Several dozen people at GMO-Free Midwest, the St. Louis portion of Occupy Monsanto, went from picketing the industry-sponsored “Biosafety” symposium at the Millennium Hotel to Whole Foods Market (WFM) in Brentwood Missouri. It was September 17, 2012, the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. Safe food activists began a series of tactics which built on previous demonstrations and caught store management and local police completely off guard.
June 9 had seen a creative picket of WFM, including a 14 foot tall coyote puppet opposed to putting genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. The picket provided an opportunity to talk with WFM workers who have been led to believe that the store does not sell GMOs. A few shoppers joined the picket upon learning that WFM brags that it labels GMO food when it only labels non-GMO food, leaving customers uninformed about potentially contaminated products.
On August 18 a new tactic challenged WFM. WFM aggressively censors “soliciting” which it says includes telling customers of dangers that GMOs poses to health and the environment. So, we went into its parking lot with signs on top of cars saying “GMOs Contaminate Food” on one side and “WFM Sells GMOs” on the other. Other cars had the same message on window signs or on home-made bumper stickers.
Police told drivers that they could not enter the parking lot with “protest signs” on their cars. But they were hard pressed to explain what was and what was not a protest sign. They were particularly befuddled at trying to figure out if they should order the removal of bumper stickers, since so many cars at WFM have safe food slogans on them. As we discussed what constitutes a protest message, other drivers came in, parked, and let their cars with signs on top remain throughout the afternoon.
A new level of action
On September 17, participants from GMO-Free Midwest took activities at WFM to a higher level. A few carried signs on the sidewalk. But most walked to the front of the store.
“If you are here to protest, you need to go to the sidewalk,” the police motioned. I buttoned up my jacket over my “Genetic Engineering — Don’t Swallow It” T-shirt and walked through the police. Since we didn’t appear different from the typical WFM customer, others did the same.
Some said, “I just came here to pick up a few items” as they walked by the police, who were again unsure of what to do.
Apparently warned that we would be there, WFM staff could be heard saying “What’s happening? They’re all coming in to shop.” Safe food activist wandered through the store looking at labels carefully. They did not put items in their carts if they read, “GMO-free,” “organic,” or “365,” which is the WFM house brand.
As shoppers went through the check-out line, they picked up each item and asked the cashier if it had GMOs in it. If so, it went in the “don’t buy” pile. Cashiers often weren’t sure; and that meant it also went in the “don’t buy” pile. One cashier claimed that everything WFM sold was GMO-free, which led to each item in turn being put aside by a disbelieving shopper.
Mindful of the bad working conditions at WFM, shoppers took the opportunity to explain our concerns to every employee. And there is no better opportunity to discuss potential food contamination than doing so with a customer waiting behind you in line. WFM is particularly vulnerable to such a tactic because the vast majority of its customers are concerned about food quality, but most think that store products are GMO-free.
From chatting with us, customers found out that, though WFM products cost more than those at other grocery stores, they are very likely to contain GMOs. With a bad rep for extreme anti-unionism and buying out competitors in order to destroy them, WFM is also resented for reversing its former opposition to GMO foods. It now babbles about “informed customer choices” but fails to inform customers by labeling food that might have GMOs.
From Shop-In to Talk-In
Many safe food shoppers asked for the manager to come and verify whether food in their cart was GMO-free. At one point, a frazzled manager began grabbing handfuls of food and pushing it aside, saying “Yes, all this food has GMOs.” The manager seemed obsessed with keeping the check-out lane flowing as rapidly as possible.
Managerial distress was caused by two dictums: WFM policy says that every customer question must be answered; and, WFM also says that shopping must be a “pleasant experience.” But the shopping experience might be made unpleasant either by a slowed check-out line or by customers watching someone being hassled by police for the crime of asking if food quality is compromised. This particular manager decided that pleasant shopping would best be maintained by confirming that a large amount of WFM items might be contaminated with GMOs.
The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) had told us that WFM could order us to leave and those who refused could be arrested. But it would have been impossible for WFM to determine who constituted “us.” WFM could have brought police from inside to harass those they thought were “protestors.” But doing so would run the risk of intimidating everyday customers who go to WFM concerned with the quality of food and happen to ask a question or two about what they are buying. Its liberal façade again makes WFM more vulnerable to a shop-in than any other supermarket chain.
Our friendly shoppers left the store with a single purchased item, confirming that they were, in fact, WFM customers. Others asked what all the commotion was about and what we were trying to accomplish. Some asked if they should boycott WFM. We explained that they could help lay the groundwork for a future boycott by telling everyone they knew about the true face of WFM.
The WFM ban on “solicitation” had been broken in store aisles, in check-out lines, and at the store entrance. Unable to distinguish “protestors” from “legitimate” customers, neither WFM management nor Brentwood police could stop people from asking “Why should we be concerned about what we buy at WFM?” Getting people to ask that question was the point of the action.
From Talk-In to Gawk-In
A stiff foam-board sign with holes for zip-ties can be fastened with bungy cords to the top of a car in 10–15 seconds by people who have practiced doing it. As cops and store managers were trying to figure out if they could do anything about the growing number of GMO conversations among customers, two people fastened a six foot long sign saying that “WFM Sells GMOs” atop a station wagon. By the time the cops figured out what had happened, the two were long gone.
Cops walked over and asked the people looking at the car who owned it; but they just shrugged their shoulders. Most picketers left their sidewalk location to see what the cops were doing. Friendly shoppers walked toward the car. Customers drifted over to hear everyone asking about why police were concerned with a car that had a sign on its hood.
There’s few things that people gawk at more than cops looking at something while a small crowd looks at the cops. Barbara Chicherio asked what bothered them. “Protest signs need to be on the sidewalk and not on cars,” a cop huffed.
Barbara talked through the car signs – window signs – bumper sticker questions concerning which needed to be removed as the cop scowled. Remembering that she was wearing a “Millions Against Monsanto” T-shirt, she had a pflash: “Officer,” she asked, “If everything critical of Whole Foods and Monsanto is a protest sign, do I have to take off this T-shirt?”
“Ma’am, please do not take off your T-shirt in the parking lot!” The crowd laughed and even the cop chuckled. The absurdity of trying to wrestle through the twists and turns of exactly what type of free expression WFM could suppress was too much.
It had become clear that effects of the police presence had turned into their opposite. Intended to be soft-core harassers, the police were less than totally dedicated to protecting WFM customers from the horror of people asking about food contamination. As they drew a larger crowd, the show of police force served to increase discussion about WFM, thereby furthering goals of the action.
Many of the tactics used on September 17 had been worked out weeks before. Others arose as the event unfolded. Throughout the WFM action, neither store management nor police had any idea of what to expect next or how they should respond.
Within half an hour of the mini-confrontation in the parking lot, the police gave up efforts to get the sign off the car and walked off. Soon the crowd drifted away but the sign remained until the end of the action. Having reached over 10 times as many WFM workers and customers as all previous efforts combined, safe food shoppers boarded a bus and cars headed for their final destination of the day: Monsanto World Headquarters in Creve Coeur, Missouri.
Don Fitz works helped plan GMO-Free Midwest and is active in the Greens/Green Party USA.