Democracy, Disposability, and the Flint Water Crisis

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First there was Detroit, and now there’s Flint. After more or less staying under the radar for over a year, in the last few weeks the water crisis has become national news. The overall story is pretty clear. Back in April 2014, the city stopped getting its water from the system that serves the Detroit metropolitan area, which it had been doing since 1967, and switched over to the Flint River instead. Residents immediately noticed the difference, complaining about the water’s taste, smell, and color. City and state officials ignored or dismissed them, insisting that the water was safe—and trying to hide evidence to the contrary. In fact, the corrosive river water had caused lead in the city’s aging pipes to leach into the water supply. A year and a half after switching to the Flint River, the proportion of children with above-average levels of lead in their blood had doubled. All of the children in Flint now have to be treated for lead exposure. In the same period, an abrupt spike in a rare, waterborne illness called Legionnaire’s Disease caused 87 infections and at least ten deaths. Late last week, Governor Rick Snyder finally declared a state of emergency and requested federal aid.

The main approach that’s been used on the left to understand and analyze the Flint water crisis is the “shock doctrine,” which foregrounds democracy (or the lack thereof) as the key analytical category for explaining what went wrong. This phrase was coined by the activist and writer Naomi Klein in her 2007 book of the same name to refer to the techniques used by neoliberal politicians to implement austerity policies. Since these measures are so unpopular, Klein argued, they can’t be put in place through normal, democratic means. Instead, opportunistic politicians take advantage of situations of emergency, when the public is distracted and no alternatives are readily available, to force them through without contestation. One of Klein’s best examples is the package of sweeping education reforms imposed in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which basically privatized the city’s public schools overnight.

Today, Michigan is probably the state where the shock doctrine framework is most applicable. For more than decade now, Michigan governors have been appointing so-called “emergency managers” (EMs) to run school districts and cities for which a “state of financial emergency” has been declared. These unelected administrators rule by fiat—they can override local elected officials, break union contracts, and sell off public assets and privatize public functions at will. It’s not incidental that the vast majority of the people who have lived under emergency management are black. Flint, whose population was 55.6% black as of the 2010 census (in a state whose population is 14.2% black overall), was under emergency management from December 2011 to April 2015. As noted above, it was during that period that the decision was made to stop purchasing water from Detroit and start drawing water directly from the Flint River.

Much of the commentary on the situation in Flint has focused on the emergency manager, and consequently the water crisis appears as a struggle that is being played out on the political terrain. Liberals see the problem as rooted in electoral politics—since Governor Snyder appointed Flint’s emergency managers, the source of the problem are the Republicans and their right-wing, corporate sponsors. They forget that Democrats have also appointed emergency managers. In any case, it’s harder than it seems to identify the responsible party here. It was one of Flint’s emergency managers who eventually made the decision to tap the Flint River, but it was after the city’s elected officials took the first key step, with the city council initially approving the switch away from Detroit in an overwhelming 7-1 vote back in March 2013. At a June 2013 meeting that included Flint city officials, representatives from the Genesee County Drain Commission, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the determination was made that the Flint River would be “more difficult to treat” but was nevertheless a “viable” source. Officials at multiple levels of government (city, county, and state) and across multiple jurisdictions played a role. The amount of ink that’s been spilled trying to figure out who’s responsible underscores the diffuse character of the structures of governance through which these decisions are made.

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More importantly, what’s missing from this line of analysis is an acknowledgment of the structural shift in the global economy beginning in the 1960s and intensifying through the 70s and 80s. This brings us to a second approach to what’s happening in Flint, which frames the crisis through the lens of “disposability.” The deindustrialization of manufacturing cities like Flint and Detroit—first with suburbanization, relocating factories to segregated white suburbs, then with offshoring, relocating factories to other regions of the global economy—has had material impacts that are relatively insulated from political decision-making, especially at the city level. In Flint, notes historian Andrew Highsmith, GM’s workforce declined from more than 80,000 in 1955 to less than 8,000 by 2009 (pp. 2-5). As production was relocated and productivity increased, sectors of the working class have been rendered permanently superfluous to the needs of capital, and are expelled from the labor process, waged employment, and, increasingly, from what remains of the welfare state.

