At NAACP event, Sen. Warren warns of 'moment of crisis'

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren took aim Sunday at the administration of President Donald Trump in “plain talk” before a huge crowd gathered for the largest annual fundraiser of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks Sunday at the NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner.

“I haven’t come to Detroit in a moment of triumph,” said Warren on Sunday. “ No, I’ve come to Detroit today in a moment of crisis.”

Warren told the diverse crowd that “a man who calls African-Americans ‘thugs’ is now the president of the United States” and that racism still blocks African-Americans and other people of color from opportunities.

The keynote speaker at the 62nd Fight For Freedom Fund Dinner at Cobo Conference Center added: “A man who was too racist to become a judge runs the Department of Justice,” referring to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose racially charged confirmation battle recently played out on the Senate floor. It was then that Warren’s attempts to read a letter by Coretta Scott King drew a censure vote from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell refused to let her read King’s letter.

“No, it wasn’t just my voice that was silenced,” Warren said. “No, Coretta Scott King was silenced.”

Warren said Sessions “is on a mission. A mission to turn back the clock 157 years. We need to be on a mission too, a mission to stop him from turning this country back.”

Warren told the dinner guests: “We will not be silent. We will fight the righteous fight.”

The Massachusetts senator added: “President Trump has stirred up some deep ugliness in the United States, and he and his fellow Republicans in Congress are serving up divisions and hatred across our country.”

NAACP Detroit branch president the Rev. Wendell Anthony has said the episode to silence her in Congress cemented Warren’s status as a fighter. “And she did not sit down, so we want to lift her up, because her spirit has lifted her up.”

Freedom Fund dinner organizers also cited her record of speaking out as an advocate for consumer protection, financial oversight, aging and labor issues and her stance against Trump and policies that hurt the poor and the middle class as reasons for inviting her to speak Sunday.

Other observers of the fiery senator wonder if a new book tour to promote her 11th book, “This Fight Is Our Fight: the Battle to Save America's Middle Class,” could presage a run for the presidency in 2020.

She is the “right person for the right task at the right time,” Anthony said of her selection as keynote speaker.

Warren said Sunday she was worried, too, that America is closing doors “instead of opening more doors.”

Keynote speaker Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, left, chats with U.S. Representative Brenda Lawrence at the  62nd annual Fight For Freedom Fund dinner at Cobo Center in Detroit Sunday.

“I’m worried that for too many of our kids — especially African-American kids — those doors are locked tight,” she told the cheering crowd.

“A lot of members of Congress, and I’m talking about both Republicans and Democrats, say everything is OK in our country — plenty of opportunity out there. People with power say we are a rich country and they cite statistics to say it’s all roses. Statistics that are true, but that have less and less to do with how most people live their lives every day. Powerful people see the roses but they don’t feel the thorns.”

Then she ticked off the problems that she and others say is limiting prosperity for many: Fewer pensions, lack of good jobs, ability to save for the future and economic growth unevenly shared.

“When you saw more of it flow through Detroit,” she said, referring to prosperity. “Now it just goes to the super rich.”

Citing “some great economic numbers,” Warren told the crowd that “the truth is that working families are holding on by their fingernails.”

“Poverty is swallowing up cities and small towns alike. Infrastructure is crumbling. Good union jobs are drying up.”

But the system “is rigged,” she said. “It is rigged for the rich and rigged against everyone else. And that’s why we’re here — to fight back!”

She then talked about “one more truth.”

“When a system is rigged this badly, communities of color are often hit the hardest,” she said. “And that’s if communities of color are given the opportunity to play at all. Yeah, when they say it isn’t about race, it’s about race.

“There’s no sugarcoating it — systemic racism has restricted opportunity in America — period. If we can’t say that, plain and clear, then we can never change it. Are you ready to dish up a little plain talk?” She pointed to Flint, where lead contamination of the water system prevented children and families from drinking “a glass of tap water while right-wing politicians turn their backs.”

It was Warren’s first visit to Michigan since 2014. The former Harvard law professor’s academic career led her to become a visiting professor at the University of Michigan Law School in the 1980s.

Warren, 67, was joined at the dinner by House colleagues including U.S. Reps. Maxine Waters, D-California, a frequent Trump critic who was honored at the dinner with its James Weldon Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award; Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, and John Conyers, D-Detroit; and Michigan Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, who told the crowd that “we have a democracy, not a dictatorship in America.”

Waters said before Warren spoke that she “is a woman of courage” and that “she might just be the next president.”

Waters also took shots at Trump, saying she was “not afraid of this man.”

“I’m not intimidated by this man,” she said, adding that if he is found to have colluded with the Russians to influence the outcome of the presidential election, he should be impeached, citing an ongoing federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Lawrence said: “I’m not afraid to fight. We will not sit around on our laurels.” She later told the crowd at the dinner that “when black women have had enough, things start changing.”

NAACP Detroit branch’s Anthony said “we have been here before” referring to the proposed policies that include cuts to some social programs like Meals on Wheels.

“We have come too far to turn back now,” said Anthony on Sunday. “There’s an awful lot at stake in this country.”

The dinner is the largest fundraiser for the Detroit chapter of the NAACP and typically draws 10,000 people. It is considered the largest “sit down” dinner in the country.

Other Democrats had stern words for Trump and the social-economic policies of his administration at a news conference Sunday at Cobo Center before the dinner.

“We don’t have a king, we have a democracy,” said Stabenow.

bwilliams@detroitnews.com

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