At Bella Luna Restaurant in Boston's funky Jamaica Plain neighborhood, you'll find star-shaped paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling and gourmet pizzas named after Red Sox players. Downstairs, the attached Milky Way Lounge & Lanes boasts a seven-lane bowling alley and a Latin dance night on Saturdays.
But there is one thing you won't find at either venue: bottled water.
The pledge caps a summer of organizing that has seen the backlash against bottled water go mainstream. Bella Luna isn't the only restaurant to ban bottled water from its menu. The movement burst into public view this spring when chef Alice Waters, the godmother of "California cuisine," nixed bottled water from her Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse. Soon after, Food Network favorite Mario Batali followed suit at his empire of restaurants including Manhattan's swish Del Posto, serving filtered tap water in glasses etched with information on the harmful environmental impact of bottled water
Then cities -- who probably have the most to gain from promoting municipal water -- got into the act. This June, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order to cancel the city's purchasing contract for bottled water, mandating instead that city departments rely on tap water that gushes down to the city from its clean reservoirs in Yosemite National Park. The next day, over heavy lobbying from the bottled water industry, Newsom along with progressive Salt Lake City Mayor Ross C. "Rocky" Anderson and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak pushed through a resolution at the U.S. Conference of Mayors to commission a study looking at the impact of discarded bottled water bottles on city waste streams.
According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), 96 percent of bottled water is sold in single-size polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles, which, because they are frequently consumed "on the go," end up in city trash cans rather than recycling bins. The national recycling rate for all PET bottles, including soda bottles, is just 23.1 percent, and bottled water is even lower. CRI estimates some 4 billion PET bottles end up in the waste stream, costing cities some $70 million a year in cleanup and landfill costs.
Bottled water "very clearly reflects the wasteful and reckless consumerism in this country," said Salt Lake City's Anderson in a conference call with reporters this month. "You really have to wonder at the utter stupidity and the irresponsibility sometimes of American consumers. These false needs are provided, and too often we just fall in line with what Madison Avenue comes up with to market these unnecessary products."
While falling short of a binding executive order, Anderson issued a directive to all city departments a year ago mandating that no tax money be spent on providing bottles of water for meetings and events. In coordination with CAI, the city has launched a campaign, called "Knock Out Bottled Water," with its own pledge for consumers and restaurants. (So far, 15 have signed up, most of them part of the city's popular upscale Gastronmy Inc. chain, whose flagship Market Street Grill earned "chef of the year" honors from Salt Lake City magazine.)
Other cities have separately pioneered their own efforts. New York, which gets pristine water from the Catskills, has started an advertising campaign to encourage residents to drink "cool, healthy, clean ... NYC water." In Berkeley, the school district last year replaced bottled water machines with large containers of tap. Other California cities, including Santa Barbara, Emeryville, San Leandro and Los Angeles have either cancelled bottled water contracts or instructed city departments not to buy bottled water. And this month, Boston signed on to the CAI pledge.
Nor is it just cities in on the East and West coasts that are taking action -- Ann Arbor, Mich., has already cancelled bottled water contracts, and mayors in other cities such as Urbana, Ill., and Wauwatosa, Wis., are considering similar actions. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley is considering a proposal to tax bottled water producers who bottle municipal water. And one of the very first cities to promote its tap water is -- of all places -- Louisville, Ky., which has distributed more than 1.8 million "Pure Tap" water bottles to residents since 1997 and branded a mascot, Tapper, to educate kids about the source of their water.
As the wave against bottled water has grown into a tide, the industry has not taken long to splash back. This August, the International Bottled Water Association published full-page ads in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle decrying the "misguided and confusing criticism by activist groups and a handful of mayors who have presented misinformation and subjective criticism as facts."
Instead of pitting bottled water against tap water, the group says, bottled water should be seen as an alternative to soda and other sugary drinks consumed outside the home. Its ads quote statistics saying 70 percent of beverages are consumed from a can or bottle, "a result of our 24/7 on-the-go society. So as far as we are concerned, the drink in everyone's purse, backpack, and lunch box should be water."
In fact IWBA president Joe Doss says a private poll by one bottler found three-quarters of people drink both tap water and bottled water, depending on the circumstances. "We don't see tap water as our competition," he says. "Every day on newspapers and TV, you see stories about increasing obesity and diabetes. These actions against bottled water will have no good consequences if they discourage people from drinking a healthy beverage."
As for recycling, Doss says that bottled water companies have done their part to reduce the amount of PET resin in bottles by 40 percent over the last five years. Despite the number of bottles that end up in landfills, however, he says PET bottles represent only a third of 1 percent (.0033) of all trash. "If you can get your head around that, it's very clear that these efforts to target bottled water are misguided at best and totally ineffective in dealing with the problem at worst." Instead, Doss says IWBA has been involved in supporting curbside recycling initiatives to try and increase the number of water bottles that are recycled, adding that two-thirds of bottled water is consumed at home, work or offices, places where curbside recycling is readily available.
Of course, those are all places where tap water is also readily available, contradicting the argument that bottled water is necessary as an alternative beverage "on the go." When I point out the discrepancy, Doss repeats his mantra of "choice": "It is a choice, it's always a choice; they should have that choice. Bottled water consumers are choosing to drink both, and there is nothing wrong with that."
Perhaps not so coincidentally, that is the same argument that soda companies have used for a decade as their product has come increasingly under attack from health advocates looking to ban soda from schools. After all, many of the same companies at the lead of soda production also produce water. The top producer of bottled water is NestlÃƒÂ©, which owns a quarter of the market with its brands, including Poland Spring, Calistoga, Deer Park, Ice Mountain and Arrowhead. Second and third are PepsiCo and the Coca-Cola Co., which produce Aquafina and Dasani, respectively.
In fact, as soft drinks started to decline in sales for the first time, Coke and Pepsi have increasingly promoted water as a healthy alternative, putting tens of millions of dollars of advertising into rebranding themselves as "hydration" companies and quietly replacing soda logos on vending machines with huge Aquafina and Dasani logos (with bottles of Coke and Pepsi, of course, still available a few buttons down.) Despite advertisements touting the purity of bottled water, however, Aquafina's former tagline says it all: "So pure we promise nothing."
While federal law requires that bottled water be held to the same standards as tap water, tap water is actually more tightly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, which requires daily testing and mandatory reporting to the public. For bottled water, the Food and Drug Administration requires only weekly testing and voluntary reporting. A 1999 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found contamination in some bottles, including e.coli and arsenic.
While some companies, such as NestlÃƒÂ©, report testing information on their website, others don't. "All bottled water companies have telephone numbers you can contact to get the info you want," says Doss. "If you don't get the info you want, you can say, 'I'm not going to drink that brand.' You don't have that choice with tap water."
Others don't see that way. "There is accountability in the municipal system," says Wenonah Hauter, director of Food & Water Watch, which produced a report on bottled water this spring called Take Back the Tap. Her organization originally got into the issue of bottled water while battling companies seeking to privatize municipal water systems. "The excuse that elected officials often gave for privatization was that the public had lost confidence in the public water systems," says Hauter. "We realized that the whole issue of bottled water and the ad campaigns they have done for the past 10 or 15 years has really undermined public water. If we spent just a fraction of what people spend for what is an inferior or at least not a better product, we could have clean water for everyone."
In other words, bottled water has created a chicken-and-egg syndrome whereby advertisements touting the purity of bottled water undermine public support for maintenance of public systems, creating more reliance on bottled water as a source of drinking water. "It's kind of like you keep building more and more highways to accommodate sprawl, and it's this vicious cycle," says Anderson. "We need to stop accommodating these problems and giving up by drinking bottled water. We need to start demanding city officials address these issues."
Despite the problems activists see with bottled water, tap water is hardly a panacea. The EPA estimates that municipalities face a $22 billion shortfall in spending on maintenance of their water systems, and some of the same environmental groups that oppose bottled water have also warned against tap water contamination, especially in rural areas. In other areas, water that is perfectly safe may still have an inherently unpleasant taste or contain added chemicals such as chlorine. It's no accident that cities pushing tap water are those with the best water -- Boston, San Francisco and New York, for example -- are among the five cities in the country with water so pure the EPA doesn't require filtration. And even in those cities, rusting lead pipes in certain buildings can cause contamination that isn't monitored by the EPA.
The safest and cheapest solution, says Hauter, is to invest in a home filtration system and fill your own water bottles from the tap. The most expensive systems cost only about $400 and use reverse osmosis, the same process used by Coke and Pepsi to filter their bottled water. The vast majority of consumers, however, don't need anything that extreme, says Hauter. For chemicals like chlorine, an "adsorptive filter" such as the popular Britta filters, can do the trick. Slightly fancier filters with "ion exchange resin" can take care of lead. And on-the-faucet "particulate filters" can remove particles and bacteria. Because the EPA requires municipalities to submit yearly tests on water quality, it's relatively easy to find out what contaminants, if any, are in your water by going to the agency's website. Or to be doubly sure, some municipal health departments will test your water for free. From there, the Take Back the Tap report lists several nonprofit organizations that can recommend the best filter on the basis of the findings.
After all, filtered tap water is good enough for many bottled water companies themselves. This summer, PepsiCo made the embarrassing public admission that its Aquafina brand water is actually nothing more than filtered water from municipal sources, a fact that the company will now note on its bottles. In fact, some 40 percent of bottled water, including Coke's Dasani brand, is water that it gets from the tap for free, puts through filtration processes, and then sells back to the public with a markup of up to 1,000 times. A law passed by the state legislature in California this year and signed by Governor Schwarzenegger on October 13 requires all bottled water companies to print their source, as well as water quality information, on the label. "When we first introduced this bill in 2003, it was an uphill battle, and everyone said it was 'a solution in search of a problem,'" says Jennifer Clary of Clean Water Action. "No one was saying that this time."
In terms of environmental impact, however, that may be better than the water that NestlÃƒÂ© gets from springs and underwater aquifers around the country. Unlike with surface water, most states have no laws against takings of groundwater that lies underneath a landowner's property, leading to a situation that Texans call the "law of the biggest pump" -- that is, whoever sucks hardest can literally take the water from beneath his neighbor's property.
While industry advocates rightly point out that bottled water amounts to a very small percent of total groundwater use, rural communities around the country have fought specific bottled water plants that take millions of gallons of water out of their watersheds at no cost, and often without so much as a permit or study on environmental consequences.
In addition to the backlash in restaurants and cities, grassroots efforts around the country have taken the fight directly to the source, leading to bills in more than ten states to regulate groundwater takings -- including in Florida, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont and West Virginia. Some of the bills have even proposed an extraction tax of several cents a gallon that would offset costs to the environment. While most of these bills have been defeated after heavy lobbying from industry, both Michigan and Vermont have passed legislation requiring permits for taking water over a certain amount of water (250,000 gallons a day and 50,000 gallons a day, respectively).
The hardest battle has been fought in Maine, where NestlÃƒÂ©'s Poland Spring brand extracts some 180 million gallons a year from land in three communities -- Poland, Hollis, and Fryeburg. Residents have complained about the hundreds of trucks that rumble through their rural communities, as well as anecdotal reports of dropping water levels in area wells, lakes, and rivers. In these days of massive droughts across the country, there's no telling how much of that, if any, is due to the bottling plants. But that's just the point, says Jim Wilfong, director of grassroots group H2OforME. "It's impossible to tell what's going on beneath the ground," he says. "They will always tell you they are monitoring water levels, but there is no independent confirmation."
Last year, Wilfong's group circulated petitions for a state referendum that would create a permitting process for water extraction that would include environmental review and ongoing monitoring. In addition, it would require a 20-cent-per-gallon extraction tax that would be contributed to a trust to compensate taxpayers for water takings. "That water belongs to all people of Maine, and the reason it's clean is we have invested in public sewer systems and cleaned up oil and gasoline spills," says Wilfong, a former state legislator and assistant trade secretary under Clinton. "Then a company moves in from Switzerland and takes some advantage of it. As a principle that is not right."
The referendum campaign was bitterly fought, with NestlÃƒÂ© reportedly contributing $200,000 to a political action committee that waged an aggressive media campaign, stirring up anti-tax sentiment and warning about lost jobs in rural areas. In the end, the referendum failed to make the ballot by just a few hundred signatures. When Wilfong vowed to bring it up again this year, however, NestlÃƒÂ© offered to sit down and hammer out a compromise. While the tax idea was dropped, the bill introduced this summer establishes much of what the referendum would have done, including a permitting process with environmental impact study and subsequent groundwater monitoring paid for by the companies, as well as language acknowledging for the first time that groundwater is a public resource that companies did not have unlimited access to.
"It's not the end-all, but, boy, it moved us along way up the path from where we were," says Wilfong. As the world faces a growing global water shortage in coming years and global warming continues to stoke fears of increasing incident of drought, it's vitally important that laws establish who owns the right to groundwater sources, he says. "That is the big issue, not just in Maine but around the country and around the world. The real questions are, who is going to own the water and who is going to control it, and isn't it insane policy to let people control something so important?"
