Sanctuary Cities and Sacrifice Zones: Thoughts on Water, Politics, and Criminology

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On Tuesday, February 22, 2017 U.S. government officials threatened hundreds of water protectors with criminal charges, should they continue their long-standing peaceful work protecting the Missouri River in North Dakota from the imminent threat of the $3.8 billion dollar Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).  Armed police and military eventually entered the Oceti Sakowin camp on February 23rd, and arrested dozens of water protectors remaining at the site.  Construction of DAPL is a concern for a host of reasons: it advances colonialism and white supremacy, it is an environmental injustice to Native Americans living along the pipeline route, it violates the Treaty of Fort Laramie (as the DAPL is routed through treaty-protected Native American territory), and poses a threat to the millions of Americans who depend on the Missouri River as a water source.

Also on February 22, 2017, residents of Flint, Michigan endured another day without clean drinking water, as they had for the previous 1034 days (and counting).  Simultaneously, residents of Detroit, Michigan continued to endure water shutoff policies that render thousands of Detroiters without access to water; it has been estimated that in the summer of 2014 alone, 30,000 Detroit households had their water shut off (We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective, 2016).  Research from We the People of Detroit’s Community Research Collective (2016) documents that, much like the water scandal in Flint, predominately Black and Latinx communities in Detroit are impacted most severely by water shutoffs. Water crises in Flint as well as Detroit have drawn attention from experts at the United Nations, who have decried both crises as human rights violations.  This is not the first time the UN has addressed the United States over these issues: the United Nations previously called out the United States for racial and ethnic discrimination in access to clean water and sanitation in 2011[1].

Efforts to access and preserve clean water have been met with staunch opposition, as well as outright violence, from multiple branches of the criminal justice system. For example, footage from North Dakota DAPL resistance sites revealed a highly-militarized police presence.  Law enforcement used police dogs to viciously attack water protectors, and also used water cannons to douse protectors in the middle of winter. Over the course of the water preservation efforts at Standing Rock, hundreds of water protectors were arrested and continue to fight criminal charges (  For covering DAPL water protection efforts, Democracy Now journalist Amy Goodman was charged with trespassing and rioting (charges were eventually dropped).  Flint residents continue to battle the state of Michigan in court, pleading for water delivery, as the state claims it cannot afford to provide this service (while simultaneously allocating state funds to provide legal defense to Governor Rick Snyder, as well as permitting corporations like Nestle to extract billions of gallons of water to bottle and sell—see Egan, 2016 & Ellison, 2016).  When nine activists blocked the passage of shutoff trucks at Homrich (the private company that receives millions of dollars from the city of Detroit to conduct water shutoffs) to protect Detroiters from having their water shut off, they were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.  A lengthy court battle continues to unfold in which the city has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent a jury trial from reaching completion (Dickson, 2017; Guillen, 2017; Wiley-Kellerman &  Klaus, 2016).

The actions of brave water protectors expose many disturbing realities about crime, justice, water, and capitalism, including capitalism’s inherent incompatibility with nature (Klein, 2014; Schnaiberg, 1980).  The political economic system we operate within is not designed to promote environmental sustainability, nor is it designed to afford us all equal service and protection (Lynch & Michalowski, 2006; Stretesky, Long, & Lynch, 2013).  One way this plays out is having a criminal justice system which is swift to criminalize water protectors standing in the way of private capital accumulation, and (far more often than not) unwilling to criminalize state-initiated and state-facilitated water contamination and deprivation (via privatization, emergency management laws, and otherwise—see Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, 2016; Johnson, South, & Walters, 2016; McClanahan, Brisman, & South, 2015; Michalowski & Kramer, 2006; Rector, 2016).  Of course only one of these actions actually threatens life and construes a human rights violation.

