Peter Hammer: My name is Peter Hammer. I’m a professor of law here at Wayne State University Law School and director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.
Interviewer: The topic of our conversation today is primarily going to be around water security issues in Detroit. What does water security mean to you?
Peter: Language matters, and so we’ve had a concerted effort to try to be talking about clean, safe, affordable water. In my mind, I would associate notions of water security and water insecurity around that broader frame of trying to seek out and obtain clean, safe, affordable water.
Interviewer: Clean, safe and affordable. When we’re talking about safety, what are we talking about?
What does “Safe Water” Mean?
Peter: This opens up a whole bunch of issues. The thing about Flint, the Flint water was unsafe on multiple dimensions so you’re talking about purities and impurities and contaminants. You are thinking about affordable, you have the income component. Those were some of the thoughts to go into. Basically, you’re beginning with the premise that the water is essential for life, and that water needs to be holistically available which means it has got to be of sufficient quality, it’s got to be safe, it’s got to be clean, it’s got to be within the range of what people can actually afford.
Interviewer: Could you put this in maybe some historical perspective for us, given your work looking at how this has been percolating over that past few years? Maybe talk a little bit about the water distribution system that has been existing in southeast Michigan, in Detroit for the past few decades, when you see this being a problem or a security concern or a concern for essence in general?
Peter: The water system goes way back beyond a few decades. You’re really talking about the inception of the water system which was in Detroit, owned by Detroit and over the years, Detroit actually subsidized the growth of the region, which in retrospect was subsidizing its own demise. The growth of the water system is co-terminus with the growth of the region, but even though it is a region-wide footprint, it is still historically–I should say was historically owned and controlled by the city of Detroit, therefore, the fight over water reflected the greater fight over race and regionalism within the broader sectors.
It’s like any string that you start pulling. You can’t pull any string in Detroit without getting into what I call the three Rs of race, regionalism, and reconciliation. They are all intertwined. Fight over water is a fight over power. That tells you why Judge Feikens of the eastern district of Michigan, Federal Court was basically the water czar for three decades. Water is life but water is also power and politics.
Interviewer: Could you elaborate on the Feikens verdict and the Feikens rule a little bit?
The Influence of Judicial Rule on Water Policy
Peter: To be honest, I don’t understand [it]. Not because I’m not capable of understanding, but it started out as a violation of the federal Clean Water Act, which I do understand. Then it morphed into a parallel system of government in which the trial judge, Judge Feikens, was overseeing it but was really creating an alternative shadow form of government, which was giving the region all control over what was a Detroit asset and removing the exclusive control over the asset from the city of Detroit. How it morphs into that, which has no statutory authority, which has no life and federal mandate, that’s what i don’t understand. The suit that began as a Clean Water violation/environmental protection right became a system of regional governance that had none of the qualities of governance that you would want, which would be transparency, accountability, legitimacy, and democracy.
Interviewer: This was when? In the 19-
Peter: Started in the 1970s. It ended magically, days before the emergency management and the bankruptcy. This whole faux governance system that prevented Detroit from actually having ownership control over the asset, disappeared magically just as we were putting another system of control and emergency management and federal bankruptcy in Detroit, which also robbed the citizens of Detroit from its democratic rights. Through that process spun out the Great Lakes Water Authority, which in my opinion has really been the regional theft of a Detroit asset.
Interviewer: That ruling is generally the progenitor of the whole 8317 rule.
Peter: All these things get tied into that was in that era, what happened in that era. One of the things that happened in that era was judicial determination of the cost allocation of a particular part of the water system and water structure.
Interviewer: Dominant narrative from that ruling is basically that Detroiters screwed up the system, screwed up their ownership of the system so they can’t be trusted with ownership of the system. That’s why we need to have regionalism. How would you conquer that narrative? Because that is the narrative that is almost pushed in a lot of these circuits.
Peter: If that’s the narrative we first call it out, overtly racist as it is. Judge Feikens got into a lot of trouble in the very beginning because he basically said that the black people weren’t sophisticated enough to run the water system. The narrative certainly has a checkered history. The irony which disapproves the narrative amongst other lines is that Detroit hasn’t controlled the water system since Judge Feikens took it over. If there was mismanagement, if there are problems, you should be heading straight to Federal Court and the Federal judiciary because the irony is that Detroit hasn’t had control. Anybody whose lived in the city of Detroit has also heard the story, not just about water but about everything.
What it does, it becomes a convenient excuse for people who left the city decades ago to continue this racialized narrative. It’s the root cause of the water problem and it’s the same root cause of the educational crisis and the housing crisis is this notion of spatial structural racism. Censor the discussion around the notion of spatial structural racism. then start to see how that pre-determines these issues of race, regionalism, and reconciliation. Then you’re chasing your tail. It’s a complicated story so it’s not saying this is an easy thing. Any racialized system needs racialized narratives to maintain it. The entry question you gave was the racialized narrative that exists to perpetuate this racial hierarchy built upon water in this sentence, but grounded in these notions of spatial structure racism.
Interviewer: What I’ll ask you then is to explain a little bit about regionalism. Thinking about who the audience for the video would be–probably entirely people–regionalism is not necessarily a bad thing, per se, to think about how regionalism has been almost manipulated in this context. Then the other term you mentioned, reconciliation, which again is for a lay person to hear, it’s not a bad thing. How does that really enter into this play over here?
Peter: In the beginning, I think that that race, regionalism, and reconciliation becomes a framework to think about issues in Detroit, but have aspirational elements as well. I think everybody would benefit from a healthier sense of regionalism, but you have to get over the racial divides, the inequality if you’re going to get that. They’re also interconnected and I also look at reconciliations and aspirational goal. It may be intergenerational but you can’t start that if you don’t begin to at least think through what is the history of racism and white flight that created this dysfunctional divided region, how the water system is reflective of that fractured dysfunctional nature, and that if we can address that history, we can’t even begin to think about what reconciliation would look like.