When Antonia Mahoney moved to Boston from her native Puerto Rico 35 years ago, the first thing she noticed was how much better the water tasted. Over the years, however, the water she was receiving from her tap began to lose its appeal. "Little by little, the taste changed," says the retired schoolteacher, who eventually gave up tap water altogether and began paying over $30 a month to get bottles of Poland Spring water delivered to her house.
Walking through Boston's Copley Square on a sunny day last month, however, she was intrigued by a banner advertising something called the "Tap Water Challenge." As she approached the table, a fresh-faced activist behind it told her the "challenge" was a blind taste test to see if passersby could tell the difference between bottled water and tap water. Mahoney turned her back while four water samples were poured into small paper cups -- two of tap water from Boston and a nearby suburb, and one each of Poland Spring and Aquafina.
"That's tap water," Mahoney declared after draining the first cup. "That tastes just like what I drink at home." Her confidence faded, however, as she downed the next three, which all seemed to taste the same. When the cups were turned over, it turned out that what she thought was tap water was actually Aquafina -- and what she thought was Poland Spring was actually the same Boston tap water she gets at home for free. "I couldn't believe it, I couldn't believe it," she says later. "You know I pay so much for that water. Now I am thinking to stop the Poland Spring."
Mahoney wasn't alone in that decision. A student from Connecticut who attends Massachusetts College of Art says that she has cartons of bottled water stocked in her dorm room, because she doesn't want to chance city tap water. After taking (and flunking) the test, she says now she'll start drinking from the faucet. "It tastes the same as the tap water I drink at home in Connecticut, and I drink that all the time," says the student, Katey vanBerkum. "Why spend your money on bottled water if you don't have to."
The two are among the many who have been converted across the country over the past year by the taste test, which, if not quite as ubitquitous as the Pepsi Challenge, is equally surprising in its results. Of the hundreds of people who have participated in the Tap Water Challenge in cities including Austin, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia, few of them were able to identify all the samples correctly, says Gigi Kellett, who is doling out water samples this afternoon. "It's usually those who are the most die-hard or committed to a certain brand who are most surprised when they realize they can't tell the difference," she says.
Kellett is associate campaigns director at Corporate Accountability International (CAI), a nonprofit formerly known as Infact, which is best-known for its relentless crusade against tobacco companies in the 1990s. Now, the group has started a campaign to blow away perceptions that bottled water is somehow better-tasting or purer than good old H2O from the tap. At stake, they say, is the increasing commodification of a resource that should be a basic human right, not a product on sale for $1.50 at the local convenience store.
In the past decade, the bottled water market has more than doubled in the United States, surpassing juice, milk, and beer to become the second most popular beverage after soft drinks. According to a 2003 Gallup poll, three in four Americans drink bottled water, and one in five drink only bottled water. Together, consumers spent some $10 billion on the product last year, consuming an average of 26 gallons of the stuff per person, according the Beverage Marketing Corporation. At the same time, companies spend some $70 million annually to advertise their products. Typical are Aquafina's ads advertising the beverage as "the purest of waters," Dasani's ads contending the water is "pure as water can get."
In fact, says Kellett, not only does tap water often taste the same as bottled water, but it is also often safer to drink as well. "They are spending tens of millions of dollars every year to undermine our confidence in tap water," she says, "even though water systems here in the United States are better regulated than bottled water." That's because tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which imposes strict limits on chemicals and bacteria, constant testing by government agencies, and mandatory notification to the public in the event of contamination.
Bottled water, on the other hand, is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which according to federal law is technically required to hold itself to the same standards as the EPA. The devil is in the details, however, since FDA regulations only apply to water that is bottled and transported between states, leaving out the two-thirds of water that is solely transported within states. State laws, meanwhile, are inconsistent, with some mirroring the FDA standards, some going beyond them and some falling far short of the national regulations. What's more, FDA regulations rely on companies to do their own testing, and perform voluntary recalls if products are found to be in violation of standards (if a company fails to do so, the Justice Department can order a seizure of products).
A 1999 study by the National Resources Defense Council of more than 1,000 bottles of water found that, while most bottled water was safe, some brands violated strict state standards on bacterial contamination, while others were found to contain harmful chemicals such as arsenic. The report concluded that bottled water was no safer than water taken from the tap.
In fact, many times bottled water is tap water. Contrary to the image of water flowing from pristine mountain springs, more than a quarter of bottled water actually comes from municipal water supplies. The industry is dominated by three companies, who together control more than half the market: Coca-Cola, which produces Dasani; Pepsi, which produces Aquafina; and NestlÃƒÂ©, which produces several "local" brands including Poland Spring, Arrowhead, Deer Park, Ozarka and Calistoga (a fact that itself often surprises participants in the Tap Water Challenges). Both Coke and Pepsi exclusively use tap water for their source, while NestlÃƒÂ© uses tap water in some brands.
Of course, Coke and Pepsi tout the elaborate additional steps they take that purify the water after it comes out of the tap, with both companies filtering it multiple times to remove particulates before subjecting it to additional techniques such as "reverse osmosis" and ozone treatment. Reverse osmosis, however, is hardly state of the art -- essentially consisting of the same treatment applied through commercially available home tap water filters, while ozonation can introduce additional problems such as the formation of the chemical bromate, a suspected carcinogen. In March 2004, Coca-Cola was forced to recall nearly 500,000 bottles of Dasani water in the United Kingdom due to bromate contamination that exceeded the U.K. and U.S. limit of 10 parts per billion. This past August, three grocery stores chains in upstate New York who all used local company Mayer Bros. to produce their store brands issued recalls after samples were found contaminated with more than double the bromate limit; in some cases, contaminated water was apparently sold for five weeks before the problem was detected.
Water originating with groundwater sources, meanwhile, can have its own problems. Citizens in states including Maine, Michigan, Texas, and Florida have all fought against NestlÃƒÂ©, whom they accuse of harming the environment by depleting aquifers and damaging stream systems with extractions of massive amounts of water though their local bottling affiliates, for which they pay next to nothing in fees and then sell at a huge markup. In 2003, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) won a landmark court victory shutting down a NestlÃƒÂ© plant that was taking water from a stream that fed a wildlife refuge, sensitive marshland and several lakes.
"When you look at the fallen level of the stream, a couple of inches can mean everything to the environment," says Jim Olson, an attorney with the group. "It changed a natural regime that has built up over centuries, drying up ancient marshes of sedge grass relied on by wildfowl, interfering with spawning habits of great northern pike, and creating mudflats in areas where you used to be able to canoe." The injunction against NestlÃƒÂ© was partially overturned last year on appeal, however, in a decision that set a new, looser standard for water rights. The case is currently being considered by the Michigan state Supreme Court.
International Bottled Water Association spokesperson Stephen Kay defends the rights of bottled water producers to extract water, saying that bottled water producers are no different than any other industrial user or food producer that uses water in its products. Nationally, he says that bottled water only accounts for .02 percent of water use in the country, and that even in local cases, water producers are sometimes singled out unfairly as the most visible users of water, while other large users of water are given a pass. "We need to understand all of the uses on an aquifer and make sound and scientific judgements that take all of those uses into consideration," he says.
Kay questions the idea behind the Tap Water Challenges, saying that consumers have chosen bottled water not only for its consistency and taste, but also for its convenience. It isn't competing so much against tap water, he says, as it is against other beverage options. "If consumers are in a convenience store and they want a beverage without calories, caffeine, or sugar, it's just ready to go," he says. "In this era of obesity, it's irresponsible to try and sway consumers away from a healthful beverage choice."
While he allows that some tap water might taste as good as bottled water, he says, not all water users are so lucky. In some parts of the country, water is tinged with a sulphurous taste or suffers from a noticeable taint of chlorine. Indeed, at the Tap Water Challenge in Boston, one participant, Leila Saba, says she drinks tap water in Boston but chooses bottled water when she visits her parents at home in South Florida, where the water has an unpleasant taste. "I think tap water is always safe to drink," she says, "but they could make an effort to make the water taste better."
For the activists behind the taste test however, the growth of bottled water undermines the public's willingness to invest in the kind of infrastructure investments that could improve all public water supplies -- opening up the door in some cases to privatization of water systems by for-profit corporations. "People get in the habit of paying a lot more for their drinking water, and they say if we are paying for bottled water, there is no reason we shouldn't be paying a lot for these water services," says Tony Clarke, director of the Polaris Institute and author of "Inside the Bottle," a report critical of the bottled water industry. The downside, he says, is increased cost. "Whenever there is a public service utility taken over by a private service the first thing that happens is that rates are jacked up."
That's exactly what happened in the city of Cochabamba in Bolivia in 2000, when takeover of its water by the Bechtel Corp. sparked a popular uprising known as the Water War, in which citizens successfully reclaimed their water supply as a public right. Today, some 300 million people around the world still get their water from private suppliers. In the United States, water privatization has been a disaster, with cities such as Atlanta, Indianapolis and New Orleans seeing rates soar and quality suffer after contracting with private companies such as France's Suez and Veolia.
The struggle over control of water is only bound to get more heated over the next few years. Currently, more than 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, a number that is only bound to rise with increases in population and environmental stresses. This past March, environmental and indigenous groups converged on Mexico City to protest the World Water Forum, a meeting of industry and government leaders from around the world, sponsored by Coca-Cola., in which leaders failed even to agree that water was a basic human right. This month, citizens in 30 countries have planned demonstrations on the issue in an effort dubbed "Blue October," which will include a street celebration in La Paz to commemorate the Water War, and culminate next week in a three-day conference on water rights in Montevideo, Uruguay, from Oct. 28-31. In 2004, Uruguay became the first country to enshrine the right to safe water through a citizen-led constitutional amendment banning privitization and guaranteeing piped water and sanitation to all citizens. A similar effort kicks off this month in Mexico.
Activists like Kellett see a direct relationship between the commodification of water on the international level and the rise in bottled water among individual consumers. "Worldwide, people spent $100 billion on bottled water last year," says Kallett. "That's three times more than the amount that we'd need to spend to meet the United Nation's goals of giving everyone access to water by 2015." In the meantime, the activists with CAI will continue to bring their Tap Water Challenges on the road in an effort to convert people one by one. Purity, they contend, is only a twist of the faucet away.
CAI will hold a Tap Water Challenge at 1 p.m. today (Oct. 26) at Denver's Writer Square. Student groups will also hold Tap Water Challenges across the country next month on Nov. 14. For more information, visit Corporate Accountability International.
The ballroom at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, Delaware, is the picture of opulence. Paintings of Greek gods and goddesses peer down from the walls, lit by two crystal chandeliers the size of Mini Coopers. It's here in April that the Coca-Cola Company will hold its stockholders' meeting, an annual exercise designed to boost the confidence of investors. If the meeting is anything like last year's, however, it may do the opposite.
As stockholders filed into the room in April 2005, news hadn't been good for Coke, which has steadily lost market share to rivals. Investors were eager for reassurance from CEO Neville Isdell, a patrician Irishman who had recently assumed the top job. Few in the room, however, were prepared for what happened next. As Isdell stood at the podium, two long lines formed at the microphones. When he opened the floor, the first to speak was Ray Rogers, a veteran union organizer and head of the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke. "I want to know what [Coke is] going to do to regain the trust and credibility in order to stop the growing movement worldwide...banning Coke products," boomed the 62-year-old.
That was just the beginning of a ninety-minute slugfest that the Financial Times later said "felt more like a student protest rally" than a stockholders' meeting. One after another, students, labor activists and environmentalists blasted Coke's international human rights record. Many focused on Colombia, where Coke has been accused of conspiring with paramilitary death squads to torture and kill union activists. Others highlighted India, where Coke has allegedly polluted and depleted water supplies. Still others called the company to task for causing obesity through aggressive marketing to children.
In the past two years the Coke campaign has grown into the largest anticorporate movement since the campaign against Nike for sweatshop abuses. Around the world, dozens of unions and more than twenty universities have banned Coke from their facilities, while activists have dogged the company from World Cup events in London to the Winter Olympics in Torino. More than just the re-emergence of the corporate boycott, however, the fight against Coke is a leap forward in international cooperation. Coke, with its red-and-white swoosh recognizable everywhere from Beijing to Baghdad, is perhaps the quintessential symbol of the US-dominated global economy. The fight to hold it accountable has, in turn, broadly connected issues across continents to become a truly globalized grassroots movement.
Coke shrugs off the protests as coming from a "small segment of the student population," says Ed Potter, the company's director of global labor relations. "What I see are largely well-meaning attempts to put a spotlight on some reprehensible things--but which are unrelated to our workplaces." Nevertheless, Coke has fought back with ads on TV and in student newspapers, part of a mammoth advertising budget that has increased 30 percent in the past two years, to a staggering $2.4 billion. However, as evidence against the company mounts ahead of this year's annual stockholders' meeting, so does the pressure for Coke to address its growing international image of exploitation and brutality.
