John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.
Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its National Affairs Correspondent. He is a contributing writer for The Progressive and In These Times and the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and dozens of other newspapers.
Nichols is a frequent guest on radio and television programs as a commentator on politics and media issues. He was featured in Robert Greenwald’s documentary, “Outfoxed,” and in the documentaries Joan Sekler’s “Unprecedented,” Matt Kohn’s “Call It Democracy” and Robert Pappas’s “Orwell Rolls in his Grave.” The keynote speaker at the 2004 Congress of the International Federation of Journalists in Athens, Nichols has been a featured presenter at conventions, conferences and public forums on media issues sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Consumers International, the Future of Music Coalition, the AFL-CIO, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Newspaper Guild [CWA] and dozens of other organizations.
Nichols is the author of The Genius of Impeachment (The New Press); a critically acclaimed analysis of the Florida recount fight of 2000, Jews for Buchanan (The New Press); and a best-selling biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, Dick: The Man Who is President (The New Press), which has recently been published in French and Arabic. He edited Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books), of which historian Howard Zinn said: “At exactly the time when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift–a collection of writings, speeches, poems, and songs from throughout American history–that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country.”
With Robert W. McChesney, Nichols has co-authored the books It’s the Media, Stupid! (Seven Stories), Our Media, Not Theirs (Seven Stories), Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy (The New Press), The Death and Life of American Journalism (Nation Books) and, most recently, Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street (Nation Books). McChesney and Nichols are the co-founders of Free Press, the nation’s media-reform network, which organized the 2003 and 2005 National Conferences on Media Reform.
Of Nichols, author Gore Vidal says: “Of all the giant slayers now afoot in the great American desert, John Nichols’s sword is the sharpest.” (Photo by Robin Holland / Bill Moyers Journal)
CIVIL RIGHTS REFORM As House Republican leaders thwarted debate on the tepid Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill, the NAACP convention chose a radically different course by endorsing full public financing of campaigns. Noting that 95 percent of campaign contributions in excess of $200 come from white givers, the NAACP resolution declared that the current system "unfairly dilutes the political strength of African-Americans in participating in political parties, elections and the passage of legislation." Says Georgia NAACP state conference president Walter Butler, "We know that [campaign finance reform] is a civil rights issue that should be dealt with as other civil rights issues in the past." The NAACP vote came as Congressional Black Caucus members were questioning, and in some cases opposing, milder reforms. "There's a lot of skepticism, a lot of fear that campaign finance reform, if it's done wrong, could end up hurting black candidates," says Fannie Lou Hamer Project executive director Stephanie Wilson. "We've spent a lot of time arguing that only with public financing can African-American candidates really break through the barriers." In North Carolina the National Voting Rights Institute has sued the state on behalf of the NAACP and other groups, arguing that costly campaigns serve as a "poll tax," violating constitutional guarantees that economic status should not serve as a barrier to political participation.... An assist for the new drive comes from Adonal Foyle, center for the NBA's Golden State Warriors. Foyle founded Democracy Matters, whose fifteen coordinators will build support on college campuses for public financing. Foyle argues that if players had to buy their way into the NBA, people wouldn't take it seriously. Yet "that's what has happened in politics."
MASSACHUSETTS MISCHIEF Massachusetts voters in 1998 overwhelmingly endorsed a Clean Elections initiative designed to flush special-interest money out of politics. But public financing only functions when legislators allocate the money for it. The Massachusetts Senate did that by a 36-2 vote, but powerful House Speaker Thomas Finneran is balking, even as 2002 races for governor and other posts get under way. "I used to think Massachusetts was an initiative state before I met the Massachusetts legislature," says David Donnelly, of Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections, which has been organizing protests and rallies. Outside Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, who now heads Common Cause, urged legislators to "remember they were elected by the people, not by Tom Finneran." US Representative Marty Meehan said, "When I see Democrats playing games at the State House, I say that's the best weapon they can give the Republicans for the next election."
ALTERNATIVE POLITICS Campaign finance reform isn't the only electoral change on the agenda this summer. By a 10-1 vote the San Francisco Board of Supervisors set a March 2002 referendum on adopting instant-runoff voting (IRV) for local posts. IRV, devised as an alternative to winner-take-all elections, allows voters to rank candidates for an office. If a first-choice candidate is eliminated, the vote automatically transfers to the second choice. A San Francisco win "could put instant-runoff voting on the radar across the country," says Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy. Vermont, Alaska and New Mexico are also considering IRV proposals.... Another alternative, cumulative voting, under which voters apportion their votes among candidates, has earned enthusiastic support from an Illinois task force chaired by former GOP Governor Jim Edgar and former Democratic Representative (and federal judge) Abner Mikva. The state once had a cumulative system, but it was scrapped twenty-one years ago as part of a move to downsize the legislature. Since the change, Illinois has witnessed dramatic declines in the number of contested legislative races and in voter turnout.
