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8. From Poisoned People to People Power: Fighting for Justice, Expanding Democracy

Published onMar 27, 2020
8. From Poisoned People to People Power: Fighting for Justice, Expanding Democracy

We’re protagonists in our own liberation struggle.

—Nayyirah Shariff, Flint Rising meeting, Flint, MI, May 18, 2017

When Flint’s pro-democracy activists and budding water warriors joined forces, it was to expose the injustice of their poisoned water and force officials to take action. When they launched the second phase of their fight, after Detroit water had begun to flow through Flint’s pipes again and talk turned from “reconnection” to “recovery,” it was to ensure that residents got the justice they deserved moving forward. Justice meant, firstly, accountability: punishment of those responsible for the crisis and reform of the government agencies that failed to protect public health. Justice meant, secondly, reparations: the replacement of damaged infrastructure and full funding of the health care, nutrition, and education necessary to repair the harm done to bodies and minds.

Justice also had a lot to do with how the recovery effort happened, with who was in charge of setting priorities, making decisions, and determining when the overall mission had been accomplished. The important questions from this perspective were: To what extent would the response to the crisis be shaped by the very people and agencies that had caused it in the first place? What kind of say would residents have over how resources coming into the city were managed? Who would get to decide when Flint had been made “whole”?

The water activism of the next two-and-a-half years was informed by the strong belief that justice was not being done in Flint. Officials had yet to pay any legal price for their actions, the money coming in was inadequate to address the full scope of the need (as defined by residents), and the state continued to demonstrate—at least in the activists’ view—contempt for the people it had poisoned and a determination to shirk responsibility. It was, activists argued, replacing the pipes at far too slow a rate, wasting money (along with its nonprofit allies) on initiatives of little benefit to residents, and looking for every opportunity (usually the latest favorable lead result from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality [MDEQ] or Virginia Tech) to draw down its presence in Flint, all while operating behind a façade of community “partnership.” Even with all the national attention the crisis was getting, and all the pressure being put on officials to do right by Flint, the general feeling within the grassroots community was that the city would have to fight for everything it got. Although many of the activists had already been immersed in water activism for over a year when I first joined up with them in January 2016, I felt like they were just getting started, gearing up for an even bigger fight than that which they had just won.

Just as the struggle for democracy that began in 2011 fed into the struggle for clean, affordable water, the struggle for “water justice” (a term activists sometimes used to tie together their various demands) fed back into the broader struggle for democracy. In linking the crisis to emergency management, the activists landed their heaviest blow against the emergency manager (EM) system since the overturning of Public Act 4 in 2012. As their political narrative of the crisis went mainstream, Flint’s EMs, as well as the architects of the EM law, had to answer for themselves. Asked during his Congressional testimony whether the law had “failed”—at least in this instance—Governor Snyder was surprisingly candid: it was, he said, “a fair conclusion.”1 All three state bodies that subsequently investigated the crisis determined that the law needed to be fundamentally reformed.2

The crisis also stimulated the state to start devolving back to the city the powers it had retained after the last of Flint’s EMs stepped down in April 2015. Mayor Weaver, who had sided with the activists in calling for the full restoration of local control,3 got the rest of her powers back in January 2016, after Snyder stressed that building a “strong relationship” with her was critical to the recovery effort.4 Three weeks later, she used those powers to fire Natasha Henderson, the city administrator given enhanced say over decision making by EM Ambrose upon his resignation. The City Council had a harder time convincing the state that it ought to have its powers restored, too, but finally, in May, they were reinstated on a provisional basis.5

To be sure, home rule was not yet back in effect in Flint. The veto power of the Receivership Transition Advisory Board (RTAB) still hung over all business conducted by city officials. When RTAB used its power to bar the city from suing the state for the latter’s role in the crisis, or overturned a council resolution to suspend the placement of liens on homes for nonpayment of water bills, it was a slap in the face to residents’ self-determination and a reminder of who really exercised sovereignty in Flint.6 If the activists’ fight for representative democracy was not yet over, however, there was no doubt that the political fallout from the crisis helped to advance it considerably.

The recalibration of state and local power prompted by the crisis, as well as the substantial federal involvement in Flint from January 2016 onward, dramatically shifted the political opportunity structure in which the activists were operating.7 Traditional channels of political influence were now far more open than before, and there was actual money on the table at the state and federal levels. Activists began to spend a considerable amount of time in Lansing and Washington, D.C., speaking directly with representatives and pushing for more aid. They also lobbied for longer-term, structural changes, including stricter regulations on water quality and water monitoring, protections around water affordability and accessibility,8 and more federal funding for public water systems.9 With local officials now able to exert more influence over city affairs, activists also began to place more emphasis on holding them accountable, turning some of their energies toward pressure, and at times protest, of both Mayor Weaver and the City Council.

All things considered, the situation activists faced in early 2016 was pregnant with an unusual degree of political possibility—far more than existed in 2015, when all they had to organize around was the “impossible” demand to abandon the river. The prospect of realizing other, more winnable, victories became a key basis for further organizing, with activists striving to mobilize residents and sympathetic outsiders around a series of targeted battles. The demands activists made, however, continued to overflow the opportunity structure that presented itself (at least as a “reasonable” person might have outlined it). The lesson learned from the battle over the river was that the hardheaded resolve of even a small group of people could move mountains, and having the wind at their backs only made the activists more ambitious. But while the new “impossible” demands they introduced helped to keep the spirit of activism alive within the movement, at times they also complicated efforts to organize residents in sustainable and effective ways.

In addition to opening up new political opportunities, the national attention the water crisis attracted made new resources available to Flint activists, as the broader activist community in Michigan and beyond turned Flint into one of its top priorities and expressions of solidarity and support began to flow into the city. Relationships with outside activist and advocacy groups greatly enhanced the capacity of local activists and enabled a variety of initiatives that would otherwise not have materialized or would have been difficult to sustain. But here, too, activist culture helped to determine how activists responded to the possibilities in front of them. The intense localism and populism of the grassroots in Flint made accepting—much less asking—for help from the outside an uneasy prospect, and there were times, I observed, when activists opted for autonomy over assistance. Empowering people in a city like Flint to save themselves, however, required that activists not only mobilize resources already available to them, but create new capacity within the community—a far more difficult prospect.

Activists like the members of the newly formed Flint Rising coalition, with which I was closely involved from February 2016 forward, viewed such community capacity-building as the next chapter in the fight for democracy in Flint. They saw in the thousands of residents who were now alert, mobilized, and brimming with a newfound sense of agency latent “people power” calling out to be organized, and capable of being directed at much more than just the needs created by the water crisis. Their meetings were not only strategy sessions about water: they were spaces in which residents were encouraged to imagine the kind of society they wanted to live in, to practice interacting in ways that prefigured that society, and to develop the skills they would need to realize it. It was all in the name, said Nayyirah Shariff (who would become Flint Rising’s director), of “expanding” democracy, rather than simply “defending” it.10 Democracy from this perspective was not merely synonymous with representative government and home rule, but more radical, a vision that looked beyond the water crisis to the transformation of the city as a whole (which was, after all, “pretty messed up before, too,” as Shariff put it).11 That vision was not to be ideologically predetermined in every detail, however, but rather developed though an open-ended process of grassroots deliberation and praxis—a process we might call, following Kathleen Blee, “democracy in action.”12

Developing broad-based consensus around even short-term objectives proved to be a challenge, however. Because organizational capacity in Flint was so minimal to begin with, it was difficult to keep residents mobilized and conversing with each other in a concerted way on a consistent basis. Individual activists developed powerful voices and connections to networks that stretched far beyond Flint, but while they carried the story of the crisis far and wide and did impressive advocacy work outside of the city, collective action on the home front was often spotty and ad hoc. Efforts by Flint Rising to build up a more sustainable presence by professionalizing its operation and securing stable sources of funding produced new opportunities but also new controversies. Often, when critical moments of decision came, there was no clear place within the grassroots to turn for guidance and leadership. While activists successfully revived the “spirit” of the water movement every so often, especially during the nostalgia-tinged water source change anniversary events in April of each year, it was a continual struggle to keep the movement’s flesh on the bone.