On the morning of December 5, 1996, union leader Isidro Segundo Gil was standing at the gate of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Carepa, Colombia, when two paramilitaries drove up on a motorcycle and shot him dead. A week later, unionists say, paramilitaries lined up all the workers inside the plant and forced them to sign a letter resigning from the beverage union SINALTRAINAL, spelling the end of the union at the plant.
Violence against union members is a fact of life in Colombia, where nearly 4,000 have been killed by paramilitaries in the past two decades. But Gil's murder was different, say his union brothers; two months earlier, they observed the plant manager meeting with a paramilitary commander in the company cafeteria. And just a week before he was killed Gil had been negotiating with the company over a new contract. Workers see these events as an example of the collusion of bottling executives with the paramilitaries. "From the beginning, Coca-Cola took a stand to not only eliminate the union but to destroy its workers," said SINALTRAINAL president Javier Correa in a recent speaking appearance in the United States.
Nor was Gil's murder a unique occurrence, says Correa. In all, eight union members and a friendly plant manager were killed between 1989 and 2002. Even today, union leaders routinely receive death threats and attempts on their lives. In 2003 paramilitaries kidnapped and tortured the 15-year-old son of one union leader and killed the brother-in-law of SINALTRAINAL's vice president. This past January, says Correa, managers at the Coca-Cola plant in Bogota attempted to get workers to sign a statement saying Coke did not violate human rights; a week later the leader of the union received a death threat against himself and his family.
"Coke has a long history of being a virulently antiunion company," says Lesley Gill, an anthropology professor at American University who has twice been to Colombia to document the violence. "It has been calculated and targeted, and it usually takes place during periods of contract negotiations." A 2004 investigation directed by New York City Councilman Hiram Monserrate documented 179 "major human rights violations" against Coke workers, along with numerous allegations that "paramilitary violence against workers was done with the knowledge of and likely under the direction of company managers." The violence has taken a toll on the union. In the past decade, SINALTRAINAL's Coke membership has fallen from about 1,400 to less than 400.
Coca-Cola representatives deny involvement of the company or its bottling partners, contending that the murders are a byproduct of the country's civil war. In response, the company touts the security measures it offers union leaders, including loans for home security systems and reassignment for those in danger. Furthermore, Coke points out that it has been exonerated in several cases in Colombian courts. However, charging those courts as ineffective--only five paramilitaries have been found guilty of murder, despite 4,000 killings--SINALTRAINAL reached out in 2001 to the International Labor Rights Fund, a Washington-based solidarity organization. Using a US law called the Alien Tort Claims Act, the ILRF and the United Steelworkers filed suit against Coke and its bottlers in Miami later that year. In 2003 a judge ruled that Coca-Cola couldn't be held responsible for the actions of its bottlers and dropped it from the case, even while allowing the case against the bottlers to go forward. ILRF lawyer Terry Collingsworth finds that decision preposterous, noting that Coke has ownership shares in its Colombian bottlers and highly detailed bottling agreements. "I'm 100 percent sure that if Coca-Cola in Atlanta ordered them to change their uniform color from red to blue, they would do it," says Collingsworth. "They could stop these activities in a minute."
While the ILRF has appealed the decision, procedural rules require it to wait until the case against the bottlers is over before the case against Coke can be taken up again--a process that could take years. "We needed to figure out a way that Coke sees delay as bad," says Collingsworth. In 2003 SINALTRAINAL put out a call for an international boycott of Coke products. At the same time, the ILRF contacted Ray Rogers, head of Corporate Campaign, Inc., an organization that consults with unions to win contracts through unorthodox methods. Over the past three decades, Rogers has forced concessions from a dozen companies--including American Airlines, Campbell's Soup and New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority--not through strikes or negotiations but through an aggressive strategy of publicly embarrassing anyone associated with his targets.
Rogers immediately saw Coke's weakness: its brand. "They are right at the top of the worst companies in the world, and yet they've created an image like they are American pie," he says. "When people think of Coca-Cola, they should think about great hardship and despair for people and communities around the world." From the beginning, Rogers appropriated Coke's trademark red script to make the Killer Coke logo, and tweaked its advertising campaign with slogans like "The Drink That Represses" and "Murder--It's the Real Thing." He made a dramatic first appearance at a Coke annual meeting two years ago, when police wrestled Rogers away from the mike and forcibly dragged him out of the hall.
Early on, Rogers rejected SINALTRAINAL's call for a consumer boycott of Coke products, fearing it would be ineffective and might alienate unions working with Coke. He focused on "cutting out markets" by going after larger institutional ties. He convinced several unions, including the American Postal Workers, several large locals of the Service Employees International, and UNISON, the largest union in Britain, to ban Coke from their facilities and functions, and he induced pension-fund managers, including the City of New York, to pass resolutions threatening to withdraw hundreds of millions in Coke stock investments unless Coke investigated the Colombia abuses. He persuaded not only the SEIU but the largest US union of Coke's own employees, the Teamsters, to pass a resolution in support of the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke and to speak out at last year's annual meeting (the Teamsters stopped short of banning Coke from their own facilities). "It's horrendous what we're hearing," says David Laughton, secretary-treasurer of the union's beverage division. "The company's lack of action is having a ripple effect all over the country in school and college, and that means reductions in jobs for us. It's time for them to wake up and admit their errors."
The campaign's greatest success has come at colleges and universities. Rogers set up a website with a step-by-step guide for students looking to convince their institutions to cut multimillion-dollar Coke contracts, and he's traveled to schools to hold rallies and advise students. One by one, more than a dozen schools in the United States, as well as a handful more in Ireland, Italy and Canada, have decided to cut lucrative beverage contracts or otherwise ban Coke from campuses. The effort accelerated after it was joined by United Students Against Sweatshops--one of the main groups behind the Nike boycott of the 1990s--which helped organize its own chapters. Anti-Coke campaigns are now active at some 130 campuses worldwide. "This campaign against Coke has politicized a new generation of students," says Camilo Romero, a national organizer with USAS. "It's something that students feel personally connected to, because it's something they can hold in their hand," says Aviva Chomsky, a professor at Salem State College in Massachusetts, which severed ties two years ago. "It's too easy to say, 'There are so many bad things in the world, I'm just going to concentrate on my own life.' It's the concreteness of this that's appealing."
While student campaigns have mostly focused on the abuses in Colombia, some have included demands from other countries as well. Few companies have the kind of global reach of Coca-Cola, which has set up a network of bottling partners around the world that allows it to maximize profits by keeping distribution costs down and exploiting lax environmental and labor laws abroad. The first rumblings came from India, where villagers near several Coke bottling plants reported that their wells were dropping, sometimes more than fifty feet; meanwhile, the water they were able to get was tainted by foul-smelling chemicals. Starting in 2002 villagers near Plachimada, in the southern state of Kerala, began a permanent vigil outside the local plant. They finally won an indefinite closure in March 2004, although the case remains an issue in the Kerala High Court.
Villagers started another vigil, at Mehdiganj in central India, this past March. Escalating protests there and at a third plant, in the desert state of Rajasthan, have ended in police attacks on villagers employing Gandhian tactics of nonviolence, which Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center (IRC) lays at Coke's feet. "We know the company has the power to stop the police from resorting to violence," he says, "but it has let this go on without saying a word."
The IRC has been joined in its mission by Corporate Accountability International (CAI), which has attacked Coke on its aggressive push to sell bottled water. "If water becomes a branded product, it's clearly going to undermine the demand and support for publicly managed water systems," says CAI executive director Kathryn Mulvey. "The people who lose out are those who don't have the means to pay top dollar for their water." As a veteran anticorporate campaigner, Mulvey sees the Coke campaign as a new model. "People are taking these abuses that are happening all over the world and bringing them to Coke's headquarters," she says. "Transnational corporations are really surpassing the nation-state as the dominant economic and political institutions. Social change movements need to find ways to come together across borders and strategize."
The broad attack against the company has been a strength for the campaign, allowing diverse groups to share information and recruit greater numbers at protests, as well as making a more difficult target for counterattacks. "The company can't control it," says Rogers. "They realize they can't get rid of one person or group and hope the thing will die." At the same time, the sheer number of charges against Coke raises the question of how and when the campaign can declare victory. On that score, the different groups are clear about their specific goals. The Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, for example, has adopted seven demands by SINALTRAINAL, which include a human rights policy for bottling companies and compensation for families of slain workers. The campaign in India calls for closure of certain plants, cleanup of others and compensation for affected villagers.
Many student campaigns have made their top demand an independent investigation into the Colombia abuses. At last year's annual meeting, Coke tried to mollify critics by releasing the results of a company-funded study, which was rejected by students as woefully biased. Still facing the prospect of boycotts at several universities--among them Rutgers, NYU and Michigan--Coke put together a commission of students, school administrators and labor leaders to come up with a protocol for an independent inquiry. "I was honestly hopeful, perhaps naively," says USAS's Romero. "It seemed like they were putting this new investment into making things work." From the beginning, however, the company insisted it had a right to be on the commission; even after Coke was booted by the students, it kept putting strictures on the investigation, such as a moratorium on investigating past abuses. The final straw was Coke's insistence that anything uncovered be inadmissible in the court case in Miami, which Collingsworth says is against legal ethics. "We cannot prejudice our clients by agreeing to bury evidence that would support their claims," he wrote in an angry letter to Coke's Ed Potter.
At around the same time, new evidence of Coke's antilabor tactics emerged in Indonesia, where, according to USAS, workers were intimidated when they attempted to unionize; and in Turkey, where more than 100 union members were fired and then clubbed and tear-gassed by police during a protest. This past November the ILRF filed another lawsuit against Coca-Cola, based on the claims of the Turkish workers. By that point, students had had enough; all but one left the commission.
With the failure of the investigation commission, administrators at some schools ran out of excuses to keep the Coke contracts. Both NYU and Michigan suspended contracts in December. NYU's status as the country's largest private university earned the campaign national and international press. "We knew if we were to ban Coca-Cola, our statement would resound around the world," says Crystal Yakacki, a recent NYU graduate who helped lead the campaign while she was a student.
As this year's annual meeting nears, Coke has gone on the offensive, announcing a plan to draft a new set of workplace standards. At the same time, the company has asked the UN's International Labor Organization to perform a workplace evaluation of the Colombia bottling plants. Rogers and Collingsworth have already cried foul, pointing out that Potter has been the US employer representative to the ILO for the past fifteen years. "Either they know something we don't know," says Collingsworth, "or they believe the ILO moves so slowly and bureaucratically that they can delay." In response, Potter claims the organization is so large that no one person can influence it. Regardless, the gambit is having some effect: In April Michigan, citing "the reputation and track record of ILO," rescinded its ban.
At the Hotel du Pont on April 19, organizers hope to stage a repeat of last year's grilling, with an even larger contingent of activists in attendance. Schools debating Coke contracts this spring include Michigan State, UCLA, the University of Illinois, DePaul and several campuses of the City University of New York. In Britain, the campaign lost a close vote in April to convince the National Union of Students--which represents 750 campuses--to cut a multimillion-pound contract. Many British universities, however, are continuing individual boycotts, as are campuses in Italy, Ireland, Germany and Canada. "This is a moment in history that is very rare, where students have the power to change one of the largest corporations in the world," says Romero. After recent campus victories, momentum seems to be on the side of the campaign. "Coke has a contracting market; we have an expanding market," says Rogers. "I want Coke to come to the realization that there is a lot more for them to lose by continuing to do what they do. They have to be made to do the right thing for the wrong reason."
Until they do, say activists, the violence against Coke's workers will continue. "It's very difficult for me to convince my family that they have to live with the worries, and that they will one day maybe have to receive bad news," says SINALTRAINAL's Correa. "My kids say that walking with Dad is like walking with a time bomb. But I can't leave this struggle seeing these violations happening all around me. The reality of the situation is that it's better being with a union than without one."
It could be nearing high noon for the soda industry. After years of repeated battering over the issues of childhood obesity and tooth decay, sugary beverages have suffered an unprecedented backlash. The New York Times reported last week that soft drink sales are down for the first time in 20 years, and sales of bottled water, juices and energy drinks are continuing to eat into the soda market.
Into this anti-carbonated climate comes a potentially bigger bombshell that could spell disaster for the industry. Last month, the FDA quietly revealed that some soft drinks were found to contain the human carcinogen benzene in levels up to 10-20 parts per billion (ppb) -- four times the acceptable limit found in drinking water. Benzene, a chemical linked to leukemia and other forms of cancer, forms in certain beverages under certain conditions, such as exposure to heat and light.
The agency immediately downplayed the risk, saying that such small amounts did not pose a significant danger to health. "Levels like that with benzene, our only concern would be lifetime consumption," says George Pauli, associate director of science and policy in the office of food additive safety.
While scientists and doctors disagree on how hazardous benzene is to human health, the Environmental Protection Agency requires public notification and alternative water supply for drinking water contaminated with levels of 5 ppb. Even "relatively short periods" of exposure at that level can "potentially cause Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ temporary nervous system disorders, immune system depression [and] anemia," according to the agency. A lifetime of exposure, says the EPA, can cause "chromosome aberrations [and] cancer."