There are healthier models. What I would say you should be aspiring to have in the metro area is a form of regional revenue sharing, which reflects where wealth was originally created, where wealth was transferred from and where inequality persists. Minneapolis and St Paul have a regional revenue sharing system that makes sure that the system and the region itself, which is the economic unit, the Wayne County and Oakland County and Macomb County are not economic systems. It’s the Detroit Metro areas that are economic systems that maintain a vibrant economic system that is more just. At the beginning of the bankruptcy process, Parcell Hardaway at MOSES and John Powell at the Haas Institute, and I wrote a piece that was calling for what I call now a grander bargain.
If you look at the footprint of the historic Detroit Water and Sewer Department, you have a footprint that is region wide, a footprint that is owned by the city of Detroit. What is bankruptcy supposed to do? It’s supposed to break contracts. We were advocating that we should go in through the bankruptcy process and break all of the wholesale contracts with all of these townships and municipalities, renegotiate them, and we would have an implicit system of regional revenue sharing. You could have taken the water system re-imagine what it would look like through a lens of racial equity and actually have a form of regionalism that would be building towards that Minneapolis and St Paul Model. That would have an embedded system of regional revenue sharing through the water system.
Now you say, well, that would require changes in state law. Well, we need to charge this in state law for the grand bargain, but nobody could even imagine a grander bargain. Nobody even imagine an equitable way to be using this water resource in a way that would make the water system itself sustainable but make the broader of social, economic, political, regional footprint sustainable.
Interviewer: What about the response to that space?
Peter: Silence. Nobody wants to say, “But it’s important you put that out there,” because then they can’t see why couldn’t think of anything else. It becomes something that you have a means of comparison that the Great Lakes Water Authority through the analysis that we do at the key center just like the Flint of KWA Pipeline and the root causes of the Flint water crisis are examples of what we call strategic racism. Strategic racism is the conscious manipulation for public or private gain of the historic forces of structural racism, intentional discrimination and forms of implicit bias. It doesn’t say there’s nobody that can understand why judge Feikens could control the water system for decades. Well, magically, the bankruptcy system wants to then embrace the water system. Then magically out of that bankruptcy process without any accountability, legitimacy, transparency, or democracy, you have the creation of the Great Lakes Water Authority.
In my mind, that is another example of the manipulation of historical, structural racism for the gain of the region. I think it’s appropriate to think about the Great Lakes Water Authority is an example of the theft of the Detroit Water and Sewer Department, and not an example of a form of authentic type of regionalism.
Why I Got Involved with the Water Crisis
Interviewer: How did you enter this context? Were you practicing law at that stage, were you working in State? Can you describe a little bit about how you entered?
Peter: Yes. The water crisis, the bankruptcy emergency management of all unfolded after the key center was up and running. The key center focuses on structural racism as our generation’s civil rights challenge, and through a methodology then of structural racism you look at the pressing issues of the city. One of the first things we looked at was the Detroit Future City report and use that very simple template of race, regionalism, reconciliation as a framework to do a critique of Detroit Future City. It was a near completely a historical document that looked at the problems of the city and the future of the city without any analysis of structural racism, any analysis of white flight, any analysis of segregated housing policies. I may be naive but I tell my students that if you don’t understand the nature of the problem it’s very hard to know what the solution is. Yet, this entire 360-page document tried to imagine 50 years of the future of Detroit without thinking about race.
If you look at the Detroit Future City maps, almost all of the maps show Detroit in isolation. It’s a map that shows the footprints of the City of Detroit. It doesn’t even have a name for Oakland County. It doesn’t have a name or a representation for Wayne County. All of this is this white space with complete non-representation. Ironically, one of the few maps that is in there, a couple of maps are worth noting, the map of the water table shows the region and not the city because water flows beyond these imaginary boundaries. There’s a map of migratory bird patterns and that shows the city not isolated from the region. There’s a map at the Detroit Water and Sewer Department, and that shows the region because the water system was regional.
What we do here is developing analysis of structural racism, apply that Detroit Future City, the collapsing of state policies that have contributed to the failure of the public school system, then emergency management and then bankruptcy and then water shutoffs and then tax were closures and then community benefits and another forms of equitable development.
The great thing about structural racism as a methodology is it’s de-siloing. It breaks down those silos and show all of these issues are fundamentally interconnected. If we don’t see the interconnection, if we don’t ground it and that history of spatial, structural racism we can’t even begin to imagine what adjust water system will look like, what adjust education system would look like or what adjust regional governance system would look like.
Interviewer: You’re talking about de-siloing, one of the advantages that I think we’ve been finding with the notion of water security, is that it does help us connect situations like sick affordability issues, contamination issues with the problems of access and infrastructure failure for instance. From a structural racism perspective, how would you connect all of these different issues? Because, it’s so strange because we are suffering from problems of scarcity, extreme scarcity, but extreme access, also, if you think of flooding as extreme excess, for instance.
Peter: There’re different ways. There’s another way we look at a construct of race rates and infrastructure. It’s important to try to make these things concrete. You can look at municipal distress as archaeological evidence of structural racism. You can actually look at some of the failures of the infrastructure, and the unequal nature of the infrastructure where you have an older aids part. You say, well, what’s the demography in the history of that part and the newer, cleaner, better design just out of historical actions when it’s made that is not stuck in a combined water-sewer of template and footprint.
This notion of trying to think through something like an infrastructure for water and how that overlays this notion of structural racism, I think, is a helpful way to start building these intuitions, and thinking about that then, how does that get reflected in rates, I think back to this notion of the construction of the Great Lakes Water Authority, anytime that you are maintaining these imaginary geopolitical contracts as the basis of rate making, you are guaranteeing that you are preserving the legacy of structural racism. The minute you tie it to geography, you are tying it to this legacy of structural racism. Then another great illustration that at least Detroiters understand is of auto insurance rates.
