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6. Demanding the Impossible: Deliberation and Activism in the Battle over the River

Published onMar 27, 2020
6. Demanding the Impossible: Deliberation and Activism in the Battle over the River

If you got real democracy, why you gotta go to the street?

—Claire McClinton, interview with author

At a Flint City Council meeting on January 26, 2015, Gertrude “Tru” Saunders rose to speak during public comment. A grandmother and lifelong Flint resident who was still getting used to being called an “activist,” Saunders had unilaterally launched a daily protest regimen outside City Hall. For the next two months, she would brave the bitter cold of an unusually severe Michigan winter, holding homemade signs and warning passers-by against using the water.

Addressing her fellow residents, Saunders said that the water was not only “harming us,” but “killing our babies.” Those in a position to help “hear us,” she lamented, “but they don’t care. They don’t care.” Calling for a picket every day of the week, she urged residents “to chain yourself to the water company, whatever it take to say ‘hell no, we ain’t takin’ this no more.’” Direct action, she suggested, was all the more necessary because of the ever-looming presence of the emergency manager (EM). Under the circumstances, she warned, the council “can’t do nothing for us. They can’t help us. It’s time for us to help us.” Turning from the podium to face the audience, she said: “We have to help us. We have to do this.”1

Contained in Saunders’s brief speech before the council is an encapsulation of the reasoning that led newly mobilized Flint residents away from traditional avenues of political redress and into the realm of activism. It went something like this: the imminent threat posed by the water made urgent action imperative, but pushing for change through the usual channels of representative democracy was pointless as long as the city was under state control. Taking one’s concerns directly to the EMs (as LeeAnne Walters did when she presented her tainted water to Jerry Ambrose) was also a dead end, for the EMs were determined to ride out the water quality problems until the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) pipeline came online and did not care what it meant for residents in the interim. With local democracy eviscerated and Flint’s state-appointed sovereigns indifferent to residents’ cries, activists would have to take the fight for clean water into the “street.”2

The end of emergency management in April 2015 did not fundamentally alter the situation, for, as Flint’s pro-democracy activists insisted at every opportunity, the state still had its thumb firmly on the city. The City Council’s powers remained suspended. EM-appointed City Administrator Natasha Henderson exercised enhanced powers that would otherwise have belonged to the mayor, thanks to a resolution by outgoing EM Ambrose. And a governor-appointed Receivership Transition Advisory Board retained veto power over any decision by local officials it deemed fiscally irresponsible. The members of the Flint Democracy Defense League (FDDL) continued to describe the city as being under “dictatorship.” This political assessment of Flint’s predicament colored activists’ view of the official response to the water crisis from top to bottom.

For as common as it was to hear that officials had done “nothing” to address the water issue, they did respond: they made numerous tweaks to the treatment and distribution process, installed $1.6 million worth of granulated carbon filters at the water treatment plant, and spent $40,000 on a private assessment of the water system. They also sent out repeated notices about the water, sponsored town hall meetings and informational sessions, and established two water advisory committees ostensibly aimed at creating channels of communication between residents, technical experts, and decision makers. But what they didn’t do—at least not without a drawn-out fight—what they insisted was not possible and therefore not even worth discussing, was return the city to Detroit water, the central demand of the water movement through the summer of 2015. And all along their message was consistent: however it looked, however it smelled, however it tasted, the water was safe.

In light of that suspiciously counterintuitive message, and of officials’ flat refusal to abandon the river, and of the general feeling that residents were caught up in an authoritarian and duplicitous political system that did not have their best interests at heart, the officially sponsored water forums that began in January 2015 provoked profound skepticism and disdain. Residents and officials brought to these fleeting instances of face-to-face interaction fundamentally different assessments of the gravity of the situation and what could be done to rectify it. What one side framed as unreasonable and impossible the other framed as commonsensical and purely a matter of political will. Because both sides rejected the very terms of the discourse the other tried to set, it was exceedingly difficult to make any progress through dialogue. Just as crippling were mutual suspicions that the other side didn’t really want to have a meaningful discussion to begin with. Officials saw activists as melodramatic and unnecessarily confrontational, more interested in causing a scene than in collaborative problem solving. Activists, for their part, saw officials as conceited and uncaring, their efforts at public outreach phony and manipulative.

Clashing styles of communication had something to do with these assessments, to be sure. For Flint activists, however, the more fundamental problem was the underlying pretense that it was even possible to engage in meaningful democratic deliberation when the city was under state control. The philosophy of emergency management was, as they saw it, inherently anti-deliberative in addition to being undemocratic, premised as it was on unilateral, technocratic decision making that actively disregarded public opinion.3 Residents had already been given the message, via the state takeover, that they lacked the knowledge, competence, and will to properly manage their own affairs: would officials suddenly now start trusting them to formulate independent judgments about as “technical” a matter as water contamination? And in light of the vast power differential created by the EM system, would it even matter what those judgments were? By all appearances, officially sponsored water meetings lacked the two most essential qualities of deliberative forums: they were neither authentic nor consequential.4 They put activists in a fighting rather than a talking mood.

Although the first major battle the water movement fought had a narrow objective—getting the city off the river—it brought activists up against the broader epistemological and political framework that officials employed to understand and decide water issues in Flint. When activists found themselves unable to operate adequately within that framework, as they often did, they chose to operate outside it. They created their own spaces of deliberation, where “lay ways of knowing” were taken more seriously,5 and they used a variety of tactics designed to pressure officials into action rather than persuade them to do the right thing.6

The feeling of being at odds with the whole system responsible for causing and perpetuating the crisis fostered a political subjectivity that embraced what was defined by that system as illegitimate, unreasonable, and impossible.7 At the heart of the water movement was the spirit represented by Tru Saunders: the grandmother-turned-activist who left the warmth of council chambers to protest in the cold, to demand what political realists said was not going to happen, in a language barely intelligible to the technocrats governing her city. But if this was the movement’s spirit, its flesh was somewhat more grounded in political “reality.” In practice, activists did, at times, talk to officials they thought might listen. They forged alliances with people whose strategy of social change was to work within the halls of power as well as outside them. They sought to influence the 2015 mayoral race even as they disparaged the way local politics had been corrupted by emergency management. And they began to learn the language of the powerful, the language of science, so that they could command the respect of those insufficiently impressed by their experiential knowledge. They even produced new scientific knowledge that they believed—correctly, it turned out—would finally pierce the fog of official obfuscation and wrest a remedy to their plight from within the system itself.

