President Barack Obama visited Flint, Michigan, on Wednesday and might as well have said, “Ricky, you’re doing a heckuva job.” Like George W. Bush’s belated visit to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Obama’s presence in Flint served two purposes. One was to provide a photo opportunity—caring president lifts local spirits in face of disaster. The second reason, perhaps more important to the president, was to tell a city that, as far as Washington is concerned, it means nothing and had better stop complaining.
“The kids will be just fine,” Obama told roughly a thousand Flint residents gathered at Northwestern High School, many of whose children drank lead-tainted water for a year and a half. He tried to minimize the concern over Flint’s lead poisoning by making a comparison to hypothetical children who eat lead paint chips and are “just fine,” saying even he may have chewed on lead paint chips as a child.
“Obama’s speech was a complete atrocity,” Said LeeAnne Walters, a Flint resident and mother who helped expose the water crisis. “To sit there and tell a city of 100,000 that lead poisoning from drinking water compares to Obama eating paint chips is incredible. To compare drinking lead-poisoned water to paint chips is like comparing apples to toxic waste. We were devastated. We were told our kids don’t matter—not just my kids but all the children here. We’re talking about long-term effects.
“He told us to drink the water,” Walters continued. “That means the programs for filters and bottled water will stop.” Walters and her husband walked out on the speech.
Obama even feigned a cough so he could ask for, and then sip, a glass of water. “This is not a stunt,” the stuntman said.
Obama’s speech was designed to perpetuate the cover-up of criminality that caused the poisoning of Flint’s water. Like Governor Snyder in his public appearances, the President made a point of blaming the crisis on “poor decisions” that were made “at every level of government.” What better way for a politician who represents the forces of privatization to further his agenda than by holding up “government” in the abstract as inept.
In fact, it was not poor decisions or ineptitude that poisoned Flint’s water. It was calculated decisions made in the face of repeated warnings from experts. It was lies told by individual government officials to those experts. It was vilification of those experts once they began to make their findings public. It was lies made to the people of Flint. The Flint water crisis is not the fault of “big government.” It was a crime, committed by individuals in the Snyder administration, in state agencies such as the Department of Environmental Quality, and in the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
By telling the people of Flint that the cause of their lead poisoning was officials who “weren’t attentive to potential problems,” Obama not only insulted their intelligence but even appeared to be behind the curve of official propaganda. Michigan’s Attorney General, Mike Schuette, has brought criminal charges against several low-level administrators, setting up the possibility of show trials aimed at mollifying a city that knows very well that crimes were committed. They also know that, while emails reveal the governor’s office was aware of the problem long before it admitted there was a problem, Rick Snyder has little to fear from Schuette. Obama guaranteed as much by standing beside Snyder during his speech and chastising those in the crowd who booed his mention of the Governor with, “We’re doing business here.”
Obama was certainly not in Flint to listen to its people, but the truth is that he was not even primarily speaking to them. He was, instead, speaking for the record. The message on record is and will always be that the poor and working people of the United States have no voice and hold little value to a ruling class that will do as it pleases. As he spoke, preparations were under way to shut off water service to thousands of Detroiters. And this past week, Detroit Public Schools teachers held a two-day “sickout” to protest the fact that, according to the DPS’s unelected “emergency manager” Steven Rhodes threatened that they would not be receiving the pay they have worked for once summer comes. The teachers face a ruling elite and subservient state government that intend to privatize as much of the Detroit system as they can, making good on former education secretary Arne Duncan’s threat that Detroit would be “ground zero” in Obama’s education “reform” plans.
In impoverished cities like Flint and Detroit, we see the country’s future. A failing economy that, despite Obama’s recent talk of his “legacy,” is not going to recover promises more unemployment and a further decline in real wages and the prospect of increasingly deteriorating infrastructure. In such an environment, we will see more of the “emergency manager” scheme, more larcenous municipal “bankruptcy” scams such as the one in Detroit overseen by Steven Rhodes, and more privatization of public resources and services such as water, education and prisons. Through it all, government will facilitate the looting of the public’s money for the elite who own water companies, prison companies and charter schools, while at the same time telling the public stories about hard decisions, efficiency and leaner government. It is the ongoing redistribution of wealth from you and me to those at the top.
But take heart. While it is estimated that the cost of repairing Flint’s water pipes could run as high as $1.5 billion, and while Washington finds endless trillions for its war machine but has not seen so much as a legislative proposal that would fix the pipes, Obama reminds us that there are charities and non-profits and philanthropists out there. Why, he said, a group of prisoners in Indiana raised $2,500 for the project. It is bitter comedy worthy of Brecht and Ionesco. It is the farce of our political life in a time of economic disaster.
And on the horizon, two jackals named Trump and Clinton approach to write what may be the last chapter of the American republic.
Photo source: nbc.com