It’s been almost two weeks since Portland voters overwhelmingly rejected a plan to add fluorosisilic acid to Bull Run tap water. Outspent 3 to 1 and facing fluoride lobbyists, high-paid consultants, and king-maker campaign operators, a loose-knit posse of citizen activists banded together to help Clean Water Portland overcome ‘Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland’ by a staggering 21 point margin. This victory is even more telling when considering that 42% of the electorate cast their votes on fluoridation, a far higher turnout than most special elections.
In spite of relentless hazing from local mainstream media sources, the people of our metropolis chose to preserve our drinking water the way it is, unpolluted, abundant, and without the addition of mandatory medication. For months, an all out online war was waged, with some articles posted netting over 1,000 comments each. Yet so overwhelming were the voices speaking out against fluoridation that calls went out nationally to recruit pro-fluoride comments, as well as an acknowlegement that the opposition was better at responding despite having no central system of organization. From pro-fluoride organizer Linda Rosa of Colorado:
“The anti-fluoridationists are most effective, however, when they respond online to local media stories whenever “fluoride” or “fluoridation” is mentioned. These local stories are usually about proposed or pending action to stop [fluoride] in a particular city. Pro-fluoride activists would love to see concerned citizens, who have a bit of time during the week or each day, counter the anti-fluoridationists’ distortions and misinformation when and where it arises in online local media...”
In an interview with TIME, Rosa demeaned people opposed to ingesting fluoride chemicals as being “Luddites“. Rosa’s husband, Larry Sarner added that those opposed to fluoridation ‘rely on small voter turnouts’, “They’ll sneak in a victory and then tout it in the next place.” Quite to the contrary, here in Portland pro-fluoride lobbyists met with city council behind closed doors off the city’s calendar hoping to prevent any public vote from happening at all. Rosa and Sarner are likely baffled at the turnout and the results here in Little Beirut. They certainly aren’t the only ones.
Despite this landslide victory, local media insults have now mushroomed into outright anger from national news sources eager to jump on the “What’s the Matter with Portland?” band wagon. Adrian Chen, a staff writer for Gawker who has previously labeled those who oppose fluoridation as “quacks” threw a fit. Embarrassingly out of touch with Portland values, Chen insisted he knew the real reasons fluoridation failed in “infuriating, selfish” Stumptown.
“Hopefully the anti-fluoride folks have mellowed out after their victory, and all that pot. The logic that defeated fluoridation lies on the slippery slope down which one slides into the foul pit of anti-vaccination activism…[and] is fed by conspiratorial anti-government thinking. It is a close cousin to the dumb shrieks of death panels that marred the Obamacare debate. There many[sic] great things about Portland, Oregon, but the fluoride rejection shows its worst: the tendency among progressive of that city (and many others!) to reframe the decades-old politics of selfishness as some hyper-enlightened liberalism. So they rationalize getting exactly what they want, all of the time.”
“Evidently, they can’t conceive that Portland is a city with a large number of very non-political people who enjoy gardening and simply don’t want fluoride being sprayed on their food. Instead of hurling out hippie insults or making lame Portlandia references, they should look up what bioregionalism means and learn a bit about the Free Cascadia movement if they truly want to understand why HKHP got buried.
What they also don’t seem to understand is that this victory was about far more than fluoride. Portland politicians have ridden the coat tails of Tom McCall and touted a stale green-washed brand while cuddling with big-money interests like the Portland Business Alliance and the City Club. Almost all our current city representatives are in office due to one man, Mark Wiener.”
Seemingly un-content to let the national press dog-pile on Portland from afar, the Oregonian doubled down after the vote to get a few more jabs in at the people who ran a flawless campaign. In a guest op-ed that mirrored the Oregonian’s endless hostility towards clean water lovers, Eric Walsh likened a brigade of bicyclists on a No-Fluo-Ride that I personally organized to Rush Limbaugh and climate-change deniers.
“As I watched a phalanx of 20 bicyclists sporting blue “no fluoride” T-shirts ride by, I thought about stopping them. I wanted to tell them how much they reminded me of Rush Limbaugh. I grew up in the 1950s in Baltimore drinking fluoridated water. Floored[sic] was also in the water in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, etc. No harm has come from the fluoride in the water of those millions and millions of people over more than 60 years. Both the anti-fluoride group and Limbaugh use misleading language. Limbaugh talks about “global warming.” The correct term is “climate change.” The bicyclists were long gone, down the road, before I could let them know.”