In auto insurance rates, I have a geographic unit. They incorporate that legacy of spacial, structural racism and then is no great mystery why Detroit has the highest auto insurance rates of the state and in many parts of the nation. If you now have this regional template for the water system, and you’re still preserving this balkanized system of townships and municipalities, you’re also perpetuating this legacy of spacial, structural racism. If you just imagine something different, what if we looked at the entire footprint of the Detroit Water and Sewer Department historically, or the Great Lakes Water Authority as a single right base, and then calculate our race-based upon that. There’s all sorts of ways that you can be imagining and re-imagining how we do business as usual. Until we’re ready break those systems apart, think of new ways, under a lens of racial equity as our guide. This is not so you just breaking things up and changing things just willy-nilly, you do it with very intentionality in trying to eliminate historical forms of inequality, create equal access to opportunity, and ensure that everybody has access to clean, safe, affordable water.
Interviewer: It goes back to what you were talking about earlier with racism makes strategy, so the efforts to dismantle that also need to be equally if not more strategic and–
Peter: Yes, and you have to talk openly about power. I said, “Why did Judge Feikens have the court system all the time?” Because the regional power structure wanted it. The regional power structure will then be able to use that system which had his origin, and a legitimate understanding of a violation of the Clean Water Act, and morph and maintain it, basically, into a shadow governance system, because that was in the interest of the regional power structure.
The regional power structure, got the Great Lakes Water Authority spun out strategically from the Detroit bankruptcy because that’s what the regional power structure wants. It is about power. If we’re going to change power systems, you have to be equally strategic, but you also have to map where that power is, if it’s going to think about how you’re going to be intervening, then what are the sets of strategies and tactics that can be used to change that unequal distribution and [we need to] try to be implementing more equitable forms of distribution of resources and opportunity.
Interviewer: I’m not a legal scholar, but from a lake perspective, I guess, a question that immediately comes to my mind is, was Judge Feikens ruling challenged, or was it not challenged? Why was it not challenged if it wasn’t so?
The (lack of) Response to Judicial Rulings
Peter: Because it reflected a regional consensus, and parts of Detroit were buying into that as well. Things are complicated. But the fact that it could be challenged, and the fact that it’s not the only way that one could have managed that, in my mind is proven by how quickly it was unwound when it was in the regional power structures desire not to have that subject, to this whole structure that complicates the law, remove the federal apparatus and make this a freestanding asset, could then be turned to the machinery of chapter nine bankruptcy.
Again, the changes of governance regimes are telling you important times of the changes and strategic objectives of those that are in a position to determine the power structure. In the same way, it’s linked to water, but a different story nobody focuses on when Emergency management ended in flint. We all know when it started and that’s a very important story, but emergency management ended in Flint at the height of the crisis over the lead. It ended because it was no longer the interest of the state to be the one holding the bag in Flint.
The amount of debt that existed at the time, emergency management was declared over-inflated responsibility was given back to the democracy and the citizens of Flint were almost the exact same amount of debt that existed at the time emergency management was declared in a state to control. These changes of governance structures tells you a lot. It’s important to look at when they’re created, but just as in Flint, and at the end of the consent decree process, and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department equally important to be thoughtful and analytical about when these structures end as well.
Interviewer: Do you think the stories of emergency management, and water concerns, and Flint, and Detroit are connected?
Peter: Through many different ways. The underlying spatial structural racism that created the archaeological evidence of that structural racism and the municipal distress that was the predicate of the opportunistic declaration of emergency management is almost identical in Flint and Detroit. That part is similar. It gets even more complicated in the sort of why this KWA pipeline, and why pitting Detroit versus Flint, in the context of the politics of land.
When you realize two things, one is it’s the same water system, both are under a system of emergency management, and both are reporting up through Treasury and up to the governor. Why there wasn’t a unitary analysis of what’s the best thing for the entire water unit? Some people argue, I think it’s a legitimate claim to be taken seriously, the Flint defecting from the Detroit Water and Sewer System was intended to weaken other Detroit water and sewer system, at a critical point that might enable various forms of regionalism. What they didn’t realize is that the asset could be still much easier and much quicker, without having to go through a prolonged way of weakening the internal structure.
Interviewer: I’m going to ask you to think back and reflect, bankruptcy Emergency Management happened was actually not that long ago by five years ago. I’m going to ask you to think back to, in your experience and your reflections around that time, when this was really unfolding around you. What were you doing? What were you thinking? What was your, Yes, who were you talking with? Who were you engaging with? How are you responding to all of these developments around you?
Peter: Yes. The thinking was, what a humanitarian crisis, what kind of civilized state would be having these mass water shutoffs? I have a public health background. From a public health perspective, clean water and sanitation did more to advance life expectancy than anything else in human history. When the special repertoire from the UN for housing and water were here, one of their observations was that they had never in their lives, seen a society that had solved that problem of water and sanitation, remove it from its citizens. Around the globe, people are struggling mightily to have a clean water system, to have sanitation. Nobody shuts it off to citizens. Just from its genesis, there’s a deep and profound notion of what a humanitarian crisis, what inequity, what inhumanity lies with this, what thoughtlessness.
Given away that data was collected and understood, they only collected the address data. They had no idea how many people lived in the house, they had no idea if they were elderly, or medically disabled, or children. This notion, I’m just going to start turning off that key that delivers water to this house was done in a completely blind way that was willfully ignorant, and denying of the humanity that is happening on the other side of that faucet. Nobody, it didn’t take long for anybody to understand what was at stake. The question is how do you act against that? Detroit is full of amazingly creative, talented, bright activists.
