Portland’s Controversial, Popular Campaign Against Big Money

22 May

by Sockeye

As media outlets around the country lambasted the City of Portland, Oregon, for tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theory mongering, a grassroots people’s campaign slowly and steadily advanced to victory over fluoride. News sources from the Daily Kos to Slate.com and even the Wall Street Journal weighed in on “medical science versus paranoia,” chortling at Portland’s super-protective stance on fresh water. But who’s laughing now?

The stage was set when all five of Portland’s city council members voted to add fluoride to the city’s municipal water. Portlanders have a strong connection to their fresh water, which comes from what is now known as the Bull Run watershed (called Gohabedikt by the Klickitat tribe), so when the city council voted unanimously to tamper with it, all hell broke loose. There was a rush to get the issue on the ballot, a vote, and before we knew it, a ragtag bunch of activists had the issue making news.

The pro-fluoride lobby immediately promoted fluoride as an issue for children of color in the city. The campaign, which was heavily funded to the tune of $800,000, was driven by the white liberals of the Southwest (Portlandia) who activists rarely see showing up on the picket lines to defend public school teachers, at eviction defenses, or protesting gentrification. Quite the contrary in fact; the Healthy Kids campaign was driven by “health care providers” like Kaiser Permanente who fight tooth and nail in Congress to drive away any regulations on the healthcare industry. So it was not too big of a surprise when polls showed that communities of color resolutely opposed the initiative (70% opposed in black and asian communities, 91% opposed in latin@ communities). Thus, the “Healthy Kids” initiative proposed for people of color wound up looking like “the white man’s burden.”

Next, the Healthy Kids campaign claimed scientific proof of fluoride safety dating back to the 1950s, but refused to acknowledge all contemporary science on the issue. For example, a Harvard study released in 2011 exposed that IQ points of children in fluoridated areas are nominally 7 points lower than non-fluoridated areas. Furthermore, Healthy Kids did not discuss what most Portlanders already know—that heavily fluoridated areas of Oregon, like Klamath Falls for instance, have far higher tooth decay problems than Portland, itself. Finally, they did nothing to confront the problems with fluoridation’s affects on salmon populations, which studies show refuse to swim into fluoride-dense watersheds.

The first thing the Clean Water Portland campaign did right was to choose a realistic perspective: everybody wants clean water. Next, the organization hit the streets and canvassed like crazy. Armed with numerous scientific studies completely ignored by  All the talk about wingnut conspiracy theories from outside organizations and sources was settled by the important class division—this was not a struggle within the Left, it was a struggle of people’s movements against rich Liberals who want to feel less guilty about subjecting poor people to the whim of the healthcare industry while getting even more rich off industry dollars. 

As one study from 1992 by Cornelius Steelink of the University of Arizona stated: “a positive correlation was revealed. In other words, the more fluoride a child drank, the more cavities appeared in the teeth… An excellent inverse relation was found for these 26,000 children: the higher the income, the lower the number of decayed teeth. Other anecdotal evidence gathered by our committee included lack of access to dental facilities, poverty, diet, and oral hygiene as contributing factors to tooth decay in this group of children.” 

That said, as out-funded as Clean Water Portland was, they accepted funds from right wing sources like the Heritage Foundation, placing their credit in doubt. The question was raised: who can a campaign take money from without becoming essentially worthless to the radical movement? Is there a line in the sand to draw between right wing assistance in an otherwise left wing alliance of environmentalists and concerned citizens? The press had a field-day over the right wing aid, placing the onus of anti-fluoride sentiment on Portland’s “libertarian” streak—a political line often toed by anti-government militias and even hate groups. But this is easily refuted by the presence of such an overwhelming sentiment against fluoride from all sections of the population, as opposed the relatively white-and-wealthy support for fluoride. In the end, it is likely that Clean Water Portland did not need the Heritage Foundation’s money, and probably shouldn’t have taken it.

In its actions, the Clean Water Portland campaign did not go for easy publicity. Instead, it drew in a strong coalition based on strong ties. The Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, and others formed a solid base against fluoride, which the national liberal press largely ignored. As the coalition continued to gain support, they sponsored marches, bike rides, and events in a low budget effort that came off as humble, but sincere. Meanwhile, the pro-fluoride lobby spread $180,000 around to different non-profits to stack their coalition with as many groups as possible. This came off as boring and silly to Portlanders, who are more interested in drinking a beer with an anti-fluorider at a bar than reading through redundant names of groups they’ve never heard of on one of several glossy mailers sent out by a faceless and over-funded campaign.

Now, say what you want about fluoride, but the campaign against fluoride did not manifest a new crack within the Left—instead, it strengthened the Left against the bourgeoisie. Now my tinfoil hat is on my head and catching those microwaves, and my 3-d printer is on its way to construct giant mosquitos that will swarm Wall Street and devour bankers and traders whole. I just wanted to get this story off my gills before I swim upstream and… well… you know…

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