The last 10 miles of the Imperial Highway lead west from the blighted thirst of the Watts neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles to the glistening sea at El Segundo, where they are crisscrossed by the shadow of planes leaving LAX. For the 35,000 residents of Watts, that stretch of road might as well be a 14,000-foot pass through the Himalayas, so remote are the pleasures of travel and plush beaches from that hope-starved patch of ground.
Aqeela Sherrills has seen the worst Watts has to offer and made the best of it. His work to end gang violence started in 1989, when at 19 he joined former football and movie star Jim Brown on the road for three years, forging truces between gangs in cities across the country. In 1992, he returned home to Watts to help broker, with his brother Daude, a peace treaty between the Crips and the Bloods.
After a few years, the treaty began to fray. In response, in 1999 Aqeela and Daude started the Community Self-Determination Institute (CSDI) for gang prevention and conflict mediation. CSDI won street credibility as well as the confidence of city officials and became a city-wide program. With that came the challenges of running a non-profit: cajoling donors, securing city grants, paying the bills, hiring people. Siblings, cousins, friends, casual acquaintances all wanted jobs. There was trouble with the IRS. The work itself was hard enough, but managing the work was exhausting. Then, two years ago, his wife died of breast cancer. And the worst was yet to come.
It arrived just before midnight on Jan. 10, 2004, with a ring of Sherrills' cell phone. His son Terrell, 18 and home on break after his first semester studying theater arts at Humboldt State University, was being rushed to UCLA Medical Center bleeding profusely from a close-range gunshot wound to the back. A 16-year-old Crips member had mistaken the red Mickey Mouse sweater slung over Terrell's shoulders (in self-deprecating homage to his big ears) for a sign of membership in the Bloods, who wear red. Forty-five minutes later, Terrell was dead.
The cry for retribution went up immediately.
"The neighborhood mounted up, they were ready to roll, and I went and talked to folks and told folks, 'That's not what we're gonna do, and that's not Terrell's legacy,'" Sherrills recalls 14 months later, sitting in a room at CSDI painted sky blue and redolent of incense from a shrine in the corner. "'That's exactly the reaction that society wants from us. And what we're gonna do is this right here: We're gonna forgive that kid, you know? Because we're gonna hold space for the highest possibility of good to show up in him.'"
Sherrills was already something of a community hero. He was an inspiration to thousands of people who had heard him speak about personal and cultural healing and peacemaking. This act of forgiveness launched him to near-guru status. The organizer on the ground in Watts was becoming a man of the spirit: The activist was turning into a mystic.
Sherrills began to step back from the running of CSDI. He started turning over administrative responsibilities to other people and assuming an advisory role, formulating the vision and raising money. He wasn't interested in addressing the symptoms anymore. He wanted to tackle the root of the problem, the broken spirits around him.
As passionately as he speaks about his continuing work, for the last year and a half he has yearned to break free of its physical confines. On March 15, he took a definitive step in that direction when he boarded a plane to Mexico to begin a four-month tour of the world's sacred sites. After Teotihuacan, Machu Picchu and the rest, he plans to come back, but not to stay.
Within three years he hopes to move to Ghana. He says he is drawn to its ease of life, burgeoning African-American community and rich spiritual culture. There, away from frenetic America, he says he hopes to find the peace to live the ideas he has been mulling, ideas about how to shift ways of thinking and cherish human life and start a global outbreak of peace--the linchpins of what he calls "the reverence for human life movement."
Sherrills' hope of sparking a renewed reverence-for-life movement here anchors him to Watts. Talking about it animates him and intensifies the light in his hazel eyes. Tall and normally languorous, he leans forward and gestures excitedly, speaking with a preacher's deliberate enunciation. Now and then his ideas stray into the realm of the fanciful, but he has an undeniable gift for inspired speech.
"Reverence is a beholding--not a judging--of the challenges facing our culture," he says. "It's about the quality of attention you give something, and the practice of love and compassion and talking about your truth.
"The reverence movement is where all the movements of the past intersect, whether it's human rights or civil rights, because all of them are really about restoring vitality to the human spirit. If we as human beings don't have the ability to intuit a positive future, with our so-called enemies playing a different role, then we're almost foolin' ourselves about what is, and where we're going."
