Flint Water Protests hit Lansing

The Flint Water Crisis reflects a progression of what I’ve written about, more theoretically than empirically, in my American Studies article on urban democracy in the age of austerity and money politics. Michigan’s emergency manager law, which represents a difference of degree rather than kind among state actions to limit urban home rule and public democracy, has enabled bottom-line decision-making that risked the health of Flint residents to save relatively trivial amounts of money in the city’s water service. These decisions were made in the absence of locally accountable elected officials, but Flint residents are not going to let the story end there. Protests have hit the state capitol in Lansing, demanding the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder, the champion of the state’s emergency manager law.

The Daily Show has jumped on this in a way that highlights the fundamental cruelty of the cost-cutting decision, though it doesn’t address the emergency management element of the story.

It’s worth mentioning that the emergency manager who made the decision to switch Flint’s water supply from Detroit’s Lake Huron water to the Flint River has been recently named the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools.

One Way to Not Comply With Fair Housing Laws….

Via Brentin Mock at Citylab: 

In the early 2000s, Palmdale and Lancaster began spending “significant resources” to pay for investigators and sheriff’s deputies for the sole purpose of aggressively monitoring families in the Section 8 voucher program, reads the Justice Department’s complaint. As a result, hundreds of black families had investigators randomly show up at their doors, often with a posse of armed sheriffs, to search their homes and interrogate them about their housing status.

Mock quotes this from the Justice Department’s press release, available here:

[The Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles] and [the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department] used their resources to effectuate the cities’ [Palmdale and Lancaster] mutual discriminatory goals and to carry out their own discriminatory motives by disproportionately subjecting African-American voucher holders in the cities to more intrusive and intimidating compliance checks and referring those households for termination from the voucher program at greater rates than white voucher holders living in the cities, or any voucher holders living elsewhere in the county of Los Angeles.

Read Mock’s whole account. If you guessed that public authorities in Lancaster and Palmdale would be chastened by this finding, guess again. A growing literature is addressing the history of American public housing and its privatized successor programs, notably Larry Vale’s Purging the Poorest, which evaluates the shift away from modernist mass-scale public housing in Atlanta and Chicago. Despite the well-known problems with public housing, the shift toward vouchers and market-rent subsidy programs exposes the poor and particularly the poor of color to a double-edged sword–by accepting the incentive offered by Section 8 and other market-oriented housing programs to move out of urban areas and embrace the opportunity to raise families in middle-class communities (which comes with a hefty dose of cultural paternalism), those families land in neighborhoods where their presence becomes a symbol of decline and an object of hostility.

Stadium Financing Skewered by John Oliver

Since I will otherwise come off as a John Oliver fanboy, I will point out that he misuses the term “begs the question” twice in this clip.

Otherwise, it’s brilliant, and even features John’s best Coach Eric Taylor impersonation.

Some more serious stuff by me on stadiums and cities here and here, and of course the blog Field of Schemes is the leading source.

“Persecutory Enemies” and Emotional Economies in the Suburbs

One quick thought on Paula Ioanide’s The Emotional Politics of Racism (Stanford, 2015), which I wrote about a few days ago.

Ioanide offers a very useful discussion of how gendered and raced persons can be made through mediated discourses and social practices like discrimination and segregation to embody threats to things that are emotionally important to whites, such as suburban neighborhoods and the perceived safety and security thereof. When social practices work to exclude African Americans, for example, from privileged spaces, the excluded have a structurally different relationship to the emotional value of the spaces.

Clearly, people who are overdetermined by dominant popular and political culture to be persecutory enemies of national and community enjoyment cannot inhabit ideological fantasies in the same way as those who presume themselves to be entitled to state representation and protection. A Black man constantly subject to police harassment cannot stage his identification with law and order in the same way as a white man who constantly enjoys police protection and preferential treatment. The Black man’s experience with the realities of state violence does not allow him to idealize and fantasize his relationship to state power in the same way. (21)

If a picture is worth a thousand words (I’m not convinced that’s so), we can demonstrate the utility of this formulation by heading back to McKinney, Texas and paying attention to the way that White Guy in Shorts stages his identification with Law and Order (and it’s quite literally staged, as the cop is viewing the Black teens as his antagonists in an action movie and the White Guy in Shorts as more of an inanimate and nonthreatening piece of scenery).


