A 42-year history of strict adherence to democratic practice at the Park Slope Food Coop was upended Tuesday night at the January General Meeting, attended by 486 of its 16,000 members. Following the physical disruption of the April 2015 GM in which BDS supporters tried to give a presentation about why the coop should boycott SodaStream, opponents proposed requiring a super-majority of 75% to approve any future boycott.
In keeping with the coop’s procedures, the agenda is determined three weeks in advance by the agenda committee to make sure proposals are well thought through and compliant with governance policies. Since its founding in 1973, the coop has been a direct democracy, with policy set by its open, monthly General Meeting. Great deference is usually shown by the members to the guidance given by the coop’s paid staff, the General Coordinators.
Since the coop first started discussing a possible boycott of some or all Israeli products, Congregation Beth Elohim has stopped permitting GM’s to be held at its neoclassical temple on Eight Avenue and Garfield Place. Instead, space is rented out at an area high school, selected based on expected attendance. The January GM was in a Catholic school auditorium, filled to capacity, even in the balcony.
Brooklyn for Peace sounded the tocsin once the agenda was available, and it’s fair to say that anyone who had a strong opinion on the topic was in attendance. Since the disrupted April meeting, the General Coordinators had imposed certain inhibitions of debate on the topic of Israel-Palestine, such as briefly prohibiting letters to the biweekly coop newsletter. Back in March 2012, a stacked GM rejected a coop-wide referendum on a boycott of Israeli products, and as a result, the issue festered like a sore. The coop newsletter, called “The Linewaiter’s Gazette,” has been laced with opinion-filled letters on the topic ever since.
The highlight of the evening for me was when member Mab Segrest, author of “Memoir of a Race Traitor,” got up, and in her southern accent, spoke in opposition to the proposal, citing about her lived experience of Jim Crow. It seemed not many in the audience knew who she was. Artist and anti-war activist Laurie Arbeiter who created the black t-shirts that say “We will not be silent,” in Arabic and English was silenced. She was the only person that night who had the microphone turned off on her for exceeding the 2-minute limit. The slogan was self-consciously taken from that used by the anti-Nazi resistance group, White Rose.
Several members pointed out that requiring a super majority on a subset of decision-making conflicts with the coop’s bylaws, and that changing the bylaws requires a 67% majority of the membership, with written notice in advance. The Chair of the meeting at first agreed with this but changed her ruling after caucusing with the six other members of the Chair committee. The fact that the proposal made in April 2015 to boycott a single Israeli product (Sodastream) was never returned to the agenda, was dismissed by the Chair who said “We’re not required to go in chronological order.” The effect of these irregularities in the meeting procedure will be seen over time.
All 486 members remained in the auditorium when pre-printed paper ballots that bore only the name of the proposal and one box for yes and one box for no, were handed out at 9:20pm. The title of the proposal was “A smarter, more cooperative boycott policy.” At 9:45pm, the results of the vote were announced: 294 in favor of the proposal to limit democracy and 192 against. Despite the setback, the fact that 40% of the coop members present saw through the touted accusations of anti-Semitism, is historic. While BDS opponents may be celebrating their victory here and in Israel, the coop community has put “paid” to that old shibboleth.
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