The FDA has not set an acceptable level of benzene for beverages, arguing that the public consumes soft drinks and other beverages in far lower amounts than they do drinking water -- a contention that any parent of a teenager might find laughable. Younger children may have already had a lifetime of benzene consumption.
Almost as alarming as the existence of benzene in soft drinks is that the FDA knew about the problem for more than 15 years, yet never revealed it to the public or took adequate measures to fix it. Even the latest round of tests would not have been conducted if it weren't for documents posted on the internet late last year by an industry whistleblower named Larry Alibrandi. Those papers concern an undisclosed study at Cadbury-Schweppes in 1990 called Project Denver, which found that certain soft drinks, particularly diet orange-flavored sodas, had the tendency to form benzene when exposed to heat and light.
While the industry contends the problem was corrected in the most popular sodas, no public recall was done at the time. Judging from their ingredients, dozens of products now on the shelves could potentially have the same problem, including such popular brands as Sunny Delight, flavored Diet Pepsi and Fanta Orange. (The Environmental Working Group has posted a partial list of possibly risky products.)
"The question is, how much does this problem still exist today?" says Alibrandi, who is now head of American Quality Beverages, a small New York producer of health drinks. "We have hundreds of examples from the trade, and many of them could potentially be a problem. What's especially disconcerting is the products engineered for children, where it's a potentially bigger problem for them since their body mass is very small."
In November 1990, Alibrandi was working in product development at the Connecticut labs of the British company Cadbury-Schweppes, when he says he was called into his supervisor's office one morning. "He closed the door and had a very, very concerned look on his face," recounts Alibrandi. "He said that a carcinogen was found in beverages, and they were concerned because they didn't know what the source was." That same day, Alibrandi booked a flight to Florida to test samples in a special lab capable of exposing them to extremes of heat and light.
After several trials, Cadbury-Schweppes' chemists determined that the benzene was caused by a chemical reaction between the preservative sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C). The effect was found to be especially prevalent in diet sodas, and shot up to even higher levels after products were subjected to extremes of heat and light. According to the documents, Cadbury-Schweppes' Diet Crush was found to contain benzene at 25 parts per billion (ppb) -- five times the acceptable EPA limit. After exposure to 16 hours of ultraviolet light at temperatures around 30 C (86 F), that level jumped to a whopping 82 ppb. Diet Slice (made by Pepsi) contained 1 ppb before exposure, and 41.5 ppb after exposure. Diet Minute Maid (made by Coca-Cola) contained less than 0.5 ppb before exposure and 4.5 ppb afterwards, the documents say.
Despite the comparatively high levels found in these cases, however, the products tested in Project Denver were never recalled. By law, the FDA is not allowed to order a recall of a product -- but it can issue a request for a voluntary recall and, in extreme cases, can order seizure of products. On Dec. 7, 1990, representatives of soft drink manufacturers met with FDA officials to share their findings. According to a memo of that meeting, they "expressed their concern about the presence of benzene traces in their products and the potential for adverse publicity associated with this problem." The FDA ruled that the problem was not large enough to warrant a recall, "agree[ing] that low ppb level of benzene found in these products do not constitute an imminent health hazard." [sic]
That finding, however, flies in the face of other beverage scares involving benzene at the time, and may have had more to do with companies' fear of damage to their bottom lines than legitimate health concerns. In January 1990, Perrier sparkling water in the United States had been found contaminated with benzene at levels up to 22 ppb. More than 160 million bottles of water were recalled worldwide, at a loss of $263 million to the company. Perrier's reputation took a hit as well, as the company was condemned for its failure to act quickly and for continuing to advertise during the recall.
A few months later, an Australian company named Koala Springs International ordered a recall in November 1990, when a Florida health agency found benzene levels of 11 to 18 ppb in its sparkling water with fruit additive -- which was formed by the same combination of sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid as in the Project Denver tests (in fact, the Koala Springs incident precipitated the tests in the first place).
Other recalls have taken place since the Project Denver findings. In the United Kingdom in 1998, Coca Cola-Schweppes ordered a recall of Malvern sparkling water, as well as cans of Coke, Sprite, Fanta and Dr. Pepper found to contain benzene at levels up to 20 ppb due to contaminated carbon dioxide. Britvic Soft Drinks shortly followed suit, recalling more than 2 million cans of soda, including Regular and Diet Orange Tango, Lemon Tango, Pepsi and 7-Up, which had also been made with the contaminated gas. At the time, the British Soft Drink Association stated that the products were being withdrawn for "quality reasons," not because they posed a health threat, but reaffirmed a vow to recall any beverages contaminated with benzene at more than 10 ppb.
And in June 1999, Coca-Cola was forced to recall 65 million cans of Coke in Belgium and France after more than 200 people became mysteriously sick. The company's initial stonewalling on the issue caused a public relations disaster that led to a 10 percent drop in stock price and temporary bans in several countries. While the company eventually determined that the contamination was due to bad carbon dioxide and pallets contaminated by a benzene derivative, a European commission later concluded that Coca-Cola's explanation was "highly unlikely," leaving lingering questions about the source of that contamination.
Apart from the potential bad publicity, Alibrandi speculates that the Big Three soft drink makers (Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Cadbury-Schweppes) didn't publicly recall their products in 1990 because of fears that they might have to replace sodium benzoate -- an important anti-microbial preservative. Without it or its cousin potassium benzoate, he says, drink makers would be unable to cold-bottle their drinks, instead having to undertake the more costly process of heat pasteurization. "The Big Three are going to safeguard that preservative," says Alibrandi. "If they told authorities the magnitude of it, maybe the risk was to have the preservative pulled. I imagine that would create a technical nightmare for these folks."
The fix is in?
After the Project Denver tests, the industry moved quickly to minimize the problem. In less than a month, Cadbury-Schweppes changed the formula for Orange Crush, removing ascorbic acid from the drink. Later, chemists discovered that the benzene-causing reaction could be slowed by a "technical fix" -- the addition of other chemicals called "chelating agents," of which the most common is called calcium disodium EDTA. "The soft drink industry promptly took steps to address the causes of benzene formation, and the matter was resolved through improved manufacturing procedures," said American Beverage Association (ABA) spokesperson Kathleen Dezio in a statement, when the whistleblower documents were posted last year.
After the most recent revelations, ABA vice president Mike Redman, who was at the 1990 meeting with the FDA, reiterated that point in a letter to the Raleigh News & Observer: "Products that contain sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid are not inherently unsafe," he wrote. "Steps can be taken, and have been taken, in the formulation process to address reactions that may lead to benzene. You do not necessarily need to remove one of these ingredients to prevent benzene."
Spokespeople for Pepsi and Coke, which makes Fanta, referred calls to the ABA. A spokesperson for Sunny Delight, Sydney McHugh, denied that the company's products were dangerous. "We have a deliberate strategy to prevent benzene from forming in any of our products," she says, adding the company has gotten a clean bill of health from independent analysis. "If we ever find evidence of benzene in any our products, we will reformulate our products."
But recently, Alibrandi says he was shocked when he pulled trade samples of hundreds of beverages and found the same combination of sodium or potassium benzoate and ascorbic acid, including some without the "technical fix" of one of the chelating agents. "I was astounded to see the number of products that contained this combination," says Alibrandi. "If this broke 15 years ago, why wasn't this rectified across the industry? The consumers of America deserve better."
Alibrandi and his lawyer, Ross Getman, alerted the FDA to the problem last November, but the agency initially denied the need for new tests, saying that it had adequately dealt with the issue in the early 1990s. To its credit, the FDA had commissioned a study of the benzene problem shortly after the Project Denver findings. In that study, which appeared in a medical journal in 1993, FDA chemists tested 50 different types of foods and beverages, including soft drinks, and found that none had a level of more than 2 ppb.
Another study released around the same time by a chemist who consulted with the FDA isolated the process whereby sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid could form benzene. In samples made to approximate soft drinks, it found benzene was formed in levels of less than 1 ppb. Even so, the study recommended "the combination of ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate in foods and beverages should be evaluated more carefully."
Other findings in the FDA's study are more worrisome. In that study, beverages were kept refrigerated, despite the indications in the whistleblower documents that results were exacerbated by heat and light. As a postscript to the study, however, researchers prepared solutions of sodium or potassium benzoate and ascorbic acid, similar to those found in some soft drinks, and exposed them to heat and light. After 20 hours at room temperature, these solutions had formed benzene in levels of 4 ppb. After another 8 days, that shot off the charts to 266 ppb. Exposing the solutions to "strong UV light" and/or temperatures of 45 C (113 F) for 20 hours shot the levels up even further, to 300 ppb. The study concluded that the "benzene formed is associated with the interaction of these two compounds. In these cases, the removal of one of the compounds may mitigate benzene formation."
Despite these findings, Pauli defends the agency's decision not to commission further testing at the time, saying that products were unlikely to be exposed to extremes of heat and light. "With the amount of staff we have, there is no way we could test more than a small sample of products," he says. "There are more important things for our people to do." Lawyer Getman, however, argues it's not unreasonable to think that soft drinks could regularly be exposed to extreme conditions. "What are they doing in New Delhi?" he says. "Many of these countries involve vendors who don't refrigerate their products. It's sold out of a cart along with the chicken kabobs."
Getman questions industry claims that all products have been reformulated to fix the problem. Because the Big Three producers and the FDA kept the benzene problem out of the press, other smaller manufacturers may have been unaware of the need for the technical fix. In addition, some European countries don't allow such chelating agents as calcium disodium EDTA, making it unclear how the Big Three's products may have been reformulated to correct the problem in those countries.
After being rebuffed by the FDA, Alibrandi and Getman organized their own series of independent tests in November, acquiring samples from as far away as Italy and Argentina and submitting them to a lab in New York. Of the dozen beverages they tested, three were found to contain levels more than 20 ppb. They sent the results to the FDA, finally alarming the agency enough to conduct its own tests.
Two weeks ago, Pauli confirmed to reporters that a small number of beverages in their study had tested positive for elevated levels of benzene up to 10-20 ppb. Since then, however, other countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany and China have followed through with their own tests. Last week, tests in Britain returned more alarming results: of 230 beverages tested, 130 had benzene levels in excess of the European Union Limit for drinking water of 1 ppb, with some containing up to eight times that limit, according to The Times of London.
Neither American nor British authorities have so far released their testing results, and the FDA has yet to make a public announcement about the danger. That's unacceptable, says Tim Kropp, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a watchdog organization that has called on the FDA to release data from its study. "Without the public knowing, there is no incentive to do anything," he says. "Industry doesn't move unless they have to."
After all, says Kropp, if the public had been notified back in 1990, the current scare might have been prevented. "We've known this is a problem for over a decade, and it hasn't been fixed. This is what happens when you have a voluntary agreement that is not even made public. It boggles my mind that anyone would think that would work."
A good start to preventing future problems, says Kropp, is to set levels for harmful chemicals like benzene for food and drink similar to those that are in place for drinking water. "Benzene doesn't care whether you are drinking soda or water, and neither does your body," he says. Lawyer Getman agrees. "Consider, which does the average 5-year-old drink more of, pop or water?" he says. "You are not going to find a parent who says my kid drinks eight glasses of water a day."
Getman and Alibrandi are now awaiting the results of further testing in the United States and other countries to determine the extent of the problem that was first discovered in a lab 16 years ago. As more details about what the industry did and didn't do emerge, there is a possibility that companies could be held legally at fault, adding another crisis to a soft drink industry that has had no shortage of bad news. Getman ticks off a long list of legal questions presented by the issue, including product liability and deceptive consumer practices. "Especially in hot climates abroad where no technical fix was put in," he says, "the potential implications for liability are huge."
Caracas, Venezuela -- The same question echoed in the back of thousands of minds as the Sixth World Social Forum (WSF) opened here in January: "Where's Hugo?" In fact, on the day of the forum's opening march, self-styled socialist Venezuelan President Hugo ChÃƒÂ¡vez was in Bolivia attending the inauguration of fellow left-wing President Evo Morales. ChÃƒÂ¡vez's presence, though, was everywhere in Caracas -- on T-shirts laid out by vendors on the march route (outnumbering by 2 to 1 the face of revolutionary heartthrob Che Guevara); on pins with the flag of Venezuela, handed out by volunteers; in the chants of enthusiastic supporters; even in the talking ChÃƒÂ¡vez dolls sold along the street.
For six days at the end of January, more than 80,000 participants from around the globe descended on Caracas to collaborate and strategize in the annual forum for leftist civil society. This year, the Caracas forum was one of three in a new "polycentric" format intended to foster more regional collaboration. Another was held in Bamako, Mali, the previous week; a third is scheduled for Karachi, Pakistan, in March (moved from January because of last year's earthquake).