The spirit and the flesh, as we know, do not always coexist harmoniously. To the extent that activists worked within the system, they became enmeshed in epistemologies, in technical languages, in institutions and relationships that complicated later efforts to parlay the battle over the river into a farther-reaching struggle for justice and democracy. But through October of 2015, when the impossible became reality, the pieces of the movement held together remarkably well, and the activists, driven by a potent combination of pathos and politics, authored one of the most triumphant chapters in Flint’s proud history of popular struggle.

The Dead End of Deliberation

By January 2015, workers at the water treatment plant had been wrangling with Flint River water for eight months, trying to improve chlorine residuals, fiddling with pH, and working to reduce total trihalomethane (TTHM) levels. During the same period of time, state officials fretted about the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the summer of 2014 (speculating that it might have been caused by the water source switch) and expressed concern about news of total coliform contamination in parts of Flint’s water system. They even debated whether it might not be better for Flint to switch back to Detroit water until the KWA pipeline was ready, or at least until the kinks in the water treatment process were worked out.8 But all of this was unknown to Flint residents, who were assured all the while that the water was safe.

The first official indication of a systemic problem was the January TTHM notice (the Legionnaires’ news would not break for another year). Officials now faced the unenviable task of explaining to residents why it had taken so long to alert them to the presence of a carcinogenic contaminant in their water. Technically, the timing of the notice was consistent with the letter of the law, but residents interpreted its issuance many months after the emergence of a problem as an egregious lack of transparency on the city’s part. All of the statements about the water being safe during the preceding eight months now looked like bald-faced lies. It was more than enough to stoke conspiracy theories: as then-Mayor Dayne Walling put it to me, the TTHM notice “became the proof for the community that the EM, and the state and the Governor, were trying to destroy the city,” confirming what many people had “felt … all along.”9

The feelings of broken trust and betrayal prompted by the notice colored the way residents received all subsequent communications about the water. More often than not, the manner in which officials tried to engage the public only made matters worse. The trend was set by a calamitous town hall meeting at the “Dome”—a circular auditorium attached to City Hall—on January 21. Hoping to overcome its credibility deficit by bringing in outside authorities to speak to the water quality issue, the city assembled a panel of experts from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), the Genesee County Drain Commission, the contractor Lockwood, Andrews, and Newnam, and Michigan State University, granting them primacy of place onstage. The hierarchical and controlled atmosphere in the building made some uncomfortable right away. Upon entering, residents were immediately greeted by the sight of city police officers, who maintained a watchful eye over the meeting from the back of the room. Director of Public Works Howard Croft led things off with a warning that anyone deemed disruptive would be removed from the premises.

Croft expected residents to listen rather than speak, telling them the meeting was for “information only” and would focus on what the “experts” on the panel had to communicate.10 Those with questions would have to submit them in writing to a “public information officer” and wait until the end of the meeting for responses. Residents, however, were determined to have their say one way or another. As the meeting progressed, they became increasingly agitated and demonstrative, waving signs and bottles of brown water in the air and jeering the speakers.

While the panelists avoided sweeping statements about the safety of the water, their takeaway points were designed to dispel the sense of alarm in the room: firstly, TTHMs were commonly found in water systems and did not pose a notable health risk, except perhaps to pregnant women in their first trimester. Secondly, the quality problems that stuck out to residents—problems of taste, smell, and color—had nothing to do with TTHMs, being matters of aesthetics rather than public health, probably caused by the system adjusting to the new source water. Thirdly, the city had been “proactive” and had “responded very quickly” to the TTHM problem, alerting the public and conducting an operational evaluation “well in advance of the state and federal requirements.” Fourthly, whatever rockiness the city was experiencing with the quality of its water would be temporary, because the new pipeline would be ready in just over a year’s time. Michigan State University microbiologist Joan Rose told the audience that it was “just gonna take time to correct the distribution system” and to “hang in there.”

Each successive speaker was interrupted more frequently and raucously by the crowd. In the moment, residents were angered less by the reassurances about TTHMs than by the panelists’ seeming dismissal of the empirical evidence of bad water being proffered by members of the audience. When Rose said there wasn’t yet “very much evidence” to tie discolored water to health problems like rashes, residents responded indignantly—one crying out, “The evidence is right in front of you!” Whenever there was any hint of a suggestion that the water was safe, or that further testing and study was required before it could be declared unsafe, activists Tony Palladeno and Gladyes Williamson would hold up bottles and jugs of discolored water and demand to know if it looked safe.

There were other exchanges that evening, too, that made it seem like the experts just didn’t get it. When they advised residents to seek advice from medical professionals about health concerns, the response they got was “Are you gonna pay my doctor bill?” When they counseled patience until the KWA pipeline was finished, residents were scandalized, demanding that the city stop charging for water in the meantime, and firing back with the question, “Do you live in Flint?” Efforts by Councilmen Eric Mays and Wantwaz Davis to calm tempers produced only fleeting effects. As the meeting progressed—or, rather, degenerated—it became clear that not nearly everyone who submitted a written question would receive an answer. People began to storm out of the room. With the proceedings spiraling into disorder, Howard Croft declared the meeting over. Everyone agreed it had been a disaster.

Figure 6.1
Town hall meeting at the “Dome” on January 21, 2015. Top: © Detroit Free Press /ZUMA Press. Bottom: MLive, Flint Journal.

