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In "The Belly of the Beast"

Marching Against Monsanto

by JAMES ANDERSON

People across the globe protested May 25 during the global day of action against Monsanto. More than 500 came to “the belly of the best” in Creve Coeur, Mo., just outside of St. Louis, to raise public awareness and chant, “What do we want? Labeling! When do we want it? Now,” “Monsanto, disease, lies and greed!” among other apt rallying cries.

The 500-strong marched from Stacy Park, signs in hand, as rain started coming down. Indignant over “Monsanto’s monopolistic greed,” and undeterred by the rain, they held signs and aimed to raise awareness about Monsanto’s control over the food supply. Protestors passed out fliers reading, “SHOW ME THE LABEL,” encouraging citizens to visit a website to learn more about a Missouri initiative, Senate Bill No. 155, to get the state to label Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Vermont and just recently Connecticut passed legislation requiring genetically engineered (GE) foods to be labeled.

Monsanto spends millions aggressively lobbying against labeling of GMOs, despite studies suggesting GMO foods contain potent carcinogens and can increase the risk of kidney and liver damage. A 2009 peer-reivewed study showed serious adverse health effects in rats fed genetically modified maize.

Activists are well aware of the dangers of GMOs. Merlyn Seeley, the organizer of the St. Louis area Monsanto protest, traveled several hours with his wife and 13-year-old daughter from their rurally-located Missouri cabin to organize the May 25 demonstration at Monsanto headquarters.

Seeley realizes what the people are up against. He’s been on the frontlines fighting GMOs and promoting more natural ways of living for most of his life, which is why he and his family consider Monsanto’s profit-at-all-costs mentality so dangerous.

“Monsanto, they see nothing but money,” Seeley said.

The company’s vast control over the world’s food supply, and the destruction of heirloom varieties of seeds threatens people and planet, he added. But that is what motivated him to help put together the event.

“This is a grassroots operation,” Seeley explained. “On this scale, it’s never been done; it’s never been seen. And we’re making history. … St. Louis is going to be making history, marching against the headquarters – the belly of the beast. We’re going in. We’re not scared.”

Jeff Schaefer, a carpenter by trade who lives in south St. Louis, suffered from stomach and digestive problems until he gave up genetically altered foods and started eating all organic. That sold him on the importance of trying to get GMOs out of our food system. He said it is important “if we care about our families and if we care about the human race.”

Schaefer participated in early Occupy STL assemblies and actions, and it was his involvement with the Occupy movement that led to him becoming more informed about the dangers Monsanto poses through networks of activists and friends focused on myriad issues. Schaefer continues to protest against the major financial institutions that caused the economic crash in 2008, and is involved with the organization Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE).

He sees the struggle for economic justice and the fight against corporations like Monsanto as interrelated because “everything leads back to Wall Street,” and “everything gets financed somewhere, even Monsanto.” During the protest outside Monsanto headquarters, he provided musical entertainment, drumming while singing and chanting. He got the crowd going with spontaneous numbers like “Shit’s fucked up and bullshit” – a chant borrowed from and frequently used in Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.

Jeff Schaefer, who participated in Occupy STL from the movement’s inception, got involved in the fight against corporate control over food as a result of the Occupy connections he made. Here he keeps rhythm, drumming in front of the Monsanto sign before bursting into song.

Zach Chasnoff, another MORE activist who just got back from a week-long action in Washington DC where he helped occupy the Department of Justice and engage in collective civil disobedience at Attorney General Eric Holder’s ex-law firm as a direct (action) response to Holder’s recent statement about not prosecuting the big banks for fraud committed during the crisis of 2008 and the foreclosure crisis that ensued thereafter, despite ample evidence because it would be disruptive. Disruption in the form of home foreclosures was not factored into that equation.

Around 500 people participated in the Bringing Justice to Justice action coordinated with Occupy Our Homes and the Homes Defenders League, just as 500-plus protesters declaimed against Monsanto. These profit-over-people parallels were not lost on Chasnoff either.