Listening to Sherrills in this rapt state, it's hard to reconcile his vegetarian, esoteric text-reading side with certain facts of his life. Sherrills has fathered seven children by six mothers, none of whom he lives with, and at 35 he is a grandfather; Terrell's girlfriend was pregnant when he died.
Sherrills appears to relish his role as a man of the world. In a turtleneck and rich wool peacoat, with his driver's cap, sculpted soul patch and sandalwood scent, taking calls on his cell phone at the wheel of his white BMW and scheduling lunches with donors in Santa Monica, Sherrills cuts a glamorous figure. Having traveled the country and to Russia and Croatia as a speaker and peace facilitator, he laments with a seasoned traveler's dismay about how few Americans travel and how even fewer people in Watts have been on an airplane--or even make the drive to the beach.
It's similarly difficult to determine CSDI's position. Several years ago it had 80 employees and a million-dollar budget; now it has 12 staffers and a swirl of volunteers. Several key individuals stand out as islands of discipline and efficiency in an otherwise chaotic environment--understandable, perhaps, given funding cuts and the monumental task the organization is trying to accomplish.
Three years ago, CSDI launched a 10-year initiative called the Passage to Peace that aims to transform the gangs in Watts from criminal to community organizations by 2012. The CSDI building, a bright, mural-covered ramshackle box on a street less drab than most in Watts, seems an unlikely birthplace for the world's next major peace movement. Nevertheless, that's what Sherrills envisions, and his charisma and willpower have already proven considerable catalysts for action.
Watts, he says, is a nexus for two uncontrollable elements spreading across the country: hip-hop culture and gang violence. Changes in Watts will ripple across the nation. The trick is to work with what already exists.
"The gang is a surrogate family when the nuclear family has been broken," Sherrills reminds us. "We'll never get rid of gangs, in a sense, but we can instill morals and values in that structure and shift their purpose. Let's shift this thing! This is not the ghetto. That's our perception of what it is because we've been told that. We're not gang members. That's something somebody else put on us."
One way to make the shift is through music, specifically through "conscious hip-hop" with a positive message. CSDI has put what Sherrills calls the theme music of the movement on a CD titled "Peace Warriors."
"There's no model for what peace is," he says. "And the image of peace is weak. It's this flimsy thing, like: Peace!" He makes a feckless face and throws a peace sign. "And war is like, powerful, sexy. So we can assign the virtues that have been stolen from peace and given to war back to peace. We can make peace strong and hard: peace warriors."
That's the broad cultural mission. The other, more immediate, task is to transform the purpose of the gangs on the ground in Watts. The way Sherrills plans to do this is by creating "community covenants" and an alternative economy for a neighborhood where annual per capita income is under $7,000--one-third of that for the city of Los Angeles.
The process is laid out in a 27-page document Sherrills has been showing potential funders. It calls for a series of meetings to gather the young people from the neighborhood's four housing projects, who are grouped loosely in cliques professing loyalty to Crips or Bloods. The meetings are to be facilitated by trusted members of the community--Sherrills says there are people in Watts who are respected by members of all of the cliques.
Attendees will draw up and sign a covenant, swearing off violence and laying out principles of community life. These principles will embody his "reverence for life" ideas. The document is to be distributed throughout the neighborhood, with signatures for everyone to see.
Commissioners will then be elected from within the cliques, paid a small stipend and issued business cards. They will hold weekly meetings. The alternative-economy element of the plan involves an unusual idea: A fund is to be established through $10 monthly donations from everyone in the community, and life insurance policies will be taken out on the young men.
If it sounds pie in the sky, well, desperate times call for desperate measures. No one thought it possible to broker a cease-fire between the Crips and the Bloods in 1992, either.
Sherrills believes this will work because CSDI has already brought together the clique leaders and received their endorsement.
"We brought 'em here and we laid it out," he says. "And they were all with it. Totally. So the thing is this: We just don't have the resources to move it forward. We need a million dollars a year for three years. And this is what I'm telling these potential funders: I guarantee we will shift this neighborhood forever."
Sherrills is frustrated by a reluctance of donors to fund his plan. "The progressive-liberal community doesn't take risks," he laments. "There's a lack of real strategic investment taking place from those who actually have the resources to do it, and it has a lot to do with the wounds around money. The thing that keeps a rich person from giving is the same thing that keeps a poor person from making."