A few weeks later, the city took another tack. On the advice of Veolia, the transnational water contractor it had hired to evaluate its water system, it announced in February that it would create a technical advisory committee (TAC) and a citizens’ advisory committee (CAC) to facilitate ongoing communication about the water and bring residents and stakeholders in the community into more intimate contact with officials.11 The TAC, which included representatives from the city, county, MDEQ, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as Flint’s universities and hospitals, would work through the relevant scientific, infrastructural, and public health issues in closed meetings, preparing the city to enter the CAC meetings, which were open to the public, with a fleshed-out and consistent message.

Mayor Walling liked the idea and, with the support of EM Ambrose, worked to make it happen. He saw it as an opportunity to create the kinds of deliberative settings the city had employed from 2012 to 2013 in crafting its first master plan in fifty years, Imagine Flint.12 During that process, the city organized over two hundred public meetings, focus groups, community workshops, and input sessions, in addition to making “DIY” meeting kits available to groups that wanted to host events of their own. It also set up seven advisory groups and reached out to residents for input through social media and text messages. Altogether, upward of five thousand residents from diverse backgrounds participated in some form, suggesting buy-in from a wide range of constituencies, including the activist community. In fact, some of the water activists had served on one or more of the advisory groups. Walling remembered the process as a model of inclusivity, constructive public discourse, and collaborative decision making. That it had taken place while the city was still under emergency management made it all the more significant: it seemed to show that even in the absence of representative democracy, something like participatory deliberation was still possible.

The activists, however (some of whom did not share Walling’s fond memories of the master planning process13), saw little need for the committees. From their perspective, the solution to Flint’s water woes was simple: push the button and reopen the feed from Detroit. What was there for a committee to discuss? In an article for the People’s Tribune, Claire McClinton wrote that the dilly-dallying with committees gave “new meaning” to the phrase “Justice Delayed, Justice Denied.”14 As Councilman Eric Mays put it, “How much advice do you need to know you got bad water and high rates?”15

Aside from the matter of their superfluity, there were other concerns about the committees. The fact that they had their genesis in a suggestion by Veolia, the bête noir of water activists the world over, did little to inspire confidence. The activists suspected the corporation was up to more than it was letting on. At the very least, officials seemed inclined to accept its recommendations before even hearing residents out. Laura Sullivan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Kettering University and member of the TAC who became a key ally of the activists, remembers the first meeting of the committee as an attempt to “rubber stamp” Veolia’s proposed changes to the water system so that they could be presented with more authority to the public at the CAC meeting the next day.16

One problem with the premise of a deliberative citizens’ committee, then, was that it was supposed to operate in a context where the most important, “technical” questions about the water had already been settled behind closed doors. Another problem became clear when the city’s initial invitations went out: some of the main grassroots groups working on water had been snubbed, while establishment groups that had never spoken out about water were granted seats at the table. Although the oversight was quickly remedied, it gave the impression that officials either lacked a commitment to full inclusivity or were, at the very least, seriously out of touch with the shape the popular response to the water issue was taking.

Nevertheless, activists turned out in full force to the committee’s first meeting on March 5.17 Things began civilly enough. Determined to avoid a repeat of the disastrous town hall, the city had hired as emcees two professional facilitators, who started by laying down “norms” of discussion, focused on keeping interactions respectful and comments and questions succinct and in turn. Because the CAC was supposed to be a body that would meet regularly, they assured participants that all of their questions, if not addressed at the first session, would be collected and answered eventually. The packets distributed to committee members at the door included sticky notes for writing questions and posting them to the wall under a variety of water-related categories.

Despite the thought put into the organization of the meeting, it failed, like the town hall, in the most critical respect: residents once again felt like they were being spoken to rather than spoken with, and that they had to break the rules in order to express themselves adequately. Amid pleas by the facilitators for mutual respect and fidelity to the agenda, the meeting began to deteriorate into accusatory shouting by activists and defensive retorts by the officials arrayed at the front of the room. Tony Palladeno, an activist known for passionate, autobiographical monologues that occasionally turned into angry outbursts, was escorted out by the police after repeatedly shouting that the water was “killing” him, holding up a ball of his hair as evidence.18 In the lobby, he explained to the media the reason for his frustration: “We’re havin’ the carpet pulled over our eyes. I don’t believe anything they’re sayin’ right now.” Other activists tried to steer the conversation toward a possible reconnection to the Detroit system. Jerry Ambrose took the opportunity to blame Detroit’s cancellation of service letter for the switch to the river, prompting exclamations of “That’s a lie!” and “That’s not true!” Interim City Treasurer Al Mooney responded by saying that a return to Detroit would be possible—if money grew on trees: “We don’t have a money tree. And you guys would be sorry. … So that’s the answer to that question.”19

The next CAC meeting, two weeks later, went the way of the first. Once again, the proceedings turned confrontational and the facilitators had difficulty getting through the agenda. Once again, in lieu of giving residents open mic time to speak, attendees were asked to write questions down. Tensions came to a head when residents, frustrated by the mediation of the facilitators, began to stand and chant at Mayor Walling, “Answer the question! Answer the question!20

After the disintegration of the second CAC meeting, Walling told the press that he was considering restructuring the format and trying again.21 But instead, the meetings ceased altogether. The TAC, too, went dormant—it would not meet again until October, when Marc Edwards presented the committee with the Virginia Tech team’s lead findings.22

Although Walling conceded that the format of the public meetings was flawed, he blamed their failure on “a handful of people with a high level of frustration” who took them over. What began as outspokenness, he told me, became “disorderly conduct” as the meetings veered off course and became unnecessarily hostile. “We would spend hours getting ready for a community advisory meeting with the hopes of having constructive dialogue on two or three things,” he lamented, “and then we would go to that meeting and there would be yelling and raised voices.” Consequently, there was never “a constructive engagement with the issues.” He saw it as a missed opportunity that had the effect of prolonging the crisis:

