Astroturf uncovered in grassroots protest (22/7/2003)

According to CS Prakash, "As for Vandana Shiva's 'bullshit award', this was given to her by her fellow countrymen who are tired of her tirade against anything modern."

Curious then that the contact on the award-givers' press release was an American living in London.

The daughter of a mid-western lumber industrialist, Kendra Okonski, has worked out of various far right institutes, including ones that connect to Prakash.

Her specialty?

Pro-corporate protest.

Here's Kendra and a few pals outside Starbucks, demanding milk in their latte from cows treated with Monsanto's genetically engineered cattle drug rBGH.

And here she is as organiser of the Washington-area "Walk for Capitalism".

Here's the counter-protest website she co-founded.

And here's an eye-witness account, taken from the diary James MacKinnon kept during last year's Earth Summit, of the ceremony at which the "bullshit award" was given to those like Vandana Shiva who raise objections to GM crops.
Astroturf uncovered in grassroots protest
August 28, 2002

The call came first thing in the morning from a local contact. A mob was gathering at George Lea Park, a nearby locus of protest. "There's mad police," he said. "And riot tanks."

It sounded like we were about to get our first whiff of real protest, South Africa-style. We headed out, catching up with the demo as lines of police forced it into an orderly column. It wasn't a huge group, but it was vocal, and most of the marchers were poor and black. Which made it slightly strange that the first person to approach was a polished-looking white Londoner, Kendra Okonski, an organizer with the Sustainable Development Network. It was a march for the rights of street hawkers and small farmers, she said. Real people. Real struggle.

So why did I get a funny feeling about this rally? It might have been the signs, such as a perfectly stencilled "Say No To Eco-Imperialism." It might have been the shirts with slogans like "Stop Global Whining." Since when are Jo'burg street hawkers, struggling to survive on $8 US per day, hot under the collar about the growing power of Greenpeace? Since when are small-scale African farmers jeering the "bogus science" of climate change?

I approached Shadrack Mkhwashu, a man in threadbare clothes carrying a sign reading "Greens: Stop Hurting the Poor." The sign was just something he picked up at the park, he said. He was a hawker from Soweto, here to demonstrate against a government effort to get people like him off the street and into indoor markets where he'd have to pay about $60 US per month in rent.

So what was his beef with the Earth Summit? He didn't have one; in fact, he wished it well. He only wanted to take his message to the African National Congress officials hiding in the conference center somewhere beyond the razor wire.

"They don't think for us any more," said Mkhwashu. "Today, they live in their big houses, they live in Sandton and drive big cars, Mercedes. They don't feel for us."

I spoke to a few other hawkers - Colin Baloyi, Michael Mogale, Americo Mibasi - and the story was the same. They were members of hawkers' organizations, some of which have been active for over a quarter-century. These guys had cred.

Still, something was fishy. Alongside the street vendors were people like Wisdom Changadeya, a sharp-dressed man holding a poster in support of genetically modified foods (he was with AfricaBio, a group that works closely with biotech corporations). There was a media team from Tech Central Station, a neoliberal news site that rejects the idea of global warming. And there were the Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow, an Ayn Rand fanclub from Washington, DC, that was struggling to turn the hawkers' simple call for the right to a livelihood into a denouncement of UN programs "wasting billions on theoretical environmental risks."

It was a bizarre scene that only came clear in a discussion with Neil Emerick, a white man hoisting a banner reading "Free Trade is Fair Trade." Emerick is with the Free Market Foundation, South Africa's answer to neoliberal think-tanks like America's Cato Institute and the Fraser Institute in Canada. For years, he said, the foundation had supported the hawkers' right to trade on the streets. He didn't have to explain the quid pro quo -- terrific photo-ops with the struggling poor marching beneath foundation banners that call for an end to every form of restriction on economic power.

The rally ended at the "speaker's corner," an intersection tucked out of sight behind the Earth Summit mall. Among the speakers, the highlight was Barun Mitra, director of the Liberty Institute in Delhi, India (yes, the subcontinent has its own neocon[servative] think-tank). He was there, surrounded by South Africa's urban poor, to award a "bullshit award" to the opponents of biotechnology. The award was a real beauty: two huge lumps of what appeared to be the real deal.

While he spoke, I tried to make conversation with three women wearing brand-new t-shirts with pro-biotech slogans. They smiled shyly; none of them could speak or read English. As bullshit awards go, it was a golden moment.

James MacKinnon
for more on the "fake parade" and other astroturfing by biotech lobbyists, see:
Biotech's Hall of Mirrors, GeneWatch Vol. 16, No. 1

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