Decaffeinated protests

Would-be anti-corporate crusaders encounter the unexpected as they take on Starbucks, Gap and the Washington police.

By Alicia Montgomery
Published April 14, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

How do you fight the power when the power won't fight back? San Francisco activist group Global Exchange brought a band of protesters to Washington to stage its "Roast Starbucks" campaign, which it had planned since Seattle's World Trade Organization protests in November. Its aim was to get the coffee colossus to sell Fair Trade coffee beans, grown by eco-friendly farmers who, according to Global Exchange, earn a living wage. After fruitless talks with the company's Seattle overlords, the group planned nationwide demonstrations in front of selected Starbucks to get public attention for its cause.

Starbucks ruined the party by caving in earlier in the week, pledging to have the Fair Trade coffee beans stocked and ready for sale by the end of the year. What did that mean for the "Roast Starbucks" campaign? "It transformed from a protest to a celebration," said Kevin Danaher, part of the group's Global Democracy Project. But the several-dozen demonstrators who showed up, mostly multipierced, self-consciously scruffy youths, weren't satisfied. Though Starbucks had announced the agreement days before, many still carried large burlap sacks to symbolize oppressed coffee farmers.

"I'm proud to say I've never bought a cup of Starbucks coffee in my life," said student leader Chris Crews. The company's Fair Trade coffee concession left him unimpressed, but Crews felt it was "a psychological victory. It's good whenever the people feel they can have an effect." But Crews couldn't see a day when Starbucks could reform its way into his coffee budget. "I believe that corporations are fundamentally flawed and built on exploiting the people," he said.

He wasn't alone. Another demonstrator decried the company's "union busting tactics," and protest leaders had already fashioned their next demand. As it turned out, Starbucks had only conceded to selling the Fair Trade coffee beans for bulk purchase. Its brewed coffee, the stuff pouring hot from the taps of the ubiquitous shops, was still a rich brew of coffee-plantation misery. "We're going to force Starbucks to sell brewed Fair Trade coffee," said Global Exchange director Medea Benjamin. "So at the end of the year, when you go into Starbucks [for Fair Trade coffee] you can say 'I want it brewed! I'm not leaving until I have it brewed!'"

The brewed vs. bean controversy notwithstanding, Global Exchange and its followers had bigger fish to fry. Another, less-repentant corporate villain awaited them, so the band hoisted its hand-lettered signs, tumbling into the street in search of the Gap, their patron demon of sweatshops. Global Exchange's Deborah James led the merry band across the streets, much to the irritation of motorists. "Be nice to the police," she shouted through a megaphone. "They're letting us have a march without a permit. Just don't block traffic."

At that point, the police and the protesters were engaged in friendly banter more than threats. One officer even congratulated them on their Starbucks victory. "I'll feel better about it the next time I purchase coffee," he said. Other officers on foot, on motorcycles and in squad cars seemed grateful to have something to do. The biker cops provided an escort for the protesters, allowing them a pass on traffic laws, as long as they stayed orderly.

But once the crowd reached the Gap, the mood started to shift. After blocks of singing about the exploitation of workers, children, youth, gays, women and other sundry oppressed peoples, demonstrators arrived at the Gap to find that the authorities were no longer up for chatting. As soon as the gathering stopped in front of the store, the police formed a protective barrier around its walls, first circling with their bikes, then dismounting to form a human shield, the nonspeaking, humorlessly stone-faced kind. A poster of those crazy, multiculti dancing Gap kids stared out over the shoulders of their unsmiling guards.

Given the circumstances, the police presence seemed a bit excessive. No one had thrown a rock, or even suggested that such an outburst was forthcoming. Before the police formed their barricade, the store seemed in danger of little more having its windowed smudged by press and protester fingerprints. But in the wake of last November's protests in Seattle, Gap had taken local police advisories to heart and closed for the day anyway.

