How to Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste
Caked in the residue of century-old cigar smoke, the tired Churchillian phrase, “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” tends to be asserted by those who stand to gain power and capital from those crises. President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, elaborated on the maxim known as “Rahm’s Rule”, explaining that “serious crises provide an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”1 But for residents of Flint, Michigan, their water crisis created a necessity, rather than an opportunity, to survive an economic regime that, as Achille Mbembe’s Necropolitics illustrates, deliberately devalues their lives.2 In the wake of Flint’s ongoing recovery, the Jackson Water Crisis has emerged as the most recent in a long list of crises that were manufactured by mismanagement and malrepresentation. The residents of Mississippi’s capital, more than 80% of whom are Black, were left without water for consumption or sanitation, while individuals outside the affected area pooled their resources to keep their neighbors afloat through mutual-aid practices.
A grassroots response felt necessary when the absence of the state’s capacity became evident. To those who practice cyclical rituals of gathering and distributing food, water, and fuel in the aftermath of hurricanes, providing or receiving aid in a time of crisis is grounded in acts that are mutual rather than transactional. Operating under this epistemology, interstate organizations formed connections, solicited monetary and material donations, and subsequently transported hundreds of gallons of water directly to Cooperation Jackson—a local organization coordinating distribution in the impoverished western part of the city.3 The chronic institutional neglect of West Jackson today, punctuated by boarded-up windows and dilapidated structures reclaimed by weeds, has its origins in divestment and White flight of the 1970s. As such, the compounding impacts of the present crisis on the most marginalized communities would lead them to look beyond the temporal call-and-response dynamic that emerges from disaster and desperation.
While volunteers were on the ground, handing out emergency supplies around the clock, state officials were in the halls of power, considering how to implement Rahm’s Rule on their terms. Governor Tate Reeves ominously declared that “privatization is on the table,” echoing the causes of both Jackson’s and Flint’s hardships. Disastrous contracts made with the Siemens corporation in 2013 to overhaul Jackon’s aging infrastructure were botched, costing the city millions and exacerbating the crisis long before the most recent flare up; some Jacksonians spent 225 days of 2021 under a boil-water advisory.4 As one resident shared, “Most of the world just didn’t know about [the crisis] until northeast [whiter, wealthier] Jackson also didn’t have drinkable water.” The city’s mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, urgently warned that “even when the pressure is restored, even when we’re not under a boil-water notice, it’s not a matter of if these systems will fail, but when these systems will fail.”
Rather than passively waiting for that inevitability, or placing more trust in the institutions actively subjecting communities to further harm, Cooperation Jackson turned an episodic surplus into a long-term rejection of reliance upon the paternalistic failed-state. In addition to using mutual-aid funds to purchase bottled water for immediate use, the organization aimed to circumvent hazardous municipal services by enacting a plan to build rapidly reproducible localized water-catchment infrastructure. Six 275-gallon storage tanks were installed as a proof-of-concept in late September, posted on Instagram with the caption: “This is Phase 2, Building Resilient Alternatives.”5 The strategy of overcoming urgent obstacles with the foresight to side-step systemic ones points to the more radical rhetoric of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who declared, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Solidarity that begins with mutual aid exposes the flaws of existing sociopolitical systems, and has the potential to snowball into greater structural change than the largess of individual donations or state benevolence can offer.
Pleas to redress the crisis endure with continued failures, routinely exposing how few federal dollars are allocated for domestic infrastructure, and where they are sent.6 While localized solutions are not presently a substitute for massive investments in systemic repairs, they offer a compelling vision of how a decentralized system of shared resources can shape an alternative to the current system, where necessities as elemental as water are increasingly commodified. The determination of community organizers to pursue that alternative in a state of perpetual precarity shows that solidarity can be rooted in the power to build worlds apart from the status quo, and leverage support for those who do.
- “Rahm Emanuel on the Opportunities of Crisis.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, November 18, 2008. bit.ly/3Vehk4u. ↩︎
- Mbembe, Joseph-Achille, and Steve Corcoran. Necropolitics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. ↩︎
- Participating organizations included New Orleans-based Lobelia Commons and the Greater New Orleans Caring Collective. ↩︎
- Riddle, Mary. “The Two Huge Factors behind the Jackson Water Crisis.” The Two Huge Factors Behind the Jackson Water Crisis, September 12, 2022. bit.ly/3EQv6Vp. ↩︎
- “CooperationJXN.” Instagram, September 23, 2022. bit.ly/3UUqdA9. ↩︎
- Only $25M (or 2.5%) of the estimated $1B needed for repairs in Jackson has been allocated by Congress thus far. ↩︎