For all these reasons, there is no storybook version of water activism in Flint in the years after the switch back to Detroit water. While outsiders celebrated and even romanticized the water movement, treating activists more often than not with great deference and respect, the view of the movement from the inside was far messier and more complex. There were notable accomplishments but also quite a few missed opportunities. And the intensely “DIY” sensibility of Flint activists—while inspiring for its chutzpah—was, it seemed to me, also a liability at times, complicating relationships with allies, stretching activists thin, and fostering an inflated sense of what could be achieved through uncompromising assertions of popular will.

Although I do think that a shared sensibility colored activism in Flint across different groups and phases of the water movement, however, I also came to realize that it manifested itself in diverse ways. Behind the projection of confidence and unity that originally struck me about the activists, I found that their sense of themselves as political agents, and their sense of the identity of the movement as a whole, was in a state of ongoing flux and construction. Activists new and old were engaged, not only in a struggle for water, justice, and democracy, but in a struggle to figure out how to be activists within the political landscape created by the crisis, and the collective course they charted through that territory was a subject of continual, and sometimes contentious, negotiation.

The Feds Will Not Save Us: The Need for a Grassroots Crisis Response13

One of the most important matters to settle in early 2016 was who, on the official side, would lead the crisis response, for it was against this backdrop that the activists would have to decide on their next moves. During the preceding year, activists had called repeatedly for the “feds” to step in and take the reins away from the state. Now that the water crisis was beginning to get national attention, the prospects for federal intervention seemed brighter than ever. The collective national conscience was bristling at the sight of American citizens—not, as was repeatedly stressed, the denizens of a “Third World” country—hauling cases of water home through the snow because they could not drink what came out of their taps. The will to do something to help Flint was clearly taking shape.

The activists were determined to use Flint’s moment in the spotlight to convince the world of the state’s criminal indifference to their plight and make their case for more federal help. A characteristic example was the #ArrestSnyder rally of January 8, which also happened to be my entrée into the water movement. The rally came at a critical time, three days after the state’s declaration of emergency, when we were waiting expectantly to see how President Obama would respond. We gathered on the lawn of City Hall (the closest thing to an agora in Flint), in the fading light of a dreary, rainy day. Organized by Water You Fighting For? in conjunction with activists from the Detroit-based People’s Water Board, Detroit Light Brigade, and We the People of Detroit (who came bearing a U-Haul full of water), the event had drawn a large number of people, perhaps two hundred,14 and I had to peer under and around umbrellas to get a glimpse of the featured speakers. Melissa Mays and Nayyirah Shariff stood at the center of it all, backlit by floodlights and ringed by cameras, rallying the crowd, as an activist wearing prison clothes and an oversized Snyder head milled about and members of the Detroit Light Brigade projected the words “Water is a human right” onto the side of the Genesee County Jail across the street.

Shariff reminded everyone of what it would mean to residents if they had to depend on the State of Michigan for help: the abused would be at the mercy of the abusers who had “demeaned and demonized” them, disregarded the federal laws instituted to protect them, and failed to act with “urgency” when it was proved their lives were in danger. The state’s efforts since October to demonstrate good faith—like the forced resignations of MDEQ director Dan Wyant and spokesperson Brad Wurfel—were, she said, “PR” moves, and Governor Snyder’s apology for the state’s role in the crisis, issued a week earlier, was too little too late (he could take it and “flush it”). The residents of Flint were still in search of “justice, accountability, and reparations,” and they were more likely, Shariff implied, to get them from the federal government than from the state.

A week later, President Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint, and a variety of federal agencies stepped forward to offer their services. The US Department of Health and Human Services, the official federal point agency in Flint, provided public health support, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) took over the provision of bottled water, filters, and test kits at the water point of distribution sites (PODs). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began looking into blood lead levels, Legionnaires’, and rashes, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), after having resisted getting involved for months, took charge of the rehabilitation of the water system. It was a strong showing, if a little late in coming, but it was missing one key element: the disaster declaration the activists were looking for.15 Federal agencies would remain in a support role, leaving residents more dependent than they wanted to be on the people they believed had poisoned them. Any federal money earmarked for Flint would be routed through the state, to be dispensed at the state’s discretion. The arrangement was intolerable to the activists, who refused to give up their demand for disaster status, reiterated at almost every water meeting and event I attended over the next two-and-a-half years.

The face of the state response on the ground was Rich Baird, longtime friend and advisor to Snyder (his official title within the administration was “transformation manager”) and “the governor incarnate in Flint,” as Claire McClinton put it.16 Baird, next to Snyder himself, was the person activists most loved to hate, the lightning rod for much of the ire they did not aim directly at Snyder. No matter how many times he professed his affection for the city (as a Flint native), or his sympathy with residents’ anger and frustration, activists saw him as a scheming, dissimulating, serpentine character. Though his naturally ruddy face would grow even redder when he was (as sometimes happened) publically berated by them, he seemed resigned to it and determined to finesse his way through the hostility rather than attempt to shut it down, joking behind closed doors about the delicate “dance” he had to do whenever he hosted community meetings.17

The activists saw Baird as the conduit through which the state insinuated itself into almost everything that happened in Flint, including all aspects of the crisis response.18 Baird was not working alone, however: filling out the front lines of the official response were a variety of nonprofit organizations that already had a presence in Flint. Every Thursday afternoon, the regional director of the Red Cross emceed a “Community Partners” meeting that brought these organizations together, along with representatives of government agencies, to discuss the status of various recovery initiatives. These meetings were the subject of much derision among the activists. Although technically open to anyone who cared to attend, they were not well publicized, and until activists raised a stink, they could not be recorded, giving the impression that the entities participating in them preferred to operate out of the public eye. A year into the recovery effort, some activists—and, I would venture to guess, the vast majority of residents—still did not even know of the existence of the meetings.