The result is a growing surplus population for which the state must deploy new forms of control. This has led, most obviously, to the massive expansion of policing and incarceration since the 1970s. But a second process, which has received significantly less attention, has also occurred in parallel to this one: the removal, withholding, or control of infrastructural systems and services—like education, health, and, of course, water—that are necessary for the reproduction of communities. In a recent article, Rada Katsarova and Jon Cramer analyze this second means of control in the context of the battle over the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department:

In the last decade, especially after the 2008 financial crisis, the urban centers of the Midwest such as Chicago and Detroit, but also in the Northeast, such as Baltimore and Philadelphia, have developed a new dynamic: the use of the state (in the form of local or regional governments) to transfer infrastructural resources and their control out of or away from marginalized urban populations, which are predominantly black, brown, and immigrant. These infrastructures range from health and educational resources to natural and civic resources such as water and sewage systems. There has been a tendency to read these battles around infrastructure as just another round of neoliberalism—another example of the “shrinking state.” Such an approach, however, seems unable to grasp how these infrastructural grabs, rather than a consequence of the state shrinking, are in fact a distinct kind of raced and classed resource transfer mobilized and sanctioned by the state. Nowhere is this clearer than in Detroit, where the predominantly white suburbs succeeded under the cover of Detroit’s 2013-14 bankruptcy proceedings to pry the possession of the water and sewage infrastructure away from the city proper. Not only have the mostly African-American residents of the city lost control of these infrastructures, they now have to subsidize the social reproduction of the predominantly white, wealthier Detroit suburbs.

Local, regional, and state governments are removing the basic, infrastructural supports that are necessary for the reproduction of life. As a consequence, residents of cities like Flint and Detroit, in particular black and immigrant populations, have been subjected to increasing vulnerability in forms like declining life expectancy and appalling infant mortality. “Disposability” and “surplus population” sound like abstract concepts, but they’re a tangible, visceral reality for folks on the ground in Flint. “We’re like disposable people here,” one resident told the Toronto Star the other day. “We’re not even human here, I guess.”

These disposable populations are raced. The geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” What racism names, in other words, is not bias, prejudice, or discrimination, but the systems that orchestrate the siphoning of resources away from some populations and redirect them toward others. These systems do more than just define which lives matter and which lives don’t—they materially make some lives matter by killing others more. When a Flint resident tells the Detroit Free Press that “we get treated like we don’t matter,” the message is clear that to not matter is to slowly be killed.

Most of the time, slow death is hard to see. In individual cases, it can be difficult to perceive the gap between a death that comes at the “right” time and one that comes “too soon.” Disposable populations usually die gradually, with years quietly shaved off their life expectancies through such “accidents” as heart attacks, diabetes complications, and asthma. What is different about the water crisis in Flint is that slow death has suddenly become visible, traceable back to a single cause: the water.

The removal of infrastructures and services is, then, the right-hand of the carceral system: a means of disciplining disposable populations by inflicting slow deaths upon them. But this process is not new. It is relatively continuous with the long historical trajectory of what appears from this vantage point as a form of race war, by which white communities withdrew material support from and indeed plundered black communities, barricading themselves into suburban lives through segregation and policing and insulating these lives with resource transfers from the increasingly black population trapped within the city limits.

To give a specific example, Highsmith shows that the suburbanization of Flint’s manufacturing, and the corresponding withdrawal of tax dollars, was already getting underway by the 1950s. As companies like GM increasingly decentralized production, taking advantage of tax benefits at local and federal levels, they also sought out and acquired infrastructural supports from the municipality. “In order to operate their facilities,” he writes, “business managers from GM and other firms required sewers, large quantities of water, and other services that were often unavailable in suburbs and rural areas. Representatives from GM thus aggressively lobbied Flint’s city commissioners to extend water and sewer lines to their new suburban plants. By the close of the 1950s, their efforts had resulted in new water and sewer hookups for at least seven of GM’s suburban plants.” The city of Flint also subsidized suburban production through a stratified rate structure for water customers. Residential customers living within the city limits paid a relatively higher rate for smaller quantities of water (32 cents per hundred cubic feet of water up to 10,500 cubic feet), while industrial customers at suburban plants paid relatively lower rates for significantly larger quantities (20 cents per hundred cubic feet in excess of 105,000 cubic feet). “This policy, which rewarded the largest consumers of water with significantly lower rates, amounted to a large subsidy for local manufacturers,” one that was paid for by city residents, a population that was increasingly black (p. 130). (More recently, one of the early signs of the magnitude of the water crisis in Flint was GM’s decision in October 2014 to stop using the city’s water at its engine plant due to concern about corrosion. The warning went unheeded.)