The water crisis wasn’t new, I mean, the water crisis is coming after issues of affordability and shutoffs that are going, a decade earlier and the pioneers of that day were creating water affordability plans, sliding scale, income-based ways to redesign both how much revenue you get, and have one of these few win-win scenarios were under their water affordability plan. You’ve got both more revenue and more justice. Those same creative people were coming together and trying to then use the bankruptcy process, to try to make a motion for an injunction and creatively trying to get testimony trying to get the district court judge, basically, to be saying if you are czar, and in de facto you are czar, czar should be worried about public health. Czar should be worried about the underlying impact that these processes have on people, not just their lives and livelihood, but their lives themselves. That was an amazingly creative, but ultimately, non-effective mechanism.
The creativity and the strategy to bring the UN here as witnesses to the crisis going on Detroit was mind-blowingly significant. Yet, it falls on deaf ears at City Hall. Indeed, is looked at disdainfully. That the human rights don’t apply in the United States, we’re much better than that. At the same time, you’re basically living without any democracy, having fiscal austerity imposed as a matter of federal law, and having people having their basic needs to water been taken off. They said that the need was obvious. The creativity, the energy, the action was out there, and yet it keeps hitting this wall, keeps hitting this wall and the policy today has not changed after tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of residents having their water shut off the policy is still the same.
Interviewer: Did you attend of their reporters Town Hall Forums?
Peter: Yes, I was on the listening panel. I was also hearing the stories as the special reporter, was hearing the stories of people’s water being shut off.
Interviewer: Can you describe or reflect what that experience was like for you?
“Everybody Knows the Story.”
Peter: Yes. The narrative matters, telling these stories are important, but there’s also an irony because everybody knows the story. There’s this notion that we’re going through a ritual and rituals can be important, but we’re also just as in the irony of Flint was the minute that they switched the Flint water, the minute the water came out looking like iced tea and smelling like crap, you knew there was something wrong in the water, but it wasn’t until we found lead, and lead in violation of specific federal statutes that we could act. There’s this interesting way in which power and knowledge and narrative and what moves systems, what doesn’t move systems, because it wasn’t a lack of knowledge, water is essential to life. Everybody’s told as a kid that you can live longer without food than you can without water, and yet we need to go through these rituals, we need to create this theater. Sometimes good effects
–sometimes not good effects [come from this], but [it’s] not effective in changing policies, but it was very effective in terms of really letting people into other stories, which is important, exposing this to an international audience that could then reflect that back to a power structure in a way that’s very different than the bottom-up advocacy that we often have to rely upon.
There’s dignity in hearing people’s stories, but that dignity fades pretty quickly when the policy doesn’t change.
Interviewer: Another, I think, really high-profile legal abandoned lease around that time was the Hamrick trials. Again, I know you were involved during that time as well. Can you maybe again reflect and recount your experiences during that?
Peter: Yes. I wasn’t directly involved in the legal work, so I would get credit and due to the the great lawyers who were doing that work, but what happens is you just keep going through what didn’t work and what tools do we have. There’s a notion of James Scott has a calling about the weapons of the weak, and so you’re going through what is left, and tools of civil disobedience are there. Those are time-honored tools, and many of the people who really put their bodies on the line had long histories and traditions of that kind of fight and that tradition of fighting, and they stood up, and stood for what was right. Then they have the whole force of the state coming down, the state that won’t think creatively about putting on water is going to make sure that we’re going to teach these people a lesson until it looks like they’re actually going to win and then we’ll just sort of pull the carpet out of the proceedings.
It’s an interesting story on many different dimensions, certainly the courage of the people who did it, the importance of the legal team and the legal support that was given and the pushback they were getting from the state and the torture legal rulings that seem to be produced, the longer this trial seemed to go forward.
One key part that the people don’t necessarily focus on was how important it was for the defendants to have a jury trial. Part of a tradition of a jury is embedded in traditions of democracy, and we don’t often sort of think about the jury from a democratic lens, but historically that was very important, and especially in the city. That’s an emergency management that has a huge Democratic deficit, that notion of the jury, and until those obedience is really a call for jury nullification, I’m going to call for the citizens to act through this democratic means and institution in ways to say those laws are unjust and we will not enforce those laws, but then again, creativity, amazing courage, and the policy remains the same.
Interviewer: Earlier, you made a comment about how bankruptcy, the goal is to break contracts. I wonder if somewhere along the way you’ve broken a really important social contract with regard to what makes our citizens of our residents healthy and prosperous. Can you talk a little bit about that?
The “Strong” Counter Narrative
Peter: Yes. That’s an interesting way to frame it, but you only have a social contract if you recognize people as human beings. I think the dehumanization that has gone, historically, the tropes you’ve talked about, the regional racism, the failure to look at this historic legacy of spatial structural racism as the root cause of inequality.
If you want to know the most simple reason why it’s been so hard to get policy change, is because there’s a very strong counter narrative based upon sort of a false meritocracy and the trope of individualism and not systems thinking, and that’s that notion that these people didn’t pay their bills. There’s a whole psychology with that. If you don’t pay your bill, you’re blameworthy. If you’re blameworthy, you’re deserving of punishment. The punishment here is that we’re going to shut your water off and it’s going to hurt me a whole lot more than it’s going to hurt you but it’s going to be good for you.
That becomes the psychology of the people who read the newspaper and see the story on the evening news. That becomes a psychology of the emergency manager. The inability to break through that narrative, which is one based on his false notion of meritocracy and this tradition, American tradition, of individual blame and punishment really is the core of why the needle has not moved in terms of the water shut-off today.
You keep brainstorming, but how do you deal with that, and remember back about it’s the economy stupid. The equivalent of that is this is no nobody voluntarily lives without water, nobody voluntarily lives without water. This notion that these people are out there spending money on all sorts of different things because they don’t want to drink water or have a bath, that is a false reality. Yet, it becomes very difficult to counter that as a matter of narrative, as a matter of changing that psychology, and it’s important to note how that individual narrative is mirrored in the broader notion of the emergency manager.