RELIGIOUS LEFT The Unitarian Universalist Association's new president, William Sinkford, left no doubt about what his promise of "radical fellowship" would mean for the 220,000-member denomination. "During my presidency, our Unitarian Universalist voice will support racial justice and gender justice and equal rights for our bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender brothers and sisters," Sinkford announced in a speech following his election as the predominantly white religious group's first African-American leader. "We will speak for responsible stewardship of the environment. And we will work to redress the economic injustices that plague our society." The denomination's Cleveland general assembly voted to make economic globalization a primary issue for 1,050 UU congregations, following an appeal from Chuck Collins of United for a Fair Economy and strong support from the convention's large youth caucus. With Congress expected to act this year on granting President Bush fast-track authority to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Community is gearing up a grassroots education and lobbying push to challenge trade policies that Collins says "are about profits, not values."
SENATE SHUFFLE It was a remarkably different Senate that convened following Vermonter Jim Jeffords's switch from Republican to Independent status. The Jeffords jump did more than put a spring in the step of new majority leader Tom Daschle; it put a number of progressive players in a position, if not to pass all the bills they'd like, to use their control of key committees to alter significantly the tenor of the debate. "There's been a general view that you're only doing something when you are actually passing a piece of legislation," says incoming Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee chairman Paul Sarbanes. "I think you can also perform a very important service if [committees] exercise a careful oversight over the government departments and agencies and over the economic sectors for which they're responsible." Sarbanes plans hearings on predatory lending and perhaps credit-card-company abuses. While Daschle and Edward Kennedy continue to counsel caution and bipartisanship on the part of Democrats, other senators are leaping into action. Days after taking over as chairman of the Constitution subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, Russ Feingold, the Senate's most ardent death penalty foe, convened a hearing that gave supporters of his bill seeking a death penalty moratorium a rare forum on Capitol Hill. On the same day that Feingold grilled aides to Attorney General John Ashcroft regarding discrepancies in their statistics on bias, the Justice Department announced it would initiate a comprehensive review designed to answer the question Feingold asked at his hearing: "How did we end up with 90 percent of the people on [the federal] death row minorities?"
SHOOTING DOWN STAR WARS With the Senate shift, few activist groups have seen prospects for lobbying success improve more dramatically than those opposing President Bush's National Missile Defense scheme. Senator Robert Byrd, the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman, is promising tough scrutiny of the bloated Defense budget, while Star Wars skeptics Joe Biden and Carl Levin now chair the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, respectively. Biden and Levin showed up at a session organized by the Council for a Livable World, where, according to Chris Madison, director of the CLW Education Fund's National Missile Defense Project, "They both made clear their extreme skepticism about where the Administration is going." Peace Action stepped up its "Star Wars Is a Lemon" campaign with a June rally at the Capitol and a lobbying push that included 115 meetings with legislators and their staffs. Peace Action's twenty-six state chapters are following up with an effort to deliver 300,000 "Star Wars Is a Lemon" postcards to Congress.
ELECTION INSPECTION Election reform initiatives that were expected to be unavoidable following last fall's Florida fiasco got buried in Trent Lott's Republican-dominated Senate, but that's likely to change now that Chris Dodd has taken over the Rules and Administration Committee. Dodd and Representative John Conyers Jr., ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, have proposed the sweeping Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act, designed to help states adopt uniform systems to assure that voting is easy and accessible, and that all votes are counted. Dodd is expected to arrange hearings not just on his bill but also on the broader issue of electoral disfranchisement. The opening comes just as activists are stepping up the pressure on the issue. A US Commission on Civil Rights draft report--characterized by the stark observation that "it was widespread voter disenfranchisement, not the dead-heat contest, that was the extraordinary feature in the Florida election"--has given new impetus to a Democracy Summer campaign backed by groups ranging from the Institute for Policy Studies to the NAACP Youth and College Division and the Fannie Lou Hamer Project. More than 100 young people from around the country gathered in Tallahassee in mid-June for a Democracy Institute at which Representative Maxine Waters urged them to re-create the "freedom rider" energy that led to passage of the original Voting Rights Act. Just prior to July 4, a Pro-Democracy Convention will bring activists to Philadelphia to make what IPS's Karen Dolan calls "the move from outrage to action." The groups are campaigning for an agenda that addresses problems that came into focus during the Florida recount, including bad ballot designs, outdated voting technologies and the denial of voting rights to ex-prisoners.
