A spotlight on New Seasons
PORTLAND, Ore.--Shoppers at New Seasons Market, a chain of grocery stores here, were greeted in late May by a flash mob of dozens of activists protesting for the end of Israeli apartheid.
The flash mob was organized by Portland BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Coalition--a group that includes members from Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights (AUPHR) and Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER). The action was the latest installment in a nearly yearlong pressure campaign to get the store to stop carrying Israeli products in compliance with the 2005 BDS call from Palestinian civil society.
On Sunday afternoon of the bustling Memorial Day weekend, with a theater-in-the-round-style arrangement to best address both the checkout aisles and the rest of the store, more than 20 people sang and danced to a rewritten version of Lady Gaga's "Poker Face."
The new song included lines such as, "New Seasons, you say you support communities, but you sell products that destroy them overseas," and "We want this store to take responsibility, and boycott Israel 'til Palestine is free."
During the action, others participated by handing out fliers to onlookers, shooting video, protecting dancers from any potential conflicts, and holding signs saying "Anti-occupation is not anti-Semitism" and "Israeli policies = 1.7 million Palestinian refugees."
During the five-minute performance, business inside the store mostly ceased while customers and employees alike looked on, seemingly impressed, many taking photos with their phones.
The campaign has so far capitalized on the fact that New Seasons' loyal customer base is attracted to and supportive of the company's environmentally and politically conscious image. The flash mob was similarly an effort to publicize the hypocrisy of the store's self-promotion in contrast to the reality of its policies.
For example, on its website, New Seasons claims:
We're passionate about the community where we all live. That's one of the reasons we give first preference to local growers, fishers, farmers and ranchers. New Seasons Market is proud to donate 10 percent of our after-tax profits to nonprofit 501(c)3 organizations in the Portland area. Greatest attention is given to organizations dedicated to feeding the hungry, educating our youth and improving our environment. A common theme running through many of us is our enthusiasm for giving back to our neighborhoods.
However, in stark contrast to its obsession with "all things local," New Seasons currently carries 19 different Israeli products--nine of which were added since the coalition initially called on New Seasons' management to honor the BDS campaign organized by Portland activists in solidarity with Palestinian rights.
Companies that make these products profit from the illegal occupation of Palestinian land and contribute to the environmental devastation of Palestine--in contrast to New Seasons' stated commitment to community.
THE FLASH MOB came after what many from the coalition took as an act of deliberate censorship on the part of New Seasons regarding Palestine. Just two weeks before, an art exhibit in a different New Seasons store by Stephen Kerpen, a local photographer and member of Jewish Voice for Peace, featuring photos from his recent trip to Israel and the West Bank was taken down following a single customer complaint.
Given that more than 600 people have filled out comment cards politely asking New Seasons to stop carrying Israeli products as well as management's refusal to meet with coalition members, the removal of the artwork was rightly seen as proof of the store's clear anti-Palestinian bias and met with an organized protest outside of the store.
"It is understandable that New Seasons would like to believe that carrying Israeli products and barring photographs of the victims of Israeli policies is being 'neutral,'" said Kerpen. "But we think many of their customers and the broader Portland community will disagree."
As proof of the store's precedent for taking political stands as a company, Kerpen pointed to New Seasons' decision to pull Rock Star Energy Drink from its shelves due to the political views of the company's owner, far-right talk show host Michael Savage, who is known for his bigoted, racist and homophobic public comments. This proves that New Seasons' claim of "no politics allowed" is a false one, according to Kerpen.
What's more, the store's shoppers have come out in overwhelming support of the campaign. As Adam Sanchez, member of the Portland BDS Coalition and ILWU Local 5, said:
I've probably passed out over 300 pamphlets, and what amazes me the most is how receptive people are. I'm so used to the debate in the mainstream media where anyone criticizing Israel is labeled as an anti-Semite. But I would say 99 percent of the people I've talked to outside New Seasons stores are thankful we're out there fighting for human rights for Palestinians and are shocked that New Seasons has refused to even meet with us.
Members of the coalition have been further fueled by the online success of the flash mob video, which as of this writing had more than 26,000 views on YouTube and has helped the campaign gain attention both locally and nationally.
They are planning on continuing similar actions throughout the summer to raise more awareness and drag New Seasons further into the spotlight for its hypocritical stance on the issue.
As South African anti-apartheid leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." It's time for New Seasons to live up to its image and respect the demands of hundreds of customers, the international human rights community and the Palestinian people. Failing to take a stand one way or the other while continuing to sell Israeli products does not make them "neutral;" it makes them complicit in Israeli crimes against humanity.