for the first time in the city’s history, a declaration of Flint residents’ right to water. As the meetings progressed, however, and as the conversations began to delve into the minutiae of city government and the history of Flint politics, I felt awash in local knowledge and, very often, like the dumbest person in the room. When the time came to take a position on such key questions as what form of government the city ought to have, I found myself grasping at straws. It was an awakening, for me, to the irreducible intricacies of place, and it led me to the conclusion that my prior training would be of little use in Flint without an extended period of listening and learning.
This attitude of epistemic humility is, in my view, fundamental to the ethnographic enterprise. Writing of her arrival in Bhopal, India, in the years following the catastrophic gas leak there, the anthropologist Kim Fortun describes her sense of entering a “whirlwind,” a “maelstrom” that made it difficult to treat Bhopal as “a bounded unit of analysis.”22 I felt much the same way about the water crisis, like I had to ride the breeze for some time, let the complexity of the situation wash over me, before it was possible to start analytically dissecting what was going on, or even to formulate clear research questions. Part of the difficulty was that by early 2016 the crisis was being held up by commentators as exemplary in so many different ways—notably:
As a wakeup call about the persistence of lead in the urban environment, and especially the threat of lead in water
As an illustration of the dilapidation and underfunding of America’s infrastructure (and, later, as a virtually unprecedented effort to replace infrastructure at the local level)
As a revelation of the inadequacy of environmental regulatory frameworks, particularly the federal Lead and Copper Rule, and an indictment of the bureaucratic cultures that work against effective regulatory intervention
As a dramatization of nationwide controversies about the treatment of poor people of color
As a landmark environmental justice struggle demonstrating the power of grassroots activists to make change
As a “gold standard” of “citizen science” illustrating the potential of resident-driven scientific research to aid marginalized communities
As an example of the dangers of aggressive state intervention into local affairs and the suspension of local democracy
It was clear to me that any treatment of the crisis that did justice to the “whirl” and avoided reductionism would have to touch upon all of these aspects of the crisis’s significance. But it was equally clear that I would have to train my focus on the theme or themes that would best allow me to elaborate the perspective on the crisis I was intent upon capturing. The main question that came to guide my research was simple: how did the activists understand the crisis, and how did that understanding affect the way they responded to it?
When I met them, Flint activists were already steering a course through the storm with the kind of performative confidence already familiar to me from encounters with other activist cultures. I decided the most promising approach was to step into the stream of grassroots activism and follow it where it led. In January 2016, I began attending community meetings, rallies, protests, and marches organized by the Flint Democracy Defense League, Flint Rising, and the groups comprising the Two Years (later, Three Years, and then Four Years) Too Long Coalition (also known as the Flint H2O Justice Coalition). At first, I was largely a passive spectator, but gradually I took on a more active role in the development of strategy, the promulgation of public statements, and the organization of events and actions. I also took part in door-to-door canvassing and community organizer trainings arranged by Flint Rising.
The geography of activism shaped the contours of my field site, which was not coterminous with city limits but centered on particular spaces like St. Michael’s and Woodside churches (where activists had regular meetings), the front lawn of City Hall (the site of innumerable rallies and a staging ground for marches), and council chambers, and which occasionally extended outside the city, too.23 Like the activists, I also made a point of attending official meetings about water: town halls, panels, hearings, and the so-called Community Partners meetings at City Hall, which brought together representatives of agencies and groups on the governmental and nonprofit side of the crisis response. Because of my close working relationship with my colleague at Kettering University, Laura Sullivan—an appointee to the state’s official crisis response committee, the city’s Technical Advisory Committee, and the KWA board—I also enjoyed vicarious access to many closed-door meetings and behind-the-scenes interactions between top officials. In addition to physical spaces of various kinds, I immersed myself to the point of saturation in water-related Facebook and Twitter chatter, which was often just as, if not more, consequential than offline interactions between activists.24 When I could not be physically present at meetings and events, I benefited enormously from live streams by activists through Facebook Live, the video-streaming feature debuted by the social media site in April 2016.
