[News] Standing Rock, Flint, and the Color of Water

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Nov 3 10:58:28 EDT 2016


  Standing Rock, Flint, and the Color of Water

Christopher F. Petrella*- Co-authored with **Ameer Loggins - November 2, 
2016 <http://africam.berkeley.edu/person/ameer-hasan-loggins>*/**/

While much attention has rightly been paid to those who are courageously 
protecting water resources and sacred land on North Dakota’s Standing 
Rock Sioux Reservation <http://standingrock.org/>, few mainstream 
commentators have situated Standing Rock as part of a larger political 
struggle for self-determination and survival. Linking the politics 
surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline project to Flint, Michigan’s 
lead-poisoning crisis 
is critical for understanding how race and class informs presumed social 
risk, vulnerability to premature death, and access to democratic 

In the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Army Corps of Engineers 
Nationwide Permit No. 12 (NWP12) has fast-tracked 
construction—circumventing the democratic will of members of the 
Standing Rock Sioux community—by exempting the project from certain 
environmental inspections 
Similarly, the application of Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law (EML) to 
Flint—a majority black city—authorized the state’s governor unilaterally 
to appoint unelected officials to make decisions 
about how and where to source cheap water for the municipality. This 
sourcing resulted in widespread lead poisoning.

Both NWP12 (a provision strongly supported by the oil industry and its 
lobbyists) and Michigan’s EML (legislation passed with bipartisan 
support) constitute policies that pervert the democratic process. Both 
serve the interests of wealthy white men and thwart the decision-making 
capacities of communities of color. These policies beg larger questions: 
/What is the color of democracy? 
Who is presumed to be capable of self-governance? And which types of 
communities have the right to avoid public health risks and increased 
vulnerability to premature death 

Since March, thousands of tribal nations and non-indigenous allies 
from across the country have gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux 
Reservation to protect land and water 
that could be destroyed and/or contaminated by the proposed Dakota 
Access Pipeline. Many members of the tribe oppose the pipeline’s 
construction near their reservation on the grounds that it threatens 
their public health and welfare, water supply, cultural resources, and 
sacred sites. If completed, the $3.7 billion pipeline fabricated by 
Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners would span nearly 1,200 miles from 
North Dakota to Illinois and would transport at least 470,000 barrels of 
crude oil per day.

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have argued 
that under federal law the U.S. government should have consulted with 
them about the pipeline in the early stages of project development—and 
did not. Last July, the Standing Rock Sioux and the nonprofit 
Earthjustice <http://earthjustice.org/> sued the U.S. Army Corps of 
Engineers in federal court, contending that the agency had wrongly 
approved the pipeline without reasonable consultation. The tribe has 
also argued that because the Dakota Access Pipeline would cross right 
under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe—the reservation’s main source of 
drinking water—a leak or oil spill could prove disastrous.

According to the National Institute of Health 
<https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/timeline/616.html>, safe drinking 
water is presently “unavailable in 13 percent of American Indian/Alaska 
Native homes on reservations, compared with 1 percent of the overall 
U.S. population.” Moreover, the tribe points out that the pipeline’s 
original path 
was supposed to go farther north, near Bismarck, but state and federal 
officials rejected that route out of concern that a leak might harm the 
state capital’s drinking water.

According to federal pipeline regulators the Bismarck route would have 
traversed land considered a “high consequence area,” a designation 
reserved for zones determined to have “the most significant adverse 
consequences in the event of a pipeline spill.”

This is significant for the following reason:

    Water politics is always raced & classed:

    Bismarck = 95% white | poverty 12%

    Standing Rock Sioux Reservation = poverty 43%@LeftSentThis
    <https://twitter.com/LeftSentThis> pic.twitter.com/iveQQ3xwsz

    — Christopher Petrella (@CFPetrella) October 27, 2016

To be sure, the language of “high consequence areas,” serves as a 
politically vacuous euphemism for high consequence lives, people, and 
bodies. These raced and classed demographic realities beg the 
questions:/Whose lives matter? 
Whose historic use of land and water matter? And whose health matters?/

One could ask the same questions of Flint, Michigan.