MAKING MUD The Bush Administration's energy plan may be DOA in a newly Democratic Senate, but real alternatives to utility company excesses are the province of the grassroots, especially in energy-strapped California. San Francisco activists launched a campaign in June for MUD, a proposed Municipal Utility District that could use eminent domain to take over Pacific Gas & Electric Company's electricity transmission and distribution systems. A November ballot initiative to create MUD has been endorsed by five San Francisco Commission members, California State Senate leader John Burton and the San Francisco Labor Council. "If we are able to take the power away from PG&E and put it in the hands of the people of San Francisco," says Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin, "we will send a louder signal regarding the answer to power problems than anything you hear coming from the Bush Administration."
Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. And for much of the spring it seemed possible that America's second-largest city would elect as its mayor a progressive Latino who at one time had a tattoo that read, "Born to Raise Hell." Antonio Villaraigosa hailed from the barrio, marched with striking workers, replaced municipal bromides about economic development with a call for "economic justice" and asked the right questions about the drug war, immigration and a tattered safety net. The high school dropout who parlayed a second chance into the Speakership of the California Assembly sought to build a rainbow coalition of the left in a rapidly diversifying city.
So Villaraigosa's 53-to-47 loss Tuesday to City Attorney James Hahn, the colorless scion of the city's best-known political family, was more than just another municipal dream deferred. It was a reminder to progressives in LA and nationally that coalition politics is always easier said than done. Villaraigosa's army of 2,500 union volunteers tripled Latino turnout from just eight years ago, but African-American voters--many loyal to the moderately liberal Hahn because of his father's long advocacy for communities of color, and others worried about losing political clout in a city that is 47 percent Hispanic--gave Villaraigosa barely one-third of their votes. And suburban Anglo voters were scared off in droves by a relentlessly anti-Villaraigosa campaign that portrayed the former president of the Southern California ACLU as soft on crime. Last-minute Hahn mailings to suburban neighborhoods sought to link Villaraigosa to a cocaine dealer and warned, "Los Angeles just can't trust Antonio Villaraigosa." Shelly Mandell, president of the LA National Organization for Women, said, "I've never seen anything worse done to a good person."
The viciousness of the final phase of the campaign was not typical of Hahn, whose record and rhetoric suggest he will be a more liberal leader than outgoing mayor Richard Riordan. But Hahn will never be the movement mayor Villaraigosa would have been.
The election was "a gut check," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute. LA didn't quite have the guts to embrace what the Los Angeles Times described as "the audacity of [Villaraigosa's] aspirations for the city." (Nor, if a close unofficial tally holds, did it have the guts to elect the audacious Tom Hayden to the City Council.) But in a year when New York, Detroit, Cleveland and other major cities--all experiencing their own demographic and political shifts--will elect mayors, opportunities remain for progressives to make the rainbow real. The challenge, and it is a big one, will be to recognize that the rainbow does not just appear; it must be created. And it must be strong enough to withstand the politics of fear and division that can dash even the most audacious aspirations.
TICKED-OFF TEACHERS Washington State teachers got a bitter civics lesson this spring, as legislators refused to implement fully plans to reduce class sizes and increase pay for teachers that were overwhelmingly endorsed by voters in statewide referendums last fall. Washington Education Association members responded with a May Day lesson of their own: More than 5,000 teachers, classroom aides, bus drivers and custodians walked out of Puget Sound-area schools in protest. Their one-day strike was followed by walkouts in school districts across the state, and union officials say mounting anger could escalate to statewide action. The new militancy mirrors a rise in teacher activism nationwide, which comes at a time of mounting cynicism about whether the new "education President" will significantly increase aid for schools. Senator Paul Wellstone dismissed Bush's education bill as "a charade" and lashed out at Congressional Democrats in early May for going soft on school-funding issues. "I thought Democrats were going to stand up for resources the right way," said Wellstone, after Senate Democrats sided with Republicans to clear the way for debate on the Bush bill. "I wish we would fight harder."... Teachers are fighting harder at the state level. Education unions across the country provided financial aid in April to the 13,000-member Hawaii State Teachers Association's twenty-day statewide strike, which ended with Hawaii Governor Ben Cayetano's agreement to up teacher pay not by the 9 percent over the next two years he initially proposed but by 16 percent.