The decision to hold the forum in Venezuela gave the meeting a new flavor -- as well as a new set of challenges. On the one hand, the country is living proof of the WSF's slogan: Another World Is Possible. In a short seven years, ChÃƒÂ¡vez and his "Bolivarian Revolution" (a reference to legendary South American hero SimÃƒÂ³n BolÃƒÂvar) have upended the Venezuelan economy, using a ready supply of oil money to fund social programs for some of the world's poorest citizens. At the same time, many forum participants expressed private dismay at El Comandante's close ties to Cuba and his cult of personality, which some critics on the left see as more show than substance.
From the beginning, this forum had a more nationalistic feel than those in the past, which have taken pains to de-emphasize political parties in favor of an open space to debate. The opening march was festooned with national flags and insignia -- not only from Venezuela but also from Colombia, Brazil and an 800-member Cuban delegation that marched in lockstep, wearing matching baseball caps and waving flags. Perhaps it was the overcast sky or the forbidding, postapocalyptic architecture of downtown Caracas, but the opening march of the forum also seemed less defiant than might have been expected, as if the participants weren't sure whether to protest or celebrate recent events in South America.
These are heady times for the continent. In addition to Venezuela and Bolivia, four other countries now have left-leaning leaders: Luiz InÃƒÂ¡cio Lula da Silva in Brazil, NÃƒÂ©stor Kirchner in Argentina, TabarÃƒÂ© VÃƒÂ¡zquez in Uruguay and the newly elected Michelle Bachelet in Chile. Last November their influence all but scuttled the Free Trade Area of the Americas (a linchpin of the neoliberal free-trade agenda, also known by its Spanish initials ALCA) at a meeting with George W. Bush in Argentina. Combine this with an open revolt against Bush's foreign policy agenda in the United States, and leftists in the hemisphere suddenly have reason for optimism.
"In the Americas, the popular movements are on the offensive, not the defensive -- not only against neoliberalism but also against militarism and terror," proclaimed Jacobo Torres de LeÃƒÂ³n, one of the main Venezuelan organizers of the forum, at an opening plenary session. Torres de LeÃƒÂ³n tried to allay fears that the Venezuelan government was attempting to hijack the process. "Many compaÃƒÂ±eros thought this would become a Chavista forum. I can understand the reservations, but we are very interested that the forum doesn't have a political seal on it."
That may be so, but holding the forum in Venezuela breathed new life into a process some felt had turned into a debating society -- and at the same time it raised questions about how movements can support a government without being co-opted. "I think to some extent people have moved on from the forum," said Chris Nineham, the London-based organizer of the Stop the War Coalition, during the opening march as his cohorts chanted "George Bush, terrorista" behind him. "It's essentially just a talking shop. But it's fantastic to be in Venezuela and hear about the movement here."
The government took full advantage of the event's presence in the city by giving tours to government-funded "missions" in the densely packed Caracas slums, where thousands of tiny concrete homes are plastered precariously on the hillsides, without running water or sewers. Forum participants were shown new housing projects, community radio stations and free medical clinics, and also residents who expressed unmitigated love for their leader. "I'm not Chavista; I look at the whole thing with a hairy eyeball," said Mary DiMatteo, an Evergreen State College student in a delegation from Global Exchange. But, she said, "when I saw that, I was like, I don't want to hear any criticism right now. He's giving people what they need -- you can see it."
Compared with the excitement of seeing the Bolivarian experiment up close, the poor organization of the forum was an exercise in frustration. More than 2,000 sessions scattered throughout the city were sometimes hard to find and often took a long time to get to. Given the obstacles faced by participants, many sessions started an hour or even two hours late, or didn't start at all.
Meanwhile, the limitations of the World Social Forum were the same as at any conference, with too many panels dominated by men (though not white) and filled with feel-good speeches against "the empire," with too little time for questions or discussion of practical issues. Some participants gave up going to sessions halfway through the event, concentrating on the forum's grab bag of political spectacle that is part conference, part street fair and part spring break for lefties; dance parties rocked large tents with the rhythms of mambo and rumba late into the night. The real debates in the forum went on largely in private strategy sessions among members of like-minded groups, such as those planning a worldwide antiwar protest for March 18, the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
Other groups, like the peasant farmer coalition Via Campesina, which counts some 100 million members around the world, used the gathering as an opportunity to strategize across national borders. "This is one space where we dicuss the campaign and debate the campaign and get political support," said the organization's executive director, Rafael AlegrÃƒÂa. "There are academics, economists and Nobel Prize winners here, and many of them have allied with us in our work."
And then, of course, there were the impromptu bull sessions over beers at the hotel bars. "So much of what's said at the forum comes down to two basic points: Neoliberalism is bad, and participatory democracy is good," said Thomas Ponniah at one of them. Ponniah is co-editor of a book of alternatives presented at the WSF and a regular organizer of events at the gathering. "What's really going on underneath is, there is organizing and strategies. In each country the forum goes to, it strengthens the civil society in the country that hosts it."
True to form, many sessions organized by Venezuelan groups were focused on promoting the ALBA trade pact, a kinder and gentler Bolivarian alternative to the neoliberal ALCA that emphasizes regional cooperation instead of foreign investment and trade. The concept began with an agreement to trade cheap oil from Venezuela for doctors from Cuba, some 13,000 of whom have set up shop in free medical clinics, to aid the country's "Inside the Barrio" program. Recently it expanded with another agreement, this one between Venezuela and Bolivia to trade oil for soybeans and other food products. Advocates envision ALBA as not just a set of individual agreements but a trade pact with, among other features, a "compensatory fund" to prop up poor countries with contributions from richer neighbors.
"Just as with the polycentric forum, countries in the Southern Hemisphere are pushing this model of polycentric globalism. That's the big paradigm shift that's coming on the left that the right hasn't clued in to," said Ponniah. "The question is, How does civil society regulate those regional blocs such that we create a radically democratic, polycentric globalization?" There's also the question of how such a bloc would be organized -- leaders like Brazil's Lula and Chile's Bachelet, for example, are much more open to free trade than their northern neighbors. Even so, in many different sessions participants expressed a desire for regional collaboration, even if it's not on the Bolivarian model.
"Ten years ago it was a utopian ideal that we could have governments like those of ChÃƒÂ¡vez and Morales and Lula, but today we have them," said Via Campesina's AlegrÃƒÂa. "Now the struggle is how we maintain them and move forward."
If there is a leader who represents the power of the World Social Forum process to affect that struggle, it is the lower-profile Morales. Unlike ChÃƒÂ¡vez, a former military officer who first attempted to seize power in a coup before winning election, Morales was an organizer of coca farmers who rose from the grassroots to a surprise election victory based on the support of indigenous movements and farmers. Now the social movements in Bolivia are looking for payback -- pushing Morales to hold a convention to rewrite the Constitution, to carry out agrarian reform and to nationalize resources. "The victory of Evo in Bolivia is a victory for the social forum," said Bolivian peasant leader RomÃƒÂ¡n Loayza during a session analyzing Morales's win. "It was a movement born at the grassroots level, from the bottom up. Nobody, nobody thought Morales would be president. We worked organically to make it happen."
It was ChÃƒÂ¡vez, however, whom many participants came here to see, and the spectacle of his entrance did not disappoint. The energy in Caracas's indoor stadium seemed more like that of a rock concert or a fÃƒÂºtbol match than a political speech. The 15,000-seat stands were awash in the red shirts worn by ChÃƒÂ¡vez supporters, who expressed an enthusiasm for their leader inconceivable in most countries. For an hour and a half before he appeared, musical groups amped up the crowd with booming renditions of revolutionary and folk music from Brazil, Argentina, the Andes and Venezuela, while those in the stands danced, waved flags and joined in pro-ChÃƒÂ¡vez chants. (The most popular, "Oo, Ah, ChÃƒÂ¡vez No Se Va!," or "Hey, Ho, ChÃƒÂ¡vez Will Not Go!", had a way of echoing in the head for days after the event.)
Sitting on stage, many of the forum's luminaries, including Focus on the Global South's Walden Bello, ATTAC's Bernard Cassen, Che's daughter Aleida Guevara and antiwar mom Cindy Sheehan (whose presence was second in celebrity only to that of ChÃƒÂ¡vez), seemed small amid the pageantry. Finally, with calls from the crowd of Se siente, se siente, ChÃƒÂ¡vez estÃƒÂ¡ presente! ("Feel him! Feel him! ChÃƒÂ¡vez is present!"), the man himself took the stage, wearing a bright red shirt and waving his arms ecstatically. As ChÃƒÂ¡vez took his seat, air-raid sirens and machine-gun fire filled the stadium and a row of people dressed in black emerged from the wings with a black banner reading Bush and covered with the logos of multinational corporations. After a moment, young people with fake swords emerged from the other side of the stage and ripped the banner apart, afterward raising white banners against war and neoliberalism.
As broad as the pageant was, the stadium's electric atmosphere made it strangely moving. Finally, to the self-conscious strains of "The Internationale," ChÃƒÂ¡vez took the podium. "Welcome to people from all over the world who have come here to Caracas. Feel at home here!" he began. The two-hour speech that followed (short for ChÃƒÂ¡vez, who has been known to speak for up to seven hours at a time) was powerful, if sometimes rambling. It included a long history of BolÃƒÂvar and other Latin revolutionaries, a sung tribute to recently deceased Salvadoran leftist leader Shafik Handal and quotes from Karl Marx, Fidel Castro, Noam Chomsky, Polish Communist Rosa Luxemburg and philosophers Bertrand Russell and Thomas Hobbes.
ChÃƒÂ¡vez reserved his harshest rhetoric for President Bush, whom he repeatedly referred to in English as "Mr. Danger" to appreciative titters from the crowd. (Later turning to Cindy Sheehan, he kissed her and called her "Mrs. Hope.") "The empire is the worst we've faced in history," he thundered, fists pumping downward. "This is a cynical empire. At least the Roman Empire admitted it was an empire, but Mr. Danger's empire talks about democracy and human rights." Later he made a more direct challenge to U.S. hegemony. "The empire is very powerful, but it is not infallible. This country, we will bury the U.S. empire. We will bury the U.S. empire. Against this force of imperialism, we say stop."
U.S. imperialism wasn't the only thing ChÃƒÂ¡vez challenged. He also goaded the social movements to come together to endorse a proposal for action stemming from the forum. "We can't allow the World Social Forum to become a folkloric and touristic event," he said. "A forum in which debates are held without conclusions is just odd. I insist on this. Respecting the autonomy of the social movements, I believe we need to set up an alternative movement." He left no doubt about what conclusions he would like to see the forum reach, ending his speech with the invocation "Socialism or Death!"
The event sent shock waves through the forum, as participants later debated how much, if at all, it should ally itself with a government entity. That challenge was the latest salvo in an ongoing debate over whether the forum should issue joint declarations. At last year's forum in Porto Alegre a group of nineteen intellectuals, including liberation theologian FranÃƒÂ§ois Houtart and Egyptian neo-Marxist Samir Amin, stirred the pot with a document called the "Porto Alegre Manifesto," which called for debt cancellation and reformation of the WTO, among other demands. This year at the African forum in Bamako, many of the same thinkers released a longer document called the "Bamako Appeal," with dozens of concrete proposals split over ten subject areas.
In Caracas, meanwhile, a group called the Assembly of Social Movements, a largely European-led coalition of some 300 organizations, issued a statement praising Latin American countries like Venezuela and Bolivia that "have permitted political alternatives born in the heat of popular struggles to reach government." The group continued with an action plan calling for protests against the Iraq War as well as the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg in July and the World Bank and IMF meetings in September.
Demands for action are sure to intensify as the World Social Forum matures -- starting with a unified gathering in Nairobi in 2007, in which the challenge will be to connect with civil society in Africa. As Houtart put it, "If the forums don't want to become the Fifth International, they should also avoid becoming a social Woodstock. Therefore other initiatives must be taken." These joint initiatives, however, are a far cry from speaking in the name of the WSF itself or allying with specific governments, both of which are prohibited by the organization's Charter of Principles.
The day after ChÃƒÂ¡vez's speech, at a session on the future of the forum organized in part by Ponniah, the majority of participants spoke out against the WSF's issuing a statement in the name of the gathering. "If you look at the history of the left, these are the debates that happened in the internationals, and they explode when they try to impose that unity on everyone," observed Ponniah afterward. "It makes sense that a political leader like ChÃƒÂ¡vez would make that appeal, but even though we admire him, we can't repeat the mistakes of the past century."
After all, three years ago the champion of the forum was Brazilian President Lula, who was given a hero's welcome in Porto Alegre. Since then he has been criticized by social movements for cutting deals with neoliberal institutions and falling short on social programs -- to say nothing of a corruption scandal that has undermined his government. Regardless of the route the forum takes in the future, the Caracas edition seemed to make the gathering newly relevant in its dialogue with living, breathing examples of the alternative world it's always described. As the title of one event declared, the slogan for the World Social Forum may need to be changed from Another World Is Possible to Another World Is on the March! It remains to be seen where it's going.
Her name is Cindy, her child was killed in the Middle East, and she is on a relentless campaign to change U.S. and international policy. But she isn't Cindy Sheehan; she's Cindy Corrie.
