Obama to Flint Residents: 'I've Got Your Back'

By Ryan Hammill 5-04-2016
Screenshot via The White House

President Obama came to Flint, Mich., on May 4 to address the ongoing water crisis in the city, where he gave a rousing speech to an auditorium full of residents.

“Flint’s recovery is everybody’s responsibility,” Obama said in his speech. “And I’m going to make sure that responsibility is met.”

After widely publicized revelations of lead contamination, President Obama declared on Jan. 16 a state of emergency for the state of Michigan. His May 4 visit came in response to an invitation from 8-year-old Mari Copeny, also known as “Little Miss Flint.”

“There she is,” he pointed from the stage, to applause.

“I would have been happy to see Mari in Washington,” he continued. “But when something like this happens, a young girl shouldn’t have to go to Washington to be heard. I thought her president should come to Flint to meet with her.”

At one point, the president appeared on the verge of tears.

“I also wanted to come here to tell you I’ve got your back,” Obama said. “That we’re paying attention.”

The speech at Flint Northwestern High School was a long and raucous affair.

“This is a feisty crowd!” he said at one point. “Everybody settle down.”

While saying that the overwhelming response of generosity from people all over the country is “the good news,” Obama went on at one point to strike a sterner chord: “The bad news is: This should not have happened in the first place.”

“And even thought the scope of the response looks sort of like the efforts we’re used to seeing after a natural disaster, that’s not what this was,” he said. “This was a manmade disaster. This was avoidable. This was preventable.”

But he didn’t want to spend the speech vilifying other officials, which at times seemed like what some in the crowd wanted. When naming the guests at the speech, Gov. Rick Snyder garnered boos, which Obama quieted.

Obama did go through a short history of the crisis, however, starting with the collapse of the manufacturing industry.

“When Flint’s finances collapsed,” he continued, “an emergency manager was put in place whose mandate was primarily to cut at all costs.” At this point some in the crowd began shouting.

“And then some very poor decisions were made,” Obama said. “All these things contributed to this crisis.”

The president also used the speech as an opportunity to expound upon what he saw as the root cause of the Flint water crisis. In his view, “it’s an attitude [that] is as corrosive to our democracy as the stuff that resulted in lead in your water.”

“It’s a mindset that believes that less government is the highest good, no matter what,” he said.

“It leads to systemic neglect. It leads to carelessness and callousness.”

Obama took aim at some his conservative critics as well:

“You hear a lot about government overreach. ‘Oh, Obama, he’s for big government.’ Listen — it’s not government overreach to say that our government is responsible for making sure you can wash your hands in your own sink or shower in your home or cook for your family,” he said to vigorous applause.

“These are the most basic services. There’s no more basic element sustaining human life than water. It’s not too much to expect for all Americans that their water’s going to be safe.”

At one point, Obama began coughing and asked for a glass of water.

“This is not a stunt,” he told the crowd, who laughed obligingly.

But some were less obliging when it came to the future safety of the city’s water. When Obama said that with a filter installed, Flint water is safe, except for children under 6 and pregnant women, someone in the crowd began shouting at him.

“Now, hold on a second, don’t just start shouting,” he said. “We’re going to have to solve this problem, and if people don’t listen to each other then it’s not going to get fixed.”

With a faint flicker of a smile, he went on: “And I promise you I’m really good at stirring folks up, so if I want to just come here and stir folks up, I know how to do that, but that’s not actually going to solve the problem.”

Much of the crowd, however, was appreciative, giving Obama a standing ovation multiple times throughout the speech. While showing the way forward for the city of Flint, Obama also tried to address the betrayal of trust caused, he said, by the “pipeline of neglect.”

“You should be angry, but channel that anger. You should be hurt, but don’t sink into despair,” he urged.

“We’ve got to break that mindset that says that that neighborhood over there — that’s not my problem. Those kids over there, they don’t look like my kids exactly so I don’t have to worry about them. Out of sight out of mind!” It was a rebuke, intended less for Flint residents and probably more for a state and national audience.

Toward the end of his speech, Obama started to head in a religious direction.

“We’ve got to break that attitude that says somehow there’s an ‘us’ and ‘them’ and remind ourselves there’s just one big we — the American family — and everybody has got to look out for each other. Because the kids her in Flint aren’t those kids — they’re our kids. That’s what Scripture teaches us,” he said.

“But I’m not going to start preaching in front of some pastors.”

Ryan Hammill is a former Online Assistant for Sojourners. Follow him @ryanahammill.

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