There's something else at play, he says: a pernicious culture-wide mindset that Sherrills blames for the death of his son. "How can they talk about seven murders on the news, and there is no uproar, no response?" he asks in disbelief. "Because it's not our child, or our people or our community? That's the killer--our lack of compassion. That's why this movement, this reverence movement, is a movement of the heart. It's the final frontier. I'm like, we done hid behind everything else."
"That's it right there," Sherrills says, not slowing down as he points at the bottom center unit of a bleached two-story building with six apartments. "Number 440. That's where I lived from sixth grade until I graduated high school."
Not a soul is in sight except for a teenage boy sauntering across a parking lot. If not for the trash cartwheeling in the breeze and the immense garbage cans in the street, one might think the Jordan Downs housing projects had been deserted long ago.
Living here with his mother and the youngest of his nine siblings, Sherrills learned to keep a secret that built up enormous energy. A family member had begun sexually abusing him several years earlier. The molestation eventually stopped, but the repercussions echoed through his life for years. When he finally told a girlfriend in college about it, the power of his revelation fueled a radical shift in consciousness.
"I now see it as a gift as opposed to it being a burden in my life," he says. "I've been able to forgive myself and the perpetrator and reconcile all the relationships around me. All these things can be used as a fulcrum to change patterns in life."
Sherrills is breaking another pattern with his gradual withdrawal from CSDI. He is adamant about not wanting to manage the daily operations anymore. He is just as adamant in his desire for the imagined paradise of Ghana, the living compound he sees for himself and his extended family, the garden, the library, the good dinners and wine and conversation, and the business opportunities. And he is equally adamant when asked if he has any misgivings about leaving his work here, despite his recent purchase of a building in Watts intended to serve as a family compound and community center featuring coffee, conversation and a lending library.
"Hm-mmm," he says with a decisive shake of his head. "There's an umbilical cord that needs to be cut. I had to do it not only with my family, the individualization I had to go through with them, but also with the community. People depend on me in a way that's unhealthy. I enable people. Folks need an opportunity to take the movement to the next level without me as a crutch."
Sherrills then tells a startling story he would be well-advised not to share with potential funders: He believes he has been to this crossroads before, in a previous life. He was a priest in Atlantis, he says, who was so committed to his order that he forwent the opportunity to flee the rising tide with his beloved and drowned.
You don't have to believe in the legend of Atlantis to see that Sherrills' tale is a parable about his current life: Duty is wearing him down and a part of him knows it. The clear blue sky at the other end of Imperial Highway is sending its siren song.
"I've been a martyr in many of my lives, and to stay here would be kind of like a martyrdom," Sherrills says. "I feel like I'm learning my lesson."
"I don't pay much attention to the ingredient lists, I just know what works for me," said Shelley Carpenter, when asked what she looks for in her personal care products. Thinking a little harder, she adds, "I'm allergic to most perfumes, so I stay away from smelly stuff. But I couldn't pin it down." This begs the question, "Who can?" After all, how many of us have the time or inclination to scour the ingredient lists of our moisturizer, deodorant, body lotion and any of the other products we slather on daily?
Carpenter, 45, bases her choices of personal body care products primarily on how her skin immediately reacts to them, and second to that, their functionality. Her skin, beautifully clear and alabaster, erupts into a red, scaly rash at the slightest provocation and she's aware from years of trial and error that certain products set this in motion.
But beyond skin eruptions and rashes, emerging science suggests that untold numbers of cosmetics and personal care ingredients may be silently and insidiously promoting cancer, ravaging women's reproductive functions and causing birth defects. Known by hundreds of long, intimidating chemical names, these ingredients are in the products we shower and bathe with, rub, spray and dab on our bodies, unconsciously, day-in-and-day-out.
It's the day-in-and-day-out part that's of most concern, since these toxic ingredients leak their poisons through our porous skin and into our bodies bit-by-bit. "There's not one smoking gun that we can point to and say 'it's that personal care product, that deodorant, that nail polish that is going to give you cancer," said Jeanne Rizzo, the executive director of the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund. "We can say the cumulative exposure -- the aggregate exposure that we all have to a myriad of personal care products containing carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxins, has not been assessed."