Allying myself with the activists as closely as I did gave my research the character of what Jeffrey S. Juris has called “militant ethnography” (although “militant” seems a trifle grandiose as a description of any of the activism I actually engaged in). Juris describes militant ethnography as “a politically engaged and collaborative form of participant observation carried out from within rather than outside grassroots movements” that “seeks to overcome the divide between research and practice.” The militant ethnographer is not merely a “circumstantial activist” (or, I would add, an “advocate”). Rather, she “has to build long-term relationships of mutual commitment and trust, become entangled with complex relations of power, and live the emotions associated with direct action organizing and activist networking.” Juris argues, as would I, that “such politically engaged ethnographic practice not only allows researchers to remain active political subjects, it also generates better interpretations and analyses.”25
Of course, no ethnography would be worthy of the name without preserving a certain degree of insider-outsider tension, and some scholars may worry that adopting a militant orientation, in Juris’s sense of the term, eliminates this tension. What I experienced was quite the opposite. In practice, working in such close proximity to the activists generated tensions that would not otherwise have existed—tensions which, while sometimes unpleasant, were extremely productive of insights.
The activist perspective on the water crisis was not, however, the only one I had the opportunity to enter into, nor were the activists the only people involved to whom I felt a certain allegiance. Joining the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership (FACHEP) in April 2016 added another layer to my direct involvement in the crisis response. An interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers from, among other institutions, Wayne State University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and the Henry Ford Health System, the FACHEP team congealed around several grants awarded in early 2016 by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the State of Michigan to fund research into Flint’s water quality and the point-of-use filters the state had begun distributing to residents. My primary role was to oversee community engagement around the most substantial of the team’s projects, a $3.35 million study of the prevalence of Legionella bacteria in Flint’s water supply. In this capacity, I worked in collaboration with Laura Sullivan to promulgate sampling results and safety-related recommendations through social networks, facilitate direct communication between residents and members of the team, and build trust in the team’s work among the activists. To compensate for short staffing, I occasionally performed tasks outside my official job description as well, including scheduling water sampling appointments, building sampling kits, and accompanying sampling teams from house to house to administer a public health survey. I also endeavored to play a diplomatic role when relations soured between the different teams studying Flint’s water and the activists allied with them, a story related in chapter 7. As I explain in that chapter, my involvement with FACHEP complicated my ethnographic work in a number of ways: it gave me the aura of someone with inside information and opened doors to certain spaces the activists could not enter directly, but it was also—at least early on—another source of suspicion about my motives and true allegiances.
As a supplement to participant observation, I conducted around seventy semi-structured interviews with people involved in various aspects of the water crisis response.26 About thirty-five of these were with people I would describe as “activists”—mainly Flint-based activists, but also several who were associated with statewide or national organizations, or with activism in other cities. I also interviewed a number of people who might be better described as activist “allies”—advocates from the worlds of public health, journalism, and public interest law. I talked with elected representatives from city and state government, employees of the EPA, and numerous people involved in the production of scientific knowledge about the water, including some of my own FACHEP colleagues and members of the Virginia Tech team. In only a handful of cases did I fail to connect with a solicited interviewee, usually because I never got a response to my invitation.
One advantage of combining interviews with extended ethnography is that I did not have to rely overly upon the “snowball” method of identifying interviewees, which can introduce bias into a research project by hewing too closely to preestablished social networks. By sinking more deeply into my field of study than the average interviewer, I was able to identify for myself who the main actors were and interview more selectively and efficiently. Furthermore, because many of the people I interviewed I had already gotten to know personally or had even worked with, I was able to craft detailed, tailor-made questions to complement my generic interview template. Sometimes putting on an “interviewer” cap with friends and acquaintances was awkward, for it cast me conspicuously in the role of the researcher rather than that of comrade. Also, I found it difficult to talk neutrally with certain activists and officials as I became tangled up in some of the divisions within the activist and scientific community. But on the whole, I believe my personal involvement in the same issues consuming my interviewees allowed for much subtler and more candid conversations than would otherwise have been possible. Interviews proved to be critical not only for mapping in more detail various perspectives on the crisis, but also (supplemented by news coverage27 and archived social media content) reconstructing what went on from 2011 to 2015 before my personal involvement.28
It was through a combination of close observation in group settings and probing questions in one-on-one settings, then, that I arrived at the themes that animate this book.29 Firstly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the activists understood themselves to be fighting for “justice.” Justice is, of course, a capacious concept; its utility, from an activist standpoint, is in part its ability to accommodate a wide range of demands. For Flint activists, “water justice” encompassed everything from securing safe, affordable water, to replacing damaged infrastructure, to declaring water a human right, to community revitalization.30 The broader idea of “environmental justice,” too, was very much in the air. Whether or not activists employed the term explicitly from the start, they came to see their struggle as part of a longer tradition of everyday people battling pollution and official obstruction, and the connections they forged within the environmental justice community were some of the most significant to come out of the crisis. The concept only became more salient when multiple investigative bodies determined that the crisis was an example of environmental injustice, and when the city organized an environmental justice summit in 2017 at which a number of water activists were honored.
