Beloved historian Howard Zinn once said, “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. … Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running and robbing the country. …”
We all know he was right. One of the more tragic current examples of how American social movements continue to fall into this trap of civil obedience is how our anti-GMO organizations have responded to Monsanto Corporation’s proposed DARK Act, which bans states from requiring the labeling of GMO foods, and which our Congress, Senate, and President Obama all passed into law over these last few weeks, even though it was opposed by 90% of Americans. Because the DARK Act is now law, Vermont’s existing law that requires all foods containing GMOs to be labeled, has been struck down and can no longer be enforced.
For years now, the Organic Consumers Association, Center for Food Safety, Food Democracy Now, and other national and state organizations, have been leading the American people down a path of civil obedience, consistently claiming that if they can just get more signatures on their online petitions, if they can just get another wave of donations from their millions of supporters, that they will continue to win against Monsanto Corporation and its allies. If that were actually true, the DARK Act would not have been passed by an overwhelming majority of both Democrats and Republicans, Obama would have vetoed it, and numerous states would have already successfully banned, not labeled, GMO foods. So clearly, something is terribly wrong with the strategy that these anti-GMO groups are asking us to follow. Is there a better alternative? Of course there is!
For some perspective regarding what We the People should do when our federal government overrules our inherent right to protect our health and welfare, let’s go way back to 1996, twenty years ago, when California voters passed Proposition 215, legalizing medical marijuana for the first time in our modern history. The law they passed was illegal. It violated federal law. Did you know that? And once it was passed, California’s legislature, its governor, its attorney general, its sheriffs, were all required to enforce that new state law, which created what is called a crisis of jurisdiction. In the years that followed, voters in one state after another passed similar laws – all of them illegal, under federal law. But they did it anyway. Fast forward to today, and we can see that the voters in dozens of states have successfully overruled the federal government, and preempted federal authority, through the ballot box. Imagine if medical marijuana activists had instead spent those twenty years sending online petitions to our federal government – begging them to legalize medical marijuana. It would still be illegal! Thank goodness they chose civil disobedience over civil obedience in 1996, by exercising their authority at the ballot box!
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Regarding GMO’s in our food, where’s our demand? Online petitions? Public education campaigns? Ineffective consumer boycotts? C’mon now! The Community Rights movement has taught us that if we want to build real political power, we don’t beg and plead with our so-called leaders. We exercise our inherent authority to govern ourselves.
So what’s stopping Vermont’s government from following a similar path? Imagine if Vermont’s governor, state legislature, attorney general and sheriffs were letting the feds know that they would be ignoring the new federal preemption law and moving forward with implementing the state labeling law that they already passed. Imagine if the citizens of Vermont were in the streets, actively supporting their elected officials. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Would the feds dare to arrest Vermont’s legislators and governor? And if they did try to arrest them, imagine the democratic uprising that would ensue, across the country. The feds couldn’t possibly win this battle in the court of public opinion. Which begs the question – why isn’t this already happening? Why are we all so civilly obedient to laws which violate our rights?
Which brings me back to the Organic Consumers Association, Center for Food Safety, and Food Democracy Now – which are all treating the new federal law as an outrage, but as legitimate, rather than as a fundamental violation of our inherent right of self-government. Yes, they plan to sue the federal government to challenge the DARK Act, but this will take years and a ton of money, while the public once again gets demobilized, and confused about where ultimate power resides.
Last week, Ronnie Cummins, executive director of Organic Consumers Association, wrote an essay about this issue titled “Corporate Money Defeats GMO Labeling—What Would Gandhi Do?”. Given that title, I was hoping that he was finally ready to contemplate a new bolder strategy – one that would have made Gandhi proud. But sadly, I was wrong. Cummins is still stuck in what has come to be known as “the colonized mind”. He continues to be convinced that our real power is as consumers. He’s dead wrong. Consumer power is a diversion. In fact, consumer power is a concept that was invented by the public relations industry, as a way to confuse Americans as to where their real power resides, which is as We the People, as citizens, exercising our self-governing authority.
If you care deeply about states having the right to pass laws to protect the health and welfare of their citizens, I urge you to contact Vermont’s governor, state legislators and attorney general, and urge them to enforce their existing GMO labeling law, regardless of what our federal government says. Remind them that dozens of states have successfully legalized medical marijuana, even though federal law preempts them from doing so. And while you’re at it, how about also contacting the Organic Consumers Association,Center for Food Safety, and Food Democracy Now, and urging them to shift gears towards a more civilly disobedient set of tactics and strategies, taking their lead from the Community Rights movement. We the People have an inherent right of self-government. Let’s make Gandhi proud.