Here what you’re saying, is, “Look at this city. The city is a municipal distress. We told you these people couldn’t govern themselves, they’re blameworthy.” Therefore, now the city can be punished, and the punishment there is emergency management which has all sorts of sexist paternalistic overtones as well, but that is going to come in and clean everything up. Then the punishment becomes these very draconian forms of fiscal austerity, that we’re going to give you different and lower sets of city services, and we’re going to let the zip code that you’re born in determine for future generations in this region of what opportunity that you are going to have available for you. Then if you don’t succeed after not having available opportunity, we’re going to blame me for not working hard enough, and we see that we’re just changing chasing our tail again over and over.
Interviewer: I do know of efforts currently on the ground, one of the groups, I think it’s Detroit Jews For Justice, that is especially trying to canvass residents and groups and Oakland County to try to find out their knowledge of the Detroit water shutoffs and try to understand some of the psychological blocks. Our project actually earlier on, we did the series of interviews with both suburban and Detroit residents who were not affected because we really wanted to understand what are these narratives that re-situate this privilege.
By and large, we have our empirical data, essentially backs up a lot of what you’re saying in terms of personal responsibility, being a really key discourse, focusing on your own individual collective bubble, community bubble for instance. But despite that, we also found instances where some people were saying, we need to make allowances and exceptions for if you really can’t pay then you should be allowed to still have water. If you’re a senior citizen, you should still regardless be allowed to have water. If there are kids at home, you should still be allowed to have access to water. From your perspective, do you think this narrative of, yes, individualism, but yes, there should be exceptions, is that helpful or do you think it still perpetuates this broader individualism?
Peter: It’s complicated. I think you want to be moving to frames that honor the systems-based nature of the analysis. I believe a public health frame helps do that. One of the few entities that sort of has a public tinge to it was originally was created was the Detroit Wayne County Health Authority changed its names to Authority Health, which sounds scary to me, but in essence, the same group. That group for a number of years maintained what they called the Population Health Council. In my mind, that was one of the more interesting and sophisticated groups of people who came together on a quarterly basis to look at the issues of Detroit and the region through a lens of public health.
I think, I could be wrong, could be others, but they passed a resolution that was arguing for a series of public health exceptions to the water shut-offs. The mirror which we’re talking about, but not in a punitive sense. Basically saying that because we believe that public health is important because we want to preserve and maintain and promote the public health, there should be a public health exception to the water shut-offs if there’s a medically needy person in the house; if there are senior citizens in the house, if there are pregnant women in the house, if there are children in the house.
I think that that was one of the ways to be pushing back against this sort of personal responsibility and individual narrative, as well as, as I say, trying to leverage a group that had some legitimacy in terms of being a public entity or sanctioned by public entities to be standing up and saying what is right and what is wrong and what is promoting the public health and what is denying the public health.
The other effort I would point to is this effort try to use back to empirical research. Just as it took empirical research, which was originally citizen-driven and not university-driven in Flint to tell the story about lead to create it in a frame that somehow legitimated a public action in ways that just rotten water that is causing rashes and people’s hair to fall out didn’t. Was to then say well, let’s prove what we all knew as kids that water is essential to life.
There was, again, a collective effort which included the Global Health Initiative at Henry Ford hospital to try to document by using emergency room data and looking at people whether they came from a block that had water shut-offs and demonstrating again what every high school biology student knows that if you came from a block that had a water shut off, you had a higher incidence of a soft tissue infection. If you came to the emergency room with a soft tissue infection, you’re much more likely to come from a block that had water shut-offs.
Even at that preliminary stage, you start to connect the dots in a way that says, “Wow, this is not just an individual story. This is a story that’s affecting entire neighborhoods, entire groups.” Then the power structure comes down in that study; knowledge, research, academics, studies, was basically squelched and people were forbidden to talk about it. This is a democracy, so they say.
Interviewer: As a fellow academic, what is the role of academics in situations like this? Can you describe how you yourself have tried to engage with different community groups and members on the ground? What are the obstacles and challenges that you face? Because we’re going through something quite similar but of course, you have had so much of a head start. Maybe, could you reflect a little bit on your journey as an engaged scholar, scholar-activist, whichever label that you’d like to adopt?
The Role of Scholarly Activism
Peter: I think you have to have different gears you can work within. I think there’s one way academics can be very helpful by being in their expert gear. They have specialized body of knowledge. They can bring that specialized body of knowledge to bear and then they can try to inform understanding and policy. That really is one of the things that also just tremendously troubled and shocked me is we were going around trying to make this public health case. Nobody stepped forward. You couldn’t get an emergency room doctor to tell you that water was necessary for health.
You couldn’t find people that are public health schools, including a leading public health school down I-94, to be coming out and stating what, again, high school biology students know but would give that monitor expertise to say, “Yes, mass water shut-offs really are a serious public health problem. Water really is necessary for life.” I would say that the medical professionals, medical schools, public health professionals of public health schools, public health academics have a huge black eye in not stepping forward and using their basic expertise to inform policy decisions.
There are different gears again. A lot of the work that we do in the key center and I think, exemplified in the Detroit Equity Action Lab or the DEAL is an effort to try to work collaboratively with community. There what we’re trying to do is be enabling and catalytic of the work that is happening in community; trying to build stronger coalitions, trying to help collaborative undertakings, trying to provide the assistance that you’re told that people need and be very thoughtful about how decisions are made, whose leadership is being respective, how you’re working within that kind of coalition.
We were doing that as well and worked with just a number of tremendously dedicated, talented, thoughtful, hardworking people that kept running into that wall, no matter how hard they fought in terms of trying to change this policy, trying to get exceptions, trying to get this notion of water affordability, trying to think creatively about how you could redesign rate structures. To me, it’s been the most frustrating issue that I’ve worked on in coalition with folks because the need is so obvious, in my mind, sort of self-evident; the evil, the harm is so clear. The work that has been done has been heroic and the policy hasn’t changed.