What made the activists’ discourse around justice distinctive, however, is what I have already alluded to: their conviction that the injustice of the water crisis was the product of a prior crisis of “democracy.” Democracy is, arguably, at least as capacious a concept as justice, and also tends to be used at the popular level without adjectival qualifiers. Nevertheless, it is possible to differentiate analytically between distinct conceptions of democracy implicit in activist thought. When activists argued that the usurpation of local democracy in Flint caused the crisis, they had something like “representative” democracy in mind: what was lost when emergency management was imposed by the state was the right of residents’ elected representatives at the local level to have any say over decisions about Flint’s water (among other things). As a consequence, when residents began to raise issues about water rates and water quality they found that the mechanisms of redress associated with representative democracy—chiefly, electoral turnover and petitioning of elected officials—were, if not entirely unavailable, mostly ineffective. For this reason, the restoration of representative democracy was intertwined in activists’ minds with the restoration of their water.
The story activists told about their response to the crisis, however, invoked more radical democratic ideas. It was a story about ordinary people who operated—by necessity—outside the channels of representative democracy, people who distrusted the water forums sponsored by officials and opted for a more contentious political response situated in the “streets.” The activists preferred to create alternative deliberative spaces of their own, “free” spaces where they could make their own assumptions about what was politically possible, where decision making was direct, where previously apolitical people could learn to exercise political agency. They also sought to democratize the epistemological realm, fighting to establish the legitimacy of popular knowledge and for a vision of “citizen science” that insisted on residents setting the scientific agenda within their own community. Some of the activists consciously sought to build off of these popular energies to advance a more participatory democratic ideal by channeling activism into long-term community capacity building.
It is no accident that I describe the activists’ account of the crisis as a story, for if there was any concept coequal to justice and democracy in their thinking it was the concept of “narrative.” As they saw it, establishing that the water crisis was caused by a denial of democracy required dispelling the “false narrative” promulgated by state agencies and the Snyder administration, which downplayed state culpability and hinted that Flint was to blame for its own problems. It also required establishing the preferability of the activists’ “political narrative” (as I will call it) of the crisis’s origins to other possible narratives of the crisis that were not “false” per se, but whose emphases (as shown in chapter 2) were not wholly congruous with activist objectives.
Activists also targeted “false” narratives of the response to the crisis, narratives they felt obscured the collective action of ordinary residents in favor of a media-friendly saga of heroism focused inordinately on the interventions of expert allies. The feeling that their story of popular self-liberation was being hijacked—in some cases, by the experts themselves—generated a kind of dialectical backlash, pushing the activists in an even more populist direction. Their rhetoric sometimes implied that they didn’t need anyone, that they were entirely capable of fighting their own fight. This message resonated in Flint more than it might have elsewhere, given that Flintstones (as locals sometimes call themselves) were already inclined to mythologize popular resistance, with the 1936 to 1937 sit-down strike—in which a small contingent of hardscrabble workers beat GM against all odds—serving as their Genesis. I got the sense that some activists wanted the water movement in Flint to be remembered as a similar beacon of resistance, comprising another homegrown chapter in the universal history of the fight for justice and democracy.
In some ways, this book is in the service of that ambition. As both a contribution to the movement and a work of scholarship, however, the book consciously resists romanticizing grassroots activism—a trap I believe I have been able to avoid precisely because I grew close enough to the activists to know them as full-bodied people and to observe some of the movement’s internal controversies and limitations firsthand. In a few instances, activists expressed to me the hope that my work would expose the shortcomings of other activists and activist organizations, or at least offer a more balanced account of Flint’s water activism than the celebratory depictions that emerged after the crisis became a national story. While I in no way wish to exacerbate tensions and divisions within the grassroots, the book would be incomplete if I did not give voice to these dissenting perspectives. I also, in chapter 8, offer my own assessment of the ways in which activists’ staunch insistence on self-determination created, at times, a problematic gap between rhetoric and reality. For reasons I have already mentioned, exercising this interpretive power is a delicate matter in Flint, but I do so in the hope that it will contribute to what Julie Sze and Jonathan London describe as “a more critical and reflective mode of community organizing,”31 in ways that prove constructive at the local level as well as instructive on a scholarly level.
