Did Barack Obama Mock the Flint Water Crisis?
A viral video from right-wing comedian Terrence K. Williams claims that President Barack Obama “made fun of the flint water crisis and mocked the people who suffered and died from it” by asking for a glass of water at a rally in Flint, Michigan, during his presidency.
The video is a clip from Fahrenheit 11/9, a documentary produced by Michael Moore, and shows scenes from a 2016 speech Obama gave in Flint. During the speech, Obama criticized the mistakes that were made that led to the crisis in the first place and praised both the government and volunteer response to the water crisis, saying that the responders on the ground had, among other things, “distributed thousands of filters.” To show that filters being distributed were effective, Obama requested a glass of filtered water on stage, and right before he drank from the glass he said: “Now, the reason I know I’m okay is because I already had some Flint water.” He told the audience that “while you are waiting to get your pipes replaced, you need to have a filter installed, and use that filter. And if you do use that filter, then the water is safe to consume for children over the age of 6 and who are not pregnant.” He went on to say: “So 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 point number one.”
At the time of Obama’s comments, it had been determined that “Some filters can remove up to 99 percent of the lead in water when used properly.” Shortly after Obama appeared in Flint, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reported that water filters were “effective in consistently reducing the lead in tap water, in most cases to undetectable levels, and in all cases to levels that would not result in a significant increase in overall lead exposure. ATSDR also reported that the filter test data supports the conclusion that the use of filtered water would protect all populations, including pregnant women and children, from exposure to lead-contaminated water.”
The clip from Williams is intercut with audience members reacting with blank faces after Obama asks for water, intended to show the audience reacted to his request with disgust at its insensitivity. The full video of his speech shows the audience reacted with applause and cheering.
Williams’ video then shows Obama stating that “I am sure that somewhere, when I was 2 years old, I was taking a chip of paint, tasting it, and I got some lead.” Nayyirah Shariff, a Flint community activist, is then shown responding: “That’s like talking about like well ‘I didn’t wear a seatbelt, I’m fine.’ It’s like, but there were tons of people that died.” Again, Obama’s comments were taken out of context. The full quote reads:
“But — and this is really important, so I want everybody to pay attention — if you know that your child may have been exposed and you go to a health clinic, a doctor, a provider, and are working with them, then your child will be fine. And the reason I can say that with some confidence is not just based on science, but based on the fact that keep in mind that it wasn’t until the ‘80s where we started banning lead in paint, lead in toys, lead in gasoline. So if you are my age, or older, or maybe even a little bit younger, you got some lead in your system when you were growing up. You did. I am sure that somewhere, when I was 2 years old, I was taking a chip of paint, tasting it, and I got some lead. Or sometimes toys were painted with lead, and you were chewing on them.
“Now, I say that not to make light of the situation. We know now what we didn’t know then, which is it can cause problems if children get exposed to lead at elevated levels. But the point is that as long as kids are getting good health care, and folks are paying attention, and they’re getting a good education, and they have community support, and they’re getting some good home training, and they are in a community that is loving and nurturing and thriving, these kids will be fine.”
It is clear from viewing Obama’s comments in context that he did not “ma[ke] fun of the flint water crisis and moc[k] the people who suffered and died from it.” Rather, in requesting and drinking water he demonstrated to Flint residents that filtering their water made it safe for drinking. His comments about lead consumption were intended to reassure people that their children likely wouldn’t suffer long-term health consequences from drinking the city’s water before its toxicity was realized.
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Photograph by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images.