Most of all, though, the activists scoffed at the name “Community Partners.” The people at the meetings, they said, were thoroughly “out of touch” with the “real” community of Flint, and were perpetually coming up with “hare-brained schemes” that were tone-deaf to what residents actually needed and wanted. I even heard the Community Partners coalition described as a kind of colonial body, originating in the determination of the “oppressors” to have “people who look like them” lead the recovery.19 The whole approach also bore an unmistakable family resemblance to the emergency management paradigm: the state, acting through a Snyder appointee, was working with local members of the “nonprofit industrial complex,” rather than residents themselves, to shape the city’s future.20 Tellingly, Claire McClinton described her efforts to unite the grassroots water groups at their own coalitional meetings as the “anti-Community Partners.”21

Grasping for Unity

More specifically, what McClinton was hoping to do was to reunite the groups that had been part of the water struggle from the “beginning.” The Coalition for Clean Water (CCW) had never really consciously decided to disband, but after the realization of its main objective, its constituent groups had started to drift apart. The Concerned Pastors, so instrumental in bringing the groups together initially, largely faded into the background, giving the Weaver administration space to stake out a leadership role (occasionally they reappeared to defend Weaver when she came under attack). When members of the original coalition spoke to the media (and some of them were in high demand now), they spoke for themselves or their groups rather than the coalition as a whole. They were also pulled in different directions by external networking opportunities and pushed apart by personal animosities that were kept in check, for the most part, when everyone was fighting the same fight. Without the CCW’s precision of purpose, different groups were beginning to articulate different demands and objectives, at a time when it seemed imperative to present a united front to the world. Opportunities for collaboration were being lost simply because one group did not know what the other was doing.22

Despite the oft-heard lament that people were not working together, efforts to restore unity did not get very far. When I first met Laura Sullivan, in February, she was attempting to reassemble the activists from the CCW to help establish a citizens’ advisory board that would give residents more influence within the official recovery effort. The board, as she envisioned it, would set priorities for the order of pipe replacements (deciding which houses should be first in line), investigate new claims of harm from the water (ensuring they got the proper attention from scientific authorities), and keep tabs on the way private donations were being managed. The idea stalled out, however, when some of the activists declined to participate.

Claire McClinton’s efforts were a variation on the same theme of reunification, but they were focused on a more modest goal: a “Two Years Too Long” rally on the second anniversary of the switch to the Flint River. In this instance, most of the people asked to participate did so, their solidarity symbolized in a much-praised image on the back of the event’s official T-shirt: a jigsaw puzzle, shaped like the city of Flint, with each group represented by one of the pieces. The participants even managed to settle upon three consensual demands: the extension of Medicare benefits to all residents and former residents exposed to the water, the declaration of a federal disaster in Flint, and the abolition of the EM system. On the day of the rally, we congregated, as usual, at City Hall, where about fifty activists made a respectable show of strength in their matching black-and-white shirts, and representatives of the different groups took turns speaking to the crowd through a bullhorn. The general feeling at the debriefing session afterward was that the event had been a success. It had few lingering effects where coalition building was concerned, however. Although McClinton continued to call “Two Years Too Long Coalition” meetings through the rest of the year, attendance was random and often sparse. And while she continued to hold up the three demands as a triumph of consensus, it did not stop other groups from coming up with demands of their own.

The appearance of a 501c4 group calling itself, simply, the “Flint Coalition” created further complication. The Flint Coalition did not have the same genealogical relationship to earlier water activism—instead, it was closely associated with an interfaith community and educational center on the north side of town, and had more of a professional bent than the other groups. It came out with five “points” in January that included demands for a disaster declaration and an external auditor to monitor the funds coming into Flint.23 Later, it proposed a four-point plan for pipe replacement. This group and the others proceeded along more or less wholly different tracks despite the overlap of some of their goals. One fleeting point of contact was established in June, however, when the coalition invited environmental justice doyenne Lois Gibbs to lead a strategy session, extending invitations to other groups and presenting it as an opportunity to build broad consensus. McClinton, Nayyirah Shariff, and Melissa Mays all attended, and Gibbs did a fine job of running the meeting, but it was awkward nonetheless. Without a strong understanding of the dynamics in the room, Gibbs made a well-intentioned attempt to get everyone to agree on a list of objectives, implying all the while that the Flint Coalition would take the lead in rallying the various groups together. The buy-in, however, simply wasn’t there on the activists’ part. When I tried to insert into the conversation some of the demands they had articulated in other contexts, their unamused looks from the other side of the room made me think I should have kept my mouth shut. After one follow-up meeting (which only Shariff attended), the groups went their separate ways.

The Birth of Flint Rising

While these abortive attempts at coalition building were going on, another group was making a bid to be the epicenter of grassroots activism in Flint, a group that grew out of an intensive effort to bring word of the water crisis, and emergency water assistance, to the local Spanish-speaking community. In late January, San Juana Olivares-Macias, chair of the Genesee County Hispanic/Latino Collaborative, came to the realization that many Spanish-speaking residents still had no idea the water they were drinking was unsafe—a reflection of the dearth of Spanish-language communications about the water (when Olivares first checked the state’s water crisis website for materials to distribute, everything was in English). Some of those who did know about the crisis had first learned of it from relatives in Mexico who saw coverage on the news. Furthermore, the modicum of information that had trickled down to the community was, in many cases, hurting more than it was helping: many of those who had heard the water was “bad” (a rumor was going around about a body being found in the river) were boiling it, further concentrating whatever lead was present and rendering it even more dangerous. Heart-wrenching stories began to appear in the press of mothers who continued to feed their infants lead-tainted formula through the fall months of 2015, as English-speaking residents were scrambling to attach filters to their faucets and stocking up on bottled water.24 Even after the water PODs opened in January, many members of the community—especially the undocumented—were wary of using them because staff at some sites were asking for ID (a practice eventually exposed and ended by activists). And when anyone who looked official came knocking with offers of assistance, many refused to answer the door, fearful of immigration raids.

As the problem was coming into focus, Olivares got in touch with Art Reyes III, a former student of community organizing guru Marshall Ganz and organizer with the Center for Popular Democracy. Reyes had deep roots in Flint (his father was one of the leading figures within the local United Automobile Workers [UAW]) and the crisis presented an opportunity to put his training to good use in his hometown. In collaboration with Nayyirah Shariff and local activist and artist Desiree Duell, Olivares and Reyes organized a door-to-door canvass on the east side of Flint, where most of the city’s Hispanic population was concentrated. During their first weekend of canvassing, they found that around 95 percent of Spanish-speaking residents they made contact with were unaware that the city had a lead problem or that lead posed a special threat to children.25 The discovery only heightened their sense of urgency: over the next month, they enlisted the help of hundreds of volunteers and knocked on some eight thousand doors.26

As the canvassing gathered momentum, the activists began to target a wider swath of residents, extending their reach into public housing complexes and North Flint (predominantly African American and the most blighted and economically depressed side of the city). They partnered with the group Crossing Water, a rapid-response team of social workers and volunteers who followed up with residents in need of water, filters, or support services. They also began to talk about what else they could do with the momentum they were gathering and the contacts they were making in the community. The result of this conversation was a decision to brand themselves as a new group—a new “coalition,” in fact: Flint Rising.

In February, Flint Rising made its official debut. In addition to keeping up the canvassing, it began inviting residents to attend weekly community meetings on Saturday mornings in the basement of St. Michael’s Church. Over the next several months, I attended almost every one of these meetings, often accompanied by my wife and son. It seemed like the place to be: the canvassing operation was truly impressive and professionally managed (I went on some canvasses myself), evincing a level of organizational competence not always in evidence in Flint, the organizers were experienced and knowledgeable, and the meetings were often (though not always) well attended. Furthermore, Flint Rising explicitly presented itself as the umbrella organization that was bringing together the city’s grassroots groups, and “St. Mike’s” church as the only place where anything really noteworthy water related was going on at the grassroots level.

At first I had a difficult time figuring out what the “coalition” was, however. The only local group that was unambiguously on board, from what I could tell, was the Flint chapter of Michigan Faith in Action—an affiliate of the national community organizing network People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO)—which had its offices in the church.27 The Flint Democracy Defense League (FDDL), often cited as being a member of the coalition, had only one real point of contact with it (Shariff), and I knew from attending FDDL meetings that there was some skepticism within the group of Flint Rising’s sudden appearance on the scene. Shariff later told me that some block clubs and pastors had also been involved early on, but from what I could tell, Flint Rising’s self-identification as a coalition of local groups was more aspirational than it was empirically accurate.