I would like to think that if we would have had more constructive public dialogue we would have together figured out that there were more problems than what were recognized at the time. … I would have gotten a lot more out of it than being part of another protest spectacle. To the extent that I would have learned more or connected more dots sooner then I think we would’ve done more at the city.23

The activists, on the other hand, lost little sleep over the collapse of the CAC. The meetings had only reinforced their belief that officials were not being open and honest about the water, were not really interested in what residents had to say, and were therefore not worth engaging with politely.24

Many of the well-known limitations of deliberative democracy are apparent in these seemingly doomed interactions between officials, residents, and activists. As the political theorist Iris Marion Young influentially argued, officially sponsored deliberation tends to operate within an “already given political trajectory” in which political possibilities are implicitly or explicitly constrained before the conversation begins.25 These constraints determine what kind of positions and arguments are considered to be “reasonable.” Her point is well illustrated by the flippant remark about the nonexistent “money tree”: the official view was that reconnecting to Detroit was simply not an option, and that the matter needed to be put to rest so that the group could have a real discussion.

Deliberation of this kind also typically calls for constrained ways of interacting. Participants are expected to persuade each other with reasoned argument while remaining open to alternative points of view. They must treat each other with respect, as equals, and use language that others can understand and accept, working toward agreement. This ideal of the deliberative citizen conflicted sharply with the style in which many Flint activists (and other residents, for that matter) felt compelled to express themselves. They came to meetings filled with emotion and urgency, and were irked by the comparatively stoic demeanor of the officials they encountered there. The rigid format of the meetings did not make space for them to vent their anger and frustration, which then tended to erupt in disruptive ways. Residents also came with a different understanding than officials and experts of what constituted “evidence.” They expected to prove their case with graphic displays of ugly water, raw skin, and lost hair, and when this evidence did not produce the desired effect, they chalked it up to willful blindness and obstinacy if not calculated conspiracy. Every meeting was arranged so as to imply that residents would have the water situation explained to themnot be given the chance to explain it to someone else. Knowledge of what was “really” going on was the province of a select few, and it was to be conveyed unidirectionally.26

Most of all, the conversations officials tried to initiate about the water required residents to treat with respect people they either believed were the authors of their misfortune or powerless to alleviate it. The “reality of the EM,” Walling told me, was “a really big part” of why interactions with activists were so unconstructive. One reason was that the EMs in office from January 2015 onward, Earley and Ambrose, adopted a “very combative” posture on the water issue, to which the community was merely “responding” with similar combativeness. But more fundamentally, “emergency managers poison the democratic process. It’s asking an awful lot of the community to show up and suspend the reality of the emergency manager and have a constructive dialogue with myself, Howard Croft, and Natasha Henderson,” because “the reality was the emergency manager was making those decisions.” The “complication” of emergency management “was just always front and center,” and it introduced “static” into the deliberations about the water that could not be overcome.27

Beyond Deliberation: The Coalition for Clean Water

As officials made abortive attempts to engage the public about water between January and March of 2015, new currents of activism were materializing, comprised mainly of residents so frustrated with official inaction they felt they had to take matters into their own hands. But it was an already-existing group, the FDDL, that was first on the scene after the TTHM notice went out on January 2. As described in chapter 4, water was by that time already a priority for the FDDL. Like activists in Detroit, the group had chosen to foreground issues of water affordability and accessibility through the summer and fall of 2014, and the decline in water quality after the switch to the river was at first mainly used to reiterate the absurdity of the high rates—residents were now not only paying through the nose, but doing so for an inferior product. As evidence started to pile up that the water was truly toxic, the water quality issue began to take on its own independent importance, and FDDL activists began to strategize around it. In fall 2014, they looked into setting up an escrow account residents could pay into instead of paying bills for water they didn’t feel comfortable drinking. They also hatched an idea that sputtered out initially but would be revived later: securing a judge’s injunction to force the city back onto Detroit water.

On January 5, a group of about twenty activists led by core FDDL members held a press conference at City Hall to discuss what it called the “Flint water crisis.” In language that mingled concerns about contamination and cost, the activists denounced the city’s “plummeting water quality, soaring water rates, [and] misappropriating resources toward alleged water theft.”28 They expressed their support for Councilman Eric Mays’s efforts to initiate investigative hearings by the City Council into the water. And they announced that the group would be holding a series of four community meetings on water through the month of February.

Figure 6.2
Flyer for February 2015 water meetings hosted by the FDDL.
Source: Flint Democracy Defense League.

The stated objective of the “Flint Water State of Emergency” meetings was to create a nonhierarchical “space” in which residents could come together “to develop strategies for collective action.”29 The meetings became, in effect, counterpoints to the town halls and committee meetings devised by officials. As alternatives to those deliberative forums, they had several advantages: they were purer in origin and therefore easier to trust, they treated residents’ concerns and testimony as valid a priori, they did not attempt to shut down or remove people for outbursts of emotion. And they were not “information”-oriented but rather solution-oriented, with the assumption being that answers to Flint’s water problems would come from residents themselves. In the invitation it sent out through social media, the FDDL declared that “this is the time for us to come together and create action plans for our own liberation.”

As the FDDL geared up for its water meetings, activists began to apply what Claire McClinton liked to call “street heat.” On January 15, outside City Hall, a group of about twenty protestors waved signs bearing morbid images of skeletons and nuclear waste. Again, the affordability and quality issues were fused. One sign read: “Welcome to Flint / We pay the most for poisoned water / Your experiment failed / Fix it now!” Another accused Flint officials of trying to “kill” residents with “toxic water.” Other signs said “Water is life” and “Clean water is a right, not a privilege” and questioned whether it was safe to take a bubble bath.30

This rally and the next one, a week later, reflected the ad hoc nature of some of the early activism around the water, being spearheaded by a concerned mom not connected to any particular group. By the time the second rally was held on January 21, however, the various rivulets of grassroots water activism were beginning to draw together. Members of Flint Water Class Action, FDDL, and the newly formed Water You Fighting For? all participated, chanting “Don’t drink the water!” and “No more poison!” at the cars driving down Saginaw Street.