For being the party of racial and ethnic minorities, the party of the environment, the party of the laborers, and the party of the vulnerable, many high ranking elected Democrats have been pretty quiet on some of the country’s most serious threats to water availability, environmental racism, and injustice.  For months, most Democrats resisted commenting directly on DAPL, and several have remained silent to date.  The Obama administration resisted commenting for months.  Environmentalist Bill McKibben described Hillary Clinton’s statement on DAPL as saying “literally nothing.” For many Democrats, interest in Flint was fleeting. Detroit Mayor, Democrat Mike Duggan, has continued to reject water affordability plans proposed by Detroit grassroots organizations, including the Water Affordability Plan passed by Detroit’s City Council in 2006 (Lewis-Patrick & Cabbil, 2014; Taylor, 2014; We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective, 2016).  In spite of criticism over the water shutoffs (from the UN as well as local activists), Duggan was rumored to have been considered for secretary of Housing and Urban Development under a potential Hillary Clinton presidency (Helms, 2016).

Democrats often paint environmental degradation as a problem to address for the sake of future generations. While this is important, and noble, it is a sentiment that ignores the human suffering emanating from environmental inequalities right now.  Lately, most Democrats seem much more interested in disparaging Russian hackers for suspected election tampering[2] than on speaking out about ongoing water crises.

Republicans are silent on the water crises in North Dakota, Detroit, and Flint. Trump’s remarks that he heard not a single complaint about DAPL (not to mention his disabling of the white house comment line) suggest that input on water crises will not even be received, much less discussed. Trump paid lip service to “promoting clean air and clean water,” in his first address to a joint session of congress.  However, earlier the exact same day he issued an executive order to withdraw and reconsider the Clean Water Rule (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2017). Trump has also proposed massive budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, appointed notorious climate change deniers to his cabinet, introduced a bizarre “2-for-1” schema for repealing and introducing regulation, and signed to repeal regulations that protect waterways from coal mining debris.

Republicans appear instead to be preoccupied with penalizing “sanctuary cities” –a term Republicans use in derision to describe places with large concentrations of foreign born immigrants, whom they allege are engaging in crime.  The notion that foreign born immigrants bring crime problems into the United States has long been falsified; criminologists have documented that areas with the highest concentrations of foreign born persons are some of the safest places in the country (Sampson, 2008).  Throughout the 1990s, while the United States experienced a surge in the immigrant population, the crime rates simultaneously and steadily declined to record lows (Stowell et al., 2009).  While growth in hate crimes and corporate crime can be substantiated (Reiman & Leighton, 2010; Potok, 2017), it is simply not true that the nation is experiencing a massive spike in interpersonal rates of crime and violence (Friedman, Grawert, & Cullen, 2016)—regardless of what the Trump administration tries to advance.

Republicans want new infrastructure, but not pipes to carry clean water to Flint (and other cities suffering from polluted water). They want pipes to carry tar sands for the fossil fuel industry.  Republicans want a wall to partition the United States from Mexico.  As Native Americans unite to protect their sacred, treaty-protected territory in North Dakota, we all see how permeable U.S. borders become when white people want to transfer tar sands for profit (versus when Syrians are forced to transport their own bodies for survival).  Pipelines may weave in and out of American borders, promoting a dependence on unsustainable, non-renewable energy, and threatening the communities they are routed through with leaks and explosions (all very serious public health concerns). However, human beings fleeing humanitarian crises in their native countries are thwarted and labeled as security risks and crime problems.

Trump and his supporters claim that these “sanctuary cities” house our crime problems.  That, supposedly, cities with policies that resist criminalizing immigration are crime-addled areas that represent persistent threats to public safety. Trump and his supporters say the United States simply has too many safe havens that harbor violent, dangerous criminals.

To be sure, the United States does embrace policies that promote an uneven distribution of violence—as long pointed out by water protectors, researchers, academics, and activists.  Steve Lerner (2010), Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco (2012), and Naomi Klein (2014) have labeled places that concentrate violence as “sacrifice zones”—communities they describe as having been exploited by major corporations for natural resources and labor, ravaged, abandoned, and left reeling for an economy and fighting for a right to survive.  This process leaves communities vulnerable to privatization and other forms of destruction[3]. Communities forces to endure this violence are predominately communities of color, communities with high rates of poverty, or both (Bullard, 2000).  Lerner (2010) explains that he employs the term “sacrifice zone” to describe areas shouldering the most extreme forms of environmental injustice, because:

“it dramatizes the fact that low-income and minority populations, living adjacent to heavy industry and military bases, are required to make disproportionate health and economic sacrifices that more affluent people can avoid.  To my mind, this pattern of unequal exposures constitutes a form of environmental racism that is being played out on a large scale across the nation” (p.3).