The real coalition that formed the backbone of Flint Rising, I gradually realized, was a network of progressive political, community organizing, and labor groups based outside Flint that looked at the small group of Flint activists involved as the coalition’s “local steering committee.” Not until I was added to Flint Rising’s internal listserv months later did I come to appreciate how instrumental these groups had been in supporting, or even making possible, much of what Flint Rising had done up to that point, and I found it curious that their involvement was generally elided (at least it seemed that way to me) at the community meetings, the main interface between Flint Rising and residents. There were, after all, strong reasons for partnering with these groups, for they brought with them valuable skills, connections, and resources: Michigan Voice took the lead in coordinating canvassing, Progress Michigan arranged press conferences and media “clapbacks” every time a major piece of water crisis news broke, unions like AFSCME, the SEIU, and the UAW helped with event turnout and transportation, and Michigan United helped set the coalition on a path toward establishing its own 501c3 and 501c4 funds. A variety of other groups—groups like Food and Water Watch, Clean Water Action, America Votes, the Sierra Club, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Michigan Nurses Association—also contributed in ways that extended the coalition’s reach and enhanced its effectiveness.

The relationship local Flint Rising activists had to this extensive network of organizations was no small part of why they were able to command respect from influential and powerful people. When then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton stopped through in early February, they managed to arrange a face-to-face meeting between her and two core organizers. When Surgeon General Vivek Murthy came to town a week later, they took him along on follow-up visits to homes they had canvassed. When Mark Ruffalo and other notables visited on the eve of the presidential debate in March, Flint Rising activists held a joint press conference with them and helped to tour them around town.

Flint Rising’s connections also gave it more political clout whenever the coalition lobbied for more state or federal assistance.28 Lobbying efforts got particularly intense in late spring 2016, when a battle emerged over a $127 million state appropriation for Flint that looked like it might not get through the State House before the summer recess. The fear that the state would not come through with the resources Flint needed was very real at the time: the NAACP had threatened “civil disobedience” if the state did not come up with a plan for pipe replacement,29 and on several occasions I heard people seriously considering the possibility of rioting. Flint Rising’s collaboration with state-level lobbying organizations, however, helped create more direct, and arguably more constructive, ways of applying pressure. Activists worked with these groups to organize a full-court press to get the bill passed, flooding key Republican leaders with phone calls, busing residents to Lansing for press conferences and prayer vigils in the Capitol rotunda, and hand delivering letters to legislators. When the House finally approved the bill in June, activists had no doubt their efforts had made the difference, and they held up the campaign as one of the movement’s major victories.

Both Reyes and Shariff insisted to me that no one had made an intentional effort to mask or downplay the role of outside groups in Flint Rising. Given the activist culture they were operating within, however, it was clear why they were not eager to portray Flint Rising as a coalition comprised mainly of outsiders. For one thing, it would have elicited the kinds of suspicions regularly directed by residents at people and groups purporting to speak for the community but not 100 percent “Flint.” (Even some Flint Rising activists worried about the ratio of residents to outsiders involved in the coalition’s internal deliberations: one asked me to start participating in conference calls to create more balance.) More importantly, drawing attention to the role of outside groups in the coalition would have clashed with the message that became an increasingly central theme of Flint Rising’s community meetings: the message that Flint residents had the power to do things for themselves.

Community Organizing and Activism

Flint Rising was not the only group talking about popular empowerment, of course, but the language it used to do so was distinctive, drawn from a body of thought and practice developed by professional community organizers. According to the community organizer credo, the overriding objective of the organizer is not to do for people but to help people do for themselves by building “people power.” People power, as understood by the organizer, is a product of relationships between individuals living in geographical proximity that can be parlayed into collective action. Where these relationships do not yet exist, the organizer’s job is to help establish them. The main tool used for this purpose is the “one-to-one,” a face-to-face “facilitated and strategic conversation” with individual residents aimed at identifying where their self-interest lies, convincing them that it can be furthered by banding together with their neighbors in collective action, and securing a commitment from them to attend organizing meetings or contribute in some way to advancing a collective struggle.30 In this way, a community is transformed into a “constituency,” a group of people “standing together to realize a common purpose.”31

Where social needs and injustices exist within a community, the organizer’s goal is to help people change their situation rather than merely cope with it.32 This is what differentiated Flint Rising’s canvassing from most other operations providing immediate water relief. The coalition looked at canvasses as opportunities to bring people into the movement by spreading the word about community meetings and identifying residents with leadership qualities who could be groomed into neighborhood-level organizers. By instilling organizing skills and putting residents to work in their own corners of the city, Flint Rising’s intention was to create “distributed leadership,” a decentralized network of mutually accountable people and groups sharing power and responsibility and working toward common goals. Once organized in this way, residents would have a formidable apparatus at their disposal that they could direct at any number of short- and long-term objectives. It would fundamentally alter the balance of power in Flint, undermining the hegemony of local elites and enabling residents to act for themselves whenever elected officials were unwilling or unable to act on their behalf.

It was essential, from Shariff’s perspective, that Flint residents lead the organizing effort on the ground. Oftentimes, she pointed out to me, organizing work is done by college-educated, predominantly white people paid to come into a community from the outside. In theory, by building local capacity, such organizers gradually render themselves obsolete. Shariff’s hope, however, was to obviate the need for them altogether by training up residents mobilized by the water crisis.33 Sometimes she or Sharon Allen of Michigan Faith in Action would incorporate mini-trainings into community meetings, leading us through “power analysis” or “strategy development,” or familiarizing us with rules-of-thumb well known to organizers (e.g., “self-interest moves people,” “power concedes nothing without a demand,” “follow the money,” “real power is hidden,” “no permanent allies or enemies”). The problem with trying to train people during the community meetings, however, was that turnout was so erratic there was little chance of producing a cumulative effect. To offer more substantive guidance to individuals with the potential to become “neighborhood captains” (I was one of two people to volunteer for Ward 7), Art Reyes led a day-long organizer training in May 2016.

When Reyes led trainings, the influence of Marshall Ganz was especially evident, particularly Ganz’s emphasis on the utility of storytelling as an organizing tool.34 Stories, Reyes told us, are excellent mechanisms for provoking an emotional response and stirring people to action. To begin with, an organizer has to have a prepackaged personal story about being called to action that models the kind of agency he or she seeks to elicit in others (this story can be used to lead off one-to-ones and other personal interactions with potential recruits). The constituency as a whole has to have a story of “us,” establishing a common identity rooted in shared values and experiences. It also has to have a story of “now,” establishing why collective action is imperative, what needs to be done, and what the future will look like if action is successful.

Reyes also taught us to be on the lookout, especially when canvassing, for members of the community with moving personal stories of their own that could be strategically useful to the coalition. Such stories had become hot commodities in the national media, where they were now granted great epistemic weight, presented nonjudgmentally as capturing essential truths about what was going on in the city. Flint Rising took advantage of this dynamic in its first major public event: a “People’s Hearing” in March, to which it invited Governor Snyder —not to speak, but to sit and listen to residents talk about their experiences, in what Shariff described as an “inversion of the emergency management paradigm.”35 (When Snyder declined to attend, she used a stand-in, puppet version of him to “receive” the coalition’s demands.)