It is notoriously difficult to extract insights of general scholarly interest from research as locally rooted as that which went into this book. When I first conceived of the project, it was as a descriptive case study of an unusually significant event in the nation’s history, written from an engaged vantage point and without the intention of advancing any particular theoretical framework. I took inspiration from Henry Kraus’s classic firsthand account of the sit-down strike The Many and the Few, as well as from the many notable case studies of environmental disasters and the popular responses they have provoked, beginning with Kai Erikson’s Everything in Its Path and including some of the books in this series.32 A richly descriptive case study distinguishes itself, in part, precisely by resisting generalization, incorporating idiosyncrasies and deviations that complicate whatever core themes may be present.33 These should build up like pebbles in the shoe, reminding the reader of the artificiality and incompleteness of even the most robust conceptual framework. Given that much of the water crisis’s complexity was missed by the media entirely, or erased as waning news coverage wore representations down to their bare outlines, painting a fuller picture of what went on in Flint is, I maintain, an important contribution of this book.
There are political reasons, as well, to be cautious about generalization, for the basis of many of the activists’ demands was the singularity of the water crisis. Moving Flint to the front of the queue for state and federal assistance, they believed, depended on the crisis being seen as unique, and often their leading antagonists were those who argued that what was going on in Flint was happening in other cities, too. The predicament of the militant ethnographer, then, is that framing the crisis in generalizable terms for scholarly purposes risks coming off as politically counterproductive, or at least politically tone-deaf. In his account of interactions with Oxford activists, David Harvey usefully articulates this dilemma as a tension between the “tangible solidarities” embedded in community life and the scholar’s search for more “abstract” conceptions that have “universal purchase.” From a community’s perspective, Harvey points out, the shift to the latter “conceptual world … can threaten that sense of value and common purpose that grounds the militant particularism achieved in particular places.”34 Attempts to convey the significance of particular struggles in the language of scholarly abstractions may be seen by community members as diluting those struggles or implying that they are important only as instantiations of more general phenomena.35
On the other hand, there was political utility in the idea that the water crisis contained lessons for the world beyond Flint. The national conversation the crisis generated around lead contamination, moribund infrastructures, and spotty regulations created a platform for activists to take their story around the country. And ultimately, no matter how focused that story was on the exceptional nature of Flint’s plight, it did have a larger moral, a message about the integral relationship of justice and democracy. Earlier, I suggested that these concepts could be used as portals to scholarly literatures and discourses that stand to be illuminated by the crisis even as they help to illuminate it. Here, I attempt to make good on this claim in ways that set up later discussions in the book.
There is, of course, an extensive literature on environmental justice and good reason to situate the Flint water crisis within it.36 It is worth noting, however, that environmental justice frameworks have been criticized by scholars on a number of grounds. One common complaint, voiced by urban political ecologists and others influenced by the Marxist tradition, is that these frameworks are theoretically shallow, centered on moralistic condemnations of environmental inequities that rely uncritically on liberal notions of “justice” and “rights.” This kind of normative language, some have argued, has proven to be highly co-optable into the postpolitical “consensus” of neoliberalism, with favorite activist ideas like the “human right to water” operationalized by elites in ways compatible with privatization and other neoliberal agendas.37 What those who rely on such concepts often miss, contend Eric Swyngedouw and Nikolas Heynen, is that the processes by which nature is “metabolized” for human use under capitalism not only tolerate, but actually depend upon disparities of various kinds. Consequently, it is naïve to call for the elimination of environmental inequities without working for more fundamental economic and political change.38
The alleged naïveté of environmental justice activists is reflected in their tendency to get absorbed in what Swyngedouw and Maria Kaika call “the allocation dynamics of environmental externalities,” like battles over the siting of polluting facilities.39 When such activists call for structural reforms at all, their demands are often limited to thinly procedural changes that would do little more than give communities modestly more influence over the distribution of environmental goods and harms. A more radical orientation, suggest Swyngedouw and Kaika, would keep the focus on the deeper dynamics of capitalist urbanization, the “decision-making processes that organize socio-ecological transformation and choreograph the management of the commons.”40
In a similar, albeit more sympathetic, vein, David Pellow argues that environmental justice frames are often empirically simplistic, reducing the complex social interactions that generate environmental injustices to dichotomous “perpetrator-victim” narratives.41 When seen in the proper historical perspective, Pellow argues, environmental injustices are products of competition for resources by diverse (and unequal) stakeholders who usually have no intention of wronging others. Implying that environmental harms are straightforwardly foisted upon innocent communities by evildoers not only filters out a good deal of social complexity, it overlooks the ways in which members of affected communities may themselves be complicit in injustice.