Categorically, the giant, mainstream personal care products companies continue to use known or suspected toxic ingredients in their product formulas. There are literally thousands of substances that have been used for decades without the slightest hint to consumers that they may be doing something more than making us squeaky clean and smell good. As activist Charlotte Brody points out, "Neither cosmetic products nor cosmetic ingredients are reviewed or approved by the Food and Drug Administration before they are sold to the public. And the FDA cannot require companies to do safety testing of their cosmetic products before marketing."
Hence, chemicals such as acrylamide (in foundation, face lotion and hand cream) linked to mammary tumors in lab research; formaldehyde (found in nail polish and blush) classified as a probable human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency; and dibutyl phthalate (an industrial chemical commonly found in perfume and hair spray) known to damage the liver, kidney and reproductive systems, disrupt hormonal processes and increase breast cancer risk, are widely used in beauty products.
So should Shelley Carpenter be aware of this? She's certainly no slouch. She's a clinical hospital pharmacist advising doctors on the complex nuances of drug therapies; she's also working on her doctorate in pharmacy while being a mom and wife. Point is, like most of us, she's over-extended and assumes -- like most of us, that whatever personal care products we casually grab off the store shelf must be OK or, well, they wouldn't be sold. In other words, we think, "There's somebody watching out for us, probably some government agency."
"The public, bless our little democratic good government hearts, believes that there is some federal agency that makes sure that dangerous chemicals aren't put into the products we put all over ourselves. Sadly, it's just not true," quips Brody, who's executive director of Commonweal. It, along with Rizzo's Breast Cancer Fund and dozens of other social profit groups, are waging the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. They're banging the drum to rouse consumers from our slumber of ignorance to realize the dangers lurking in personal care products and the failure -- or refusal -- of any power to change it.
The Innocents and the Knowing
If you believe that buying "natural" cosmetics and personal care products (those brands usually found in natural health stores and the like) guarantees toxin-free ingredients, you are wrong. The reasons for this are dicey with dollops of gray shading. It comes down to a spectrum that runs from 1) companies that know better but willfully use toxic ingredients to 2) well-intending natural products companies that heretofore operated out of ignorance.
But to understand this, we need to go to Europe for some perspective. The European Union (EU), with its 25 member countries, is taking a more enlightened (or a less Draconian) approach to protecting its 450 million people from toxins in personal care products. As of this March, an EU "Cosmetics Directive," will require companies doing business in Europe to eliminate chemicals in personal care products known or strongly suspected of causing "harm to human health." Although there are thousands of questionable chemicals, the directive is targeting about 450, which is huge compared to the nine chemicals that the FDA has banned or restricted in personal care products.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has seized upon the EU's Cosmetic Directive and is urging consumers to sign a petition that asks U.S. companies to commit to meeting the same standards as their European counterparts and then beyond. So far, some 50 companies have signed the campaign's compact -- all of them are natural products companies. Not one single, large, mainstream company has stepped forward, according to Janet Nudelman, coordinator of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. "We've had dozens of conversations with these companies and they are absolutely unwilling to admit there's a single chemical that represents harm or could be harmful to consumers in their products," Nudelman said.
Problem is, they don't have to. Major loopholes in federal law allow the $35 billion cosmetics industry to, basically, police itself, allowing unlimited amounts of chemicals into personal care products with no required testing, no monitoring of health effects and inadequate labeling requirements.
"The U.S. government, in relation to the FDA, has not been on the side of consumers and has not been on the side of public health," Nudelman said. "We certainly see that when we see industry representatives serving on government panels that are looking to the very issue that they are supposed to be regulating -- and that is consumer safety. Is the fox guarding the hen house? Yeah, absolutely in the U.S. without question."
However, consumers increasingly have a safe option in those "natural products" companies that have signed the Safe Cosmetics compact pledging to eliminate any questionable chemicals in the personal care products they sell. "The natural products companies may not be all pure and 100 percent where it is we want them to be, but the important thing is that they want to be there, and they're committed to getting there," Nudelman said. "We're talking about literally a massive reformulation on the part of many of these companies in order to meet the core components [of the compact]."
California-based Avalon Natural Products, with three different brands, including Avalon Organics, is one of those companies, reformulating more than 100 skin care products to eliminate questionable ingredients. For a casual observer, it's difficult to fathom why a "natural product" would even have this problem since chemicals like parabens aren't "natural" in the first place -- yet are pervasive in natural products.