Over the next month, Water You Fighting For? (WYFF) emerged as the group at the forefront of most of the water rallies and marches, its “Don’t Drink the Water” message emblazoned on the distinctive T-shirts that became a uniform of sorts for many of the activists. The group was started by Melissa Mays and LeeAnne Walters after meeting at the disastrous Dome town hall, along with a longtime Flint activist associated with the hacktivist group Anonymous.31 Mays took inspiration from environmental justice matriarch Lois Gibbs, famous for her role in publicizing the effects of underground chemical waste in Love Canal, New York, in the late 1970s, and founder of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ), an organization providing mentorship and resources to grassroots community groups working on environmental justice issues. In response to Mays’s appeal for help, Gibbs sent her a CHEJ handbook with guidance for starting an organization. Initially, the mission of WYFF was focused on consciousness raising about the water, its website serving as a digital bulletin board for water-related information and a resource for other residents. The group, however, quickly came to embrace other forms of activism as well.

Although there were water quality rallies as early as January, in the people’s history of the water struggle activists often dated the annunciation of the water movement’s arrival to a march through downtown Flint on Valentine’s Day. A collaboration between several grassroots groups, the march turned out over fifty people despite frigid temperatures hovering around ten degrees. The activists remembered their trudge through the snow from City Hall down Saginaw Street, over the Flint River and back again, as a feat of determination that symbolized their seriousness and commitment.32

Over the next few months, the grassroots groups that had begun to collaborate on rallies and marches would cement their partnership by forming the Coalition for Clean Water. The idea for the coalition originated with the Concerned Pastors for Social Action (CPSA), an influential network of local religious leaders, mostly from black churches, whose history of social activism went back to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. The CPSA prided itself on its efforts to combat institutional racism and bring attention to the needs of the underserved, using its influence over a large segment of the population—upward of fifty congregations—to command respect from political candidates and elected officials.

The Concerned Pastors had political connections not only at the city level, but also at the state level. Not long after they began hearing from members of their congregations about problems with water quality, they initiated talks with officials in Lansing about the possibility of getting off the river—talks that took on new significance after the TTHM notice. On February 4, in a meeting with Governor Snyder’s Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore and Director of the Office of Urban Initiatives Harvey Hollins, the pastors called for “immediate reconnection to the Detroit water system,” arguing that “lake water is 100 percent better than river water.”33 After two months without any movement, they held a press conference calling out the state for its inaction and threatening a lawsuit.34

Figure 6.3
Valentine’s Day march. MLive, Flint Journal.

As dialogue with the state turned to deadlock, the pastors decided there would be value in more coordinated pressure from below. They enlisted Bishop Bernadel Jefferson, a member of both CPSA and the FDDL, to help pull the city’s grassroots groups together into a coalition.35 Chaired by Reverend Allen Overton of CPSA, the coalition included the FDDL, FWCA, WYFF, CAUTION (Bishop Jefferson’s group), and Woodside Church, a social justice–oriented congregation deeply involved in water issues. Tru Saunders and Councilman Eric Mays signed on as individuals. The coalition’s main focus became the strategy explored the previous fall by the FDDL and threatened by the pastors in their April press conference: a legal injunction forcing the city back onto Detroit water.

In the activists’ minds, the case for compelling a return to Detroit was cut and dry, supported by a mountain of evidence of the water’s toxicity. But legally speaking, it stood on shaky ground: the quality problems that jumped out at residents were, according to experts, merely “aesthetic”—no one had proved any connection between the water and health symptoms—and the city’s latest round of sampling showed that TTHM levels had fallen to well below maximum allowable levels. In fact, no site tested by the city had been over the EPA limit of 80 parts per billion (ppb) for TTHM since the beginning of the year, and once the city completed installation of new carbon filters at the water treatment plant, levels were supposed to drop even lower. As far as officials were concerned, they were following through on their promises to solve the water problem, and it seemed more likely than ever that it would be possible to make the river water work for the time being. Incurring the costs associated with switching back to Detroit—estimated at some $12 million just for the reconnection, plus another $1 million for water—would, they argued, be unnecessary and shortsighted.

Activists countered that declaring the TTHM situation under control was premature, warning that levels could rise again during the warmer months of the year, that the water treatment plant was still not up to par, and that more testing was necessary. As long as there was any threat whatsoever from TTHMs—which by the city’s own admission could be harmful to some segments of the population—the state and the city, they argued, had a responsibility to offer residents a safe alternative. Laura Sullivan, who joined the coalition as a representative of Woodside Church, summed up the logic for me: “If you’re going to use this source water and some people are at risk, then you have to provide bottled water to them or change the source water.” This, she said, was the “hook.”36

On June 5, the coalition filed a civil injunction against the City of Flint and City Administrator Natasha Henderson, alleging that the city “recklessly endangered” residents by switching to the river and calling for a return to Detroit water “on an immediate and an emergency basis.”37 It would take more than three months for the suit to reach a conclusion as it was bounced from county to federal court and back.38 In the meantime, the activists found other ways to keep the water struggle in the headlines. In July, they helped organize the Detroit to Flint Water Justice Journey, a seven-day, seventy-mile series of marches that wound through cities affected by emergency management and struggling with problems of water quality, cost, and privatization: Detroit, Pontiac, Highland Park, and finally Flint, culminating in a march from Woodside Church to City Hall for a rally organized by the coalition. With the assistance of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, the coalition also launched a petition drive to demonstrate the strength of public demand for reconnection to the Detroit system. On August 31, Melissa Mays and Reverend Overton along with a dozen other activists hand-delivered an imposing stack of paper with 26,856 petition signatures collected from people all over the country to Mayor Walling at his office.39

By this time, activists had opened up another front in the war they were fighting to get Flint off the river—the one that would finally break things open. It began with a fateful shipment that arrived two weeks prior to the delivery of the petitions—three hundred water testing kits, sent by a team of engineers at Virginia Tech—and with the growing feeling that the contaminant that would finally force the hand of officials was not E. coli, or chloride, or TTHMs, but lead.