If my main priorities in this book were theoretical sophistication and empirical comprehensiveness, I would have approached the subject of water activism in Flint differently. I would likely have proceeded from the outside in, beginning either with an analytic framework derived from a prior scholarly agenda (and only tangentially concerned with the ideas of the activists themselves), or with a wide angle that immediately put the activists’ admittedly partial view of reality into perspective. Instead, I have written the book from the inside out, concerning myself first and foremost with capturing ethnographically the perspective of Flint activists, and using their conceptual language as a springboard to construct a thematized account of the crisis and glean scholarly insights of broader relevance.42 On a conceptual level, I am most interested in exploring not the polished diamonds of the professional theorist but the roughhewn coal of the layperson—a little jagged, often, but generative of fire and motion. In short, I am interested in ideas that move people, and for this reason I have found myself drawing from those strains of social movement theory that emphasize cultural spurs to action: identities, frames, and narratives that shape how people think about what needs to be done and how they go about doing it. Considerations of “resources” and “opportunities” are important, too, as part of the context in which collective action transpires or fails to transpire,43 but ultimately my concern in this book is with the relationship between ideas and action.
I do not deny that the often black-and-white conceptual world of activism, shaped as it is by utilitarian and rhetorical considerations, may sometimes obscure more than it reveals. Certainly, the activists’ way of framing the water crisis, like any other attempt to construct a politically serviceable account of a complex social reality, included embellishments and blind spots. The case of Flint water activism, however, offers a compelling example of how rich and productive the view from the grassroots can be. It is no exaggeration to say that Flint activists are, in some sense, coauthors of this book, for it is their analytic of the crisis that animates it. Their perspectives are not so much empirical data points I gather together and look at from a more enlightened vantage point as they are lenses I have learned much from looking through. As I consolidate and burnish these perspectives into a particular narrative of the crisis in the first few chapters of the book, I invite the reader to adopt a similar vantage point. In the process, I contest the tendency to see activist ideas as superficial by showing how the emphasis on democracy in Flint encouraged deeper thinking about the origins and implications of environmental injustice.
Another concern scholars have raised about environmental justice frameworks is that they lack breadth as well as depth, being “narrowly focused” on “specific geographic locales.”44 For David Harvey, the challenge for environmental justice activists is to “transcend particularisms” by using local issues to expose and confront more systemic injustices.45 One of the transcendent lessons of the Flint water crisis, however, is precisely the importance of the local, a lesson that will manifest itself in a variety of ways in the chapters that follow. Most important for our purposes here is the activists’ association of democracy with what they sometimes called “local control.”46 They believed that the interests of the city of Flint were separate from (and arguably superior to) those of the state of Michigan, and that decisions made about matters of local concern should flow out of local knowledge and politics rather than being handed over to expert administrators beholden to outside agendas. The principle of local control implied not only that people had a right to political autonomy but that they were best off when they looked after themselves. In Flint activist Claire McClinton’s words, “If we control our water, it’s not gonna get poisoned.”47
The relationship McClinton and other activists posited between local democracy and the integrity of water raises larger questions of water governance. It is a truism within the environmental justice movement that water “thrives” under some structures of governance and not others,48 with democratic processes productive of better outcomes. Even within mainstream water management, there has been a shift in recent years away from state-based, technocratic “command-and-control” approaches to more inclusive governance structures that provide for the participation of local “stakeholders.”49 Clearly, subsuming decisions about water under unilateral EM structures is contrary to this general trend, and in this sense the Flint water crisis lends support to the idea that democratic governance is preferable to the alternative. As we will see, however, even under emergency management Flint residents had opportunities to participate in deliberations about their water, under the pretense that these deliberations would actually influence official decision making. The limitations of these deliberative forums (detailed in chapter 6) lend credence to skeptics who maintain that public participation can easily become a mere formality, or even a technique for sublimating disruptive political energies into deliberative consensus building.50 With these skeptics, I maintain that the existence of deliberative forums does not negate the importance of contentious popular mobilizations that eschew deliberative frameworks.51 Furthermore, as various examples in this book demonstrate, opening up channels of public participation by no means guarantees that water issues will cease to be seen as fundamentally technical in nature and thus best adjudicated by experts.52 Flint activists understood that the more the technical side of the water question was emphasized, the less their opinions would matter, regardless of how many opportunities they had to express them. This made it all the more imperative that they advance a “political” narrative to counteract what I will call the “technical” narrative of the crisis.