The lineup of speakers at the People’s Hearing—mothers, people of color, members of the Hispanic community and the deaf community—reflected another important development: with all the respect residents’ experiences were now commanding, it was possible for even politically and culturally marginalized voices to speak and be heard. In some ways, personal qualities that had previously been epistemic liabilities—motherhood, or skin color, for example—were now assets enabling certain kinds of people to speak about the crisis with special gravitas. It was an opportunity to redefine what “Flint” looked like to the wider world and, simultaneously, assuage some of the bitterness created by the early prominence of white activists.

There is no better example than Flint Rising’s embrace of Nakiya Wakes, an African American, single mother living below the poverty line, whose story was one of the most dramatic to come out of the water crisis. Wakes had experienced many of the same problems with the water as other residents—rashes, hair loss, smelly and discolored water—but her account of how the crisis had affected her children set her apart. Since the city’s original change of water source, her son Jaylon, who had tested positive for elevated blood lead levels, had developed serious behavioral problems and been suspended from school an incredible fifty-six times. Wakes also attributed the deaths of two unborn children to the water. Five weeks after learning she was pregnant in early 2015, she went to the emergency room with complications and discovered she had miscarried. A follow-up visit, however, revealed that another heart was beating inside her womb: she had been pregnant with twins all along. Wakes called it her “miracle baby.” At thirteen weeks, however, more problems arose and she returned to the ER. After five days of hemorrhaging brought her to the brink of death, the second pulse, too, fell silent. Devastated, Wakes returned home from the hospital to find a blue flyer about total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) in her mailbox. It was the first she had heard of the water being dangerous, particularly to pregnant women. Although she would later conclude that lead, rather than TTHMs, was the most likely culprit, the upshot was the same: the water had taken her babies.

Flint Rising seized upon Wakes’s story and coalition partners worked to amplify it by arranging speaking opportunities and encouraging media coverage. Wakes related her water crisis experience regularly at activist events and actions and was featured in the New York Times, CNN, and a Hillary Clinton campaign ad. But most extraordinary of all, unlike those who first came forward with stories about the water, not once did Wakes feel like she was disbelieved. Just the opposite: she marveled at how many people had been touched by her story and had expressed their sympathies to her. No one asked her for scientific proof or a medical endorsement of her claims—the pathos and humanity of her words were enough.36

Flint Rising not only created opportunities for Wakes to speak, it trained her how to speak. Because Wakes was new to public speaking (at first, she told me, she felt a “frog” in her throat every time), coalition partner Progress Michigan worked on helping her script what she would say and build confidence in her own abilities, as it did with other select individuals whose stories fit the message the coalition wanted to project.37 Just how conscious the speakers themselves were of their role in the organizers’ strategy is debatable, however. I inadvertently created controversy within Flint Rising’s inner circle when I revealed to Wakes (thinking she already knew) that some of the organizers had envisioned her story as a substitute, of sorts, for that of another poor, African American mother whose health problems had prevented her from participating. Incidents like this led some within Flint Rising to question the transparency of the strategizing going on within the coalition. One activist—who was conscious that her role for the coalition’s PR purposes was that of the poor, white mother—told me that “people who don’t have any experience are being used.”38

Figure 8.1
Stories of residents featured on the Flint Rising website. Flint Rising.

One could argue that “using” people is simply part of the art of the community organizer: at one community meeting, Shariff explained that an “assertive” approach to organizing involved trying to “lure” people by appealing to their self-interest and “guilt trip[ping]” them by assigning them responsibilities—without letting on that they were being “hustled.”39 But the idea that organizing involves distinctions between the hustlers and the hustled, the organizers and the organized, raises questions about its compatibility with principles of democracy like transparency, equality, and participatory decision making. It also makes the question of who is doing the organizing—and whose interests they are serving—all the more important.

In conversations with some local Flint Rising activists, it became clear that they felt the outside groups within the coalition were trying to organize them, using the local steering committee—and the opportunity provided by the water crisis—to advance their larger organizational agendas. These “outside interests,” one activist worried, were controlling the “framing” and “representation” of the work being done on the ground in Flint, under the guise of merely facilitating that work.40 I even heard the dynamic compared to emergency management, in that outsiders were invoking their own purportedly superior skillset to justify infringing on the self-determination of local residents.

Officially, however, the coalition was operating with an agenda shaped by demands that had been “distilled,” Shariff told me, from what residents were calling for “out there in the community”:41 a 100 percent refund for water bills dating back to April 2014 and bill forgiveness until the water was safe (“We Don’t Pay for Poison”), replacement of Flint’s damaged infrastructure—all the way to the tap—using Flint labor (“Fix What You Broke”), and health and education services for all children, adults, and seniors in the community (“Our Families Deserve to Be Healthy”). Few in Flint would have denied that these demands were just, and some of the victories Flint Rising claimed—especially the passage of the state supplemental bill—clearly advanced them, giving residents tastes of victory that organizers usually consider critical to any sustained organizing effort.42 They were not always practical demands to organize around, however. At a Flint Rising meeting in June 2017, for example, I was in a breakout group that was supposed to come up with strategies to push for the “We Don’t Pay for Poison” demand. It was so farfetched by that point, however, to think that the state would pay 100 percent of residents’ water bills (given that a few months earlier it had ended even its temporary 65 percent credit) that it was not possible to have a meaningful conversation about how to proceed.

It was not just Flint Rising that was having trouble operationalizing its stated goals: in the heady days after the switch back to Detroit, when the activists felt like they “had ‘em by the balls” (as one put it43), certain demands sunk into the DNA of the movement that were long shots to begin with and only grew further divorced from political “reality” as time went on. The ubiquitous disaster area demand—even though it seemed so self-evidently just to so many people—was perhaps the best example. If there had ever been a moment when Flint might have been granted such a declaration, or some sort of special federal dispensation that circumvented the Stafford Act, it had long since passed by April 2017, when, as the spokesperson for the now-Three Years Too Long rally, I reiterated the demand to local media. My own position (when I removed my spokesperson’s cap) was that it was counterproductive to persist in demands that had such little hope of being realized—demands that had come into being at the peak of the activists’ feeling of power and possibility but had since outlived their usefulness. At the same time, giving them up was, admittedly, an uncomfortable prospect, for it would inevitably look like an admission of defeat. More importantly, it would contradict the lesson activists learned during the first phase of the water struggle: if you demand the impossible loud and long enough, you just might get it. When I debated the matter with Claire McClinton, she told me that her preference was to “throw caution to the wind,” not to pay any mind to what polite society deemed to be possible or reasonable.44 It put anyone counseling pragmatism in a tricky spot: who wanted to be responsible for deflating an “impossible” hope that might be the next one to come true?

Related to this tension between political opportunities and movement demands was a persistent tension—most evident within Flint Rising—between organizing and activism. While the logics of organizing and activism are not necessarily incompatible when the capacity exists to sustain both simultaneously,45 when capacity is limited, prioritizing one often means neglecting the other.46 An illustrative example of this tradeoff arose after the founding of a constituent group within Flint Rising in spring 2016 that took the name Flint Mom Power. My wife was one of a few people present at the inaugural meeting of the group, where it was decided that its chief mission would be to organize local moms around issues of public education. Almost as soon as this decision was made, however, the group’s energies were completely redirected into planning a week of water-related direct actions during the month of May. What resulted were some of the more memorable, attention-getting actions of the water crisis—particularly, a die-in at the water treatment plant featuring mothers and grandmothers clad in white jumpsuits smeared with red paint over the reproductive organs to symbolize harms done to women by lead. But from my wife’s perspective, the sudden substitution of (rather militant) activism for organizing was like a bait and switch: the practical work she had signed up for had to be totally suspended to make the actions possible, and she drifted away from the group, not to return. A similar dynamic emerged later in the year, when Flint Rising was in the middle of a concerted effort to organize the city ward by ward, but got sidetracked by the announcement of new water shutoffs, which seemed to call for an urgent response. (I cannot deny my own complicity in this instance, for I was one of the people calling for direct action.) At a community meeting in December that was supposed to be part of the organizing effort, attendees were told that Flint Rising’s next steps would be actions around shutoffs—actions which, for various reasons, were never followed through on.