Figure 6.4
(Top) Coalition for Clean Water files suit seeking return to Detroit water.
(Bottom) Delivery of petitions to Mayor Dayne Walling. MLive, Flint Journal.

Lead in the Water

There had been rumblings of lead in the water as far back as February. That was the month a water sample taken at LeeAnne Walters’s house came back at 104 ppb, prompting a frantic call from Mike Glasgow at the water treatment plant telling her not to drink her water. Glasgow eventually determined that the house had an unusually long lead service line, which the city offered to replace at no cost. There was a catch, however: Walters would have to sign a form indemnifying the city against all liability for any injury caused by the lead. Presented with an opportunity to remove the immediate danger to her family, Walters was torn: should she take the deal and let the city off the hook? After talking it over with other activists, she decided not to sign.

She also began to look for help from someone outside of city and state government. After reaching out to the EPA, she connected with Miguel del Toral, regulations manager for the Ground Water and Drinking Water Branch of the EPA’s Region 5. Del Toral, in turn, enlisted the assistance of Marc Edwards, who began conducting independent tests on Walters’s water. His results showed lead levels that were off the charts: one sample came back at an astonishing 13,200 ppb of lead, more than twice the amount necessary for the water to qualify as toxic waste by EPA standards. Edwards said he was “shocked” by the results, musing that he had never in his “twenty-five-year career seen such outrageously high levels going into another home in the United States.”40

As bad as the condition of the water in the Walters household was, the bigger story was what Walters uncovered when, in a search for answers, she began digging into operational reports from the water treatment plant: the city was not using corrosion control. When she informed del Toral of this discovery, his initial reaction was disbelief. He reached out to the MDEQ for clarification, sure that there must be some mistake, and was told that the city had a “corrosion control program” in place. The semantic subtlety of the phrase did not jump out at del Toral until later: a corrosion control program was not the same thing as corrosion control.41

Walters’s sky-high lead levels and the revelation about the MDEQ’s unorthodox approach to corrosion control caused del Toral to suspect more widespread problems with lead in Flint’s water system. In July, he detailed his concerns in a memorandum circulated internally at the EPA. He also, however, sent the document to Walters herself, knowing it would become public and fearing, correctly, that it would not be acted upon promptly by his own agency. For this act, he came to be known as the main “whistleblower” of the water crisis.

Walters promptly forwarded the memo to Curt Guyette, an investigative journalist well known to the activists who had been hired by the Michigan ACLU to cover the effects of the state’s EM law. In a series of articles and documentary films produced with his collaborator Kate Levy, Guyette broke the story of Walters’s plight and shed light on the larger issues of water quality in Flint.42 EPA officials reacted to Guyette’s reporting by trying to discredit del Toral and minimize his findings. When Dayne Walling learned of the memo and reached out to EPA Region 5 Director Susan Hedman with concerns, she apologized for the alarm caused by the leak and assured him that the findings were only preliminary and undergoing review. MDEQ spokesperson Brad Wurfel characterized del Toral as a “rogue employee” and said that “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.”43

Realizing that the presence of lead in the water would greatly bolster their case for returning to the Detroit system, and fearing that the city’s next round of sampling data would mask the problem,44 members of the coalition began to encourage people to get their water tested and report the results back to the activists. Melissa Mays picked up sampling kits from the water treatment plant and distributed them to residents, taking them to festivals, churches, and meetings. As lead results came in, she incorporated them into a map of Flint on the WYFF website that showed the distribution of a variety of water issues across the city. The goal was to illustrate that the lead problem, like other problems, was not confined to Walters’s house or to any one area. Although the sample size was limited, the numbers, Laura Sullivan recalls, were “pretty high,” suggestive of a hitherto underappreciated threat.45

With these new numbers on their side, the coalition decided to try again to pique concern in Lansing. In a meeting with Dennis Muchmore and Harvey Hollins on July 22, the activists had the opportunity to present their data, with Mays displaying a blown-up version of the WYFF map. Just as significant, however, was their presentation of Laura Sullivan, introduced for maximum dramatic effect as Dr. Sullivan, who Reverend Overton asked to “tell them what lead does to people.”46 Muchmore looked on with concern as Sullivan did her best (mechanical engineer that she was) to explain what lead does to the human body. The meeting ended with Muchmore promising to look into the lead issue and get back to them. For a moment, it seemed like an injunction might not be necessary: civil conversation, enhanced by Sullivan’s credentials, was finally getting somewhere.

Figure 6.5
Water You Fighting For map (detail).
Source: Water You Fighting For?

At the follow-up meeting on August 4, however, Muchmore had assembled a group of MDEQ employees who greeted the activists, Sullivan recalls, with “smug” expressions. He said he had good news to relate: the MDEQ had looked at the available data and determined that the ninetieth percentile for lead was below the EPA action level. Sullivan didn’t think it was possible. How could the state’s numbers and the activists’ numbers be so far off? She made the point that “there may be a problem when the entity that collects the samples and the entity that analyzes the samples are both benefitting when the samples are good.” But she was too “afraid” and “inhibited” to say more. The looks on the state officials’ faces gave her the impression that she and the activists were “fools” and had “no place in the room.”47 Emails sent between Muchmore and Hollins the following day offer some insight into their take on the meeting. Their disdain for those they label “activists,” who they imply came in with the wrong demeanor and irrelevant political concerns, is apparent:

Muchmore:  I didn’t think that meeting was as useful as others. If people won’t accept the factual information, I’m not sure there is much we can do about it. … We can’t do too many more of these. The three activists in the room just want to be right; they don’t want answers. No matter what we say they’ll always want something else to be the answer.48