Interviewer: Why hasn’t the policy changed in your opinion?
Rationalizing Policy Stagnation
Peter: I said, “Come back.” I think it’s many different reasons. At one level, when you look at a complex system that keeps producing a result, one says, “Well, the system’s broken.” Another way to look it is to say, “Well, the system’s doing exactly what it wants.” I think, again, if you’re going back to that frame of five, seven years that it was leading into emergency management, leading into the bankruptcy, leading to the water shut-offs, there were a number of complementary policies that were all having the effect of mass displacement, water shut-offs, mass displacement.
The closing of 100-plus public schools associated with mass displacement. The tax foreclosures, which had a very conscious element not to be adjusting the assessed value as the market fell. A key driver of the tax foreclosures and why you get the name of the coalition to stop illegal tax foreclosures is that another conscious decision was made to try to beef up revenue by keeping property taxes higher even though it ultimately led to the foreclosure of tens of thousands of people’s homes.
I think it’s worth thinking about as we’re hearing this broader narrative of renaissance Detroit, Detroit rebirth, that people are permitting mass displacement to take place because they don’t see a Detroit future city that has room for poor black folk. Until somebody can disprove that by showing why all these awful decisions actually make good sense and are good public policy, I think we have to maintain the sort of dystopic vision of these policies either willfully or through blind neglect permitting forms of mass displacement to continue as being one of the leading explanations of why you haven’t had action on tax foreclosures or water shut-offs. I think that’s part of it. I also think that, as we said before, the systems analysis runs into individual analysis. There’s a broader political psychology at play that we need to be working at and then just as this notion that Flint lives don’t matter and that’s why you could poison Flint but you could never poison Ann Arbor, it’s coming back to the same notion that the people really don’t think black lives matter. That these lives are not valued. That’s part of the analysis that says, “Why I can be in a majority-black city and shut off tens of thousands of households of water and not care.
Interviewer: So mass displacement is the goal.
Peter: It’s complicated. Anytime you’re dealing with a system and a complex system having a goal, having a unitary answer, having a form of intent becomes complicated and that’s why I said before, to me, it hasn’t been disproven that it’s not a goal. I think that’s a live hypothesis, but I think there’s this whole continuum of this notion of intending it to happen. There’s another continuum of knowing it’s happening and not acting and you can document that as being true.
These are happening and people are not acting to stop it, and then you can reinterpret how you approach intent and this is one of the brilliant things that Judge Keith did and the Pontiac busing case was one of the areas, that if you know this is what is happening and you have public responsibilities and you don’t fix the problem, you have intended that. I think we have to also be moving to a more aggressive understanding of what intent is and if you are publicly charged with responsibility and you fail to act in light of that responsibility, then you should be hung around your neck of responsibility for the social evil that has taken place and you should not be able to avoid responsibility.
I think that very well details the water shut-offs; the people who are running the water system, the city council that is not aggressively tried to act the mayor who has stood aside and let this continue. Each one of those had the ability, has the ability to take steps that would ameliorate the problem. They are not taking those steps. It’s fair to put responsibility on their plate for that failure.
Interviewer: The concerns of mass displacement and gentrification are those that I think are very real, especially in communities like Brightmoor and the North End where we have engaged organizers and residents because both of those neighborhoods, I have seen major shut-offs for sometimes, ridiculously low amounts of bills unpaid, sometimes into 10 cents, 38 cents, at the same time you see within those communities, you’ve got these brand new spanking urban farms, schools, houses being bought and rebought and fixed. So these are concerns that we hear actually from the residents and organizers on the ground as well.
What data or knowledge points would be useful to definitively say that we’re wise to your game, your long-term game because this is what the goal is; to basically turnover residents, to turnover the neighborhood, to reshape the city as need be? What knowledge or data do you think is required?
Peter: I think the mass displacement should speak for itself. I think you can point to mass displacement and that mass displacement is taking place in a setting where there are policy alternatives. That’s why I thought it was very important that we are advocating for a grander bargain that would lead to a more equitable form of the entire water system. If people are saying that I can’t do anything, I can’t do anything, that’s one scenario. If you’re putting there and say, “Well, let’s dust off this 10-year old water affordability plan.” That has a substantial empirical and an analytic support before it. “Let’s look at adopting that.”
I also think there’s a trap of falling into the expert paradigm of data and I’ve eluded to that before. Sometimes, that can be manipulated and worked. Sometimes, if you say, “Well, I’ve got to figure out how to prove it.” and the proving it was a key part of the Henry Ford study. There’s power to that. We’re not saying that there isn’t power, data, and analysis. I also think you have to be careful of the broader policy and rhetorical frame that you’re implicating as well. For example, when the water shut-offs were just starting, this was not long after the Detroit Future City report had come out.
People were very interested in trying to see, is there any correlation between the location and intensity of the water shut-offs and the neighborhoods that were deemed viable and neighborhoods that were not being viable, so there were efforts to do both mappings and try to do some statistical analysis to see whether that was so. The truth was that the water shut-offs were everywhere and some people were looking at that, saying, “Well, that just proves that Detroit Future City is not the governing template.” Or I think the better answer is saying, “That proves the theory of mass displacement.”
That there’s at least two policy instruments going on. One might be dedicated to try to implement this shifting little puzzle pieces to reengage the city around neighborhoods that are deemed as viable at the same time that this narrative of mass displacement is coming through. I think that Professor Bernadette Atuahene has done this heroic work with her co-authors to document through data, the nature of the tax foreclosure and to put responsibility of that at the doorstep of policymakers. I think there’s a lot of data that tells the narrative. Look how far the queue line goes; that tells you how far people are invested in Detroit from a Downtown perspective.