As Klein (2014), states:

“Running an economy on energy sources that release poisons as an unavoidable part of their extraction and refining has always required sacrifice zones—whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable” (p. 310).

There is a nonrandom distribution of violence. It is completely dehumanizing. In order to confront this, the United States must move from the very imagined threat of immigrants to the very real destruction brought on by white supremacy, environmental degradation, and neoliberal capitalism.

Perhaps “sacrifice zones” could instead be labeled “sanctuary cities”—that is, safe havens for crimes of the state, crimes of corporations, and crimes occurring when these two forces collude (Michalowski & Kramer, 2006).  Perhaps then politicians could get tough on crime in a way that promotes equity.  Representatives could work with residents to dismantle the policies that give rise to places where major corporations maximize profit by violating treaties, human rights, environmental regulation, and labor laws with the aid of government tax breaks, negligence, deregulation, our criminal justice system, and corporate welfare. Change is needed.  As it stands, state and corporate officials are instead forging violent collaborations: racism, pollution, and dehydration all steal, terrorize, and kill.

“Sanctuary city” or “sacrifice zone,” the skewed distribution of environmental health is America’s toxic legacy of capitalism, neoliberalism, colonialism, and white supremacy made visible across place. It is clear to see our problem is not refugees.  The perpetrators are not people born outside of the United States.  And neither of America’s two major political parties seem particularly interested in protecting us from our most pressing crime problems.


Kimberly L. Barrett, Ph.D.
Eastern Michigan University


The author would like to thank Karen Barrett, Carl Root, and Dr. Ann Rall for their thoughtful commentary on an earlier version of this essay.


[1] In March of 2011, UN human rights expert Catarina de Albuquerque deemed the United States is discriminatory in providing access to clean drinking water and sanitation stating: “I am concerned that several laws, policies and practices, while appearing neutral at face value, have a disproportionate impact on the enjoyment of human rights by certain groups,” (UN News Centre, 2011).

[2] Interestingly, most Democrats have been much quieter on domestic problems that undermine democratic elections.  For example, when the Green Party launched ballot recount initiatives that revealed 87 optical scanners broke on election day (among several other problems) in Detroit alone (Kruth & Oosting, 2016), this revelation failed to trigger a country-wide movement by Democrats to push for audits or updated voting equipment across the nation (or at least in a way that parallels the party-wide backlash over Russian hackers).  Hillary Clinton offered lukewarm sideline support to Jill Stein for the initiative, but at the national level, Democratic engagement largely stopped there.  That is to say, establishment Democrats seem more galvanized by the speculation that Russia tampered with the election, than the documented break downs in technology that occurred on election day (not to mention how disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and the millions of corporate dollars that Democrats and Republicans receive undermine democracy).  The Democrats who are only interested in fighting for fair, democratic voting processes when they can vilify Russia must acknowledge that their issue isn’t really the integrity of our elections.

[3] Michigan is one of the largest sources of fresh water in the world.  That there is a water crisis anywhere in the state underscores that this is a highly unnatural disaster.

Further Information:

  1. We the People of Detroit’s Community Research Collective’s book “Mapping the water crisis: The dismantling of African-American neighborhoods in Detroit: Volume one” is available to purchase here:
  1. Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management’s “Teach-In on Detroit and Flint Water Crises: Readings and Resources,” is available here:
  1. News and Updates on DAPL can be found at the Camp of the Sacred Stone’s website:
  1. Many incredible groups work hard to promote and protect clean, affordable water. An incomplete list of just some of these groups is provided below.  Please consider volunteering, donating, and learning more from:


Bullard, R. D. (2000). Dumping in Dixie: Race, class, and environmental quality (Vol. 3). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management. (2016 January 16). Teach-in on Detroit and Flint water crises: Readings and resources. Detroit, MI: Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management.  Available at