Avalon brand manager Tim Schaeffer acknowledged the paradox, which stems from the complexity of preserving natural ingredients in packaged form. Parabens are used as preservatives to inhibit bacteria, yeast and mold growth.
"It's a big challenge to keep natural products from literally rotting. You buy them off a shelf in a store, where they were probably sitting for a month and before that in a warehouse for another month. Then you bring them home and put them in a warm, moist environment where they'll sit for six months or longer ... some things like a deodorant or cream you're putting your fingers in or rubbing in your armpit on a daily basis. That's a pretty tough environment to resist rotting. So preservation for products such as ours that have a lot of organic oils and herbs, is absolutely necessary."
Additionally, parabens (and thousands of other questionable ingredients), have always been legal to use in the U.S. and Canada, and only until recently, when studies have drawn correlations between their use and breast cancer, has concern been raised. Up to this time, many -- possibly most -- makers of natural personal care products were not aware of the hazards of these ingredients. Signers of the compact have scrambled to find effective natural alternatives.
Here's How to Check for Toxins in Your Products
In a massive undertaking, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzed the health and safety reviews of 10,000 ingredients in personal care products. The EWG discovered that there is scant research available to document the safety or health risks of low-dose repeated exposures to chemical mixtures. But the absence of data should never be mistaken for proof of safety. The EWG points out that the more we study low-dose exposures, the more we understand that they can cause adverse effects ranging from the subtle and reversible, to effects that are more serious and permanent.
Janet Nudelman, of the Safe Cosmetics Campaign, says she uses Skin Deep regularly to look up ingredients in personal care products to get a safety reading -- and make a purchase decision based on the results. "Consumers have real power they are not exercising," she said. "We need to let cosmetic companies know we're going to not buy their products unless they make a strong unwavering commitment to safety."
Imagine an organic food trade association any company could join. Members set the standards to suit themselves. Thus, any store or company can label their products "organic" if they choose because there are no rules defining what organic means.
If your company does anything to improve its production methods, no matter how inconsequential, it qualifies for membership and can use the word "organic" on its labels. The association awards an annual prize to an academic paper showing that, if you eliminate six of the twelve pesticides commonly used on lettuce, you still get just as much lettuce as before.
Consumers who want to know about the food they buy can't find out how it is grown or how it is certified. Instead of an independent outside agency, association members hire private for-profit "screening" companies to determine what is organic. The screening companies compete, each has a different screening method, and none reveal how they define or determine what is "organic." The screening standards allow 90% of all food produced in the world to be labeled organic.
Inside this organization a small group of core producers believe that organic should mean no use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. The big food companies are amused by their romanticism and see them as "idealists."
Sound ridiculous? Yes, except this trade association exists. It doesn't sell food; it sells investments. It is the international SRI (socially responsible investing) mutual fund industry. Like our imaginary trade group, it has no standards, no definitions, and no regulations other than financial regulations. Anyone can join; anyone can call his or her fund an SRI fund. Over 90% of Fortune 500 companies are included in SRI portfolios (see sidebar, below).
The term "socially responsible investing" is so broad it is meaningless. If a fund doesn't own companies involved with gambling and pornography, it can be called socially responsible. Never mind that it owns Halliburton and Monsanto. SRI can be determined by what is called a negative screen, i.e., if you don't do something, you qualify. Or if you say you do something even though you really don't (such as screening for environmental responsibility), you also qualify. That's all it takes to be named an SRI mutual fund.
The analogy would be a gang member who is a mugger. If the gang member says he will stop mugging senior citizens over 65, he now qualifies as a socially responsible gang member. By creating an industry that is identified by specific exclusions or inclusions, key information and criteria are conveniently overlooked.
There is a difference between buying food and investing money. When people invest, they want a return, the highest return they can get. SRI returns are compared to conventional investments as a test of their worthiness. Industry advertising claims that SRI funds outperform conventional funds. That is true with some funds. When you look at the makeup of these funds, it's not hard to see why: the stocks held are the same as stocks in conventional funds.
Table One has two lists. One list is the 30 US companies that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The other list is the 30 top US holdings in North American SRI mutual funds. Can you tell which is which?