The Flint water crisis is best seen as continuous with these histories of expropriation, rather than sharply differentiated from them by new political instruments like emergency management. In this sense, the “shock doctrine” framework misses something critical about the situation in Flint. Because it emphasizes the lack of democracy, this approach tends to foreground either the responsibility of individual politicians—the governor, the emergency manager, the head of the state’s environmental quality department—or, more helpfully, the emergency manager law as a whole. This is an important part of the story, and we’re all for getting rid of them. But the exit of any or all of these political figures, and even the elimination of emergency management, will not change the fact that racialized surplus populations will continue to inhabit cities like Flint, and that states will continue to manage and discipline them in one way or another. By foregrounding “disposability,” we are interested in thinking about what it would take to reproduce communities, or for communities to reproduce themselves, without relying on capital and the state, to create autonomous infrastructures of social reproduction that do not continuously subject black, immigrant, and marginalized white populations to premature death.


“Y’all Ain’t Hearing Me”: White Liberalism and the Killing of Aura Rosser


1. On November 9, three months to the day after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson executed Mike Brown, Ann Arbor police officers killed a black woman named Aura Rosser in her home on the west side of the city. The official story released by the police is that Aura “confronted” the officers with a “fish knife.” Her boyfriend dismissed that claim, demanding “Why would you kill her?” Aura’s sister noted that she had worked in the food service industry for years and loved to cook, especially when she was upset. It helped her relax. The police shot Aura as she was coming out of the kitchen. She was probably cooking seafood.

In spite of the ongoing rebellion against police violence in Ferguson and around the country, not much happened in the first couple weeks after the killing of Aura Rosser. The local media reported the story the way the cops told them to, criminalizing Aura and her boyfriend and speculating about toxicology reports. It’s a familiar script. Ann Arbor is a mostly white, liberal college town. Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that the organizing first started somewhere else. Far more racially and economically diverse, largely due to a legacy of segregated housing, Ypsilanti also bears more of the brunt of Washtenaw County’s policing apparatus. It was there that a group of activists calling themselves Radical Washtenaw organized the first demonstration in the area. It was a small gathering in downtown Ypsi, maybe about 40 or 50 people, who spent an hour holding signs, meeting each other and chanting to get the word out, writing emails and letters to the city council to demand justice.

What really kicked things off was the grand jury decision in Ferguson. Responding to the national call for actions in the wake, a small group of organizers called for a demo in Ann Arbor with the hope that 50 or 60 people might come out. It was set up as a “vigil” because the organizers weren’t sure there wouldn’t be enough people to march. Candles were acquired. But the grand jury decision was a spark that during the next 24 hours caught and spread like a prairie fire. The demo on November 25 was unlike anything folks have seen in Ann Arbor for years, even decades. Upwards of 1000 people came out to hear speeches by black, Palestinian, and Mexican students and community members articulate the specificities of anti-black racism and its overlaps with and divergences from other forms of racialized state violence both in the United States and abroad. Then, behind a glittery banner reading BLACK LIVES MATTER, the crowd easily took the streets and marched through downtown to the police station, blocking traffic the entire way.

There, a young black woman who had shared a jail cell with Aura Rosser grabbed the megaphone. “If you don’t know, we are at war! And you can’t fight war with peace. Tomorrow we go to war, ” she yelled. An older white woman in the crowd, a product of the New Left generation, yelled back, “No, tomorrow, we go to work, to work together.” The young woman responded, “Y’all ain’t hearing me.”

