After years of discussion, the Park Slope Food Coop has finally come to a conclusion on whether or not to ban Israeli products from their store. As we reported last night, 653 Coop members voted FOR the opp to further vote on a ban and 1005 AGAINST it, meaning every container of Sabra Hummus is safe inside the walls of the Coop for the time being. But what exactly went down inside Brooklyn Tech's 3,000-seat auditorium before coming to this conclusion? Lucky for us, FiPS pal Casey Horvitz sent us a minute-by-minute account of the evening's events. Enjoy!
I arrive at the corner of S. Portland and Dekalb only to find the entrance line stretched alllll the way back to Lafayette. Way to make me work for it, Coop. There are people walking up and down the line with flyers about various organic/foodie/vegan/political things. Others hold big signs touting democracy. I also spot various news cameras and official-looking members with reflective vests.
I overhear a worker tell a distraught woman, “Don't give up, you will get in!” The line really does seem endless and the meeting is supposed to start in 15 minutes... Police cars stroll the block and I overhear that 1,400 members pre-registered for the meeting -- not a necessity to attend, but still very impressive. Meetings are usually closer to 300 people, and apparently most attendees sit playing on their iPhones and use it as an excuse to get out of a regular shift.
I made it in! Hallelujah! Before settling in to a seat, I have to wait in line to register by last name and get a numbered ballot. I also have the option of putting my name in the mix to speak pro, anti or 'other,' but I skip that part. I'm just here to soak it all in.
We're all fooled by a false start to the meeting by a board member who is actually just announcing that he has found someone's lost Visa card. An angry, crazy-haired woman in the back yells at him to, “START THE MEE-TING!” Apparently meetings never EVER start late.
We're starting for realsies now! Carl Arnold, a chair committee member, tells us that 2,000 people are still waiting outside because the school decided that we can't use their balcony seating. Oops. He explains that everyone who is in line and can't get in will still be able to cast a vote. He asks people who have never been to a committee meeting before to raise hands, and about 80% of the room does, including me. This is their largest meeting ever!
Carl chuckles and requests that we please refrain from taking "photos, videos, or Tweeting." which most people immediately Tweet "is never going to happen." He explains that the meeting, as usual, will be “based on mutual respect” and that presenters get a strict 8 minutes to argue their side.
We're told the ballots will be collected at 9:30PM, and as they're counted, we'll all be shown an entertaining video about the Coop -- (pause for group laughter) -- and that we have to be out by 10:30. I'm really hoping that we won't be stuck in here that long. We're also told for the first of many times that we are not to applaud. What? No applause? In lieu of putting one's hand together in an effort to make positive noise, the crowd resorts to cheerleader-like "spirit fingers" and OWS-learned "disapproval fingers."
OK, The proposal is finally, officially being presented. A group of 7 high school-looking kids get up and, after lots of technical issues and members calling for “LIGHTS!,” show us a video about Palestinian youth, and then speak about the many injustices against Palestinians currently taking place at the hands of Israelis. They name various celebrities who support Palestine, call for mass action from the Coop to make a change and then get cut off after their 8 minutes are up. Sorry, kiddos. Kudos for getting up there and saying your piece, though.
The committee has 3 bags (reusable, naturally) filled with the names of people who had previously filled out the sheet saying they'd like to speak. Speakers are divided by 'pro,' 'anti' or 'other' and three names from each bag are chosen at time. Those nine people are then invited on stage to speak for their allotted time.
This is where things are all over the place. Some people talk about the inevitable connection between food and politics, while others are adamant that they be separated. The first woman who spoke exclaims, “We're a grocery store, for goodness sake!” Amen, sister, except we're clearly more than that.
As a reminder, tonight's vote is about whether or not to hold a referendum on BDS (a boycott, divestment and sanction against Israel). If passed, all 16,000+ Coop members would be sent ballots on whether or not to join BDS and boycott Israeli products. If it doesn't pass, there would be no vote and the issue would be put to rest (for the time being).
A lot of speakers bring up the issue of democracy and encourage people to hold a referendum in the interest of supporting democracy and giving everyone a vote. On the other side, we hear from a few people who insist that voting for a referendum is not the same as being pro democracy. This is one part of the issue I struggle with a bit. Democracy is great, but is this an issue that needs to be brought to the democracy? Maybe not. That's what we are here to work out, though.
There are a lot of questions like, “What kind of world do we want to support?” and “What kind of Coop do we want to be in twenty years?” The answers to these questions, of course, could go in many directions. Isn't that why we're all here in the first place?