It must also be remembered that the prospects of democratizing water governance are integrally related to the physical arrangement of infrastructures, which may foreclose or constrain certain political possibilities. From the late 1960s onward, the fact that Flint’s water pipes were tied into the Detroit system meant that every drink residents took depended on decisions made outside the city and pipes that extended far beyond it—an awkward arrangement for a city that prided itself on self-determination. Flint was far from alone in this predicament, for much of southeast Michigan was similarly reliant upon Detroit’s vast regional water network. For the wealthy white suburbs of Detroit, the solution was the Great Lakes Water Authority (founded in 2014), a regional governance structure that shifted predominant influence over the water system outside of the city. For Flint, the solution proposed by some elites was to withdraw from the politics of water in southeast Michigan entirely and enter into another regional arrangement—the KWA—over which the city would have more control. Flint activists, however, regarded regionalization of any kind as ominous. Not only was regional governance insufficiently empowering at the local level,53 removing infrastructures from municipal control was a stepping stone, they feared, to what they considered the worst of all worlds: privatization. The ultimate question, though—never answered (at least not to my satisfaction)—was what the alternative was, what water democracy would look like if using the water source closest at hand (i.e., the Flint River) was not an option. That unanswered question haunts this book in ways that highlight some of the thorniest conundrums of modern-day water management.
The fact that Flint’s water pipes are not only conduits for precious resources, but also vehicles for political aspirations reflects the fact that infrastructure is far more than the sum of its material parts: it is infused with political, social, and cultural meaning.54 To be sure, infrastructure is not always marked with such rich significance, for it often sinks—when functioning smoothly—into the social unconscious, out of mind if not entirely out of sight.55 Usually it is when infrastructures break down that they suddenly become visible, their inner workings exposed to people who once paid them little mind. Stephen Graham has suggested that these moments are pregnant with opportunities for critical social analysis, offering the chance to “excavate the usually hidden politics of flow and connection, of mobility and immobility, within contemporary societies.”56 What is more significant from the perspective adopted in this book is the de-reifying effect of infrastructural disruption on those who come to see a usually hidden part of their environment as an imperfect product of human agency. Crucially, what Flint residents gained from this experience was not only new knowledge of water systems, but also knowledge of what is not known—and in some cases cannot be known—about them: knowledge of the gaps in our recordkeeping on the pipes under our feet and of the unruliness and unpredictability of those pipes as components of a “large technical system” that strives for but never achieves closure.57 In contrast to the commonsensical view of infrastructure as the sturdy skeleton upon which our life in common hangs, it was precisely infrastructure’s lack of stability that became a key assumption of Flint activists, a point of emphasis whenever anyone presumed to make authoritative pronouncements about the water system’s recovery. For this reason, whenever residents were enlisted by officials to alter their water usage (usually by increasing water consumption) to help stabilize the system, the choice to participate took on a political as well as a personal character.
As this example implies, infrastructure is not just part of the context in which political agency plays out: agency is also exercised on and through infrastructure.58 This generally takes place at the extremities of infrastructural networks, where “mediating technologies” allow users some control over how systems operate.59 In Flint, the most significant mediating technologies were the “point-of-use” filters distributed by the State of Michigan, which residents were encouraged to use as short-term solutions to lead contamination. Normalizing filter use within an everyday context—or at least showing that filters had been provided to all residents of the city—became the state’s main strategy for ending its provision of free bottled water. While some have touted the democratic potential of household-level filtration technologies, Flint activists viewed filters not as technologies of empowerment but as projections of the state’s power and interests. They feared that embracing the filters meant dampening calls for infrastructure replacement, distracting from structural issues with the water system, modifying everyday behavior in unwanted ways, and exposing residents to bacterial contamination that the filters could not eliminate or even exacerbated. To win public acceptance for the filters, the state strategically produced ignorance about them, neglecting to educate residents about their limitations and discouraging academic research into their efficacy. Refusing the filters—and, as a corollary, demanding that the state continue to provide free bottled water—became an archetypal expression of political resistance in Flint.
