The Koch Brothers and Me: It’s Personal

When I was 17, my mother died of colon cancer. Lots of other members of my family have died of cancer too—and it’s partly as a result of this history that I have gone into a career of social justice advocacy, believing that we all need to care for one another instead of leaving people to fend for themselves.

Today, the organization where I work, Brave New Foundation, is hosting the world premiere of its new film Koch Brothers Exposed. This film shows how these two billionaire brothers have managed to maintain their wealth by exploiting others and corrupting the political process. One part of the film that especially resonates with me deals with cancer.

The Koch brothers have a chemical plant in Crossett, Arkansas, that releases large amounts of formaldehyde, which is known to contribute to cancer. The plant also emits hydrogen sulfide, which can be deadly. In the film, residents of that town talk powerfully about how many people in their community are dying of cancer, and they link it to the nearby Koch plant. Respected scientists agree: Anthony Samsel, a former consultant to groups including the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers, says that in his opinion, “these chemicals cause great harm to Crossett’s residents” and represent a “disregard for public safety.”

To date, the Kochs have done no investigation that we know of to determine what’s causing cancer in Crossett. They say what they’re doing is legal, though that’s sort of a footnote: when you’ve got lawmakers in your pocket, is it any great victory to say that the laws permit you to emit high levels of cancer-causing pollutants? In fact, the Kochs are one of the top 10 polluters in the United States and worked (unsuccessfully) to keep formaldehyde from being labeled a carcinogen. And so I am proud to be working on exposing what the Kochs are up to and seeking justice for those they’ve stepped on to stay at the top.

Today, the Kochs posted audio of me leaving a message for them months ago asking them to respond to our cancer investigation and laying out why the issue is personal for me. The Kochs accompany the audio with text saying I’m “harassing” them and “exploit[ing] [my] own family to push [my] agenda.” From the Koch brothers’ vantage point as billionaires with mansions all over the country, politics may be an abstraction or a game. But to the 99%, it’s no game. It’s personal. And while smearing me and diminishing the importance of my family may be preferable to them than actually looking into the problems in Crossett, that is not what will help make our country a stronger, healthier place. Shame on them.

So as we prepare for tonight’s premiere in New York, I’m eager. I’m excited. I’m hoping that bringing a little more sunlight on these guys will make it a little less likely that they’ll be able to keep doing what they’re doing to those who lack their wealth and power. Yeah, social justice is personal, and cancer is more than a negligible cost of doing business. For some of us, anyway.

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