SRI portfolios not only look like the Dow Jones (list "B"), they use the Dow Jones Industrial Average as a benchmark to evaluate their performance. We don't know what a socially responsible rate of return is because no true SRI portfolio has been tracked over time. Because the industry has hooked people on the idea that SRI funds should do as well or better than other mutual funds, they have to demonstrate it, which leads to portfolio creep – porous and spurious criteria about what is a socially responsible company.
Striving for the highest rate of financial return is a cause of social injustice and environmental degradation worldwide. It consistently leads to "externalization" of costs to workers, people, the environment, and the future.
Colonization, imperialism, slavery, and virtually all wars are directly attributable to oligarchies trying to achieve the highest return on investment. It is called "sacred hunger" in Barry Unsworth's prize-winning novel of the same name on the slave trade. How the SRI industry came to believe that it could use avarice to reverse the suffering that greed causes has everything to do with marketing and nothing to do with philosophy.
The Sullivan Principles
The history of SRI goes back to the ethical precepts embodied in Jewish law. Quakers and other religious orders starting in the 18th century refused to invest in "sinful" industries such as distilleries and weaponry. In the 1960s, the environment, civil rights, and militarism were all brought to the national foreground. Apartheid, the Vietnam War, Bhopal, and later, Exxon Valdez, spurred public indignation about corporate practices. With the adoption of the Sullivan Principles, created by Rev. Leon Sullivan in 1977 to enlist companies to combat apartheid, there was a clear divide between multinational corporations perceived as responsible and those not. Twenty years later, Rev. Sullivan developed the Global Sullivan Principles of Social Responsibility, which called for equal pay, fair employment practices, and affirmative training and promotion of people of color in all communities.
Even before Sullivan, people were creating SRI funds. The first SRI mutual fund was Pax World Funds, a $1 billion fund created in 1971 by Luther Tyson and Jack Corbett both of whom worked for the United Methodist Church. A parishioner queried Tyson whether there was a fund that screened out companies involved in the Vietnam War. There wasn't, so Tyson, Corbett and two businessmen started the first public fund to include social criteria in its investment decisions.
Today, Pax advertises aggressively in the alternative media such as Mother Jones, Green Money Journal and Utne magazine. Its ads are bordered by its guiding investment principles with body copy saying: "For over 33 years, we've subjected potential investments to rigid social and environmental-responsibility screens... We believe our lofty ideals don't hurt our performance."
In Table 2 (Principles vs. Holdings), we can see some of those principles next to a list of portfolio companies in the Pax World Balanced Fund as of June 2003. I don't think anyone questions Pax's commitment to social equity. It is the interpretation and application that is confusing.
How Green And How Good?
I was unaware of what SRI mutual funds did two years ago. But I knew enough about corporations to be skeptical of how SRI funds could invest "responsibly." In a speech at the 2002 Bioneers conference, I made passing reference to the Domini Social Equity Fund's holdings of McDonald's. Immediately after the speech, an ex-manager of Domini's collared me and said I obviously didn't understand SRI investing. For a moment I didn't know what to say.
Then I realized the person was absolutely correct. I didn't understand SRI investing. It didn't make a whit of sense to me that you could own companies like GE, Monsanto, and Coke and pat yourself on the back. I decided to research the industry. At the Natural Capital Institute, our staff created the world's first comprehensive database of SRI mutual fund equity holdings and then we analyzed them.
What became apparent is that the criteria that are being employed by SRI screening companies are upsidedown and backwards. The most important criterion to determine a company's social responsibility is whether it should exist at all. In other words, is the company helpful to the world and its people? Although every company believes in its mission, the raison d'etre of SRI is to challenge the process and purpose of publicly held corporations.
McDonald's spends upwards of $2 billion a year on advertising, much of it aimed at young children. Obesity and Type 2 diabetes in youth are major news stories. The connection to fatty, sugary junk food is undeniable. Yet McDonald's fights all legislative or regulatory moves that would limit its practices. For Domini to cite McDonald's waste management practices as valid criteria for inclusion avoids the real issue: Why is McDonald's wasting our children?
In fact, few SRI funds screen for environmental responsibility. Some funds exclude companies that flagrantly violate environmental law; but, with the exception of Portfolio 21 and a handful of other US and European funds, just about any company is acceptable. Take the Sierra Club Stock Fund. There are few companies in its portfolio that address the environment in a proactive way; only one (Starbucks) that measures its ecological footprint, and no alternative energy companies. Sierra invests in companies that make surge protectors, fastening screws, steakhouses, anti-wrinkle creams, and candy bars.