Preempting Local Worker Protections–Michigan’s Turn

More of the right turning a state legislature against municipal democracy. Which you can read more about here. And here. And in my article in American StudiesThis time it’s the restaurant industry working to stop Michigan cities from raising local minimum wages:

“Hopefully we can pre-empt local laws on all labor standards, but in particular, wage and benefit issues,” said Justin Winslow, spokesman for the Michigan Restaurant Association. “We don’t think it’s the proper purview of local government.”

Oklahoma Pre-Empts Fracking Bans

The use of state legislatures to prevent local governments from acting in the interests of their residents proceeds apace. First Texas, and now neighboring Oklahoma have passed state laws that preempt local ordinances that ban hydraulic fracturing. In Oklahoma’s case, the law restricts local regulation of nuisances caused by oil and gas activity to a standard of “reasonableness.” Here, “reasonable” can be translated to “see you in court.”



It’ll Do Till a Perfect Example Gets Here

Scott Lemieux has a good take at The Week on the absurdity of sentencing in the Atlanta Schools cheating scandal. He’s also right on in noting that the cheating has been a highly predictable consequence of corporate education reform.

The legal context of the testing should also serve to mitigate the offense. In theory, standardized testing can be a useful tool in evaluating teachers and schools, but the regime established by the No Child Left Behind Act does not use it well. The statute sets up very rigid standards derived from single high-stakes tests. The unrealistic performance targets ensure that even competent teachers run the risk of being branded failures and getting sacked, while decent schools are in danger of being declared failures and closed.

I’d go a step further and note that if the Atlanta scandal (and the sentencing is part of that scandal) isn’t a perfect example of the historical convergence of white abandonment and property tax inequity, corporate education reform, ingrained distrust of Black people in positions of authority, and criminal justice run amok particularly against Black people, then it’ll do until a perfect example gets here.

Balko on Municipal Predation on the Poor

This is a compelling analysis by Radley Balko  of something that’s gotten a surprising and welcome boost of attention as a structural part of the hostility between residents and the criminal justice apparatus in places like Ferguson.

It’s by no means unique, however. Read this by Sarah Stillman in the New Yorker to grasp the way that a cottage industry of entrepreneurial police officers has spread aggressive civil forfeiture across the United States.

There’s deservedly a lot of attention focused on the the predatory nature of the processes in both of these articles–that poor residents, likely to be inadequately represented in the legal system, become cash cows. Stillman also focuses on the historical role of the War on Drugs in boosting asset forfeiture as a law enforcement tool and then as a revenue stream. It’s worth noting, though, that local governments jumped on forfeiture at a point in time when Federal aid to lower levels of government retrenched. Shortfalls had to be made up, and in the structure of interlocal competition that exists in the US, making them up by taxing the wealthy, businesses, or commercial or industrial property carries the risk of capital flight. The poor, in a bitter irony, have become important to strapped local governments because, although they don’t have many assets, they are fairly immobile.

Detroit Water

Apparently, activists in Detroit have convinced the city’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to halt plans to shut off water to customers delinquent on bills, return the management of the Detroit Water and Sewer Department to the city’s elected government, and implement caps on billing linked to household income. The decision apparently comes as a bankruptcy judge was preparing to issue a decision on a restraining order preventing DWSD from shutting off water for unpaid bills. If this is a signal that Orr expected the ruling to favor water users, it’s a bit of good news.

The group Detroit Water Brigade has a statement here, which includes this key point:

We commend the move by Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, City Council and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Rhodes to return control of Detroit’s water to the democratically elected leadership of the city of Detroit. This is a positive step in the direction of popular control of Detroit’s water and other common resources by the people of Detroit.

Indeed, this is bigger than Detroiters’ access to water as a right of habitation (n.b.: if you inhabit Detroit, it’s hard to imagine what could be more important) and speaks to a more general way of thinking about the way that cities have historically developed to provide for common need, as well as the ways that a privatized political economy has grown out of suburbanization to become a dominant model for urban governance as well. Because the relationship between cities and suburbs is one of dense but non-reciprocal interactions, the governance models of privatization and minimal local states that have arisen in suburbia are not just ill-suited to urban communities, they essentially depend, in the favored places where they do work, on those places’ relative advantage over other nearby places.

As I wrote in summary of Carl Smith’s excellent City Water, City Life, urban water systems provided a material basis around which cultural and political debates about common provision could cohere, and gave thousands and then millions of people a material stake in a common environment and social system. We risk more than public ownership by privatizing resources like water; we risk the idea of a public itself.