Corrie is the mother of slain activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip two and a half years ago while trying to protect a home from demolition by the Israeli military. Since then, Cindy and her husband Craig have pushed for answers about their daughter's death, and have themselves become activists, touring the country in the cause of human rights for Palestinians.
"When Rachel was killed," says Cindy, "there was the sense that we needed to do something. It's my response to most things in life to take some action and not let something difficult defeat you."
Monday's suicide bombing of an Israeli shopping mall, in which at least five people were killed and more than 50 wounded, is a stark reminder of the violence that continues to wrack the country. Still the Corries remain convinced that support for Palestinian human rights is the only long-term solution.
"Of course we are against suicide bombing -- it's horrible and those are human rights abuses," Cindy says. "But there are a greater number of Palestinian civilians who have been killed by this occupation, and I don't think most Americans know what we are supporting with our tax dollars."
In shining a spotlight on U.S. foreign policy, the Corries join a growing contingent of "soccer-mom activists" who draw their moral authority from suffering one of the worst experiences imaginable--the death of their child. In another country they'd be Mothers of the Disappeared. Here they are Gold Star Families for Peace and Military Families Speak Out. Or they are individuals like Sheehan--who has galvanized the anti-war movement by confronting President Bush over the death of her son Casey in Iraq--or the family of pro footballer Pat Tillman, victim of a friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan and subsequent cover-up by the US military. Unlike these families, however, the Corries' child wasn't killed doing her military duty; Rachel was an activist and a civilian casualty of conflict.
In the past two years, the Corries have created a foundation in their daughter's name to fund peace and justice work; given countless presentations on the issue of home demolition in Palestine; sued the Israeli government for the wrongful death of their daughter; and even launched a boycott and lawsuit against Caterpillar, Inc., the maker of the bulldozer involved in Rachel's death, accusing the company of complicity in "war crimes."
Yet, the Corries are anything but typical activists.
At a recent appearance in a church basement in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they were giving a slide presentation on the Israeli occupation, Cindy, 58, was dressed in a patterned red cardigan over a shapeless black dress and white mock-turtleneck, giving her the appearance of a second-grade teacher. And in his grey plaid coat, Craig Corrie, 59, looked the part of his former job as an insurance company executive.
Neither Craig nor Cindy was politically active before the run-up to the Iraq War. But a few months before Rachel's death, partially inspired by their daughter, they began to hold signs on street corners and even marched in Washington against the invasion. "I think I was more involved in the issue because of the work that Rachel was doing," says Cindy.
When Rachel originally told her parents she was going to Palestine to act as a human shield with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), the Corries were concerned, but didn't try to talk her out of it. "I said I would have preferred she volunteer at a soup kitchen," Craig says, "but you can't ask your child to be less than they are going to be."
Besides, says Craig, he had served as squad leader of an engineering unit in Vietnam, and he believed that soldiers did not take a life lightly. "The people around me (in Vietnam) were humane, and if a protester was getting in our way, we could have arrested them."
Craig, however, was unaware of the state of tensions on the ground in Palestine. ISM was and continues to be a highly controversial group amongst both Israelis and mainstream American Jews. Some regard ISM as nonviolent protesters intent on drawing the eyes of the world to the oppression of the Palestinian people. To others, ISM members are seen as meddlers who interfere with the legitimate actions of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in combating terrorism--or are possibly terrorist sympathizers themselves.
It wasn't until Rachel arrived in Rafah, at the end of the Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt, that her father began to worry. In Rachel's emails home, she described soldiers indiscriminately shooting at windows and houses. Two days before she arrived, an 8-year-old had been shot and killed. "When I actually started reading what she wrote, I realized what she was seeing was a military out of control," says Craig. "That just scared me to death."
Before Rachel joined up with ISM, the Corries say they were unconditionally sympathetic toward the Israelis, horrified by reports of suicide bombers on the nightly news. Rachel's emails began to show them a bigger picture--of a Palestinian people crowded into a tight space and traumatized by a military occupation.
During their appearance in Cambridge, Craig and Cindy Corrie show footage of a press conference held by human shields only two days before Rachel was killed. Standing on a rooftop, wearing a keffiyeh scarf with wisps of dirty-blonde hair escaping around her ears, Rachel strikes a desperate tone.
"I feel that what I am witnessing here is a systematic destruction of a people's ability to survive that is incredibly horrifying," she said. "Sometimes I sit down to dinner with people and realize there is a massive military machine around them that is trying to kill these people I'm having dinner with."
Rafah's location next to Egypt made it a particular target of the Israeli military, which feared weapons smuggling through tunnels, and systematically demolished homes along the border. It was one of these homes--belonging to two brothers, a pharmacist and an insurance agent--that Rachel was standing in front of on March 16, 2003 when the D9R bulldozer approached.
The exact circumstances of her death are still under dispute. The Israeli report concluded that the two soldiers manning the equipment couldn't see the young woman over the bulldozer blade, and that her death resulted from a section of wall that accidentally fell on her. Seven ISM witnesses contend that the two soldiers on the bulldozer could see Rachel, and ran over her anyway.
The day they got the news, Craig remembers being so disoriented he threw pillowcases instead of shirts into his suitcase. But they knew that Rachel would have wanted them to get the word out about the urgency of the situation in Palestine, and within a few hours, they were on a flight to Washington. Cindy had been in the capital just the week before to participate in an anti-war march, and at the time had stopped by the office of Congressman Brian Baird (D-WA) to plead for his intervention with the US Embassy in Israel. Now, Baird helped the Corries arrange a press conference, which featured a blown-up picture of Rachel standing in front of a bulldozer.
The Corries' transformation into activists didn't happen overnight. At first the couple focused on getting answers about their daughter's death. At the time, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised a "thorough, credible, and transparent" investigation. A few days later, the US invaded Iraq and it was months before the Corries got a response. When the investigation was finally concluded, it exonerated the soldiers of wrongdoing.
Since the Israeli government never released the report to the U.S. government, it was impossible for the Corries to see the evidence it had considered. Last June, Colin Powell's chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, wrote the family that the State Department considered the report insufficient. The Corries say it was Wilkerson (the same colonel who recently blasted the Bush administration as being hijacked by a "Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal") who broached the option of suing the Israeli government, a move they were originally reluctant to follow.
"Doing lawsuits is something we had a negative feeling about," says Craig, "but as we moved through this process, we had to pursue some accountability."
The suit, which accuses the Israeli government and Israel Defense Forces of wrongful death of their daughter, seeks approximately $324,000 in direct and punitive damages.
The Corries contend that it is not the money, but answers they seek.
"If somebody could convince us right now it truly was an accident," says Craig, "that would be a whole lot better than thinking that someone saw Rachel and kept going." The Corries may have to wait for their answers, however. A recent law passed by the Israeli parliament makes it virtually impossible for someone to sue the IDF for injury in a conflict area. "The law will be appealed, but that could take years and years," says Craig.
Journey to Palestine
At the same time the Corries were pursuing accountability for their daughter, they were learning more about Palestine. Soon after Rachel's death, they say, letters of support came pouring in from all over the world, including messages from Jewish groups all over the U.S.
On a trip to Israel to see the spot where Rachel died, they saw firsthand the misery of the residents of Gaza, and met the residents of the home that Rachel died protecting (and which was demolished seven months after her death). Last year, the Corries helped to bring one of the families, Khaled and Samah Nasrallah, on a tour of the U.S. in order to raise awareness of the home demolition issue.
"You'll read that this was the home of terrorists," says Craig. "Well, these 'terrorists' have been in the United States and done a speaking tour, and gotten visas from both the Israeli and US governments. They had nothing to do with terrorism."
Rather, the Corries say, the Nasrallahs' home was demolished to make room for a giant steel wall between Rafah and Egypt. While official Israeli policy was to destroy homes of suspected terrorists, a report by Human Rights Watch found that while 1,700 homes had been destroyed in Rafah, only 10 percent of the demolitions were punitive. (This spring, Israel ended its policy of destroying homes of suspected terrorists, deeming it ineffective.)
The money for the Nasrallahs' visit came from a foundation the Corries set up soon after Rachel's death on the advice of another mother, Linda Biehl, whose daughter Amy had been killed in South Africa during apartheid. Gradually, the Corries found other ways to honor Rachel's memory, setting up a scholarship at her alma mater, Evergreen State College in Olympia, and offering grants through the foundation for peace and justice work.
Another project they are pushing is a sister-city project between Rafah and Olympia. While the status has not been officially recognized, the Corries did take a letter of introduction from Olympia's mayor on a recent trip to Palestine, and have helped non-profit groups in both cities forge connections and share information. Cindy notes that in a speech last August even Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice gave tacit approval to their efforts. "She said there needed to be responses other than military responses to terrorism, and said we needed things like sister-city relationships."
The Corries' obvious sincerity helps defuse some of the heat that usually accompanies discussion about the Middle East. Craig even declares his compassion for the IDF. "I have an affinity for the Israeli military," says Craig. "I know how much that militarization and being out of control takes away your humanity."
But the Corries' effectiveness has also made them the subject of increasing attack by pro-Israeli groups critical of the ISM's hard-line tactics. Outside of the appearance in Cambridge, counter-protestors handed out flyers with the title "Rachels," which show heart-wrenching photographs of six Israeli women, all named Rachel, who were killed by suicide bombers. Alongside those photos is a snapshot of an angry Rachel Corrie burning a mock American flag at a protest, a contrast to the smiling photo of Rachel at her brother's wedding that the Corries are fond of using.
"As a parent, the death of Rachel Corrie is meant to illicit my sympathies for a girl who perished so young," writes the flyer's author, Jon Haber. "But as a parent, I must also reflect on what adults must have filled this young girl's head with to turn her from a happy child to a furious flag burner, and what kind of people would put such a girl in harm's way, then capitalize on her death by turning her into a martyr."
Also controversial is the Corrie's recently announced boycott campaign and lawsuit against Caterpillar, the company that made the bulldozer that killed their daughter. The lawsuit was filed this spring by the Center for Constitutional Rights under a US law called the Alien Torts Claims Act, which allows US companies to be sued for human rights violations abroad. It seeks $75,000 for complicity in crimes including "war crimes" and "wrongful death."
The Corries argue that the company has continued to sell equipment to the Israeli military despite evidence they have been used for illegal activity. In a recent statement, Caterpillar denied any responsibility for harm caused to Palestinians, saying, "we have neither the legal right nor the means to police individual use of [our] equipment."
In addition to seeking damages, the Corries say they hope the lawsuit will help raise awareness about the home demolition issue. This past May, the Center for Constitutional Rights added to the suit the names of five Palestinians who have allegedly had family members killed in demolitions involving Caterpillar equipment. "We had always known about the massive number of people killed in demolitions and all of the people who had lost homes," says Cindy. "We were always hopeful that Palestinians could be involved."
The Corries are guardedly optimistic about the recent pullout from the Gaza Strip, and the opening last week of the border in Rafah.
"Rafah is a place that you didn't hear about," says Cindy. "I think Rachel would be glad to see any improvement in the ability for people in Gaza to be able to step out into the world, but I think she would also be cautious."
The Corries point out many reasons for worry--including the monitoring of the border by Israelis, the lack of seaport or airport in Gaza, and the construction of the wall in the West Bank--not to mention that homes are still being demolished in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
In at least one sense, their work has borne fruit. Last week, ground was broken on a new home for the Nasrallahs, in a suburb of Rafah away from the border. The Corries hope to raise money through their foundation for the reconstruction of more homes for Palestinians displaced by demolitions.
Like the military families who have become increasingly critical of US policy in Iraq, the Corries have gone from looking for answers to explain their daughter's death to helping to continue her work--and in the process gaining them some peace. "Through ourselves we can bring Rachel to life," says Craig, "and through Rachel we can bring the people she knew and what she saw to life."
More than 2,000 US soldiers have now died in the Iraq war. Polls show more than half of Americans are in favor of withdrawal of at least some troops from Iraq. Yet, Congress has done little to make that a reality.
A bipartisan bill demanding an exit strategy remains stalled in committee. Last week, former presidential candidate John Kerry -- whose position on troops has shifted more than the desert sands -- issued only a tepid call for a withdrawal of 20,000 troops by Christmas. At least that's better than most of the Democrats' so-called leaders: Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Harry Reid and Howard Dean have been silent on the issue. It is little wonder, then, that the Pentagon recently "temporarily" increased the number of troops in Iraq from 138,000 to 160,000.
Fed up by the inaction of politicians on both sides of the aisle, a new group is bypassing Congress to take the issue directly to the voters. Calling itself HomeFromIraqNow.org, it is sponsoring a binding initiative in Massachusetts to stop future deployment of National Guard troops overseas. If passed, it will prevent the governor from allowing troops to be called up without a specific law passed by the state legislature -- at the same time urging the governor to use all possible means to bring home those troops already outside the country. If successful in Massachusetts, HomeFromIraqNow.org hopes to repeat the feat in some of the other 23 states that allow citizen petitions, creating nothing short of a national referendum on the war itself.