The Portland Tribune’s editorial board also lashed out, demanding that the people who blocked fluoridation now make it their mission to solve dental care issues. This despite the fact that single-payer health insurance and the increased access to dental care it would provide have been repeatedly blocked by fluoride proponents like Kaiser Permanente. Ironically, no similar demands have been issued by fluoridation opponents asking ‘Healthy Kids’ or Upstream Public Health to solve the problems of pollution via the Superfund site, proposed coal exports, or toxic clouds emitted into the air by ESCO or Precision Cast Parts.
While the print media was busy having a temper tantrum over the failure of their unanimously endorsed fluoridation campaign, a few new stories came out last week. The first was titled ‘BREAKING: State Public Health Director to Step Down‘ by the pro-fluoride Portland Mercury.
“Oregon’s public health director Dr. Mel Kohn is leaving the position, amid a threatened lawsuit and accusations the agency colluded with pro-fluoride advocates on the release of an oral health report. Kohn today sent an e-mail out to colleagues at the Oregon Health Authority, saying he’ll step down as head of the OHA’s Public Health Division. As is often the case with these kinds of messages, neither Kohn’s e-mail, nor another from OHA Director Bruce Goldberg, nod to some of the strife the public health department’s seen in recent weeks and months.”
It would seem that there was a fair amount of finger pointing going on inside the pro-fluoridation camp in an attempt to comprehend how they misjudged Portland so badly. The second story also came from Portland’s other pro-fluoride weekly, the Willamette Week, in the form of an interview with Clean Water Portland chair Kim Kaminski.
“I knew nothing about fluoridation. I grew up with it. I assumed it was fine. I believed everything that I was told. I didn’t question it. I also had a son, who was 4, and I thought it was something I should look into. When I did, quite honestly, I was shocked. Even if we were to assume water fluoridation is good for our teeth, there are enough causes of concern about how it affects the rest of our body, and about how it affects our environment.
There’s a difference between dose and concentration. We are not only drinking water, we’re making our soup with it. Babies who are drinking formula that is made with fluoridated water are hugely susceptible to fluoridation harm. The bottom line is that there’s a lot of things we don’t know. And certain things that we always thought were safe, like leaded gasoline and paint, DDT, asbestos, that were promoted since the ’50s, are now being shown to be not only ineffective but unsafe. Fluoridation is the last remaining remnant of that era.”
When asked by the Willamette Week about the grassroots campaign that brought Portland’s wealthiest political machine to its knees, Kaminksi broke it down:
“Everyone was telling us, ‘You can’t do it, you’re going to be outspent, you’re going to be outdone.’ They tried to portray us in the media as tinfoil hats and Dr. Strangelove and all of that stuff. People [in opposition] were popping up all over the place, on Facebook – all very disorganized. We created this organization from nothing. The other side already had the City Council locked in place. They had all their groups ready to endorse. There was a definite turning point in the campaign—the debate at the Kennedy School, and the next night was the Multnomah County Democratic debate at the Matt Dishman Center. The other side, their message was, “We know what’s best for everyone.” It was condescending. People saw through that. At the Multnomah County Democratic debate, so many people were there, they had to call the fire marshal. People were turned away. It was just an outpouring of community to speak truth to power. It’s humbling to see how so many people came together. When you think about it, it was kind of a miracle.”
Kaminski went on to talk about the possibility of state lawmakers trying to force fluoridation through in Salem, a proposition that has failed repeatedly. While the chances of such an endeavor are slim this session, few doubt that the Democratically controlled house and senate would refrain from doing so in the years to come. If and when they do, the activists of Clean Water Portland have a blueprint for success plotted by an army of volunteers – exhilarated, and itching to continue the fight to preserve our drinking water.
The threats to our water are numerous. It was recently reported that city hall had caved in to a federal order demanding Portland bury it’s iconic open water reservoirs, much to the dismay of clean water activists. The Nestlé corporation continues to scheme ways to steal public water to sell it back to us at a profit. Proposed freeway expansions and coal exports threaten to add even more toxic pollutants to our air and water. Where Clean Water Portland will choose to direct its energy remains to be decided, but at a recent gathering of CWP organizers and volunteers, it was clear that helping other communities stop or remove fluoride from their water supply would remain part of their focus.
While there may be new fronts in Portland’s fluoridation battle, it would appear, at least for now, the fight is over for 2013. This chapter has ended. What remains, and what I will remember and treasure the rest of my life, are the smiles and the hugs on election night, May 21st when it became clear who had won. In the face of the biggest political long-shot of a generation in Portland, a rag-tag group of inexperienced activists and citizens stood up to a machine that simply does not lose. The elation and love in the room that night was unlike any campaign I’ve ever worked on. I am privileged to know such passionate, dedicated, intelligent people. Our city is a better place because of them.
See you in the streets.
All images and video copyright Hart Noecker and ANTIPHON FiLMS.