WAGE WARS The Harvard Living Wage Campaign sit-in has focused national attention on the burgeoning movement to pass ordinances that lift pay rates for public and nonprofit workers above the poverty level. More than sixty local governments and school boards--from Ypsilanti, Michigan, to New York City--have enacted living-wage ordinances, according to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). Miami Beach; Ann Arbor; Missoula, Montana; and Rochester, New York, have passed municipal living-wage provisions this year, as has the Richmond, Virginia, school board. Living-wage campaigns are currently under way in more than seventy-five other communities, including Pittsburgh, Little Rock and Sacramento--where local unions working in coalition with church and student groups have begun organizing mass rallies to press for city action. Some college-based campaigns, such as the one at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, have already succeeded, while major efforts continue not just at Harvard but at other schools such as Swarthmore, where the Swarthmore Living Wage and Democracy Campaign got a boost from folk singer Si Kahn when he appeared on campus. Living-wage movements have progressed to the state level--in Massachusetts the Senate has passed a proposal to guarantee regular wage hikes by indexing the state minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index. Backed by a coalition that includes the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the state's Tax Equity Alliance and ACORN, the bill has a passionate supporter in Senate president Thomas Birmingham, a Democrat. He told a state House committee this spring, "We are in danger of becoming a bifurcated society, where the top 20 percent enjoy fabulous riches but many struggle like hamsters on a wheel just to keep their heads above water."
DRUG WARRIOR DISSENT President Bush is drawing fire for his nomination of "do drugs, do time" extremist John Walters to serve as the nation's drug czar. A Heritage Foundation acolyte, Walters quit a Clinton Administration drug-policy job to protest moves to spend more money on treatment. In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing he dismissed calls for greater emphasis on prevention and treatment as "this ineffectual policy--the latest manifestation of the liberals' commitment to a 'therapeutic state' in which government serves as the agent of personal rehabilitation." How does Walters propose to win the drug war? He's a big fan of stepping up US drug-war interventions in Colombia and Peru. He opposes state moves to exempt users of medical marijuana from drug laws. He calls complaints that drug law enforcement tactics disproportionally penalize young black men one of "the greatest urban myths of our time" and dismisses as "utter fantasy" the claim that jails are packed with drug users who need treatment--despite Bureau of Justice Statistics data showing that 25 percent of America's 2 million prisoners were locked up for drug offenses.... One Republican who is definitely not on the Walters bandwagon is New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who is pushing a legislative agenda that would make marijuana available for medical use, remove criminal sanctions for possession of under one ounce of marijuana and emphasize sending drug offenders to treatment programs rather than prison. Already, Johnson has signed bills to increase drug-treatment spending by 35 percent and to legalize syringe sales to fight AIDS. Clinton drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey once mocked the governor as "Puff Daddy Johnson," but he warns that his successor's positions are too extreme. "Instead of finding a 'compassionate conservative' to lead our antidrug efforts," says Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, "President Bush has selected a man whose views are regarded as harsh and extreme, even among drug warriors."
CONSTITUTIONAL LITERACY Last year Liz Armstrong, a high school biology teacher near Richmond, Virginia, got a lesson on the rights of students--and teachers--in an era of "zero tolerance." She was fired for objecting when administrators entered her classroom without suspicion and searched students for drugs and weapons. This April at American University's Washington College of Law, Armstrong was honored by the Marshall-Brennan Fellowship Program with the first Mary Beth Tinker Award, for the Person Who Most Courageously Defends the Rights of Students. Tinker's suspension from a Des Moines junior high school for wearing an antiwar armband led to the 1969 Supreme Court ruling extending free speech protections to students. Now a Service Employees International Union organizer, Tinker presented the award during a daylong session at which 200 students from Washington and Maryland were recognized for participating in a Marshall-Brennan constitutional literacy course. (A poetry slam was judged by Cecilia Marshall, widow of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.) Says AU law professor Jamin Raskin, "In the Tinker case thirty-two years ago, Justice Abe Fortas said public schools cannot be 'enclaves of totalitarianism.' Yet too many schools are that today--as the Armstrong case illustrates."
