By Jan Worth-Nelson
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an earlier (April 25) Village Life column
President Obama’s sip of water from a sparkling clean glass at Northwestern High School during his May 4 visit was nothing less than a show-stopper.
After a few small coughs, when the President said, “Uhh, can I get some water?” I bolted upright from my easy chair, where I was watching the speech on TV at home.
The President of the United States wants some water! In Flint!
Riveted in my chair, a bottled water from Station #1 at my side, I found myself shouting, “Yeah, no kidding! Do you get it?”
How could that moment not be electrifying? For Flint residents, how could it not mean something monumental?
What would they do? Why wasn’t there water there already? What kind of water would they get him?
It took awhile. Why the delay? Did the Secret Service have to check it? Was it filtered?
As USA Today reported the next day, the crowd at Northwestern was “restless” to say the least as Obama looked under the podium and to his left.
Rev. Dan Scheid, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, was in the audience. When Obama said, “I’m still waiting for my water,” Scheid, packed among the crowd in the bleachers, said he muttered under his breath, “Us, too!”
One source speculated the water, when it ultimately showed up, was from the same pitcher of filtered aqua–presumably cleared by the massive security team for the event–from the high school, provided at an earlier meeting. When somebody finally handed him the glass, gleaming in the TV lights, that sip added Obama to the list of government officials who’ve assured us the water is safe to drink – even though there’s considerable, deep-seated skepticism and worry among many Flint residents about whether the filters we’ve been provided cut out enough lead.
Emotion in the crowd, Scheid said, like emotions roiling in our community as a whole these days, ran hot.
By now we all know, of course, that Obama’s portentous drink followed a loud and long booing of our clueless governor.
I booed too. He deserved it: the unfiltered, untempered disdain of the people, at long last face to face with the man who I believe should be held responsible. I’ve watched that clip again and again.
Scheid, a man of avid advocacy for social justice, said, “I had the strangest feeling when Gov. Snyder was introduced and met with non-stop booing. What came to my mind in the most surprisingly counterintuitive way was the passion narrative in the Gospels, when Pilate introduced Jesus to a chorus of ‘crucify him!’ In no way, shape or form do I compare nor conflate the governor with Jesus, please! But the crowd turned in an instant from good feelings after the Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem, and in eager anticipation of President Obama, to one of utter contempt and disrespect.
“I wasn’t surprised by the crowd’s reaction,” Scheid said. “I was surprised by my immediate comparison.”
This is a time of intense emotional and psychological vulnerability. We are, in short, in kind of shaky condition. Many of us are frayed around the edges and for so many people who’ve been trapped in the crisis month after month – residents and social service providers alike – PTSD and burnout are setting in.
This is not something that pure reason is going to fix. For example, some people said they felt condescended to when the president said this: “Although I understand the fear and concern that people have, and it is entirely legitimate, what the science tells us at this stage is you should not drink any of the water that is not filtered but if you get the filter and use it properly, that water can be consumed, that’s information that I trust and I believe.”
Isn’t it his job to be the Comforter-in-Chief, the Reassurer-in-Chief? Don’t we want him to stand by science, to nudge us back to the facts?
But we’ve been burned. We’ve been handed “facts” that proved to be lies. Children have been hurt, families damaged. The consequences are visceral, scarring.
I appreciated so much the quotes of our hero, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, as reported in the next day’s Detroit News. She said the President’s speech was “a step in a long process for trust to be rebuilt.”
“Trust has been so severely corroded here by 18 months of neglect, by betrayal,” she was quoted as saying, “and you can have a million studies done on the safety of filters, and many people will still not believe that because they were essentially betrayed by all these agencies that were supposed to protect them.”
The aftermath of these betrayals, the physical and emotional exhaustion, are likely to go on for months, for years.
I felt it in myself when I went to the Flint Youth Theater production of “The Most (blank) City in America.” If you missed it, you missed an opportunity for a dramatic catharsis, theater at its best.
I was warned: I had Kleenex at the ready. Still, when my tears started up in the dark at the Elgood Theater, they hit me like a squall.
I was crying for this beleaguered, heartbreaking town. And for all of those entangled in its travails and miseries.
Andrew Morton’s powerful play, framed around the relationship between a Flint teenager and her grandfather, ranges through history distant and recent and does not avoid our water crisis. It begins with natives silently, hauntingly scooping water from a recreated river. (The occasional bubbling sound of it unexpectedly touched me). That quiet ballet sets the stage for a potent thematic exploration of dismay, struggle, guilt and a wrenching, poignant attempt to claim the city’s goodness.
There’s a part in the play when the “chorus,” a favorite device in Morton’s “verbatim” plays shaped from interviews and the words of affected people, builds in a spoken-word babble until all their voices converge, in unison, crying out, “…they told us it was safe to drink the water!!!”
That stark moment gripped my heart: as the cry of the heart reverberated in the small theater, it felt as if the betrayal, lying and confusion, all the anguish and anger, belonged to all of us. We were hurt all together.
They told us it was safe to drink the water.
A few minutes later, after a furious monologue by student cast member Alazsha Donerson, a senior at the International Academy, the whole chorus just starts screaming. Primal screaming. No holding back.
I was right there with them. Some days it feels like the whole city should have one good cry. Maybe the Mayor should declare a day of the Primal Scream.
We find our own comforts, our own ways to cope. I am one of the privileged ones – no children to worry about, enough money, health care all my life. I’m okay. Still, I snuck out last night – and the night before – to fill the birdbath, using one of the big bottles. For some reason I didn’t want anybody to see me doing it, as if it was an indulgence, a waste of the good water we’re all getting “free” these days.
But the birds – a horde of gold finches this year, plenty of doves, nuthatches, robins and cardinals – even some grosbeaks today, a treat – are one of the reasons waking up in the morning here makes me happy. I don’t want the birds to be harmed by this disaster any more than any of the other imperiled creatures. The people who’ve done this don’t get to ruin my birds.
As for the rest of you, I sense a great weariness. I sense cynicism and fury – that we are still drinking bottled water, that the funds keep getting held up, that we have been saddled like so many times before by unconscionable decisions outside our control, by losses one after the other just when we think we’re on the upswing.
And then the governor pulled that dreadfully cartoonish stunt, carting filtered water from a kitchen on Brookside and leaving for Europe the next week. And then Darnell Earley charged the city for his legal fees, the latest outrage, the latest shameful repudiation of responsibility. And then the president waited there, in the bright lights, for a drink. And we watched it on national TV, over and over.
They told us it was safe to drink the water.
And it wasn’t. And it still isn’t. And we’re trying to live good lives here. But not a day goes by that we can let our guard down, that we can trust our days to be free of struggle or our leaders to have our best interests at heart. Even our president gets caught in the rough waters of our distress.
Primal scream, anybody?
Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.