Dickson, J.D. (2017 January 10). Almost 3 years later, Homrich 9 appear headed to court. The Detroit News.  Available at:

Egan, P. (2016 December 21). Snyder’s legal tab with criminal defense firm hits $3.5M.  Detroit Free Press.  Retrieved February 26, 2017 at

Ellison, G. (2016 December 23). Why Nestle pays next to nothing for Michigan groundwater. MLive. Retrieved February 26, 2017 at

Friedman, M., Grawert, A., & Cullen, J. (2016 September 19). Crime in 2016: A preliminary analysis.  New York, NY: Brennan Center for Justice.

Guillien, J. (2017 January 10). Bizarre trial of water protestors takes another twist. Detroit Free Press.  Retrieved February 26, 2017 at

Hedges, C. & Sacco, J. (2014). Days of destruction, Days of revolt. New York, NY: Nation Books.

Helms, M. (2016 October 8). Who will challenge Mike Duggan? Early candidates scarce. Detroit Free Press.  Retrieved February 26, 2017 from

Johnson, H., South, N., & Walters, R. (2016). The commodification and exploitation of fresh water: Property, human rights and green criminology. International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice44, 146-162.

Klein, N. (2014). This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the climate. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Kruth, J. & Oosting, J. (2016 December 12). Records: Too many votes in 37% of Detroit’s precincts. The Detroit News.  Retrieved February 26 2017 at

Lerner, S. (2010). Sacrifice zones: The front lines of toxic chemical exposure in the United States. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lewis-Patrick, M. & Cabbil, L. (2014 November 6). On water issues, its Detroit versus the U.N. The Detroit News.  Retrieved February 26 2017 at

Lynch, M. J., & Michalowski, R. J. (2006). The new primer in radical criminology: Critical perspectives on crime, power, and identity. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

McClanahan, B., Brisman, A., & South, N. (2015). “Privatization, pollution, and power: A green criminological analysis of present and future global water crises.” In Gregg Barak (Ed.) The Routledge Handbook of the Crimes of the Powerful.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Michalowski, R. J., & Kramer, R. C. (2006). State-corporate crime: Wrongdoing at the intersection of business and government. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Potok, M. (2017 February 15). The year in hate and extremism. The Intelligence Report.  Montogomery, AL: The Southern Poverty Law Center.

Reiman, J., & Leighton, P. (2015). The rich get richer and the poor get prison: Ideology, class, and criminal justice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Rector, J. (2016). Neoliberalism’s deadly experiment. Jacobin Magazine.  Retrieved Thursday March 2, 2017 from

Sampson, R.J. (2008). Rethinking crime and immigration. Contexts, 7(1), 28-33.

Schnaiberg, A. (1980). Environment: From surplus to scarcity. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Stowell, J. I., Messner, S. F., McGeever, K. F., & Raffalovich, L. E. (2009). Immigration and the recent violent crime drop in the united states: a pooled, cross‐sectional time‐series analysis of metropolitan areas. Criminology, 47(3), 889-928.

Stretesky, P. B., Long, M. A., & Lynch, M. J. (2014). The treadmill of crime: Political economy and green criminology. New York, NY: Routledge.

Taylor, M.D. (2014 October 24). MWRO Statement on UN visit to Detroit to investigate massive water shutoffs- Part 1. Detroit, MI: Michigan Welfare Rights Organization.  Available at:

UN News Centre. (2011 March 4). US discriminations on right to safe water and sanitation, says UN expert. Retrieved February 26, 2017 at

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2017). Clean water rule.  Retrieved March 1, 2017 at

We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective. (2016). Mapping the water crisis: The dismantling of African-American neighborhoods in Detroit: Volume one.  Detroit, MI: We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective.  Available at

Wiley-Kellerman, B. & Klaus, N. (2016). The Homrich 9 trial and civil disobedience in the struggle for water affordability. Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management Teach-In: The Detroit and Flint Water Crisis (Detroit, MI). January 16, 2016.

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