BLACK HAWK DOWN When Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation officials gathered in Washington to instruct lobbyists on pressuring Congress to increase the current $221 million allocation for purchases of the corporation's Black Hawk helicopters, used by the Colombian military, they were joined by six Oberlin College students. The women entered a National Guard museum conference room where the meeting was taking place, locked arms inside piping and then locked themselves around a pillar. Said Kate Berrigan--Phil's daughter--"We are here to let the Sikorsky Corporation know that they cannot profit off war and the suffering of the people of Colombia." Corporate officials hastily canceled the session as 100 activists--in town for a School of the Americas Watch lobbying day--gathered outside the building. The Oberlin students are members of the Oberlin Peace Activist League, which works with the Colombia Support Network to challenge US military involvement in Colombia. The six, who were arrested and charged with unlawful entry, are due back in DC for trial June 20. "We're going to do everything we can to put Sikorsky on trial," says Laurel Paget-Seekins, one of those arrested. "We want to see what a jury thinks about a corporation that lobbies Congress to intervene in another country so it can make a profit."
CAMPUS CRUSADES Citing "social responsibility" concerns, American University administrators announced on April 11 that the school would drop its contract with Sodexho-Marriott Services. That's a big win for the Not With Our Money Campaign of the Prison Moratorium Project, which has taken on Sodexho-Marriott, provider of food service at 900 universities in the United States and Canada. The firm's French parent company is the largest shareholder in Corrections Corporation of America, the world's biggest for-profit prison company. SUNY Albany, Maryland's Goucher College, Washington's Evergreen State, Virginia's James Madison University and Oberlin have also dumped Sodexho-Marriott. "We've shown that student activists can hold prison profiteers accountable," says Adam Choka, an American University student.... At Yale, which holds the patent on the AIDS drug Zerit, 600 students and staff petitioned the administration to pressure Bristol-Myers Squibb to remove barriers to affordable production of the drug. The company did so in March, sparking interest in activism at other schools holding drug patents.
PARTY OF PROTEST The controversy surrounding the summit and Canadian participation in the FTAA has given impetus to forces seeking to reshape Canada's democratic socialist New Democratic Party. Battered in recent elections, the NDP has been under pressure from traditionally supportive but increasingly frustrated unions, particularly the militant 220,000-member Canadian Auto Workers, to identify itself as a more explicitly anticorporate and activist political force. All thirteen NDP members of Parliament will be in Quebec City to join mass protests. Rabble-rousing NDP parliamentarian Svend Robinson hailed the new direction as "long overdue" and seized the opportunity to invite Montreal-based protest group SalAMI to Parliament Hill to provide nonviolent civil disobedience training.
BORDER BATTLE Because of Canada's stronger labor protections and broader social safety net, Canadian corporations often look to leap across the US border in the same way that US firms ponder moving operations to Mexico. In Manitoba, 250 striking Canadian Auto Workers members are fighting to prevent a move by Winnipeg's Buhler Versatile tractor plant to Fargo, North Dakota. The union has demanded that federal and provincial governments move to nationalize the plant, which was purchased by current owner John Buhler with substantial government assistance. "We're not going to sit back and allow this factory to be dismantled and moved," says CAW official Hemi Mitic.
NURSING A GRIEVANCE Six years ago the California Nurses Association--a militant union that has become a prime mover in campaigns for national healthcare reform, an ironclad patients' bill of rights and whistleblower protections for nurses--broke with the American Nurses Association. Now, following the CNA's lead, the 20,000-member Massachusetts Nurses Association has voted by a 4-to-1 margin to end a ninety-eight-year affiliation with the ANA. The ANA has come under increasing criticism for being too cautious in challenging the worst excesses of healthcare corporatization: managed-care abuses, staff shortages, mandatory overtime and limits on the ability of nurses to advocate for patients. The Massachusetts nurses' plan to forge links with the CNA and the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses to create what MNA president Denise Garlick predicts will be a national nurses' "movement for real reform and dramatic change."
TAX TROUBLES George W. Bush's campaign on behalf of his $1.6 trillion tax cut has been running into trouble not only in Washington, where senators are balking at the scheme to make the rich a whole lot richer, but also at the grassroots. Recent Bush barnstorming visits to Chicago and Portland were confronted by protests organized by Citizen Action of Illinois and Maine's Dirigo Alliance, which are aligned with the new Fair Taxes for All Coalition, organized by People for the American Way, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and more than 100 other union and civil rights groups. Many of the groups began working together in the fight to block the confirmation of John Ashcroft as Attorney General, says USAction's Jeff Blum. The twist is that the coalition is now stronger on the ground, with organizing continuing in twenty-eight states and April 11 rallies planned to counter Bush's pressure on wavering Democrats.