Energy was high after the march. An assembly was called for the following Friday, and 250 people showed up and collectively decided that the next action would take place at the Ann Arbor city council meeting on December 15. A smaller group of about 50 people signed up to organize the action. On a Monday night, in the middle of finals, 200 people came out and took the streets again. Chanting “How do you spell murder? A-A-P-D!” they again blocked the streets of downtown Ann Arbor until they pulled up outside the County Building where the meeting was being held. As chants of “No justice, no peace” echoed off the downtown town buildings, the mayor, agitated, came out, “Who is in charge of this?” “It’s America, you have the right to protest, but what are you planning on doing?” During the public comment section of the city council meeting, four demands were presented: fire the killer cop, suspend his paid leave, pay for the burial of Aura Rosser, and address the structural racism of policing in Washtenaw county. A second speaker called for three minutes of silence, one minute for each of Aura Rosser’s children. After fifteen seconds, the mayor tried to move on to the next agenda item. The gallery erupted into a volley of boos, feet stamping, and cries of “shame” and “three more minutes,” and he was forced to yield and sit quietly until the speaker stepped away from the podium.

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It’s worth pausing for a moment to emphasize how out of the ordinary this is. In this respect, Ann Arbor is a testament to the emptiness of liberal politics. Speaking at city council is preferred to rallies, and rallies are preferred over marches, and marches, when they do happen, happen on the sidewalk. One friend who grew up in Ann Arbor told us she couldn’t remember any marches like these. The anti-war protests in 2003 may have been a little bigger, she continued, but they had a totally different character.

Could Ferguson really be everywhere? ask the white liberals. Yes, white supremacy is at work even in a mostly white, liberal college town like Ann Arbor. But isn’t this the point? Of course policing is racist here. How could it be otherwise? If anything, it is in places like this that white supremacy is at its most intense. Following Saidiya Hartman, we might decide to look not to the “terrible spectacle” of racist killer cops and turn instead to “those scenes in which terror can hardly be discerned.” This approach might lead us to consider, among other things, the anti-racist organizing that took place on the campus of the University of Michigan last year, without which none of what is happening in response to Aura’s killing would have been possible. The #BBUM campaign, to take one example, highlighted not only declining black enrollment at the university but also the daily experiences of racism of black students in this overwhelmingly white space. A black student from Detroit named Dan Green described the unsettling feeling of traversing and inhabiting this space: “I feel less safe in Ann Arbor than I do in Detroit.” The liberal white college town operates as a machine for the surveillance and policing of black bodies.

To express surprise that “this” could happen “here” is only to ignore or erase the historical processes of gentrification and the racialized production of surplus populations at work throughout southwest Michigan. “Ann Arbor” is not a place, governed autonomously by a progressive city council, but a node in a national and global network of capital flows and accumulations. The overwhelming whiteness of the city—in large part a function of the overwhelming whiteness of the university that dominates it—cannot be separated from the unthinkable quantities of capital that have pooled and congealed there, or the relative blackness and poverty of nearby Ypsilanti and Detroit. To put it another way, Ann Arbor itself is a testament to the fact that “this” has already happened “here.” It was “this” that made “here” what it is.

2. Every 28 hours police, security guards, or vigilantes kill a black person in the United States. Since the Ferguson rebellion popped off after the police execution of Mike Brown, this has become impossible to ignore. Protesters around the country chant “Hands Up Don’t Shoot!” a reference to Big Mike’s last gesture before being gunned down. And this has only intensified after the grand jury non-indictment of the cops who strangled Eric Garner to death on camera in New York.

