In the hour before the city council hearing began on the proposition to ban all new and expanded fossil fuel infrastructure in Portland, roughly 200 people waited inside city hall for the hearing to begin. Some waited to give testimony, and others wanted to get a good seat. The majority wore red in support of the new legislation. There was a warm and friendly feeling in the air, solidified by a few people passing out free peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to everyone, made right there on a bench outside the hearing room. As the time neared to go inside the main area, people signed up to speak one by one and eventually filed inside.
Within a few minutes of the first round of people being seated, 6 or 7 people walked into the center of the room and began a theater performance about climate change and the widespread apathy of living in a fossil-fueled, industrialized world. Before the audience was able to see much of the performance, however, the troupe was interrupted by two bulky men in suits, one saying gruffly, “Hey, you’re gonna have to leave – you can’t be here.” The men shuffled the reluctant performers out of the main atrium and left the crowd to sit in silence and wait for the hearing to begin.
Soon the city council members began to stream in, accentuated by commissioner Amanda Fritz’s blazing red sport coat, a show of solidarity with those who wanted the measures to pass. Charlie Hales began the hearing by noting that when polled, 75% of Oregon voters agreed that climate change is real and that something needed to be done about it, and that this is what motivated him to get the ball rolling with this proposal. The council first went over the amendments proposed at the previous hearing by commissioner Steve Novick. Small changes were made to amendments 1, 2 and 3. Mayor Hales brought commissioner Dan Saltzman’s drawn-out discussions over hypothetical situations that could arise from amendment 3 to a close by saying, “Let’s not create a fence around a problem we can’t quite see,” and in poking at Saltzman’s arguments, inspired the first rustling waves of the crowd’s little red and yellow crepe-paper streamers on chopsticks that had been handed out by organizers.
Once the questions about the amendments had been clarified for the council members, Hales gave the go-ahead for testimonies to begin at two minutes per person. Speaker Donna Cohen gave a fantastic and appropriate quote, “When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you need to do is stop digging.” A few speakers later, Umatilla tribal elder Cathy Sampson-Kruze approached the city council with a big, brown-flecked white feather in hand, and shook each council member’s hand one by one. After introducing herself, she beckoned the council to go back in time to the dream of 1491, when the land was healthy and plant medicines grew there for all, the time not long before the Portland area was called “Stumptown”. “I don’t like that name”, she said, and it was easy to understand why.
Speaker Wiley G. Barnett, an older African-American man wearing red, and one of only a couple of people who actually addressed the amendments directly, thanked the council for displaying “a constructive commitment to the health and safety of Portlanders and the protection of our environment.” He added that Portland will not succeed unless we all succeed together, against the forces of racial injustice and segregation, and suggested that the phrase “ethnic communities” should be added to amendment 5. It was later added at hearing’s end, but the wording was changed to “communities of color.”
Two priests gave testimony at the hearing, one of whom was Father Jack Mossberger. He stated that one of the biggest challenges that we face is to have an imagination, to effectively imagine a society that lives without fossil fuels. He also underlined the importance of improving our awareness of the fact that everything is connected, which had been mentioned in the Pope’s Encyclical. The council members were all patient and allowed him to finish his speech, despite his going over the allotted two minutes. Speaker Eric LeBrant also made a splendid point later on, saying that contrary to big business’s tagline regarding fossil fuel restrictions, this proposition wouldn’t impede our progress, but would rather prevent us from regressing and turning back to a way of living that kills us and the planet.
Several young people from local area schools testified inside to ask for the council’s support of the proposal. The students talked about their fear for the future if we don’t do something immediately for the climate. One young woman prompted the audience to laugh in surprise when she spoke as if reading a notice commemorating the 200th anniversary of the year that Portland made the first national step in stopping climate change. Another student from Sunnyside elementary spoke of their much-anticipated yearly field trip to the kelp forest at Catalina Island, and that when they all went last year to learn about it, they discovered that the kelp forest was no more. Sunnyside students asked of the council, “We hope you’ll be our heroes and take a revolutionary stand with us to stop global warming.” They followed by singing with a guitarist to “The Times,They Are A-Changing”, while commissioner Saltzman looked on with his eyebrows raised and a smug smirk on his face. To wrap up, they read a different quote to each city council member. For Steve Novick, they read, “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” For Dan Saltzman, it was “Only after the last tree has been cut down, the last river has been poisoned, the last fish has been caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.” For Nick Fish, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors-we borrow it from our children”. The students expressed thanks for their time, and the crowd broke out in roaring applause and cheers.
Testimonies were brought to a close around 4pm, so a final decision could be made. The audience was quiet and tense, hanging on every word in anticipation of the final votes. Novick began by expressing his support, and stating that not only do we need to reduce fossil fuel exports, but that we need to drastically reduce imports as well. That as citizens, we not only need to challenge our local government, but our friends and neighbors too, and that we need to get people out of their cars. He explained that the expansion of bike lanes throughout the city is not only a good thing but a necessary thing, despite grumbling complaints from drivers, and that despite complaints from locals about all the new apartment buildings going up in the city, that more people living in apartment buildings results in a much lower carbon footprint than spread out homes. He pointed out the flawed thinking in gripes about new buildings not having built in parking lots, and stated that if we are building to accommodate a car-centric economy, that we are only creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that will keep us in the vicious cycle of climate change. This was followed by his official statement of “Aye” and vigorous hoots and applause from the crowd.
Amanda Fritz thanked several community members and the organizations that had helped in the crafting of the proposal, then commended the invention of the little chopsticks with crepe paper attached, asking who came up with such a great idea. The crowd on the top level responded with pointing and chanting of “Bonnie, Bonnie!” And Amanda said with a big grin that she would have to bring those streamer-sticks to future meetings. She gave her “Aye”, and commissioner Fish spoke next. He began by expressing his support, stating that he had many questions in the beginning, and thoroughly explored the intended and unintended consequences of the proposal. He wanted to make sure they did it right the first time, and said that “today’s action strikes a balance”…”signaling to local workers that we care about their future”. His final word was “Aye”, and the crowd cheered as this was the 3rd out of 5 council members to give their stamp of approval.
Next was Dan Saltzman, the wild card who didn’t show up at the previous hearing for the resolution. He began by comparing the bill to the achievement of putting a man on the moon in 8 years from conception to actualization, then with an acknowledgement of the work of 350PDX, said that he can imagine a clean energy economy. He went on to warn that we still have a lot of work to do, and that while it seemed friendly and easy in that room at that moment, that there was a real world outside that we still have to convince to change. Commissioner Saltzman gave his “Aye” and the crowd roared in total elation.
Mayor Hales gave his final words, mentioning Mia Reback of 350PDX, and said that he was grateful to have met her and was looking forward to seeing more of her leadership in the future. His expected “Aye” wrapped up the hearing, and the audience all stood up, clapping and cheering and chatting excitedly. From the second balcony, a big banner with the Tilikum Bridge on it that said “Cities Lead” was dropped, and people slowly went on their way, lighter on their feet and looking toward the future.