Hollins:  I agree. It’s hard to get to yes or satisfaction with certain types of community advocates because no matter what you do, they will always grind an ax on something. … I think one more meeting with the pastors and maybe the professor from Kettering (who I think is reasonable) to put closure on the outstanding questions is warranted. The other women who were there to argue for the sake of arguing should not be apart [sic] of that meeting. Regarding more state money to Flint or democracy discussions on the question of emergency management isn’t something that I have too much of an appetite for.49

Once again, activists had come forward with what they felt to be compelling evidence of system-wide problems that more than justified switching off the river, and once again, officials had responded by overruling their data and shutting down their concerns. It had a deflating effect, at first: LeeAnne Walters, for one, began to slide into a “rabbit hole” of depression, calling Marc Edwards in a “hysterical” state of mind and looking for direction.50 That direction came from an idea first proposed to Edwards by Curt Guyette: what if the activists worked with Virginia Tech to collect a larger sample, one that officials could not simply brush off as statistically insignificant? Edwards said at least seventy-five samples would be necessary. Guyette offered to pay for one hundred tests,51 and began contacting activists to stir up interest in the sampling campaign.52

From Walters’s perspective, it was a last-ditch effort, but one she threw herself into with gusto. After receiving sampling kits and instructions in the mail, she and the other members of the coalition organized a rigorous sampling protocol. They began by recruiting participants, mainly through pre-established personal networks, making a conscious effort to ensure robust participation in all parts of the city. They also instituted strict procedural guidelines for quality control, convinced that the results would never be believed unless everything was “perfect.”53 When residents came to pick up their kits at Saints of God Church, the activists had them watch an explanatory video explaining how to collect the samples. When it was time to pack samples for transport to Virginia Tech, the activists asked residents to initial the sealed boxes to ensure there was no appearance of their being tampered with. They also devised a system of documentation, keeping track of everyone who picked up a kit and carefully recording the information in an Excel spreadsheet.

Instead of the seventy-five-sample minimum mandated by Edwards, in less than a month’s time the activists collected 269 usable samples—a 90 percent success rate. Moreover, they succeeded in distributing the samples across a wide geographical area, with strong representation of every ward in the city. The contrast to the city’s most recent sampling effort could not have been starker: the utility had struggled to break even the one-hundred-sample threshold, and the samples had been heavily concentrated in a few convenient areas. Members of the Virginia Tech Flint Water Study team (as they began to call themselves) marveled at the activists’ success: graduate student Siddartha Roy said that “they did the job better than most scientists.”54 The team’s analysis showed that 10 percent of sampled homes in Flint had lead levels of 27 ppb or higher, indicating that the city, as announced in a blaring headline on the recently launched, had a “VERY SERIOUS LEAD IN WATER PROBLEM.”55

The findings could not have been timelier. On September 14, Circuit Court Judge Archie Hayman threw out the coalition’s lawsuit, killing the injunction. The very next day, coalition members, along with Marc Edwards, Siddartha Roy, and Curt Guyette, held a press conference at City Hall. Speaking to the cameras, Melissa Mays said it was “a huge, huge, day for the water fight in Flint,” calling the sampling data a “strong punch.” Edwards explained that the same problem that was turning people’s water brown—high corrosivity—was also “causing excessive lead to go into people’s water.” Guyette asserted that the “reason everybody is here today is because the emergency managers appointed by Governor Rick Snyder, in an effort to save the city money, made the decision to switch from clean Detroit … water to the Flint River.” Reverend Overton called yet again for the city to return to Detroit water “immediately.” Other members of the coalition then took turns articulating new demands: Nayyirah Shariff demanded that the MDEQ distribute filters to every household in Flint, Laura Sullivan demanded that the city replace “all lead-containing service lines” at no cost to residents, Melissa Mays demanded that the EPA step in and “take over Flint’s treatment decisions and the MDEQ’s testing and oversight,” and LeeAnne Walters demanded that there be an “audit” of MDEQ’s sampling and a crackdown on its exploitation of loopholes in the Lead and Copper Rule.56

Figure 6.6
Press conference with activists and Flint Water Study team announcing sampling results. MLive, Flint Journal.

State officials could not dismiss Virginia Tech’s results as easily as they did the first batch of lead data activists presented to them. Nevertheless, the MDEQ claimed to be “perplexed” by the findings and by the team’s warning to residents not to drink the water without filtering it or flushing their pipes first. “While the state appreciates academic participation in this discussion,” said spokesperson Brad Wurfel, “offering broad, dire public health advice based on some quick testing could be seen as fanning political flames irresponsibly.”57

It took a reverberation from the Washington, D.C., lead-in-water crisis of the early 2000s to finally break the state’s resistance. It came from water expert Elin Betanzo, who had worked for the EPA in D.C. during that time and remembered how critically important it was to show that lead in water was getting into the bloodstreams of children. After learning of the lead data being analyzed by Virginia Tech, she encouraged her old friend Mona Hanna-Attisha to look into whether there was a correlation between Virginia Tech’s lead results and blood lead levels. Hanna-Attisha’s analysis (see chapter 1) showed, on average, a doubling of elevated blood lead levels in children ages 0 to 6 as well as the hypothesized correlation with lead levels in different parts of the city. The state made one final effort to push back, with Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) officials presenting a chart that attributed the increase in blood lead to seasonal variation (a chart that would later lead to felony charges). Upon closer examination of the data, however, both the MDHHS and the MDEQ conceded their mistake: lead was a danger in Flint after all. It had taken eighteen months of resident complaints and nine months of focused activism around water quality, but for local, state, and federal officials, the “Flint water crisis” had finally begun.