The Sierra Club invests in Cousins Properties, one of the major contributors to sprawl in Atlanta ("From the time Cousins was founded, the Company has understood the value of land and has sought to control large tracts of strategically located land holdings for future commercial and residential development"). I single out the Sierra Club because it is one of the oldest and most respected NGOs in the world working for land conservation. But it is not just the Sierra Club. Their performance is duplicated by other funds because they use the same investment advisor, Harris Bretall Sullivan & Smith LLC.
The SRI industry needs to change. While SRI investors call for corporate transparency, the industry is closed, proprietary and secret. While SRI calls for workplace diversity, it is an almost entirely white industry. While the industry calls for environmental responsibility, it meets at luxury resort hotels that are far from being environmentally responsible. To put it plainly: if the SRI industry were a corporation, it wouldn't qualify in a rigorously screened portfolio.
Either the industry has to reform in toto (or rename itself), or that portion of the industry that wants to maintain credibility must break off from the pretenders and create an association with real standards, enforceability, and transparency. It needs to model the behavior it purportedly demands in other companies. In the US, there are funds that make real contributions to corporate reform and accountability: Portfolio 21, Calvert, Domini, Citizens, Walden, and Women's Equity are rightfully considered leaders. But they are the minority.
The world needs true fiscal and social responsibility, the ability to respond to poverty, inequity, environmental degradation, income polarization, women's rights, global warming, and the global corporate takeover of the commons. There are companies that meet, or are striving to meet, that standard. If others want to invest in Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil and Clear Channel, so be it, but let us at least have the grace not to confuse funds holding those companies with responsible and ethical investing.
On Friday, April 12, 2002, the 965-foot cargo ship APL Jade approached Miami with contraband cargo -- nothing unusual for a port through which large quantities of illegal drugs pass every week. Three miles off Miami Beach, a crewman lowered a 50-foot ladder to allow a harbor pilot aboard. When the pilot boat departed, two small inflatables pulled alongside. Climbers Hillary Hosta, 28, and Scott Anderson, 29, clambered up the ladder, wearing T-shirts labeled "Greenpeace illegal forest crime unit."
Greenpeace transmitted a radio communiquÃ© to the Jade: "We are conducting a peaceful demonstration. We have personnel on your ship." The Jade reportedly carried 70 tons of Amazon mahogany, which Greenpeace claimed violated Brazilian, U.S., and international trade laws. "I am not against the trade in forest products," Anderson explained. "I'm against the illegal trade -- and cannot believe that the U.S. turns a blind eye in the face of overwhelming evidence."
The U.S. Coast Guard arrested Hosta and Anderson as they prepared to unfurl a banner that read, "President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging." They spent a weekend in the Miami Federal Detention Center, along with 12 compatriots.
"We knew we'd be arrested for boarding the ships," said Scott Paul, one of the detainees. "Everyone was relaxed. The officers in jail told us to order pizza. They released us on Monday morning, and everything seemed normal." Six protesters pleaded guilty, received minor fines, and were sentenced to time served, a typical result for a Greenpeace protest.
Fifteen months later, the U.S. Attorney for south Florida, Marcos Daniel Jimenez, indicted Greenpeace USA for "boarding a vessel before its arrival in port and the conspiracy to do so."
"The conspiracy charge implies serious consequences," Greenpeace lawyer Tom Wetterer said. "It transforms a trivial offense into a federal felony."
In order to invoke the conspiracy statute, there had to be a crime committed by the organization. For this purpose, the U.S. Department of Justice harkened back to an 1872 law prohibiting "sailor-mongering." Lawmakers enacted the statute to stop brothels from sending hawkers, armed with liquor and prostitutes, to entice sailors to their establishments.
The obscure law has been enforced only twice. The New York judge who presided over the first conviction called the language "inartistic and obscure." In 1890, a second conviction followed the boarding of a ship by seedy characters at the mouth of Oregon's Columbia River. For the next 112 years, the law remained unused and obsolete, until the Greenpeace arraignment in Miami.
The case against Greenpeace represents the most direct attack on free speech in America since the dawn of the civil rights movement, according to longtime observers. Said the NAACP's Julian Bond, "This is a government assault on time-honored nonviolent civil disobedience."