One interesting dynamic in what’s been happening in Washtenaw County is that a movement has coalesced around the police killing of a black woman. Look at this list of small anti-police uprisings that have popped off in the country over the last five years—Oakland (2009), Portland (2010), Denver (2010), Seattle (2011), San Francisco (2011), Atlanta (2012), Anaheim (2012), Santa Rosa (2013), Flatbush (2013), Durham (2013), Salinas (2014), Albuquerque (2014)—and you’ll see that not one of them has a black woman at the center. Why has it been so difficult to mobilize public outrage for the black cis and trans* women extrajudicially killed by police? Why did the killing of Aiyana Stanley-Jones in nearby Detroit or Renisha McBride in nearby Dearborn Heights not elicit this response? What about the case of Adaisha Miller? Why has there been more outrage over and coverage of the killing of Tamir Rice but not that of Tanesha Anderson, both killed in November by Cleveland police? The point isn’t that Tamir Rice doesn’t deserve this attention but to spur us to think carefully about the affective conditions that make one life appear more valuable, more defensible, more grievable than another.

Alicia Garza, one of a group of black queer women that created the #BlackLivesMatter campaign in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, describes the movement this way:

Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.

However, even this movement—far from, at this point, being an uprising—that has come together around the killing of Aura Rosser has not changed the discourse around police killings here. In our marches we chant “Justice for Mike Brown” more than for Aura Rosser. In our meetings, we list the names of black men and boys—they are at the tip of our tongues. In our speeches we emphasize the danger the police pose to black men, while making the threat to black women, trans persons, and the disabled invisible. As Garza notes, hetero-patriarchy is alive and well within these movements. Will placing Aura Rosser’s name and life at the center of our organizing, change this? So far, in large measure, it hasn’t. But time will tell.

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3. The coalition that’s come together to organize around racist policing in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County more generally is politically diverse. Some folks seem to favor negotiations with the police and the city council and some are interested in demands for body cameras and civilian accountability commissions. Others of us are far less optimistic about official political channels or police “reforms.”

Ann Arbor, as we’ve said, is a liberal town. Even before their cops killed Aura, the city council had floated the idea of purchasing police body cameras. And at the December 15 city council meeting they made it official, signing a $174,000 contract with L3 Mobile-Vision, Inc., a company that markets its cameras not as a way to protect the populations subjected to continuous police surveillance, harassment, violence, torture, and death but rather as a way to “protect police officers.” As some Chicago copwatchers wrote in light of the uncritical acceptance of body cameras,

All reforms that strengthen the prison industrial complex must be strongly opposed. Body cameras will not halt extrajudicial executions by police officers, only providing us more horrific footage to view.  The only solution to oppressive policing is to abolish the institution.

The Ann Arbor Police Department (AAPD) is fully integrated into the structures of white liberal governance, in a city built on segregation and white supremacy. Take the case of the Dream Nite Club. In 2012, the officer who shot and killed Aura Rosser, David Ried, was named as a defendant, along with ten other police officers, the police chief, and the City of Ann Arbor, in a lawsuit filed by the Trinidadian-born owners of a club called Dream Nite Club. Located in downtown Ann Arbor, the club hosted events and DJ nights several nights a week that attracted a largely Black and Latin@ clientele. The suit documented dozens of incidents of explicit racism on the part of individual police officers, including Officer Ried, between 2009-2012. This included everything from racist language to physical violence. Officers frequently frisked, removed the clothes, and shined flashlights in the faces of black patrons in a threatening manner. They pushed black patrons at least 50 times during this period, pepper sprayed a group of 12 black women, and tased a black women without justification. AAPD also deployed squad cars in front of the bar, as many as 12 at a time on nights when the clientele was mostly black, in order to “intimidate the black patrons and further discourage their patronage.”

Like other officers named in the lawsuit, Ried formed an integral part of a racist police force, either actively or passively supporting racist language and activity. Not only did he not intervene when explicitly racist comments were made, but he was an active participant in the deployment of violence, and the threat of violence, against the club and the folks who passed through it. This was a determination that came from the top—the goal of the city and the police department was to shut down these “black-oriented nights.” Beginning in 2007, police officers began telling the club owners to get rid of these events. In 2010, two officers showed up at the club and the one in charge announced, “I am here to close this n****r bar down.” In 2011, the owners were approached by another officer, who stated “We’ll stop fucking with you if you stop throwing these black parties.”