"I guess we know who the cops are here to protect!" shouted an aging hipster. The grumbling grew, but nothing came of it. After a few speeches about sweatshops in the Philippines and some mangled freedom songs, the protest moved toward its ultimate target, the National Press Club where Michael Moore, director general of the World Trade Organization, was speaking. "It's just a few blocks away," one leader told the crowd. The assembly paused briefly to heckle and have its picture taken at another Starbucks and strode obliviously past the World Bank building.

After that, the demonstration got a little more rowdy, in words if not in deed. "Off of the sidewalks and into the streets! Overthrow the corporate elites!" they chanted, being careful to stay on the sidewalk. On the way to the Press Club building, the demonstrators encountered an unexpected enemy. "Go back to Berkeley!" shouted a bearded old man who wouldn't give his name. "You are the last remnant of the white power structure! Get out of our town!"

While the leaders warned the group not to be distracted, one of the demonstrators got into a shouting match with him that nearly led to blows. As the young man stomped away from his tormentor, bored reporters circled the old man with their pads and cameras drawn. "Media, don't be distracted by that spectacle!" yelled the young man who called himself Vision. "There are some real issues here to talk about!"

The old dissenter was just the beginning. As the demonstrators made their way to toward the Press Club building, cops started to multiply -- and get nasty. Turned back from one entrance by police, the group made its way to a side street where officers in riot gear blocked the sidewalk and drew their batons. "I'm here to practice my First Amendment rights," Vision explained. But the cops were unmoved. They wouldn't let any of the young protesters down the sidewalk.

Middle-aged men in suits, however, were allowed to pass, as were tourists and others who seemed unlinked to the demonstration. The cops gave those people a quick nod and let them go about their business. But a young protester who made his way around the police line was shoved back with the rabble. "Don't verbalize!" one cop told another who looked as if he were about to speak kindly to the protesters.

Frustrated, the protesters doubled back, and ended up on a corner facing the Press Club. There, the cops seemed at a loss for who to stop and who to let pass. Yellow police tape penned in the demonstrators, while press people and bystanders were allowed to roam around at will. Reporters gawked at the protesters as if they were zoo animals, and the group looked at the media with increasing resentment. "How come they're allowed on that side of the line?" The cops gave no explanation, and, though the demonstrators complained, they started out treating the yellow tape as if it were an electrified fence.

Under other circumstances, the police could have been credited with being thorough protectors of the public order. But they weren't especially fastidious. No one checked the press passes of those on the free side of the yellow tape. Pulling out a writing pad and looking studious seemed sufficient identification for Washington's finest. After a time, it became clear that the police at best didn't know what they were doing, and at worst were giving street-crossing rights on the basis of perceived political neutrality.

This came to a head when a young blond woman standing on the press side of the line, echoed back one of the protesters' chants about exploitation and free speech. Suddenly, she was deemed dangerous. The police surrounded her, and tried to force her behind the tape with the protesters. "But I'm press!" she shouted, showing them a media pass. That wasn't enough for the cops. "Do you have some other identification?" they asked. After she told them that her press pass was her I.D., an officer grabbed her elbow, but by that time, weary reporters had surrounded the scene like sharks, and cameras clicked away as the police hassled the tiny woman. Sensing a public relations crisis, the cops relented.

Discipline fell apart among protesters and cops alike. One officer lifted the yellow tape and allowed the demonstration to cross the street, but once there, another officer ordered the protesters to stay put. Soon, the once-orderly demonstration blocked two sidewalks. Some cops let the clean-cut office people cross the streets for lunch. Other cops glowered and cursed anyone who dared approach their makeshift positions. Soon they officially forbade anyone from crossing the street at all. Cops stood two deep along the sidewalks, which forced all pedestrians to brave the traffic in the street.

By this time, Moore was no longer the issue. The protesters persisted simply to prove that they could while the officers continued to protect their territory. Nearly a dozen officers devoted themselves to containing Rachel, a pink-haired teenager talking about the environment, globalization and her right to cross the street.

"What do I have to do to get my rights recognized?" she whined. An officer broke the no-talking rule and looked her in the eye. "You should've stayed home," he said.

Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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