Realizing the Impossible

After Hanna-Attisha publically released her data, Mayor Walling indicated at a press conference that all options were now on the table, including reconnection to the Detroit system. But he warned that the final decision about Flint’s water source was the governor’s to make.58 Three days later, the coalition held a press conference of its own at which it threatened large-scale protests in Flint and Lansing if the switch was not made immediately.59 Shortly thereafter, it filed a petition with the EPA asking the agency to take control of the situation.60

But still the state seemed determined to avoid the source change. On October 2 at Kettering University, the day after the Genesee County Health Department declared a public health emergency in Flint, state officials announced a “Flint water action plan” that included $1 million for point-of-use filters, water testing at schools and homes, blood lead testing, and corrosion control—but no return to Detroit water. Outside, activists held a protest featuring Nayyirah Shariff and Melodee Mabbitt in yellow hazmat suits. When they heard that the state was not yet prepared to change Flint’s water source, they were furious. Reacting to the news, Reverend Al Harris of the Concerned Pastors said residents were “back to square one.”61

In fact, the activists were on the cusp of getting what they had been fighting for. On October 8, after nine months of insisting that reverting to Detroit water was “not going to happen,”62 the city and state announced that they had struck a deal to make it possible.63 Melissa Mays described the decision as “a little unreal.”64 Dayne Walling was even more stunned: he hadn’t thought there was that kind of money “sitting out there” for a reconnection. “And then, in light of the lead crisis, bam—there it is.”65

It would be hard to overestimate the profundity of the validation the activists felt after the reversal. It was not just that their framing of the water situation (i.e., that it was a public health crisis) had gone mainstream, or that officials had capitulated and adopted the activists’ position on what needed to be done. It was that their whole approach to creating social change had been affirmed. They had refused to accept officials’ definition of what was reasonable, or the ceiling officials set on what was possible, or the standards of “evidence” officials used to form their judgments about the water. They had shown, at times, at least a minimal willingness to enter into conversation with officials about the water; but even in these instances, they thumbed their noses at the proprieties expected of them and clung firmly to their demands rather than showing any signs of compromise. They had preferred disruption, protest, and petition to the tightly controlled deliberative settings crafted by the city—settings they saw as not only unwelcoming, but inauthentic. And when the data on water quality produced by the city and state in summer 2015 conflicted with the activists’ message and objectives, they had gone out and generated data of their own that confirmed the water’s dangers.

The reinforcement the activists got from their victory only made them less inclined to limit their demands to what was considered “reasonable.” As soon as the matter of the reconnection was settled, their attention shifted to another controversy: whether the city should declare a state of emergency in order to encourage similar declarations at the state and federal levels, or even lobby for a stronger federal “disaster” declaration. In a series of mayoral debates (for in addition to all the other excitement, it was the middle of election season), incumbent Walling came out against the idea, arguing that the county’s declaration of emergency was enough to get Flint what resources it could rightly expect, and pointing out that the crisis, being manmade, did not fit federal criteria for disaster status.66

Unsurprisingly, the activists chose to align themselves with a candidate who, like them, did not share Walling’s sense of political possibility. Despite the fact that Flint had not yet wriggled entirely free from the state’s grip, the activists—long frustrated by Walling’s civility toward the EMs, general “Boy Scout” demeanor, and proactive complicity in creating a “false narrative” around the water—sensed that the election of a fighter to the mayor’s office during this moment of opportunity would have real consequences. They found their candidate in Karen Weaver, a Ph.D. clinical psychologist relatively new to the political arena but strongly supported by the Concerned Pastors and the Flint NAACP—two pillars of the city’s African American community. Weaver had earned herself the label of “water warrior” by coming out to activist rallies and shown that she, too, was willing to demand what others said was impossible. During her campaign, she promised what Walling would not: a return to Detroit water (before it became a reality), a city-level declaration of emergency, and a fight for federal disaster status.

In fact, Weaver’s own candidacy was a longshot: a bid to become the first African American woman mayor in the city’s history by unseating a polished, pedigreed, white (always a factor within Flint’s highly racialized political culture), male incumbent. Once again, however, expectations were confounded. With decisive support from the pastors and the activists, Weaver scored an upset victory on November 3 with a sizable twelve-point margin.67 On December 14, as promised, she filed an emergency declaration.68 After initially waffling, the county signed off on it on January 4, opening up the possibility of more state and federal assistance. The very next day, Governor Snyder declared an emergency at the state level and requested federal help. Although the activists never got their desired “disaster” declaration, on January 16 President Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint. Reeling from his defeat and watching from the sidelines now, Walling remembers being amazed by how quickly it all happened.69

The sequence of events from October 2015, when the city switched off the river, through early January of the next year only further emboldened the activists and reinforced the lessons they had taken away from the water source fight. When I first encountered them personally, at a rally and march on January 8, they were brimming with confidence and full of demands: full replacement of the pipes, social services for those harmed by the water, federal disaster relief (Stafford Act be damned), and the arrest of Governor Snyder. By that point, the rest of the country—the world, even—was behind them, with solidarity and support from the broader activist community converging on Flint from all sides.

As a newcomer, I was impressed by the apparent unity, strength, and purpose of the water activists. It was a somewhat distorted impression, influenced by the headiness of the moment, and by my own distance (at that point) from the movement’s internal controversies. There was an aura around the activists, however, that I found alluring on both a personal and scholarly level. Over the next two and a half years, I witnessed firsthand their fight for justice in Flint, and their efforts to turn crisis into opportunity by channeling the popular uprising sparked by poisoned water into a longer-term political agenda.

I came to realize, however, that the storybook quality of the battle over the river—good enough for a Lifetime movie70—belied some of the tensions latent in the alliances struck up along the way. These tensions were exacerbated by the media’s elevation of some of the central players into “hero” figures, including people from outside the community whose perspectives on the nature of the crisis and status of the recovery effort proved to be sharply opposed, in some fundamental ways, to those of activists.71 As enamored as many activists were with the storybook version of events, looking back on 2015 nostalgically as a time of unity and power, they soon came to realize that advancing their struggle for justice and making good on the democratic potential of the movement would require a reckoning with some of the “heroes” of that chapter of their story. That reckoning began with another battle over the reality of the crisis itself.

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