Some other important data just comes in the notion of whether or not you can get a commercial mortgage to buy a home. Bridge Magazine recently came out with a story with a series of overlaying maps about what neighborhoods were getting loans or not and that’s going to much more closely correlate with the Detroit Future City template of a viable versus not viable, as well as race factors that start to show that loans were going in the more viable settings that are going to receive public subsidies, investments, support, infrastructure, and that those loans were going disproportionately to white applicants in a majority-black city.
You go downtown and you look at who’s eating in a restaurant, even more so you look downtown and you don’t even find African-Americans in the workplace. You’re finding the notion of whether it’s anecdotally or whether you’re looking at demography or looking at different forms of data, the writing is in my mind very clearly on the walls and yet it doesn’t change policy, and then you come back to that notion that if a system is producing a certain outcome in a persistent way that the system really is probably designed to produce that outcome. If a system is producing gentrification and mass displacement, the system isn’t broken. The system is doing what the system is intended to do.
That’s why you need these broader deeper critiques to be looking at this through a lens of spatial structural racism to connect that to the forms of historic inequalities and to use that as a benchmark to then be making a normative assessment through a metric of race or black, we didn’t say, “Is this right?” That opens up a very different discussion.
Interviewer: Tell me a little bit about; once you do your analysis and you create a report or a piece or a publication, what happens to it? How do you then convey it to the hands of the powers that be? Tell me a little bit about that process of translating your work for policymakers or broader community members?
Peter: There’s no magic bullet. There’s no single formula. One of the difficulties given how quickly things have and are changing in the number of crisis that people in Detroit are facing, the time frame that it takes to do a thoughtful analysis often is longer and slower than the underlying nature of the shifting problems, in the shifting crises. There’s a way in which you’re always playing catch up. Or there are ways in which people need to be sort of more thoughtful about what is the output. If I think of just things that we’ve done here at the center and analysis or reports, the critique that we did of Detroit Future City, I think had a significant impact. That basically was one talk at Marygrove College.
I was so busy, I couldn’t even write it up. You can’t even find that in written form while you find bits and pieces of it and other things that I’ve written. But that hit in a time when it was relevant. That was basically telling people what they already knew, which is a great way to convince them that there’s no great insights there. The people that looked at the report, went through the process, didn’t already know, but what was not happening as nobody was saying it. I think that made a difference. I was on the short list of people interviewed by Judge Rhodes to do an economic evaluation of the bankruptcy plan of adjustment.
I didn’t get the job, not a big surprise, but where they paid millions of dollars to get their report, I wrote a free critique of their report in the form of an open letter to Judge Rhodes. It was subsequently published in our journal of Law and Society here at Wayne State Law School. I thought that was at a very important analysis. Didn’t have any impact at all. It didn’t have any impact because the number of political forces lining up to say; don’t question the bankruptcy, don’t rock the boat. Doesn’t matter how good the analysis is, how troubled the expert report is, how much this was thrown together, how little we actually know about what’s going on.
There was no audience for that. At least within the ranges of what people were in a position to have influence. In fact, the whole dynamics of that process was to get it done quick; don’t ask questions, get it done quick, don’t ask questions. The mismatch between a deep analysis and a quickly moving target that doesn’t want to be introspective meant that didn’t have any impact. Then I would contrast two other things that we’ve produced in terms of analyses. I wrote another sort of lengthy analysis of the fate of the Detroit public schools. That was done maybe seven, eight years ago.
That didn’t have any quick rapid change in policy, but I did think that that had a pretty substantial impact on the way that subsequent efforts to reform the process, including the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, looked at it. I think that helped define for a period of years what the appropriate way was to frame the understanding of what was happening in the public schools; what was wrong, and what were the kinds of things that would start to move us in a better direction.
One of the most gratifying things I’ve had as an academic is a woman who was just a mother and a parent of children in the schools that wanted to understand the problem called me up to schedule a meeting, we went through it, and she had already read it multiple times and had all sorts of margin notes and was using that as her effort to try to understand what’s happening in this complicated system. I think that’s a different way we’re trying to impact by slowly, organically trying to change the way that people understand what the nature of the problem is and analyze it in a more sophisticated way.
I would say that the work that we did on the Flint water crisis in the form of a report that was produced for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights when they were holding their theories looking at the Flint crisis through the lens of structural racism, had a deeper impact. Again, I think everybody knew what was happening in Flint was wrong. I don’t think that there have been many deep analysis as of why and how wrong it really was. In a gratifying way that that report in some respects was used as a template for the initial framing of the criminal investigation.
Because it really told the story of following the money and looking at the decision to approve the pipeline, look at how the pipeline was financed, look at the end of emergency management, look at treasury, which nobody else was looking at. They were only looking at the Department of Health and Human Services. The criminal complaints went far beyond that because they quickly got access to lots of information that wasn’t publicly available. I think, again, setting the template for how to frame the issue or work through the chronology that people hadn’t worked through, linked this notion of spatial structural racism with strategic racism that brings in a different lens, this idea of intent.
Then kind of saying these are the people who need to be held accountable, these are the institutions that have not yet been accountable, helped orient people who were already up in arms legitimately who had all sorts of energy, and gave them, I think, a slightly different and broader frame to be introspection about what was happening, why it was happening and how they might direct their efforts.
Interviewer: What is your impression? What is your impression of some of the movements that we’re basically seeing right now, either at the state level or the community level? I guess I’m trying to get an understanding of how you see this panning out going forward despite the fact that as you mentioned, five years on, no change in policy.
Projected Potential of Detroit’s Alleviation
Peter: Detroit is full of amazing people. I keep saying that, because it’s just true, and we need to lift that up. Part of what makes them amazing is they hit the wall, they adapt, they change. They are not going to follow the same tactics. I think over the five years that the water struggle has gone on, you’ve also seen a whole bunch of new tactics being adopted, new strategies. I think there has been substantial progress on the framing of the narrative. I think in the beginning you were not hearing policymakers, you were not hearing journalists, you were not hearing of members of the public just hitting that mantra of “clean, safe, affordable water.”