Greenpeace claims it is the victim of selective persecution by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Ashcroft grew up in a family of devout Pentecostal fundamentalists in Missouri. As that state's attorney general, he opposed school desegregation. As governor, he used black prisoners for domestic help and publicly insulted women and gays. In his memoirs, he described his political defeats as "crucifixions" and his victories as "resurrections."
When named U.S. Attorney General, Ashcroft swathed the exposed breast of the Statue of Justice and instituted a Justice Department prayer group. "The law is not about forgiveness," he advised his new group. "It is oftentimes about vengeance."
This is not the first time Greenpeace has faced Ashcroft's wrath. After Greenpeace activists violated a security zone in California, protesting the "Star Wars" missile defense program, government attorneys sought curiously long prison sentences for 17 defendants. To avoid the excessive jail time -- and in deference to U.S. sentiment after the Sept. 11 attacks -- Greenpeace USA signed a consent decree, waiving its right to protest Star Wars research for five years.
The deal marked a turning point in Greenpeace history and in the saga of American civil liberties. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech... or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has claimed that Ashcroft used the Sept. 11 attacks to roll back civil rights and unleash Homeland Security snoops on American citizens. For example, he imposed a policy of selective deportation against men of Middle Eastern descent, charging 1,200 with petty immigration violations, and imprisoned them in secrecy without access to lawyers. The ACLU claims Ashcroft violated the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution by targeting Muslims and citizen activists.
A conviction against Greenpeace for conspiring to monger sailors could cost the organization its tax-exempt status and expose it to further government inspection of finances and membership roles. "This kind of prosecution is unprecedented in American history," said executive director John Passacantando. "It is designed to stifle public dissent by an entire organization."
In October 2003, Greenpeace filed motions to dismiss the indictment and to compel the federal government to turn over evidence supporting its claim that the mahogany aboard the Jade had been legally harvested and traded. Since the government had no such evidence, the Justice Department revised its indictment, deleting those claims and purging any mention of mahogany.
Friends of the Court
"Seventy percent of Brazilian mahogany is destined for the U.S. market," said Greenpeace's international head Gerd Leipold. "Most of it illegal."
Big-leafed, or "genuine," mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) is a reddish hardwood valued for fine furniture, musical instruments and boat decks. At the time of the 2002 incident in Miami, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) had placed the tree on a list of vulnerable species requiring export "certificates of origin." Brazil's environmental agency, IBAMA, had halted mahogany logging due to depletion of the species and destruction of the Amazon by logging roads. The wood aboard the Jade lacked an IBAMA certificate. "The mahogany was illegal," said Greenpeace lawyer Wetterer. "The prosecution is political."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Cameron Elliot disagreed. He told the court, "There is no evidence that the government has discriminated against Greenpeace because of its political views." He claimed that Greenpeace's opposition to the government's environmental policy "makes it no different from thousands of other political advocacy groups."
That's precisely what other groups are worried about. The Natural Resources Defense Council, "troubled by the apparently political nature of this prosecution," filed an amicus brief with the court, supporting Greenpeace. So did the ACLU, Sierra Club, NAACP, Al Gore and lawyers across the country. The ACLU claimed the prosecution "threatens every advocacy group whose message may offend the government of the moment."
"If John Ashcroft had done this in the 1960s," said Julian Bond, "black Americans would not be voting today."
On October 30, 2003, The Miami Herald urged the Justice Department to drop the prosecution. "There seems no point to it beyond vindictiveness toward a group that riles the administration," the editorial stated. "Why hasn't Justice applied the same standards to... pro-life activists that use similar protest tactics?"
"The Greenpeace case is particularly chilling," wrote George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley in the Los Angeles Times. "The extraordinary effort made to find and use this obscure law strongly suggests a campaign of selective prosecution."
The sailor mongering case has placed Greenpeace on the front lines of the battle for citizen rights in America. "We didn't pick this fight over civil rights," said Greenpeace's Passacantando, "but we will defend ourselves. This attack on an American tradition is unconstitutional and unpatriotic.
"This case woke us up," he added. "I never took the environmental issues for granted. I knew we faced severe opposition over the environment, but I did take my civil liberties for granted. I always assumed, in America, I had the right to dissent."
Rex Weyler is author of the forthcoming GREENPEACE: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World (Rodale Press/September 2004).