Figure 8.2
America’s Heartbreakers action at the Flint Water Treatment Plant (May 16, 2016). MLive, Flint Journal.

The Dilemmas of Professionalism: Flint Rising 2.0

After the week of direct action in May 2016 and the passage of more state aid for Flint in June, Flint Rising began a process of reinvention. In August, it received a $250,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation for “building an organizing infrastructure” to address the water crisis.47 The money allowed for the hiring of a director, organizers, and canvassing staff. It touched off a heated debate among the Flint-based activists over who was most qualified for the positions and how the hires should be made.

When the dust settled (but only after some activists went their separate ways), Nayyirah Shariff emerged as Flint Rising’s director. She saw it as an opportunity to reset the group (for it was now officially a group rather than a coalition), to make it more independent from outside groups and take it in a more radically democratic direction. Although she was required by the terms of the grant to adopt the title of “Director,” she challenged the other activists to think outside the box of the “nonprofit industrial complex,” recommending that the group eschew top-down hierarchies in favor of an approach that built egalitarian, democratic values into the group’s organization and decision-making processes. Flint Rising’s objective, as Shariff conceived of it, was not merely to organize around the group’s official demands, but “to pilot the type of society we want to live in.”48 As she started to bring on staff, she strove to create an organizational culture of cooperative decision making. She trained the team members in conflict resolution49 and assigned them readings to facilitate deeper thinking about the group’s purpose and mission—readings on water democracy,50 on nonviolent struggle,51 on the difference between “serving” people and cultivating democratic citizenship,52 on the famously egalitarian Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil.53 These were signs, as I saw it, that Flint Rising was beginning to evolve beyond the Machiavellianism of the community organizing paradigm into a group that was more prefigurative in nature, more humanistic, more oriented toward the ideal of the “beloved community” (a term Shariff began to use with some frequency).54

Shariff tried to bring the same spirit to Flint Rising’s rebooted community meetings, which after a six-month hiatus resumed in December. The meetings, she told me, were intended to help residents become the agents of their own liberation by creating “spaces” of “self-governance” in which they could collectively talk through the challenges facing them, develop their own solutions, and experience, viscerally, what authentic democracy feels like. Shariff had no illusions, however, that everyone who turned out—motivated, as they usually were, by water concerns and lacking political experience—was coming in with the kind of refined political consciousness she was trying to develop in her staff. She viewed Flint Rising as an organization that could meet newly mobilized residents where they were at, foregrounding the issues most immediate to them, but also working to “train people up” by helping them to see not only that things were “bad” (because most needed no convincing), but why they were bad, and what could be done to address them on a structural level. This entry-level approach to bringing residents up to speed politically was, to Shariff’s mind, one of the things that distinguished Flint Rising from the FDDL: the FDDL, she said, was like a “senior thesis,” trading in sophisticated political analysis that went over the heads of most residents, whereas Flint Rising was “freshman orientation,” aiming to draw people in who were incensed about the water but still getting their political bearings.55

As Flint Rising became more professional in its structure and operation, however, it became in some ways even more opaque than previously. While it held regular internal staff meetings, its community meetings were much more sporadic, scheduled to cap off systematic canvassing efforts within individual wards. Given that canvassing was now conducted by professional staff rather than the eclectic influx of volunteers who had sustained it through the first half of 2016, Flint Rising’s day-to-day operations were self-contained and less accessible to people who wanted to feel like they were part of the group. Just as Flint Rising’s earlier reliance on outside groups chafed against its self-conception as the center of grassroots empowerment in Flint, the constraints of functioning on a 501c3 model coexisted uneasily with its ambition to be the avant-garde of popular democracy. Although Shariff was consciously trying to push against the limits of that model, she was fully aware, she told me, that the “revolution” would not be made by grant-funded organizations and that Flint Rising was no exception. Ultimately, she hoped, more radical groups would arise that Flint Rising could help to get off the ground by providing them with meeting space and skills training—acting, in a sense, as an incubator for the seeds that others wished to plant.56

The Elusive Dream of (Water) Democracy

Activists began 2016 fiercely critical (as always) of the state, but confident they could wring resources from it, hopeful for a boost from the federal government, and decidedly more optimistic about city administration after the replacement of Dayne Walling with Karen Weaver. By the end of the year, the situation had changed. Activists continued to call the state out for failing to commit itself fully to the recovery effort—at one point, Flint Rising activists delivered over a thousand “you owe me” messages in water bottles to Governor Snyder’s office, listing all the ways residents were still waiting for justice—but now their focus was on preventing the state from pulling out of Flint entirely. With system-wide lead levels dropping, the general feeling was that the state was eager to declare the water restored and put the crisis behind it. One particular point of contention was the water PODs: after the end of the federal declaration of emergency in August, the state had taken over responsibility for them, and in early 2017, state officials announced a two-phase plan to shut them down. With full replacement of Flint’s lead and galvanized service lines still at least three years away, and with residents still suspicious of point-of-use filters, the prospect of losing free bottled water (which the Genesee County Medical Society continued to recommend for physically vulnerable residents) caused a great deal of consternation and anger. Once again, Flint Rising was on the scene, sponsoring “pop-up pickets” at PODs that were slated to close. Activists also drew attention to the fact that, as Flint residents had their bottled water taken away, Nestlé—a company with ties to the Snyder administration and the largest bottler of water in the world, with wells all over Michigan—was at the same time sucking thousands of gallons out of the ground every minute for a pittance, not far from Flint.57

One brake on the state’s withdrawal was a major legal victory in November 2016: a federal court order, in a case brought by Melissa Mays, the Concerned Pastors, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the ACLU, forcing the state to deliver bottled water to residents without functioning filters on their taps. The state immediately began fighting the order—a spokesperson for Snyder said complying with it would take a “herculean effort … on the magnitude of a large-scale military operation” and would redirect resources away from where they were most needed.58 A settlement in March 2017 ultimately excused the state from water delivery and established a timeline for the POD closures, on the condition that the state commit $87 million to pipe replacement and send teams to every home to check on the status of residents’ filters. Reaction to the settlement was mixed within the activist community: people were glad to have more resources but displeased that the settlement gave the state an exit plan, and some accused the plaintiffs of presuming to speak for residents without soliciting their opinions or even informing them about the progress of the suit.59

Figure 8.3
You Owe Me bottles delivered by Flint Rising activists to State Capitol. MLive, Flint Journal.

The federal government was also showing signs of closing the books on Flint. The city got a large windfall of federal aid in December 2016 with the passage of a $170 million federal funding package—still less than the activists were hoping for, and, as Claire McClinton put it, laden with “strings attached as far as the eye can see”60—but with this, Flint scraped the bottom of the federal barrel. The same month, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform ended its investigation of the water crisis. Some federal agencies, chiefly the EPA, continued to maintain a presence in Flint, but it grew increasingly skeletal.