The suit was dismissed by a district court. Citing the Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, the defense argued that the city and the police department had a material reason for their actions against the club that did not count as “racially-motivated” discrimination. In that case, Javaid Iqbal sued the federal government arguing that he had been detained in a maximum-security facility after the 9/11 attacks based on his race, religion, or national origin. The Supreme Court sided with the government against Iqbal, essentially agreeing that the state had a legitimate reason to profile the plaintiff. The judge cites Iqbal in dismissing the suit:

It should come as no surprise that a legitimate policy directing law enforcement to arrest and detain individuals because of their suspected link to the [September 11, 2001] attacks would produce a disparate, incidental impact on Arab Muslims, even though the purpose of the policy was to target neither Arabs nor Muslims.

Legal scholar Ramzi Kassem writes that “In one breath, the Iqbal Court not only acknowledged that Muslims were subject to heightened surveillance and monitoring as a result of law enforcement practices after 9/11, but also condoned the arrest, detention, and deportation of a large number of Muslim suspects as a necessary result of a legitimate counterterrorism policy.” He also shows that Iqbal has had a “sweeping impact” on the jurisprudential landscape. It has been cited tens of thousands of times by district courts like the one in Michigan that dismissed the Dream Nite Club lawsuit, and made it even more difficult for lawsuits based on racial discrimination to withstand a motion to dismiss. Through this juridical counterpart to the military equipment channeled to local police departments by the DOD through the 1033 program, the logic of counterterrorism has been embedded in the everyday policing practices of the liberal white city.

None of this, it’s worth mentioning, has appeared in media accounts related to the killing of Aura Rosser, despite the fact that the lawsuit comes up in the simplest Google search for the name David Ried. In any case, the point of these reflections isn’t to bring back the Dream Nite Club, which was forced to shut down in the wake of the lawsuit’s dismissal. Rather, it’s to highlight the invisibility of white supremacy as a structure of domination, substituting it for a thin notion of individual bias that is nearly impossible to prove. We’ve written that in the legal context race can only appear “as a disavowal, as (not) race.” A legally recognizable discourse of “public safety” is produced through forms of racialized policing that generate “objective” crime statistics and codify racial “truth.” Liberal white policing produces its racial raison d’etre.

The question that is facing the current movement in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County is if discussions with city council or programs to reform or better train the police force can eliminate structural racism. If not, the question then becomes what tactics can. Racism is not an inevitable result of ignorance or “natural” group dynamics but a social structure embedded in and expressed through material relations, and the police are necessarily implicated in the production and maintenance of this system. It is only through the abolition of the police and the carceral justice system, then, that this piece of white supremacy as a structure of domination can be eliminated.


(thanks for the artwork)

Race, Disavowal, and Urban Decline at the Trial of Theodore Wafer

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On August 7, Theodore Wafer was found guilty of second-degree murder for the killing of Renisha McBride. After injuring herself in a late-night car crash, Renisha presumably sought help at Wafer’s house, but instead of providing it he shot her in the face with his modified shotgun. Dearborn Heights, where Wafer lived, is a majority white suburb (as of 2010, 86% of the population was white; shockingly, 100% of the police force is white as well) that borders on majority black Detroit, where Renisha lived (as of 2010, 83% of the population was black). After the verdict was announced, Wafer was remanded into custody and is currently being held at Wayne County Jail. Although the guilty verdict is the best possible outcome, it’s hard to say that justice has been done since Wafer’s conviction cannot bring Renisha back or contribute to abolishing white supremacy, which feeds on the policing and legal apparatuses of the state.

The law is incapable of addressing white supremacy in a meaningful way. Race rarely came up explicitly during the trial, and the few times it did it took the form of a disavowal. When the judge asked, “Are there any African American jurors that feel a sense of loyalty to their race that would demand a guilty verdict?” she did it not to affirm this sentiment but to excuse anyone who felt it from the jury. Another example of the disavowal of race is tied to the use and abuse of “criminality.” Thandisizwe Chimurenga writes of the intense logic of white supremacy that shaped the defense’s legal strategy of criminalizing Renisha by alluding to her alleged “thug life” and suggesting, without evidence, that she approached Wafer’s house not to find help but to break in. Similarly, Wafer’s defense, most clearly articulated in his testimony, aimed to establish a context of honest and reasonable fear in order to demonstrate that he shot in legitimate self-defense. To do this, he described his neighborhood as characterized by decline—once a safe space, it was now plagued by crime, drug use, and a general breakdown of social order. This argument, like the previous one, turns on the inescapably racialized category of criminality, a point that those who adopt it fully understand, as the explicit clarification of his attorney indicated: “DEF says Ted Wafer knows. Knows what its like to live in that fear. DEF says this is not about race.”

