They just snubbed us. [Family friend] wouldn’t speak to me for over a year because of this. I know it was about that. He was very vocal about how we were going to harm the town by bringing up the contamination issues and stuff . . . He wouldn’t even speak to me.
– interviewee quote from “Power, Quiescence, and Pollution”
There’s a new article in Social Currents by Thomas Shriver, Alison Adams, and Chris Messer, “Power, Quiescence, and Pollution The Suppression of Environmental Grievances.” It looks at the specific mechanisms by which quiescence, the state of quietness or inactivity, is fostered in the face of power inequalities around local industrial pollution. They found that “when efforts to prevent collective challenges fail, elites can resort to methods such as stigmatization and vilification of activists, isolation, economic retribution, threats, and violence to force outspoken
residents into silence,” as told in the interviewee quote above. While most academic work on environmental justice looks at how social movements and challenges to power form, few look at how they fail to form.
The number of communities dealing with industrial pollution in the United States has increased dramatically over the past three decades. Environmental campaigns have consequentially emerged and so has research on successful mobilizing efforts. A gap remains, however, on cases where mobilization fails to materialize. In this article, we develop a typology of power’s multidimensional nature in an effort to address mechanisms by which elites prompt quiescence in the face of grievous injustice. We then analyze a case in point, Blackwell, Oklahoma—a community contaminated with lead, zinc, and cadmium from a decommissioned zinc smelter facility—and the proactive and coercive methods used to maintain local quiescence. Despite assurances that the community had been successfully remediated in the mid-1990s, residents learned in 2006 that environmental pollution continued to emanate from the facility. Our data come from in-depth interviews with community residents and city officials, participant observation, and document analysis. Findings highlight forms of control employed to keep citizens quiescent and to thwart the efforts of more vocal residents in the community.