"There is no popular support for the war," says Harold Hubschman, the group's cofounder and chairman. "There needs to be a way for people to vote on the issue." The initiative focuses on the National Guard because it is one of the few areas of the military that state government can exercise control over. While in the U.S., National Guard troops are under the command of the governor; only when they are federalized do they come under control of the president.
Staying at Home
The basis for the initiative is a Supreme Court decision from 1990, when the governor of Minnesota refused to allow National Guard members to be sent to Central America for a training mission. In its ruling, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of the federal government to call up National Guard troops. But it also said that governors could refuse a federal request if a deployment would impair its ability to serve or train for emergencies at home, a loophole that governors could use to keep troops on the home front.
"Nobody can dispute that there are public safety and security issues today being hampered by National Guard deployment to Iraq," says Hubschman. "There are weather-related crises. We are under threat from terrorism. We need the National Guard to help us with those issues."
The best argument for recalling the National Guard, of course, is the recent botched response to Katrina, in which more than a third of Louisiana Guard's troops and equipment were overseas while victims waited days for troops to be mobilized from other states. Last week, a Congressional report slammed the Army's use of the Guard to fight foreign wars, saying that such "heavy reliance on National Guard forces" is simply "not sustainable over time."
More than 70,000 Guard members are now deployed overseas -- the largest use of those forces since World War II. Yet the report found that because of years of under-funding and abandonment of equipment in Iraq, Guard units now have an average of only 34% of the equipment they need to respond to an emergency or terrorist attack at home. Some items -- such as radios, night-vision goggles, and trucks -- have been completely depleted by the war.
The lack of equipment and training puts troops called to active duty in particular jeopardy. "It's just insanity when the government determines you should be called to active duty, but you have been laboring for years under outdated equipment," says Staff Sergeant Andrew Sapp, a member of the Massachusetts National Guard who just returned from an 18-month deployment north of Tikrit. In addition to ailing equipment, he says troops in his chemical hazmat unit received inadequate training for their duties protecting a base from sniper fire and mortar attacks.
The 48-year-old high school teacher was not naive about the possibility he might be called up to active duty some day. But seeing the buildup to Iraq was like "watching a train wreck happen and not being able to stop it." "I always thought if I were called up for active duty, the circumstances would be dire enough that we would really be talking about the national defense," he said. "We are not imperiled by Iraq. At some point, the citizens have to ask themselves if they are willing to sacrifice the people in their community."
Since returning to Massachusetts this month, Sapp has broken ranks by joining Military Families Speak Out, an organization of soldiers and family members that has been helping HomeFromIraqNow.org gather signatures to put the National Guard petition on the ballot for next November. The coalition faces a daunting task, needing to submit some 66,000 signatures to city clerks by November 23 in order to certify the initiative.
"It's going to be a challenge," admits Hubschman, who has run past ballot on such issues as universal healthcare, representational voting, and cable company deregulation. Unlike other petitions he's worked on, however, this one is being staffed completely by volunteers.
On a recent rainy Saturday, one of those volunteers, Dan Nolan, shivered in a flannel coat outside a subway station in the Boston suburb of Somerville. A longtime antiwar activist, he was drawn to the campaign for its concrete set of goals. "Rather than continuing to do the same protest methods that have lost their effectiveness, this is a pointed initiative that focuses on the National Guard," says Nolan. "It allows us to have a continuity of dissent between the massive 100,000 person demonstrations."
In an afternoon of gathering signatures, Nolan and a partner get about 100 names -- not bad considering the weather, but a far cry from the thousands they'll need if they hope to get this on the ballot within the next few weeks. The coalition has made use of the recent vigils and a large antiwar rally featuring Cindy Sheehan on Boston Common this past weekend to troll for more signatures.
Their best hope, however, may be the Internet. As its name suggests, HomeFromIraqNow.org has posted its petition form online and is urging supporters to print out copies, circulate them among friends, and send them in by the deadline. "Nobody has ever done this kind of campaign before," says Hubschman, "It's sort of the Howard Dean strategy without a candidate."
Because of their reliance on the Web, the campaign doesn't have a count on the number of signatures they have collected so far -- and won't until supporters start mailing in forms (for which the campaign has set a deadline of November 15). If they do get the number of signatures required to put it on the ballot, then widespread discontent with the war among Massachusetts' liberal electorate may make passing the initiative into law a comparatively easier task. "There is not going to be any nuance to this," says Hubschman. "There are some issues that just can't be spun."
Rule of Romney
If the law gets passed next November, it would no doubt set up a legal challenge -- either between the federal government and a governor who refuses to let troops be federalized, or between citizens of the state and a governor who authorizes troops to be sent. With the current Massachusetts governor, the latter possibility is more likely. Republican Mitt Romney has been a staunch supporter of Bush's adventures in Iraq, and has recently given a spate of "get-tough-on-terrorism" speeches around the country. In fact, when a group of six families from Military Families Speak Out recently met with him to urge him to use his ties to the Bush administration to call for a pullout of National Guard troops, they found an unsympathetic ear.
"I was disappointed by his lack of compassion," says Rose Gonzalez, a member of the delegation whose mother who was stationed in Iraq as part of Sapp's unit. "'It was this air of 'It's not my responsibility.' I'm sick of hearing 'It's not my responsibility.'" At the meeting, Romney acknowledged that the war was launched on the basis of faulty intelligence, but he said he had no authority to bring the state's 1,100 troops overseas back home.
That's true, says Hubschman; a governor doesn't have the authority to bring home troops once they are federalized. But the ballot initiative also includes a nonbinding clause urging the governor to use "all legal means" to advocate for withdrawal of troops already overseas. "The governor has a fairly powerful bully pulpit," he says. "The purpose of a ballot initiative is not just to force an unwilling governor to do something; it's also to endorse an affirmative position."
Hubschman also notes that if the vote does get on the ballot for next year's election, it is unlikely that Romney will be the one charged with enforcing it. The year 2006 is an election year for governor in Massachusetts, and Romney has been relentlessly touring the country in preparation for what many see as his inevitable run for president in 2008. At the same time, even if he does run for governor, he faces two strong challengers on the Democratic side in State Attorney General Tom Reilly and dark horse candidate Deval Patrick, Bill Clinton's former assistant attorney general, who might be more willing to use the bully pulpit to advocate for troop withdrawal. In one past interview, Patrick called the Iraq war a "terrible, terrible mistake" and advocated withdrawal "as early as possible."
No matter what the eventual governor ends up doing, supporters of the initiative argue that its passage would itself send a powerful antiwar message. The campaign is already gearing up to help put similar initiatives on the ballot in states including Maine, California, and Michigan.
"No one in American history has ever had the opportunity to vote on a war," says Hubschman. "The other side can ignore a protest, and they can ignore a debate in Congress, but the one thing politicians can't ignore is a vote. If our elected leaders won't vote against the war, the people will."
In 1775, George Washington arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to take charge of a ragtag band of brothers who went on to liberate the colonies from the British. On Tuesday, the US Army was back on Cambridge Common to try and recapture some of that lost glory.
The gathering -- featuring a brass band, a color guard and military re-enactors -- was ostensibly the main event in a nationwide 230th birthday celebration to honor Army veterans. To several hundred protesters who arrived to crash the party, however, it looked like a thinly veiled attempt to recruit more bodies during a time when the Army has missed its recruiting goals for four months straight and Americans are increasingly viewing the Iraq war as a mistake.
"The Army has a right to celebrate its birthday," said Vietnam veteran and Veterans for Peace member Winston Warfield, "but this is a military circus."
Most of the displaysÃ‚Â were clearly calculated to appeal to a younger audience. The event began with four members of a parachute team jumping from a Blackhawk helicopter 4,000 feet above the crowd. Around the common, kids in baseball caps and teens in basketball jerseys gawked at grenade launchers and military vehicles, including a brightly painted "Super Hum-Vee" and an Army truck filled with video games.
Holding a pro-war rally in Cambridge signals a new level of aggression -- or desperation -- for the Army, akin to staging an peace march on the parade ground at West Point. Nicknamed the "People's Republic" for its left-leaning politics, Cambridge ranks with Berkeley and Madison in its anti-war fervor. Many of those who came out to demonstrate decried the Army's use of the city's image for an event they did not find out about until a week before it happened.
"It's interesting that there was no attempt to hold a birthday celebration for the 225th or 220th anniversary," said resident Phyllis Gately, "but now that we are in the midst of a war they come into the People's Republic and flex their muscles."
Many students also came out to protest in an area known for its academic institutions. "Not only is this area strongly against the war," said Alison Ramer, a 19-year-old student from nearby Lesley College, "but this is an area for students and young people who are directly being targeted by recruiters." Ramer came with the youth group Boston Mobilization, which fielded white T-shirts hand-lettered in red with the words "You Can't Bribe Us To Die" on the front and "You Can't Bribe Us To Kill" on the back. (The army recently inked a $100 million advertising contract and upped its signing bonuses to a maximum of $20,000.)
The speakers on the stage, which included Acting Undersecretary of the Army Raymond DuBois, lost no opportunity to sweeten the pot with patriotic comparisons. "We stand at the very spot where the United States all-volunteer army gathered to march and expel the British from Boston in 1775," said DuBois. "There are modern-day enemies of freedom who did not want Afghanistan and Iraq to have the same ideals that were begun right here."
Whenever the microphone fell silent, however, the crowd was treated to chants seeking to remind them that Washington's army of liberation has become Bush's army of torture and occupation. As the parachute team landed on a baseball field, the backstop was lined with protesters chanting, "Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, U.S. torture has got to go."
During DuBois' remarks, protesters standing within a cordon of black uniformed police officers near the stage chanted "No blood for oil, U.S. off Iraqi soil." As Cambridge Mayor Michael Sullivan laid a wreath at the base of a military monument, they completely drowned out the sound of a lone trumpeter playing "Taps" with chants of "Bush is still lying, soldiers are still dying."
Most of the speakers did their best to ignore the chants, though some were clearly rattled. DuBois, however,Ã‚Â directly addressed the protesters by bizarrely comparing them with the soldiers -- as if trying out a new recruitment message more suited to the environment. "We are gathered here as the spiritual descendants of the raggedy band who gathered here to do what? To protest -- and to pledge themselves to honor and liberty. That band of protesters, that first all-volunteer formation is today's US Army."
DuBois used the term "all-volunteer" to describe the army at least four times during his brief remarks. That may have been an attempt to head off persistent rumors that the military is considering a reintroduction of the draft (including a hoax email going around saying the draft would begin on Wednesday). Asked after the ceremony whether he could promise that there would be no draft, DuBois said, "I personally promise it for myself, but then again I think that decision is above my pay grade." (Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has also gone on record opposing a draft.)
The undersecretary made no bones about the fact that the birthday celebration was, at least in part, a recruitment effort. "We recruit 365 days a year. If my message has a resonance about the importance of national service, so be it." As for the demonstrators, DuBois dismissed them out of hand. "I came back from Vietnam and saw protesters," he said, "and this is chump change."
The several hundred protesters present at the hastily organized demonstration was a far cry from the hundreds of thousands who mobilized for peace demonstrations before Bush's re-election and the parliamentary elections in Iraq. However, those who crashed the military's birthday may now actually represent a solid majority of Americans. A Gallup poll this week showed that almost 6 in 10 of respondents favored a withdrawal of some or all of the troops form Iraq, with almost 3 in 10 favoring a total withdrawal. Another poll by ABC News and the Washington Post this week found that 58% of respondents said the Iraq war was not worth fighting.
"Around here there was a downturn in numbers [at protests] after the election, but Kerry's defeat didn't disorganize activists, it energized them," says Mike Prokosch, spokesman for the local coalition, United for Justice with Peace. His group recently met in a regional conference with other activists to plan their strategy for upcoming months, which includes a "counter-recruiting" effort to warn students of recruiters' false promises and tell them how to take their names off of call lists. Another campaign targets members of Congress, he says, noting that several Republican Congressmen have recently come out against the war.
"The numbers may be down, but the focus is up, and the support is way up," says Prokosch. "It's really a matter of mobilizing the majority and making their will felt rather than swimming upstream."
If that is true, the the "raggedy band" of protesters, not the slick military circus, may be the true heir to Washington's army of freedom.
In the wake of the Terri Schiavo case, we've been hearing a lot about the so-called "culture of life." Christian conservatives use the term to refer to God's wish that we preserve all human lives, especially those more vulnerable than our own. In practice, however, it applies to a surprisingly stingy range of concerns: abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research.
Conservatives have been very effective in past years in coming up with emotionally-laden phrases that are at best disingenuous and at worst outright lies. Witness "weapons of mass destruction," "partial birth abortion," "ownership society," and "freedom on the march." But their newest buzzphrase is perhaps the most galling.