If the defense declined to speak explicitly of race, it may be surprising that the prosecution did too. After all, many protesters rightly connected Renisha McBride’s death to the racist shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman and argued that in both cases race contributed to the police’s initial decision to believe the killer and choose not to arrest him. According to the McBride family’s attorney, however, neither he nor the family believed the shooting was “racial.” And he went further and criticized the defense for wrongly “injecting race” into the trial by having Wafer describe how his neighborhood was “changing.” In other words, everyone involved understood criminality as a racialized category while rejecting the usefulness or applicability of race for adjudicating the case.

No one wanted to talk about race, but everyone was always talking about race. This is the condition of what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls colorblind racism, which replaces “race” with a series of other categories, such as “poverty,” “culture,” or “criminality.” “Whereas Jim Crow racism explained blacks’ social standing as the result of their biological and moral inferiority, color-blind racism avoids such facile arguments. Instead, whites rationalize minorities’ contemporary status as the product of market dynamics, naturally occurring phenomena, and blacks’ imputed cultural limitations.” In the legal context, likewise, the discourse of race necessarily appears as a disavowal, as (not) race.

Wafer’s story about the changing character of his neighborhood is worth examining in more detail. In many ways, it sounds like the commonplace history of “white flight” in the city of Detroit. After the 1967 rebellion, goes the conventional version of this story, Detroit’s white residents were terrified and as a result they began to move to the suburbs, taking with them their tax dollars and leaving behind abandonment, segregation, corruption, and violence. There is a kernel of truth in this story, but its simplistic cause-and-effect frame misrepresents both the chronology and the causality of white supremacist violence, segregation, and abandonment. As historian Thomas Sugrue documents, these processes were well underway by the 1940s—the 1943 race riot was a white riot—and “[w]hite resistance and white flight left a bitter legacy that galvanized black protest in the 1960s.”


But in Wafer’s account the “white flight” narrative takes on a new form. An obvious difference is that Dearborn Heights is not Detroit—it is, rather, the anti-Detroit, one of the suburbs to which Detroit’s white residents moved to escape the black “hordes.” But there is another new aspect in his story as well. It is not white residents in general who began to leave the neighborhood but a specific type of white residents—police officers. In his testimony, Wafer observed that his neighborhood used to be called “Copper Canyon” because many police officers lived there. For years, Detroit had a residency requirement which made it obligatory for city workers, including police, to live within the city’s limits. So they moved as far out as they could get without crossing the line. A quasi-suburb, “Copper Canyon” occupied a zone of official inclusion but affective separation from the city—a relation forged in the perception and rejection of the city to which, in jurisdictional terms, it actually belonged. Yet at the same time Wafer’s narrative suggests that he considered Detroit’s “Copper Canyon” to constitute part of his own neighborhood within the city of Dearborn Heights.

Wafer testified that things started to change after the residency law was overturned “in the late 90s.” In 1999, the Michigan legislature passed Public Act 212, which prohibited municipalities from “requiring individuals to reside within certain geographic areas or specified distances or travel times from their place of employment as a condition of employment or promotion.” A little over a decade later, about half the Detroit police force had moved and was residing outside the city. In general terms, this law contributed to accelerating the decline of the city’s population, which fell 28% between 2000 and 2013, when the city declared bankruptcy using population decline (and ineffective policing) as a major part of its rationale.

In his testimony, Wafer identified the revocation of the residency law as a key cause of the ongoing changes in his neighborhood. He moved there in 1994, and “felt safe” until the time the law was overturned. But as the cops who lived in the neighborhood—in a different city, remember, but in an area that felt like part of his neighborhood—began to move away, “lots of for sale signs” appeared, houses were foreclosed on, renters replaced property owners, and many stores closed. The neighborhood “definitely changed” and “is changing.”

