The following article was published at the Sacramento Bee on July 7, 2011:
By Ryan Lillis
With all the fury of a spicy vegan sausage, a bitter squabble has broken out at the normally tranquil Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op.
Along with accusations of a rogue board of directors turning its back on the core values of democracy, there have been weeks of leafleting, protests and picketing.
Now, there’s a court battle – and it’s all about bath salts.
Well, it’s slightly more complicated than that. Some members of the co-op want the store to stop carrying Israeli products. They say that doing so would show support for Palestinians, whose human rights they charge are violated by Israel.
Banning Israeli products – limited to bath salts and matzo at the co-op – would require a vote of the midtown store’s membership in September. But so far, the co-op’s board of directors has declined to place an initiative on the annual ballot.
The argument: The co-op has gone out of its way to avoid political confrontations – and what’s more politically charged than Middle East policy?
“Our shopping bags say, ‘working together,’ and this is just the opposite,” said Steve Maviglio, president of the co-op’s board of directors. “This pits one member against one another. They’re trying to turn the co-op into a political organization.”
Maggie Coulter, the peace activist and co-op member behind the initiative, doesn’t buy it. She says that co-ops are political by their very nature and is demanding that her measure – the Human Rights Initiative – be placed on the ballot.
“If this board gets away with violating our co-op’s bylaws,” said Coulter, “then the fundamental principles of member control and democracy are gone. That means we don’t have a co-op any more.”
With co-op ballots scheduled to be mailed out in a few weeks, Coulter has enlisted the help of the National Lawyers Guild and a Berkeley-based attorney to file a request last week in Sacramento Superior Court asking a judge to force the board to place an initiative on the ballot. The court has not responded and the board isn’t budging.
As a result, Coulter and a small group of fellow protesters were outside the co-op again this week, picketing and asking shoppers to support their cause. She said more than 250 people signed petitions earlier this year to have the initiative go on the ballot. The co-op has about 12,000 members.
Maviglio said opposition to the proposal is even stronger. A recent meeting during which the initiative was discussed attracted so many opponents, he said, that a fire marshal was called and the event was shut down.
A similar proposal was floated in Davis, where the board of directors of that city’s food co-op rejected placing an initiative on their ballot last year. Coulter said she was involved in that movement, too.
John Boisa, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Sacramento and a co-op member, said his organization has monitored these efforts. He said protest groups often go after co-ops – democratically run grocery stores – and college student bodies.
“The purpose is not to inflict real economic injury (on Israel),” Boisa said, “it’s to manipulate the co-op for a political agenda. The purpose, we believe, is to attack Israel and the Jewish people.”
And should the initiative be placed on the ballot?
“Then the co-op will itself be transformed into a partisan, bigoted, unwelcoming atmosphere,” Boisa said.
Coulter counters that the co-op already engages in several political causes, including sustainable farming and the fair treatment of animals.
“If our co-op can say we will not buy products tested on animals, can we not also say we will consider human rights in our purchasing decisions?” she asked.
Maviglio wonders about the next steps. The co-op carries products made in China, another target of human rights activists. Even California, where many of the co-op’s products are grown and made, has been criticized by the human rights community after voters approved a ban on same-sex marriage.
“They are trying to rob attention from our mission, which is to promote sustainable agriculture,” Maviglio said. “Where does it end?”