Impressively, Joe Holtz, a founding member of the Park Slope Food Coop in 1975, is chosen at random to speak with the other members. He is anti-referendum and explains to the crowd that we all come together to cooperate and that a vote would only divide us. He gets a lot of spirit fingers for that one.
One of my favorite speakers is a girl close to my age -- mid 20's -- who states that her Middle East politics are not what brought her there tonight. She says that she doesn't support negative actions to fight human rights abuses, and that we as a community shouldn't either. She proposes that instead of possibly banning Israeli products, the Coop should instead work to purchase more Palestinian products, as a way to positively effect change. She gets a round of applause, which annoys people who were strictly following the "spirit fingers rule."
Another big theme was diversity and inclusion. One of the best things about the Coop is that it is a level playing field. It doesn't matter how many figures one's salary is -- we all still have to work the same number of hours to be a member. And, for the most part, we drop our differences at the door. Diversity is a big part of the Coop, some explain, and including Israeli products or any other products, for that matter, is a part of that diversity.
Many people bring up the question, "If we boycott Israeli products, what's next?" Plenty of American companies support other injustices and human rights abuses. Are Tropicana, Proctor and Gamble and Campbell's next? Excellent points, friends.
And then there were the two most memorable speakers of the evening:
1. A young Palestinian woman states that she had proposed an Israeli boycott in 2009 and went on to name incidents in the Middle East that had spurned her original proposal. Honestly, it's hard to keep track of what she is saying because a rude old lady in the back keeps heckling her by yelling, “What about the Jews?” and openly accuses the girl of being an anti-semite. In true Coop fashion, her rude remarks are met exponentially by other members, who encourage her to leave. I am loving it all. Who doesn't love a batty old lady heckling from the back?! She is eventually reprimanded by a committee member, wherein she shuts the eff up.
2. Then there was Albert, a star of the evening! He has a long, grey ponytail and a tye-dyed shirt. I don't know of this guy, but apparently he's notorious for constantly writing extremist political letters in The Linewaiter's Gazette -- the Coop paper -- and showing up to every board meeting to question the authority of the board and the basic structure of the Coop's government. Tonight he proposes some difficult-to-understand amendment to the original proposal and is immediately denied by the board, which he immediately questions. Much hubbub ensues, and his microphone is shut off because his time is up. But Albert's not done. He stubbornly (and hilariously) refuses to leave the stage. “Albert," they tell him, "It's time to let the next person speak.” “Albert, do you see the red light?” Imagine a theater of 1,800 people chanting “SIT DOWN” to an old, determined hippie up on stage. It's great. You can't make this stuff up! Eventually, of course, Albert takes a seat.
The meeting is coming to an end but, since there are still speakers, everyone's time onstage is cut down to one minute per person.
A man gets up on stage and introduces himself as “a real Israeli.” He urges members to vote against a referendum because, even though he does not agree with Israel's actions, we should not “equate justice with sanctioning Israel”. He emphasizes the difference between not supporting Israeli products and what would actually make a difference in terms of their actions. Many spirit fingers agree.
Finally, here are some of my favorite quotes from the evening:
“Food and politics are intrinsically linked!”
“If you don't like a product, don't buy it!”
“Injustice here is injustice everywhere!”
“When I belong to the coop, I belong to justice!”
This quote was by far my absolute favorite: “This doesn't feel good right now, but neither does an enema. We need to clean house!” (this guy, if you couldn’t tell, was pro referendum).
All in all, 46 people speak, which is way more than the committee expected.
VOTE TIME. We are told NOT TO FOLD OUR BALLOTS -- Mass commotion erupts as people unfold and attempt to hide their anonymous ballots.
There is mass exodus. At least 40% of people peace-out after voting (what, you guys got kids or something?)
As votes are counted, the promised awkward, amateur documentary plays to keep everyone from rioting.
The awkward documentary ends, thumb twiddling begins.
The committee head takes the stage and, before reading votes, predictably asks us all to pick up trash like good Coop members on our way out. The results are in! Of 1,662 ballots cast, 1005 voted for NO referendum, while 653 voted YES to referendum. 4 ballots are unmarked or not countable.
Now I'm headed home. I've never been on such an exciting G train at 10pm on a Tuesday night! The gossip continued alllll the way home.
Personally, I'm proud of the coop tonight, and not just because the vote went the way I wanted it to. In a city with so much diversity and on a topic with such contention, we were able to create a mostly respectful arena of discourse. People were listened to, supported and able to express themselves and present ideas to a caring community. I have never heard this topic discussed in such a peaceful way, in such a large group with such differing opinions.
Is it over? No way. I'm sure this issue will come back again and I hope it can be dealt with respectfully again.
Now if I could only decide which kind of hummus I'm supposed to buy...