As a result, Wafer stated, social order broke down and crime increased. Now neighbors “talk to one another about crime in the neighborhood.” He found liquor, bottles, drug paraphernalia, syringes, and “baggies” on his property. It got so bad that one time a neighbor “had to hold off 3 individuals with his handgun” because he found them “in front of [his] home using drugs.” Another neighbor had his home broken into. All of this led Wafer to buy a shotgun for protection. On the night in question, he claimed, he heard the sound of not one but multiple intruders banging on his doors and pulled out his gun to defend himself and his property: “I didn’t want to cower. I didn’t want to be a vic[tim] in my own house.”

In order to visualize Wafer’s testimony, the defense showed the slide at the top of this post. In the center of the image, there is a glowing white icon of a home labeled “FEAR.” Out of the darkness that surrounds it jab arrows from multiple directions, pointed directly at the home. One of the arrows is labeled “Crime in neighborhood,” another “Multiple intruders,” a third “Violent po[ssibilities?].” Despite the fact that self-defense is presumably based on a threat to a person, there is no body in the image, only property. The image thus encapsulates capitalist white supremacy in an age of colorblind racism—the defense of whiteness embedded in the defense of property, the naturalization of racialized fear, the weaponized language of “castles” under siege, the legitimation of extrajudicial violence.

This image is meant both to visualize and to rationalize Wafer’s fear, to make it appear honest and reasonable, and by doing so to neutralize his culpability according to the state’s self-defense law. But honest belief and reasonability, much like criminality, are themselves deeply racialized. What some people—property-owning white people, for example—find reasonable tends to solidify into the naturalized definition of reasonability. Against this purportedly universal understanding, other forms of reasonability appear as irrational or criminal. For some, avoiding, running from, and distrusting the police makes you look like you have something to hide; for many others, it’s the rationality of everyday life under a brutal regime of police occupation.

Beyond the impossibility of addressing race in a legal context which is profoundly invested in the individual and uninterested in structures of violence, Wafer’s story proposes police exodus as a new articulation of white flight, recalibrating white flight for an era of colorblindness. In this framing, (white) police exodus operates as the logical counterpart of (black) criminality. Police exodus not only works as a metonym for white flight but incorporates a specificity that carries inescapable associations of “social order” and the “rule of law.” Whereas white flight is often perceived in financial terms, of tax dollars, police exodus invokes the opening up of a localized state of nature, a lawless vacuum into which “criminality” naturally flows. It alludes to a need for constant police presence, normalized surveillance, and “punitive social control mechanisms” that resonate with the “Broken Windows” theory of policing, though it’s not clear how much the backers of Broken Windows buy into residency requirements. Still, as Raven Rakia writes in her discussion of the theory developed by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson,

they use the irrational fear of young, black people to promote policing and criminalizing their existence. Kelling and Wilson want to purge the neighborhood of the undesirable — the homeless, the poor, the loud, the young and black — by harassing, abusing and forcibly removing them so often that they either no longer appear in public or get locked in a cage.

If Broken Windows aims to purge communities of their “criminal” residents, police exodus offers a fantasy of who should replace them. In fact, it goes beyond fantasy—the city of Detroit recently offered to sell abandoned houses to police officers for as little as $1,000 to encourage them to move back into the city. The white supremacist theory of urban change sketched out in Wafer’s defense, in other words, has been literally transformed into official policy by Detroit’s elected politicians. A city full of cops… But Detroit cannot be repopulated with cops alone—at least we hope not—and in this sense police exodus operates more effectively as a story of decline than a program for revitalization. But it also helps to clarify both the centrality and the white supremacist logic of policing in any vision of a Detroit renaissance, whether or not race is explicitly invoked—and most clearly where it is disavowed.

Thanks to Thandisizwe Chimurenga (@idabeewells) and Oralandar Brand-Williams (@oralandar_DN) for livetweeting the trial—this piece could not have been written without your work—and to Alex Vitale (@avitale) for providing resources on police residency requirements.