I think people use different formulas, and it’s not the exact same thing, but I think that mantra, that kind of framing has made deeper inroads. Now people kind of nod their heads as it’s not the first time they’ve heard it. There’s a logic to it. They understand what it means. In terms of a broader narrative and understanding, I think that there has been a change. I think that the politics of Detroit is changing in a way that people are starting to realize. Part of this is saying — like the tax foreclosures — now that we’ve gotten rid of 100,000 people off, let’s fix the system.
Now that we shut off water to 100,000 residents, well, maybe that’s not the policy we really want to be associated with the city; is we’re cleaning up our image. I think for different reasons, the politics may be shifting in ways that make local government more open to trying to think about more humane policies. That would be wonderful, but nobody should ever forget the 100,000 people in the last five years that have lost their home and have not had water for periods of time. Or that notion that mass displacement has a legacy. That’s been a very difficult thing to document.
Not to get too far off topic, but we’ve made different efforts; some journalistically, some in terms of trying to write proposals that would do more substantial studies of the impact of fiscal austerity, of nobody knows where these people have gone. There’s been no effort to track. There’s been no effort to map. There’s no efforts to look. Some moved around the city, so there’s some kind of internal sort of movement. Some are in the housing market sort of having Black flight follow White flight. There’s some movement in the region, there’s some exit from the region, but we don’t have the answer to that question.
We have this reality of policies that are facilitating mass displacement, yet we have no efforts to even begin to think about what has been the effect in terms of the social political demographic implications of those policies of mass displacement. What I always tell my students — because there is a data component to human rights — that we collect data on things that we care about. Therefore, the absence of data on these issues, again, is reflective of the absence of caring. So we can’t forget about the legacy of mass displacement.
I do think that the micro politics are changing in a way.
Shame is one lever. Or saying that maybe as we’re trying to attract new, younger white people, we don’t want to have bad press about water being shut off and tax foreclosures taking place. So the micro politics, I think, could be changing. I think the more interesting, broader, statewide change, and has national implications, it is this reality of the unifying implications of water, broadly defined, water affordability, broadly defined, and not just you’re building Detroit but what are the implicit costs of septic systems and self-delivered water. The fact that there’s an affordability component that is linking water issues across the state, there’s certainly a safety and quality component. This linking of water issues across the state.
I think that there is a growing awareness that there’s a broad range and portfolio of issues around water that can unite different political factions in ways that could produce unifying change. That’s low. I think progress has been made. Those things are fragile. On a positive scenario, one could imagine that work continuing. Sometimes in complex systems, you get rapid cascading forms of change that might lead to a radical statewide change in the way that we understand the relationship of the populace to clean, safe, affordable water. That by implication would have derivative implications for rural settings, for smaller cities, as well as for larger urban areas under a more unified frame.
I think that would be still forward-looking, still optimistic, still very tentative. I think that dynamic is at play now in a way that that was not at play five years ago. Part of that is the tactical changes. These are intentional. These are smart, dedicated people working these issues that have looked for those opportunities, created those relationships, fostered that different way of thinking. The other potentially positive frame of foot is to be thinking in a more unified way about what water systems are; how the state should be regulating water systems.
Again, it’s kind of things that most ordinary people for understandable reasons don’t know, water is not regulated like energy. DTE is subject to all sorts of important controls, both on the environmental side, on a good day, and on the right side, that water is not. Water has been neglected as an object of oversight, of control, of regulation, of thoughtfulness. I think there’s a growing awareness that given the importance of water, given the complexity, given that the heterogeneity around the state, no two water systems are alike-
Interviewer: Around the country.
Peter: -in the country. That’s not a good thing if you’re trying to think about the obligations we have to protect public health. I think on that more wonkish, technocratic systems thinking that there’s way in which we can be more thoughtful in terms of what a water system looks like, what are the state rules that should govern a water system and filling this kind of historic void where there hasn’t been the same type of oversight regulation control thoughtfulness, again, as we might think about when we look at an electrical utility.
Interviewer: Sometimes one of the most important things that moves policy or that policy can really gain from is having that emotionally resonant quality. Reflecting on that, is there a particular person or personal story or an experience that you can recount, either that you’ve experienced yourself or that you’ve witnessed, that has moved you or inspired you?
Sources of Inspiration
Peter: People who have been brave enough to speak publicly are inspiring because they do that at often great personal risk. I would probably say that the deeper form of inspiration has happened for me is really been working with activists who have not given up. Mama Lila Cabbil, who has passed recently, was a real warrior. She would be at every water event. The thoughtfulness, the intelligence, the care that she brought to that work was and is deeply inspiring. I think there’s all sorts of people around the People’s Water Board that worked here just for this rodeo. They were here going back 10, 15, 20 years around the water fight.
I think of Sylvia Orduño as somebody who’s just championing water everywhere in every space in a way that is fearless and brave. This is not safe work. This is hard work. This is tiring work. This is exhausting work. I think of groups like We the People of Detroit and people like Monica Lewis-Patrick who are real generals in terms of the strategy; the intensity, the intentionality. I have really appreciated learning from respected– Just a whole wide range of people who are in this work so deep, so long. That to me is a lot of my inspiration. I say that in all deference for the folks who are suffering daily.
With also particular respect for those that are standing up and making public stands where people need to realize that if you don’t have water, Child Protective Services can take your kids. There are very good reasons why you’re not hearing a whole lot of personal narratives in this area because it’s dangerous for families, it’s dangerous for parents to be telling these stories. I think people interpret the absence of stories as the absence of injury and in this case that there’s no way to conflate those two things. They shouldn’t be conflated.