I’ve just returned from a quick trip helping our Rainforest Agribusiness team organize a protest the ADM annual shareholders meeting in Decatur, IL.
If you haven’t yet, check out Leila’s post about all the action inside the meeting.
My job was to help put together our outside action. I’ll give you the summary first and you can read more for a blow-by-blow rundown of my experience.
First, the short version:
- go to Decatur
- hear strange things on the radio
- meet with the chief of police
- learn all about ADM and Decatur
- head to Urbana-Champaign to get some student support
- back to Decatur for the protest
- encounter a crazy aggressive/ridiculous/paranoid/intimidating private mercenary security presence contracted by ADM
- get followed out of town
- see a vision of the future
- make it safely back to San Francisco.
I landed in St. Louis two days before the event, rented a flexfuel (how appropriate) vehicle and hit the road for the soy capital of the world, Decatur, IL.
Quick radio side note: the first thing I hear on the radio, no joke, was an environmental radio show on KDHX. And what are they talking about? A protest on RAN’s National Day of Action Against Coal Finance. I was kinda floored by that. I mean, it just seemed like a crazy coincidence.
My first order of business once I arrived was a meeting with the Decatur deputy police chief. He had called me a couple days before and asked if I’d come meet with him. Apparently ADM had told him we were coming. He turned out to be one of the friendliest police officials I’ve ever encountered. He had lots of pictures of RAN’s banner drop in Chicago along with printouts of news releases from our website.
I told him we planned a completely lawful and peaceful demonstration. I think I had him at “lawful.”
He was so pleased to hear that we wouldn’t be scaling any buildings and our conversation quickly turned towards advice on where to park. Fifteen minutes later we exchanged smiles and I took off to check out the location.
Decatur is a very interesting town. First, it stinks. Literally. It just smells terrible from all the corn and soy processing. Pipelines carrying corn syrup, built by ADM to circumvent a labor lockout at in-town competitor (or is co-conspirator a better term) Tate & Lyle run through the town, over and under roadways. Did I mention ADM is not unionized?
Despite my fascination with the town, I did have to leave Decatur and head to Urbana-Champaign. I met up with a few great activist from Students for Environmental Concerns (SECS), a campus environmental group and we painted our final banner in preparation for the early morning protest the next day.
First thing in the morning we head off towards the stench (I again only mean that in the most literal sense) of Decatur.
When we arrive at the shareholders meeting, held in a building that used to be a middle school, we are immediately stopped by a group a special private security mercenaries. We don’t even make it to the regular entrance check point where everyone else has to stop. Our car is surrounded immediately by at least six guard in black. A few of them have video cameras and they clearly want to put on quite a show of recording each of our faces.
The guards, who by the way traveled in $100,000 Mercedes sedans, tell us to park across the street and point to chalk-outlined box on the front lawn of the facility where we are allowed to peacefully hold up our banners.
At this point we have twice as many guards and police as protesters. A news reporter had been waiting for us on location and he set up his camera outside of the designated “free speech zone” to interview Leila. What a dilemma for the guards: do they interrupt the NBC interview to enforce what they called the “white line rule” and risk an embarrassing news report or do they just keep quiet and wait for the cameras to leave?
Of course, they waited. Because keeping peaceful demonstrators in an arbitrarily-drawn box is ridiculous.
ADM had people standing on top of their building sniper-style and the collection of large men they’ve hired spent the whole morning our videotaping our every move. The guards told us that ADM flew them all in just for the protest. The overall vibe was just pointless but clear intimidation.
Personally I mostly find this to be both hilarious and somewhat reassuring:
Hilarious because they’ve got a small army and we show up, quietly hold up some hand-painted banners, and wave to folks as they drive by.
Reassuring because it is such a clear sign that ADM is totally freaked out by us. That’s a good sign to me.
But I also know that I am somewhat insulated from the threat of police/corporate violence and that one of my privileges is that I am far less likely to be harassed or attacked by these people.
So I also see how this display of force is not just funny, but also genuinely frightening and sad. The fact that ADM thinks hiring intimidating guards is somehow an appropriate response to non-violent dissent is disturbing. The fact that the guards and the police we’re chatting it up all morning is disturbing. They took down our license plate numbers, video taped each person there, and ultimately followed us out of town as we left for the airport.
I’m really not sure if I should feel proud, scared, or both.
Finally clear of the mercenary’s vehicle we hit the highway heading toward St. Louis.
My final note comes from the drive back. We stopped at a gas station and came across a row of oversized trucks carrying what we eventually realized were gigantic blades for wind turbines.
Hmm. The future sure looks different from the past.