With less to fight for at the state and federal levels, and with the city back in possession of most of its power, events at City Hall began to take on more importance. Well into 2016, the activists rallied around Mayor Weaver as their chief ally (along with Councilman Eric Mays) within city government. As time went on, however, some activists began to feel like the focus on the state as the root of all evil was distracting from what they saw as the failures and abuses of Weaver’s administration. The city was continuing to enforce its ordinances on water shutoffs and liens for nonpayment of water bills, for example, despite the fact that nonpayment was still for many residents a matter of principle. Furthermore, in April 2017, at a mayor-sponsored town hall on water swarming with police, six activists were arrested for disorderly conduct after minor disruptions. Following this incident, some activists began to speak of the need to resist “fascism” in Flint—not the “fascism” of state appointees, now, but of the Weaver administration.61

The first chinks in Weaver’s armor had appeared earlier, however, when she became embroiled in the controversy over the most momentous decision to be made about the future of Flint’s water. With the city back on Lake Huron water, the question was whether it would switch, as planned, to getting that water through the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) pipeline upon its completion (now slated for summer 2017), or find some way of remaining on the Detroit system, now operated by the regional Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA). Anti-KWA sentiment was by now very strong within the activist community, shaped by the beliefs that hidden fracking interests were driving the project, that it was a privatization ploy, that it would undermine both Flint’s and Detroit’s financial stability, that it had already put Flint in a vulnerable position relative to the city’s creditors, and that it was one of the main causes of the water crisis. It was when Mayor Weaver, backed into a political corner, made good on the city’s promise to help finance the KWA pipeline’s construction that some of the activists began to speak out against her publicly for the first time.

In April 2017, however, Weaver made a stunning announcement: the city’s water consultant, John Young, had negotiated a deal that would allow Flint to stay with GLWA at a lower cost than if it opted for the KWA. It seemed too good to be true, especially since it involved GLWA taking on Flint’s bond debt, and no one knew quite what to make of it at first. As the activists learned more about the terms of the deal, realizing that it would lock Flint into a thirty-year contract with no guaranteed wholesale rate or say in rate setting, they grew almost as opposed to it as they were to the KWA. No one seemed to have much of an alternative, though. Some insisted that the city renegotiate a shorter-term contract, even though thirty years was the industry standard and the chances of GLWA’s budging on the issue were slim. Some of the same activists who were vehemently opposed to the KWA began saying that Flint had to have its own treatment plant, destined to be mothballed if the city chose GLWA but a central part of the KWA plan (since the plan required the city to treat raw water). More generally, activists insisted that Flint ought to have a “Flint-controlled” water system, but without a strong sense of what that would consist of, given the available options. While everyone could agree on the need for a better contract, beyond that, activists’ vision of an alternative, more democratic, water future was thin at best, and outside of a collective letter of concern,62 there was no real attempt to organize around even the contract demand.

Perhaps this state of aporia is one reason why so much excitement was generated by the news that activists who had fought against the Dakota Access Pipeline alongside residents of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation were coming to Flint. Just over a week before the mayor made her water recommendation, a group of these out-of-town activists, joined by a few locals (some of whom had been to Standing Rock themselves), established a settlement called Camp Promise in Kearsley Park, on the east side of Flint. The camp grew steadily over the next several weeks as more itinerant activists flocked to the city, having heard through activist networks that the crisis in Flint was no better and that residents were still desperately in need of help. Convinced of this before even arriving, they brought with them a militant mentality, fused to a sketchy understanding of the subtleties of the crisis and local politics. They became a combative presence at City Council meetings and town halls—without always, it seemed to me, having a strong sense of who it was they were combatting.63

When outside “help” came in the form of activists like these—whose sensibilities, tactics, and apparent commitment to the cause resonated strongly within the local activist scene—Flint activists were quick to accept it. They stood up for the camp when city police threatened to evict the campers and started spending a good deal of time hanging around the campfire, as Camp Promise became another venue to which people were invited to come hear residents’ “stories.” For a while, it looked as though there might be a true fusion of the insiders and the outsiders. There was one moment in particular that for me, and I think for others as well, signified that budding synthesis. On the day of our Three Years Too Long march and rally, I helped lead a group of marchers from a staging area on the north side of Flint along a three-mile route to City Hall, laboring much of the way under the weight of a huge banner, covered in expressions of solidarity, that had traveled, it proclaimed, “From Baltimore to Standing Rock to Flint.” As we approached the heart of downtown, we saw that, off to our left, another contingent that had left for City Hall from Camp Promise was fortuitously converging on the same spot at the same time. As the two streams fused, and the march suddenly doubled in size at the perfect moment, there was a feeling of exuberance and camaraderie in the air.

Alas, it did not last. The campers began feuding with each other, leading a breakaway faction to form another community it called the “Wolves’ Den” in a private residence.64 Campers also started feuding with local activists, making comments to the effect that Flint residents did not seem like they had any real desire to fight for themselves. After everything the activists had been through, no insult could have stung more. Some of Camp Promise’s former enthusiasts began promoting an online petition calling for the camp to be led by a Flint resident.

The appeal of Camp Promise was somewhat mystifying to me, but it was also instructive. The way some of the activists would wax poetic about it and proselytize for it, urging people to come see it for themselves, bore out its self-description: it really was a beacon of “promise,” at least for a while. Clearly there were longings for durable spaces of freedom and community that other groups weren’t managing to satisfy. The idea that such spaces could appear all of the sudden (literally, overnight) seemed to have a kind of enchanting appeal—more so, anyway, than the idea that such spaces are hard-won products of diligent organizing, accreting little by little over time, through the reshaping of existing institutions and the building of relationships within established geographies. The “promise” of Camp Promise lay also, it seemed, in the idea that the camp might revive the spirit of the water movement, as symbolized by the “sacred” fire at its center that was supposed to keep burning until the activists’ demands were met and the crisis was finally over.

Insofar as this spirit was still alive in early 2018, as my ethnographic work began to draw to a close, it was still searching for a suitable body. Activists continued to do important work outside Flint—speaking, lobbying, forging ties to new activist networks (like the revived Poor People’s Campaign led by Reverend William Barber II)—but the grassroots in Flint remained largely an “alphabet soup” (as one person put it to me) of different groups working on different things and only marginally cognizant of each other. Flint Rising, the group with the most ambitious vision of bringing residents together and empowering them in lasting ways around a transformative agenda, kept a low profile during the second half of 2017. After a series of internal controversies, some staff members quit and the group’s canvassing ground to a halt. The organizers who remained—Nayyirah Shariff, Melissa Mays, and Gina Luster—had a hard time between the three of them keeping the group afloat, as financial backers began to check in ever more eagerly for updates and people in the community began to wonder what had happened.