Whereas members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe were not consulted in 
the initial stages of the Dakota Access Pipeline planning process, many 
citizens of Flint, Michigan—a majority-black city—were subjected to a 
lead-tainted water supply and stripped of their civic power, 
representative government, and legal recourse in an effort to save the 
city from financial default.

Residents of Flint, 57 percent of whom are black and 42 percent of whom 
live below the poverty line, were deprived of the basic right to govern 
their city from 2011-2015 by Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law 
(EML). The provision empowers the governor with the authority to appoint 
unelected officials to control any city determined to be in “fiscal 
crisis.” The emergency manager has the power to “renegotiate contracts, 
liquidate assets, suspend local government [and] unilaterally draft policy.”

In 2013, Flint residents filed a lawsuit challenging the 
constitutionality of Michigan’s EML on the basis that most appointments 
have come in cities in which most of the residents are people of color. 
A federal appeals court upheld the state’s EML in 2016 by arguing that 
citizens have “no fundamental right” to elect local government 
officials. The court also found that the law appeared to be applied with 
colorblind intentions and was “facially entirely neutral with respect to 
race.” The outcome of these policies, however, strongly suggest 
otherwise. In theory, emergency financial managers are supposed to 
assist municipalities based on a unbiased evaluation of their financial 
circumstances—but majority-white communities facing similar fiscal 
challenges have not been subject to the same levels of unwanted 
political imposition.

    Flint Michigan
    Population: 99K
    Racial Makeup: black, 57%; white, 37%; others, 6%
    Residents Below Poverty Line: 42% pic.twitter.com/SYM9zEUKl7

    — LEFT (@LeftSentThis) May 5, 2016

Ideologically, the EML law rests on the assumption that residents of 
predominantly- black cities are ill-equipped to manage their own local 
democracies, as six unelected managers have been assigned to govern 
Flint over the past 13 years. One should ask if the same in /loco 
parentis /form of governance would be applied to majority-white cities 
in Michigan with the same zeal? To date, Allen Park, Michigan seems to 
be the singular majority-white city in the state to have come under the 
supervision of an emergency manager.

A similar question could be posed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 
and political leaders in North Dakota’s capital of Bismarck: would an 
oil pipeline of great economic significance ever be allowed to traverse 
a local water source in a relatively affluent city that is 95 percent white?

Though it would be wrong to suggest that Standing Rock is the new Flint, 
the struggles over access to democratic decision-making power are 
strikingly similar, as is the raced and classed (in)ability to eschew 
exposure to environmental health-risks and vulnerability to premature death.

The political battles at Standing Rock and in Flint are not just about 
clean water. Rather, access to clean water serves as a powerful litmus 
test for evaluating access to full and non-negotiable democratic 
<http://www.aaihs.org/policy-and-possibility-in-the-movement-for-black-lives-platform/> The 
fight over the color of water—that is, its racialized policy 
antecedents—provides a deep challenge to the parameters and 
possibilities of self-determination and survival in a political space 
hostile to communities of color. The truth is that the very assumptions 
of social worth undergirding the decision to divert the Dakota Access 
Pipeline from Bismarck to Standing Rock are the very same assumptions 
that inform the decision to source Flint water from a polluted river.

Linking these battles over political recognition, entrance to democratic 
participation, and access to basic public goods such as clean drinking 
water brings into relief the necessity of coalition-building 
<http://www.aaihs.org/rebuilding-the-robesonian-labor-movement/> and the 
acknowledgment of shared interests. We must contest these race- and 
class-based injustices from Flint to Standing Rock and beyond.


*Christopher Petrella* <http://www.christopherfrancispetrella.net/> is a 
Lecturer in American Cultural Studies at Bates College. His work 
explores the intersections of race, state, and criminalization. He 
completed a Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies from the University of 
California, Berkeley. Follow him on Twitter @CFPetrella 

*Ameer Loggins* <http://africam.berkeley.edu/person/ameer-hasan-loggins> 
is a Ph.D. Candidate in African Diaspora Studies at the University of 
California, Berkeley. His work examines black representation in media. 
Follow him on Twitter @LeftSentThis <https://twitter.com/LeftSentThis>.

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