The battle over filters was, like so many of the crisis’s other subplots, in part a battle over knowledge. Should the filters provided by the state just be accepted graciously and operated unthinkingly or did residents have the right to problematize them, to make them objects of inquiry, to expect that concerns about their functioning would be properly investigated? Who was entitled to speak with authority about the filters, to appeal to scientific evidence either to encourage or discourage popular trust in them? Did residents have the right to know everything they wanted to know about the filters, or were officials and experts warranted in withholding information that might cause anxiety and alarm? We can rephrase these questions in more general terms as: Who decides what deserves to be known?, Who gets to speak authoritatively about what is known?, and Who decides who gets to know what is known? To view these kinds of questions as purely epistemological would be a mistake. In Flint, as elsewhere, such questions were matters of power and justice as well as matters of knowledge, and the answers rendered to them were full of political implications.
To these questions we must add a fourth: who produces the knowledge that is known? The Flint water crisis appeared at a moment of surging interest in “citizen science,” a term used to capture various forms of lay involvement in the production of scientific knowledge.60 In fact, it could not have been a more formative time for the citizen science community, with the recently founded Citizen Science Association holding its inaugural conference in February 2015 and leading practitioners working to develop consensus around the theoretical and practical contours of the field. As the partnership between water activists and the Virginia Tech team led by environmental engineer Marc Edwards began to attract national attention, citizen science boosters seized upon it as a “gold standard”61 for the genre that fused the idea of citizens acting as data-gathering helpers to trained scientists with the prioritization of community-driven needs and objectives. In an agenda-setting edited volume, Caren Cooper and Bruce Lewenstein held up the collaboration as a paradigmatic example of what they called “democratized and contributory” citizen science.62
The irony was that by the time accounts like Cooper and Lewenstein’s began to appear in 2016, the relationship between Edwards and the activists was well on its way to degenerating completely. By the time I finished the fieldwork for this book in summer 2018, it was hard to find an activist with a good word to say about him. Both sides had their explanations for the breakup. The activists often claimed that Edwards had “sold out,” changing his tune about the safety of the water once he started working with the State of Michigan and accepting money from the very agencies he had come to town criticizing. For his part, Edwards—who, like the activists, fancied himself a storyteller63—began to narrate the story of Virginia Tech’s intervention as a “dream” turned into a nightmare by “a few reporters, academics, actors, activists, and pseudoscientists [who] came to Flint, exploiting the tragedy to promote their own agendas and creating yet another human tragedy in the process.”64 It was these serpents slithering into the garden, he implied, that caused the activists to turn against him, sundering the conduct of good science in Flint (as exemplified by Virginia Tech’s work) from local water activism. Forced to choose a side, Edwards chose “science,” casting himself as a martyr to the cause who would speak scientific truths and defend the scientific method to the end, no matter how unpopular it made him.
One problem with this paradise-lost narrative is its erasure of fundamental disjunctures of outlook between the activists and Edwards that existed from the inception of their collaborative sampling effort in 2015.65 The activists did not, for example, share Edwards’s views on the nature or the origins of the water crisis, nor his conviction in the superiority of scientific ways of knowing or interest in reestablishing public trust in the scientific establishment. Eventually, they discovered (much to their chagrin) that they also did not share his measures of recovery from the crisis. But by then it was too late: Edwards had become the go-to authority on all things Flint water, the state’s favorite expert as well as the media’s. The activists paid a price, then, for the narrowly focused relationship of convenience they struck up with Virginia Tech in 2015: long after they hoped Edwards would disappear, he continued to act as an advisor to the state and to influence perceptions of the crisis in ways that ran directly counter to their objectives, using his website and speaking appearances to ridicule and attack his critics and the ever-growing list of people he accused of doing fake or shoddy science in Flint and/or exploiting the crisis for their own gain.
Contained in the saga of Edwards and the activists—related mainly in chapter 7 but set up in earlier chapters—are a variety of cautionary lessons about the relationship between citizen science and democracy and the role that citizen science can play in obtaining justice for marginalized communities. Advocates of citizen science who underscore its qualities of popular empowerment have stressed the need for laypeople to have influence over every step in the scientific process, an arrangement sometimes called “extreme citizen science.” This principle was never implemented in Flint, where activists took the lead in data gathering but were at the mercy of Edwards and his team when it came time to interpret and communicate the data. This power differential did not present itself as much of a problem at first, when the activists saw Edwards as speaking on their behalf about the science. But as he strayed off message, the activists realized that Edwards saw it the other way around: he was not speaking for them, but rather speaking for the science (at least purportedly), and would do so however he saw fit, whether they wanted him to or not. The distinction was crucial, for it meant that ultimately Edwards’s sense of entitlement to speak about Flint’s water stemmed not from democratic delegation by the activists as part of a common struggle but from his own independent status as a scientific expert.