The situation was summed up well when the group reappeared in February 2018, calling a hastily arranged meeting designed to focus on a concrete, seemingly manageable objective: preparing residents to submit public comment about proposed revisions to Michigan’s state-level Lead and Copper Rule. Shariff opened the meeting by telling the fifteen or so people in attendance that Flint Rising was “rooted in the belief that those who are directly impacted should be driving the work.” It soon became clear, however, that a small group of people had already been working on the issue (“for twenty months,” as Mays put it) without bringing other residents into the conversation, or actively informing them about it. Now, at the tail end of the revisions process, Flint Rising was offering residents a crash course in the relevant background as well as talking points to reiterate to the MDEQ. The arrangement might have worked if people had felt ownership for what the core members of the group were doing in other venues, but some activists in the room came to the meeting determined to raise concerns about the group’s patchy interface with the community. Sue Whalen, a former Flint Rising staff member, rose to ask why the group had not stayed in touch with the people it had made contact with over the previous two years, or people who had worked for the organization in the past. It felt “disempowering,” she said—like people were being “used.” Tony Palladeno, chiming in to support her, said that Flint Rising had left people “hanging.”65

What began as one of the more focused activist meetings I had been to in Flint quickly unraveled, as Whalen’s and Palladeno’s dissenting comments touched off a cascade of remarks having little to do with the agenda at hand. As the meeting veered off course, Tru Saunders spoke up with a call to action that harkened back to her audacious stand in front of City Hall in the winter of 2015. “All this stuff you guys are coming up with,” she said (referring to the “paperwork” distributed to the meeting’s attendees), was already known to officials, and reiterating it would not make any difference. What was really needed was to “shut some stuff down.” A “24/7 protest” was in the works, she informed everyone, located in the same spot where she had once stood alone in the cold—this time, with people rotating in and out, day and night, a human version of the ever-burning flame.66

The Way Forward

These were the extremes that activists in Flint had the challenge of working within: the need to rally around the immediate, smaller-scale opportunities spit out by the slowly turning wheels of justice, and the need to demonstrate, continuously, the authenticity of a movement that prided itself on breaking down barriers through feats of personal and political will. The synthesis of organizing and activism that Flint Rising was striving for had the potential, I thought, to reconcile those priorities at the group level, if only it could be sustained logistically. But such a synthesis must also be integrated into the political identities of the people that such groups seek to mobilize, who must come to see everything from policy work, to power building, to protest as expressions of the same political agency. For that kind of political maturation to take place requires spaces more stable and nurturing than those that Flint Rising—or any other group, for that matter—was able to provide.

If Flint’s water activists were tough and stubborn, heirs to the city’s great fighting tradition, it was evident to me by the spring of 2018 that many of them also flirted regularly with feelings of helplessness and despair—feelings shaped by living in a city that for some time had been a victim of history more often than a maker of it, struggling for its very existence against economic collapse, political dissolution, and the creep of entropy eroding it from the inside out. Four years after the first inklings of a water movement began to appear, activists felt both that they had won extraordinary victories, and that, somehow, “nothing” had changed and no solution to the city’s problems was in sight. They continued to stress that Flint’s water was undrinkable, that little was being done to fix the problem, and that officials did not care whether residents lived or died.

The 24/7 protest never happened, but Flint was not done fighting yet. In April, two pieces of news broke that simultaneously brought the activists’ struggle full-circle and kindled it anew. On the 4th, Governor Snyder announced that he was officially ending all vestiges of state receivership in Flint: home rule was, at last, restored. Then, on the 6th, in a development that did not seem coincidental, the state announced that it was closing the city’s remaining water PODs, marking the end of state-provided bottled water. Five days later, I joined two busloads of activists on an emergency trip to the State Capitol. We rallied on the Capitol steps and disrupted the state legislature with chants of “DO YOUR JOBS! OPEN THE PODS! WATER FOR FLINT, NOT NESTLÉ!” On the 25th, the four-year anniversary of the switch to the Flint River, we were back, protesting outside the offices of the MDEQ, as state police blocked the front doors and hazy faces grinned at us through the windows above.

And thus, the fight for water, for justice, for a democratic future beyond emergency management, went on: in fits and starts, through concord and disagreement, walking a fine line between the pride, and the peril, of self-determination.





Water has a way of encouraging us to think about society at its most elemental level. The provision of clean, safe water is one of the cornerstones of civilization, a precondition of everything else that human beings have achieved or can achieve. More than with any other essential natural resource, accessing water depends upon intricate forms of social coordination: to transport it, to treat it, to sell it, to monitor its quality, to return it to nature after it has passed through human bodies and infrastructures. Our use of water depends also on whether or not, when told we can drink it by the authorities that watch over us, we believe. How we deliver clean, safe water, who is most likely to get it, and whether or not we feel we can trust it when it arrives may not tell us everything we need to know about the societies we live in, but tells us a great deal.

Within the American political tradition as it has come down to us, democracy is equally elemental. It is supposed to be the foundation of our common identity, the basis of our political decision making and of our culture. It is supposed to embody our principles, the value we place on freedom, on equality, on human life. And we are supposed to have faith that even when democracy is hard, even when it doesn’t produce the outcomes we seek, it is still the best available form of human association.

Claire McClinton liked to say that for people not to have clean water, and not to have democracy—in the twenty-first century, in the United States of America—was “unthinkable.”

Ironically, it is often the unthinkable that most makes us think. It is in those moments when the taken-for-grantedness of everyday life is shattered that the foundations of our social existence are exposed to view. When the water that we use to make our coffee and bathe our children is poisoned by “policy,” it is marked with the failures of our social institutions, and with the social injustices that force some more than others to bear the brunt of those failures. And sometimes the failures are so big, the injustices so glaring, that things actually change.

After Flint, some things changed. Cities around the country started proactively identifying and replacing their lead lines. Utilities started offering free water testing to residents and refining their corrosion control protocols. The Environmental Protection Agency sped up its ongoing efforts to revise the Lead and Copper Rule.1 State regulatory agencies heightened their vigilance. Drinking water infrastructure became—at least officially—a national priority.

Whether Flint will help to provoke similar changes in the area of municipal democracy remains to be seen. In October 2017, the US Supreme Court dashed one of activists’ last hopes of bringing down Michigan’s emergency manager law through the legal system when it declined to consider whether the law was constitutional.2 This decision left in effect the Sixth Circuit Court’s affirmation of the principle that states have “absolute discretion” over the powers granted to “political subdivisions.”

If the water movement in Flint proved anything, however, it was that there are other kinds of power that matter, too. Even in an utterly disenfranchised city, where elected representatives are little more than figureheads and where the most sacred emblem of democracy, the vote, is profaned by futility, it is still possible for the “people” to make their power known. The people of Flint made their power known whenever they organized a rally or a march, whenever they delivered petitions or carried out direct actions, whenever they pushed their own “narrative” of the crisis or commandeered the language and methods of science to show that the official narrative was false.

Some interpreters of what happened in Flint have described it as a “miracle,” a chance concatenation of capable grassroots leaders and well-placed allies rarely seen in other environmental justice struggles and not likely to be duplicated.3 The activists I knew resisted that notion. They saw the water movement as a reawakening of the plucky, democratic spirit that had always formed a part of the city’s identity—the spirit that had carried the sit-down strikers through the winter of 1937, that had brought advocates of fair housing to City Hall with their sleeping bags, that had steeled the opponents of the Genesee Power Station against the further pollution of their air. The renewal of that spirit could not have come at a more critical time—not only because lives depended on it, but also because the city was in need of a definitive rebuke to the idea that it could not manage on its own.

Paul Jordan, the lifelong Flint resident who stood in front of City Hall in 2011 to announce the first legal challenge to Public Act 4, described the water crisis to me as a “quantification of the risk of the loss of democracy.” In any “sane world,” he mused, the crisis would “increase the value of democracy.”4

Some in Flint had always been convinced of that value. Others had learned it the hard way: in the medium of skin, and hair, and brain, and lung. What they had also learned, however, was that “democracy” could not simply be quashed by fiat. It was not just an absence in Flint, expunged through the abrogation of representative institutions, but a presence—a presence that the people of Flint themselves were actively creating, driven by pathos as much as politics, in an example to the world of what the democratic spirit looks like when imbued with the urgency of life itself.

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