Seven Things Obama Should Say From Flint

Terrance Heath

Today, President Obama is visiting Flint, Michigan for the first time since state officials revealed that the city’s water was contained with lead. The president was invited to Flint not by Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, but by eight-year-old Mari Copney. One of the 8,000 children exposed to lead contamination by the water from her own tap, Copney had hoped to meet the president while she was in Washington, DC for a hearing about Flint’s water crisis. The meeting was not to be. So, she wrote a letter to him instead, and gained a new pen pal. A week ago, Mari’s mother got a phone call that President Obama would write back to Mari personally letter. One day later, another call announced that the president would visit Michigan, and wanted to meet Mari while he was in town.

President Obama may also meet with Snyder, though the governor wasn’t initially all that excited about the prospect. During a trip to Europe last week, Snyder indicated that he would be too busy to meet with the president. Butt by Monday, Snyder made a formal request for a meeting with the president during his visit to Flint. Besides discussing how best to help Flint, Snyder hopes President Obama will take a sip of Flint’s water and boost his publicity stunt.

The White House is “not aware of any photo-ops that involve the president’s consumption of water.” (As of Tuesday, meeting with Snyder wasn’t even on the President’s schedule.) Instead, the President will receive a briefing on the response and recovery efforts, and take part in a roundtable meeting with Flint community members, before delivering his remarks this afternoon.

The Flint crisis comes at a moment in Obama’s presidency when he, as the first African-American to hold the office, can freely say things he couldn’t back when he still had elections to win, without paying a political price. Now that he can, here are a few things President Obama should say while he’s in Flint.

Flint is a national disaster. It has been six months since Michigan officials announced that Flint’s drinking water is contaminated with lead, and nearly four months since President Obama declared a state of emergency in response to Flint’s crisis, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide up to $5 million in federal aid. But that only help provide water filters, bottled water, and other items for up to 90 days. Flint needs so much more. Flint’s water still has too much lead. Its lead pipes need to be replaced, and residents need long-term support in dealing with the consequences of lead contamination. President Obama should declare Flint a national disaster. Doing so would provide the city with nearly $100 million more  to cover extended recovery efforts and help begin to pay for new pipes.

We all live in Flint. Americans are paying attention to what’s happening in Flint. Last month, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 70 percent of Americans said they were following the Flint crisis closely, up from 63 percent in March. We are a nation of Flints waiting to happen. Elevated lead levels have already been found in thousands of water systems across the country, including in North Carolina, Rhode Island, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Washington, DC. New Jersey governor Chris Christie recently ordered mandatory lead testing in all of the state’s public schools, after water at 30 of Newark’s 67 schools was shut off due to high levels of lead. Nearly 1 in 3 American mayors worry that cost cutting measures could turn their cities into the next Flint, and they’ll get stuck with the bill. Local governments pay for 95 percent of sewer infrastructure and 99 percent of public water infrastructure. Most can’t afford to be the next Flint any more than Flint can.

Flint is what happens when government is run like a business. The purpose of business is to deliver the highest possible profits to owners and shareholders, at the lowest possible cost. The purpose of government is, or ought to be, to improve the lives of the people, and protect the most vulnerable. Rick Snyder ran for governor, touting his experience as a businessman, and promising to run the state government like a business, complete with “outcomes” and “deliverables.” Flint is one result. After winning the governorship with the help of dark money non-profits funded by secret corporations, in 2011 Snyder pushed $1.7 billion in tax cuts through the Republican-dominated legislature, which mainly benefitted corporations and wealthy, and shifted the burden of funding state government to those who could least afford it by taking away more than $900 million a year in tax deductions. The state collected less in tax revenues. That gave conservatives and excuse to cut costs, and again the most vulnerable would pay.

Flint is what happens when people are denied democracy. One of the first things Snyder did as governor, with the support of the Republican legislature, was to expand an existing law that allowed the governor to appoint “emergency managers” to take over financially troubled cities and school districts. Emergency managers have the power to renegotiate or cancel city contracts, unilaterally draft policy, privatize public services, overrule and even fire local elected officials. The emergency managers’ only purpose is to cut costs, by cutting services, to pay for a shortfall created by Snyder’s tax cuts for the wealthy. In Flint, an emergency manager made the decision to change Flint’s water service, in order to cut costs. An emergency manager made the decision to use the heavily polluted Flint River as a temporary water source. An emergency manager decided not to treat Flint’s water with anti-corrosive chemicals  that would have protected Flint’s pipes and prevented lead contamination, at a cost of about $100 per day.  When the citizens complained of discolored, foul smelling water that caused rashes and made hair fall out in clumps, the city council — their elected representatives — heeded their cry, and voted to do whatever possible to stop using water from the Flint River. The city’s emergency manager, whom no one in Flint voted for,  vetoed the city council’s decision. Local democracy became a casualty and Flint residents were denied a voice in their city’s fate.

Flint is what happens when polluters don’t pay. The Flint water crisis didn’t happen overnight. The pollution in the Flint River goes all the way back to when the auto industry brought jobs, prosperity, and pollution to the city. General Motor’s plants lined the Flint River, and their toxic wastes went right into it. Deindustrialization depleted Flint of industry, jobs, and half its population. Auto plants abandoned the city, leaving their toxic waste behind. Now, the polluters are long gone, and Flint residents are paying the price in myriad ways, from the health impacts of lead contamination, to lost property values, and the cost of clean up. It is time to make polluters pay to fix the damage they cause. As Green For All’s Vien Truong said, “We have to make sure that people who are violating our communities, our human rights, are forced to make whole the communities that they have been hurting.”

Flint is about race. Flint, where 57 percent of the population is African-American, is the latest example of environmental racism that has far-reaching consequences for generations of African Americans. Low-income and minority communities are more likely to be located near contaminated and environmentally hazardous sites, and farther from clean water, air, and soil. It is part of the legacy of segregation still with us today. Federal housing agencies redlined black neighborhoods, using racist lending practices to lock African-Americans into crowded city centers, while subsidizing white families’ flight to the suburbs, and shutting African-Americans out decades of wealth accumulation through equity. Poor and isolated, without political clout, black communities became perfect neighbors for polluters.

Flint is about inequality. If Flint is about how we treat people of color, it’s also about how we treat the poor. “After all, 37 percent of the people in Flint are white,” writes Leonard Pitts Jr., and their water was poisoned too. It’s not that race isn’t a factor. The black poverty rate is still higher than any other except Native Americans. It’s just that once you are poor “the array of slights and indignities to which you are subjected” is pretty much equal opportunity. One of those indignities is being rendered invisible, until disaster strikes. As we become more economically segregated, with the well-off more and more concentrated in affluent areas, and the poor more and more concentrated in low-income areas, we grow more blind to how our fellow Americans actually live. If the president takes the time to tour Flint, he will see whole streets of abandoned homes and schools, that speak to the hollowing out of a once booming American city. Just like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina shocked us by revealing the existence of “Americans too poor to escape a killer storm,” Flint’s crisis reminds us that there are also Americans too poor to escape a poisoned city. Inequality makes it far too easy to forget.

Whatever President Obama says when he speaks to the nation from Flint, he has an opportunity to give the citizens of Flint and the nation two things we need every time we turn on the tap after Flint: truth and hope.

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