“To me they’re very related,” he said. “So Eric Holder put the banks above the law, but the recent Monsanto Protection Act put Monsanto above the law. And what we’re seeing is the private sector moving farther and farther away from being held accountable by the legal system. The road to fascism couldn’t be any better way than that.”

Activists nicknamed the Farmer Assurance Provision legislation the “Monsanto Protection Act” because it prevents federal courts from stopping the sale and planting of genetically modified seeds. Monsanto’s aggressive lobbying and President Obama’s recent appointment of ex-(aggressive) lobbyist for Monsanto, Michael Taylor, to be the deputy commissioner of foods, does not sit well with a lot of people.

Schaeffer said, matter-of-factly, “I hate Monsanto.” Similar sentiments were echoed by multiple protesters, some of whom who said they had never participated in a major demonstration like the action that day. However, whatever fear of ridicule, anxiety over repression or general reservations any had were overcome by the motivating fears of unchecked corporate control, exemplified by Monsanto practices. Monsanto filed more than 100 lawsuits against farmers and small farm businesses over issues related to patent infringement involving use of seeds despite the prevalence of naturally-occurring cross-pollination and contamination of fields by GE seeds. Consequences and implications of those cases caused some people to promptly take action.

Lisa Wolfrey came with her daughter to the event because they both are fed up with the poisoning of the American people that Monsanto profits from, and she hates the fact they have “got the farmer by the balls,” since the company can sue for accidental drift. This is their first major Monsanto protest – but likely not the last. So long as we – the people – “are the experiment,” she will work toward something different.

“He who controls the food controls the world,” Wolfrey remarked. She and others want to democratize that control. Along with around 20 other protesters, she arrived in St. Louis the day before the protest, gathering at Carondelet Garden Urban Farms for sign-making, a GMO-free potluck dinner, discussion, information sharing and an overnight campout on the property.

Mark Brown, who manages Carondelet Garden, helped organize the protest and invited everyone over to the urban farm for the rally the night before. He and fellow growers consider the one garden just an initial experiment. It will soon be re-located to a bigger piece of land to allow for greater growing, but the original Carondelet location still features oak sprouts, garlic, spinach, cabbage, kale, potatoes, beets, a culinary herbal bed, and a medicinal herbal bed. A hydroponic growing device made from all recyclable materials sits in the lot, but it won’t be ready to use until after the move. Protesters camped beside all of those plants the night prior to the demonstration, collectively creating signs to display the next day, hoping to plant their own seeds of resistance.

“We would like to send a message to the world,” Brown said, adding that people “are not going to tolerate” the corporatization of food and life by Monsanto and their ilk.

“We do not want the world’s food supply locked by a small cabal of wealthy people who will make the decision of who eats and who doesn’t,” he explained.

Brown marched to Monsanto headquarters barefoot the next day, and remained sans shoes throughout the entire demonstration.

Although rain, thunder and lightning made conditions less than ideal, it didn’t dampen the spirits of those demonstrating who performed renditions of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” for motorists and passers-by they hoped to educate and inform. Protesters hoping to prefigure another world, made an impromptu modification of the final verse to Guthrie’s tune, as they sang, “This land was made for you and me… This land should be Monsanto free!”

With determination and plenty of handmade signs, people from the greater St. Louis area and beyond came together in a 500-person show of solidarity to inveigh against Monsanto. Those featured in this photo provided a spontaneous show of solidarity, singing a slightly-(not genetically)modified rendition of an old Woody Guthrie song.

After more than an hour of public (protest) pedagogy, replete with wrapping red caution tape reading, “MONSANTO GENETIC BIOHAZARD,” all around the outskirts of the premises, the skies started to clear and the rain stopped. The change in weather inspired already-soaked protesters to stick around longer, as they could see signs that things are indeed changing.

James Anderson is a Ph.D. student in Mass Communications and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His interests include social movements, political economy, alternative economic paradigms, alternative media, world systems analysis, critical pedagogy, prefigurative direct action and satire. He believes praxis makes perfect. He also says his words are his weapon, and, like so many others, he believes another world is possible.