Consider the opposite: who in their right minds would be on record supporting a "culture of death"? Well, the Nazis, that's who, say culture-of-lifers, and if you disagree with them on their key issues, you might as well sign up for the Hitler Youth. Just as incredible is their invocation of the 14th Amendment. Initially passed to support the rights of freed slaves after the Civil War, culture-of-lifers have expanded its protection of "life, liberty, [and] property" outwards to fetuses and women in persistent vegetative states. Don't agree? Well, then perhaps you should start shopping around for a plantation and some cotton fields as well.
The problem with the "culture of life" argument is that, like any of these phrases, its vagueness allows you to define it however you want. Is it any coincidence that its application happens to gel with the core issues of those who created it? Rather than dismiss the argument, however, progressives should hold culture-of-lifers to their word.
At minimum, a true "culture of life" would support the following ten positions:
1. Withdraw the Troops
More than 1,500 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq, along with tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians (some estimates are as high as 100,000.) Meanwhile, we're hunkering down building long-term military bases and sending more troops. How many more soldiers have to die before we set a timetable for bringing them home?
2. Stop the Death Penalty
Fifty-nine prisoners were executed last year, 23 of them in Texas alone. Yet study after study has shown the death penalty to be unequally applied by race, and hundreds of inmates have been found innocent at the eleventh hour. If we are all created in God's image, then it is up to God, not us, to deal the ultimate in punishment.
3. Pass Effective Gun Control Laws
More than 80 Americans are killed by firearms each day. Yet Congress has made it easier for criminals to get their hands on weapons -- most recently with the repeal of the assault weapons ban -- instead of following the lead of states like Massachusetts and New York, which have passed tougher laws and decreased handgun deaths.
4. Fund Social Services
Hundreds of homeless people, many of them war veterans, die on the streets each year because they can't gain access to basic services such as housing and health care. A truly compassionate person would fight against Bush's mean-spirited budget that cuts Medicaid benefits, veteransÃ¢â‚¬Å¡ health care, community services block grants, and other life-saving programs in favor of tax cuts for the rich.
5. Create Universal Health Care for Children
The U.S. remains the only industrial nation not to provide health care for all its citizens. At the very least, we could coverage to the most vulnerable among us. Meanwhile, our infant mortality rate recently rose for the first time in four decades, to 28,000 deaths a year.
6. Research Alternative Energy
It's a fact that access to the world's oil has fueled conflict in the Middle East for years. Developing wind and solar power could be the best protection we have against more of our soldiers dying overseas in the future. At the same time, reducing greenhouse gases could slow global warming, held responsible for the increasing severity of natural disasters like the Southeast Asian tsunami that claimed the lives of 175,000 people (with another 100,000 missing).
7. Investigate Prisoner Abuses
While the face of abuse of foreign detainees are those revolting pictures of torture from Abu Ghraib, even more disturbing stories of prisoners dying while in custody have trickled out of Iraq and Afghanistan. A true culture of life would conduct a full investigation into the abuse, with those responsible being held to account.
8. Support AIDS Clinics Abroad
In Bush's 2003 State of the Union, he pledged $15 billion to combat AIDS in Africa -- since then not only has the program been under-funded, but the majority of it has gone into non-generic drug treatment and abstinence-only prevention programs. With more than 3 million HIV/AIDS deaths in Africa a year, a truly compassionate AIDS policy would work immediately with the United Nations programs that have proven the most effective against the disease.
9. Implement a Fair Guestworker Program
Last year, more than 300 undocumented migrants died crossing the border to work in the U.S. There is no getting around the fact that these workers from Mexico and other countries are essential to the functioning of our economy. A fair guestworker program would not only recognize the contributions of these workers, but also prevent needless deaths.
10. Join the International Criminal Court
Ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and genocide are alive and well in the world, in places like Kosovo, Rwanda, and most recently the Sudan. Yet the U.S. is one of only a handful of countries (including China and Israel) that refuse to join the International Criminal Court. Last week, over our country's objections, the United Nations finally referred to the ICC the case of Darfur, where an estimated 300,000 Sudanese have been brutally killed.
Together, these issues account for the needless deaths of tens of thousands of people a day. A culture that valued their lives is one we could all celebrate.
While the limousines and marching bands were parading down Pennsylvania Avenue, death filled the streets of Washington on a chilly presidential Inauguration Day. In a half-dozen protests, more than 10,000 activists demonstrated the human cost of the Bush administrations policies in dramatic and visceral terms. The womens anti-war group, Code Pink, staged a funeral march from Dupont Circle, complete with a New Orleans-style horn band and cardboard coffins paying homage to the death of civil rights, womens rights, gay rights and other issues.
In a separate march from Malcom X Park, the D.C. Anti-War Network (DAWN) carried dozens of coffins draped in American flags and black fabric to represent the dead from both sides in the Iraq war. The two met in a spirited protest in McPherson Square, blocks from the White House, as some of its members staged a die-in in the middle of the street, and others infiltrated the parade route to carry signs directly to Bushs motorcade.
You have to take what is being hidden and bring it out into the light, said Jodie Evans, co-founder of Code Pink. The war is really about people dying our troops and the Iraqi people. Bush wants to sweep that under the covers.
The temperature, at least, was reminiscent of the huge anti-war march two years ago, when an estimated half-million filled the National Mall on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Yesterday, as then, a biting wind cut through the multiple layers worn by shivering protesters. The tenor, however, of the first major protest since Bush won re-election in November was both more somber and angrier than protests in years past.
Gone, for the most part, were colorful giant puppets and signs with clever puns on Bush and Dick. Instead, the most typical signs struck a defiant note that left little to the imagination. Fuck Bush and Bush: Motherfucker read the two biggest signs leading the DAWN march in foot-high fluorescent letters. Other signs were only slightly more kind: He Dances, They Die, 4 Moron Years, Worst President Ever, and Mandate, My Ass.
While hope turned recent protests like those at the Republican National Convention in New York into raucous carnivals of dissent, the cold reality of another four years of Bush has hardened the resolve of those who disagree with his policies. Even the more creative forms of protest were tinged with the macabre. One street theater performance along the parade route depicted the Abu Ghraib Fraternity, with actors dressed as Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice and Rush Limbaugh dancing to Shout and Louie, Louie, while wearing sweatshirts reading Torture U.
As in the election, most of the protesters who took part in the demonstrations named the war as their main issue. When domestic and human rights issues were raised as well, it was usually in terms of the money spent on the war instead of more pressing social concerns, such as the sign that said End the Occupation, not Social Security.
When I heard the death toll from the tsunami had reached 150,000, the same number as Iraqi civilians killed, to me it was ironic and sad that our country would respond in two different ways to these tragedies, said Kristin Marrs, a dancer originally from Iowa.
Despite the lower turnout, the disappointment of losing last November hasnt dimmed the passion of those who were energized in the lead up to the election. Just as many new activists came out to campaign on behalf of John Kerry last summer, many protesters for the inauguration said they were here for their very first demonstration. Others picked up where they left off last fall.
I found out about this protest at the RNC, said Mel Zimmerman, 78, carrying a black coffin down 16th Street on his way to McPherson Square. Flyers said come on Inauguration Day no matter who wins, Bush or Kerry. I decided right then I was going to come. Carrying the other side of his coffin was an acquaintance he made while canvassing votes for Kerry in Florida with America Coming Together.
DAWN organizer Jim McDonald, for his part, said he was glad the election was over, so the left could focus again on its issues, instead of getting a candidate elected. The election divided us strategically, he said. We all agree that the mobilization to war was wrong, that the assault on civil liberties was wrong. We cant wait until another election to fight against that.
One activist who lost no time in organizing after Bushs re-election was Jet Heiko, who launched his campaign Turn Your Back on Bush (TYBoB) with a web site on Nov. 3, just after Ohio was called red. One of the most innovative and simplest protests of the day, the idea was for Bush opponents to infiltrate the parade route and just turn their backs on the president as he drove by.
We wanted to turn our backs on Bush because he has turned his back on us, said Heiko by telephone from TYBoB headquarters. Hes turned his back on the Constitution, hes turned his back on working with the rest of the world, increasingly hes turned his back on women and people of color. You name it, his back has been turned. The protest was also conceived as a way to circumvent the marginalization that has become the norm at protests, where demonstrators are confined to protest pens or met with violent responses from riot police.
The good thing about our action is its entirely legal its not even civil disobedience, said Dan Nolan, who came from Massachusetts to take part, and staked out a place at 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue with his 30-member group. It's a non-violent, minimalist action in which we simply stand in silent protest.
In all, more than 1,000 participants from 49 states came to take part many of them taking all-night bus rides, then waiting in long, cold lines as soon as the entrances to the parade route opened at 9 a.m. Their patience paid off, as they grabbed prime pieces of real estate in the few places the public was allowed to stand. By the time the presidents motorcade drove by in the late afternoon, they stood in rows three-deep as they turned their backs on the commander in chief and television cameras. Their numbers were bolstered by other protesters filtering in from the marches, who carried signs and booed and threw snowballs at the passing limousines.
It was fabulous, said Judy Hopkins from Maine, who stood near Pershing Park, just before the White House. We had a whole corner of more than a hundred people, and only four or five people didnt turn their backs. Other people were chanting and booing the president behind us.
Despite a reported 6,000 extra police officers and 7,000 military personnel in the city to provide security for the inauguration, police response to the protesters was generally restrained just as, despite the defiant stance of protesters, most of the demonstrations were non-violent. The die-in staged by DAWN, though billed as an act of civil disobedience, took place in a street that had been closed off, and just a few plainclothes police officers stood to watch the 16 protesters lying with their faces and clothes smeared with fake blood, shivering on the cold asphalt.
The heightened security, however, also ensured that for the most part only the privileged few could attend the parade route itself. Long bottlenecks formed in the early afternoon for the few public entrances, and protesters and supporters alike were forced to wait in line for up to two hours to make it through magnetometers and pat-down searches. (Ive been to five inaugurations and never seen anything like this! fumed a woman in a mink coat.) Many of the bleachers that had been set up for ticketed (read: paying) attendees, meanwhile, were conspicuously empty, leading some activists to surmise that they had been set up more to squeeze protesters than to accommodate supporters.
Only a few clashes with police occurred during the day, the most notable being when a group of anarchists chanting Our Streets! Our Streets! pushed their way through crowds of Bush supporters to rush one of the VIP checkpoints, and reportedly burned an American flag at the gate. Police quickly dispersed the crowd with pepper spray. Another hundred protesters were reportedly arrested when they tried to break through the security on Pennsylvania Avenue to rush the presidents limousine.
Judging from the spirited turnout on Inauguration Day, Bushs never-ending war on terrorism seems to be spawning a corresponding culture of never-ending protest. Stemming from the defeat in November, the movement has also adapted with new issues and strategies. In McPherson Square, orange replaced red, black, and pink as the activist color de jour, as the group Left.org (formerly RedefeatBush.org) distributed orange armbands to bring attention to the issue of voter fraud in Ohio and elsewhere. Reading, We Demand Honest Elections from Kiev to Columbus, the armbands took their color from the orange worn by supporters of the victorious Viktor Yushchenko after the recent uprising in Ukraine.
Religious language was also more prominent in the speeches and slogans of demonstrators, a response to the so-called moral values voters who swung the election to Bush in key states. I see moral values in who you are, thundered Rev. Graylan Hagler of the Plymouth Congregational Church, to the crowd standing on snow in Malcolm X Park. I see moral values because you stand up for peace, you stand up for justice, and speak truth to power. Protester Tara White, a Christian from Virginia Beach, made the point in a more visible way, dressed like Jesus in a terrycloth white bathrobe with a crown of thorns made from her wisteria bush, while carrying a sign that said Bush, Ye Know Me Not.
Members of military families and veterans opposing the war were also more prominent, both in speaking roles and marching in the crowd. Im very gratified to see all of these young people using their constitutional protections of free speech that veterans are sworn to protect, but dont have themselves, said Veterans for Peace organizer Kevin McCarron, a Gulf War veteran who signed as the chief marshal on the permit for the DAWN march. Families are seeing their loved ones lose limbs and life to go fight a war for who knows what reason. I think its becoming clear to them that this war is for the personal profits of Bush, Cheney and others in the oil industry.
Another participant in TYBoB, Brooke Campbell, came from Georgia to take part in the protest on behalf of her brother, who died last spring in Iraq. When they invaded, my little brother definitely believed that the president was telling him the truth, she said. But after he got to Iraq and spent time there, he began to realize hed been lied to. I think a lot of troops have become more and more conscious of the great balls of lies as theyve been over there.
Campbell helped organize more than a hundred people to come up with her from Georgia, one of the largest delegations for the action. In addition to some Kerry supporters, she says, were several people who voted for Bush in the election, but dont agree with his war policy. A lot of Republicans who couldnt bring themselves to support Kerry are definitely outraged at Bush and want to express their frustration in this way, she said. While the mood of Bush opponents has turned more serious in the past few months, the coalition that formed to defeat the president seems to have survived and even expanded since the election. If it is going to succeed in stopping his policies over the next four years, it will have to figure out what to turn towards, not just away from.