GREEN GIANT KILLER Back in the early days of the Clinton Administration, then-North Dakota Agriculture Secretary Sarah Vogel was touted as a potential US Secretary of Agriculture. But her challenges to corporate agribusiness and her outspoken opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement scuttled that idea. Too bad; as her subsequent career as a lawyer in her home state shows, she would have been a hell of a fighter for family farmers. With associate Courtney Koebele, Vogel recently won a $41 million settlement for 8,000 wheat farmers who faced financial ruin when the USDA and finance corporations shifted crop insurance formulas to pay farmers far less than had been promised. Her clients were activist farmers like Paul and Tom Wiley, who drove through North Dakota blizzards to deliver court documents before key deadlines. Vogel and her legal team are also taking on factory farms that spoil the environment, agribusiness corporations accused of selling farmers bad seeds and insurance companies that fail to cover crop damage. She's even going after the Bureau of Indian Affairs on behalf of members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who say BIA policies threaten Native American farmers. In farm country, Vogel has earned a reputation as "a giant killer in ag law." The fiery lawyer--who is using some of her fees to reopen Bismarck's natural-food restaurant, the Green Earth Cafe--says, "Corporate agriculture would have farmers be serfs." A third-generation rural activist, she says she'll keep using the courts until Washington enacts "farm policy from a farmer perspective"--including restrictions on agribusiness monopolies, fair-trade provisions and limits on genetic modification of food.
IN THE FDA WE DISTRUST Academics and agribusiness leaders who gathered on the University of Minnesota campus in early February dutifully sang the praises of Food and Drug Administration policies on genetically engineered foods. There was even a chorus of endorsements of FDA plans to implement voluntary guidelines for labeling altered foods. "The public trusts the FDA on this issue," intoned panelist Thomas Hoban. Outside in the Minneapolis cold, however, the public wasn't following the script. Police were called to disperse a crowd of several dozen activists from Genetically Engineered Food Alert, who raised a ruckus about what protester Matt Rand labeled the FDA's "very weak industry-backed policy." Food safety activists across the country are stepping up the campaign to get the United States to regulate the marketing of foods that are genetically engineered or that include GE ingredients--which now make up two-thirds of products on supermarket shelves. The Center for Food Safety and the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods are among those urging consumers to write to the FDA during a comment period that ends April 3, opposing the voluntary labeling plan and calling for tighter regulation. On Capitol Hill, Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is stepping up a drive for Congressional action on his Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act. He's working with the Organic Consumers Association and other groups to get constituents to push House members to endorse the bill--which had fifty-six co-sponsors in the last Congress. "If you ask the average American whether they want a label telling them the food they're buying has been genetically modified, they will answer, 'Absolutely,'" says Kucinich, who has developed a GE Food Action Center on his website, www.house.gov/kucinich. "By putting some organization behind that sentiment, we can make this into so big an issue that the industry lobbyists will have to get out of the way."
POLITICAL HEAT FROM THE KITCHEN "Eating is a political act," says Alice Waters, whose pioneering Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse has inspired dozens of organic eateries to reject the processed foods of agribusiness and buy produce from small farmers in neighboring communities. Top cooks from many of these restaurants have formed the Chefs Collaborative (chefnet.com), a network that promotes "sustainable cuisine" by supporting local farmers and educating children about healthy eating. Recently, they've stepped up efforts to educate chefs and consumers about threats to endangered species and ecosystems posed by corporate agribusiness. Chez Panisse, Philadelphia's White Dog Cafe and Chicago's Frontera Grill have launched high-profile initiatives to eliminate GE foods from their menus. "It is critical for us, as chefs, to lead in this public debate and to field questions in our dining rooms and in our kitchens," says Frontera's Rick Bayless. "We're still cooking, but we're also entering the public debate as people who work with food and who want Americans to start asking the questions we do about how food is produced," adds Ann Cooper, author of Bitter Harvest: A Chef's Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It (Routledge)... Now that even TV networks are reporting on mad cow disease, activist-authors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber are feeling a certain amount of satisfaction. "For years, when consumers should have been told about the risks they were taking when they bought beef, there was a blackout on the issue," says Stauber, who with Rampton wrote Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? (now available free at www.prwatch.com). Stauber and Rampton are back with a new book, Trust Us, We're Experts! How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future (Putnam).