These different ways of thinking about the basis of a scientist’s discursive authority (not to mention the ultimate objectives of scientific inquiry) illustrate the difference between approaching citizen science from the scientific end, as Edwards did, and approaching it from the social movement end, as I do in this book. Explaining the logic of “social movement-based citizen science,” Gwen Ottinger points out that “activist groups design studies not only to improve knowledge but to foster collective action and political change,”66 and that there are sometimes “tradeoffs between scientific legitimacy and political efficacy.”67 In such cases, one would hardly expect activists to prioritize scientific legitimacy for its own sake. When activism “mobilizes” science, writes Marta Conde, scientific knowledge is valued principally as a “political tool” that activists can use to “express and exercise power.”68 When the science on offer fails to perform that function, activists often seek to redirect attention to other ways of knowing (a subject of chapters 5 and 8) or to competing forms of scientific knowledge produced by counter-experts.
None of this should lead us to conclude that activists are inevitably less scientific than experts. Certainly, Flint activists felt strongly that some of their own claims were more scientifically defensible than those made by Edwards. Philosophers of science like Sandra Harding have argued that politically motivated science can actually “produce less partial and distorted results of research than those supposedly guided by the goal of value-neutrality.”69 One reason is that science borne of political struggle fosters what Harding calls “strong objectivity” by turning our attention to the credibility of knowledge producers themselves and alerting us to the ways in which power and perspective shape truth claims.70 But we should be careful about measuring the scientific worth of activist-driven knowledge production by its conformity to traditional scientific standards (like “objectivity”) or the extent to which activists behave like “scientists.” It may be that under conditions of high risk and uncertainty the assumptions and methods of “normal” science are inadequate, that in these circumstances nonscientific ways of knowing have value equal to or greater than their scientific counterparts, and that unorthodox approaches are called for (or at least a plurality of scientific voices).71 There is no straightforward answer to what constitutes “good” science in a context as complex and indeterminate as that created by the water crisis, and whenever Edwards made black-and-white distinctions between good scientists and bad scientists, real scientists and fake scientists, it provoked backlash by the activists, who could see that there was more to the story.
Environmental justice activists who appeal to the “technical rationality” of experts for support often experience, in David Pellow’s words, “a complex mix of loss and triumph, empowerment and disempowerment.”72 While the collaboration with Virginia Tech had an empowering effect early on, contributing to the water movement’s signature victory (getting Flint off the river), its long-term effects on the community were dubious, as the controversy around Edwards shattered personal relationships, prevented collaboration (scientific and otherwise), and ultimately left activists even more vulnerable to the state. At the same time, the Edwards experience made the activists more determined than ever to prove that the fight for justice and democracy in Flint was not about the exertions of hero figures but, rather, the collective action of ordinary residents. The water crisis became an opportunity to show the world just how capable Flint residents were: they could know for themselves, speak for themselves, and act for themselves, with their own organizations taking the lead as the main agents of justice in Flint. They could prove to the world that their political voices should never have been taken away in the first place. In the last chapter of the book, chapter 8, I trace these attitudes, along with some of their prickly contradictions, through the activism and community organizing efforts that postdated the return to Detroit water in October 2015.
To summarize: in chapters 1 through 3, I distinguish the political narrative of the water crisis from other possible narratives and show how the activists’ emphasis on democracy allowed them to overcome some of the limitations of standard environmental justice frameworks and fostered deeper political thinking about the causes of the crisis. In chapter 4, I trace the origins of the activists’ ideas about democracy back into the struggle against emergency management, where activists first made the connection between democracy and water. In chapter 5, I examine the development of political agency among residents newly mobilized by personal water troubles and the convergence of those residents with pro-democracy activists, resulting in the particularly uncompromising form of activism discussed in chapter 6. Chapter 7 details controversies over science and expertise, while chapter 8 finds the activists trying to channel water activism into sustainable “people power,” weaving the most democratic impulses within the water movement into a more radical political vision for the future of Flint.