Reportback from the #GilltractDefense and Boycott Sprouts action on March 14, 2015 in Walnut Creek, Calif.
By Kaitlin Oki and Kat Perkins
Arranged in a human blockade in the main entrance of the Sprouts Farmers Market in Walnut Creek, California Saturday afternoon, I and two dozen others held a sit-in around the remnants of one of the 53 trees demolished in late February in preparation for the construction of Sprouts’s newest location: the Gill Tract in Albany, California. In defiance of the commercial development of the last remaining agricultural land in the Albany-Berkeley area and the destruction of the Gill Tract Community Farm, Occupy the Farm activists, Fast Food Workers Union delegates, veterans, students, and community members picketed, bearing the branches of the felled trees, chanted to the tunes of the Brass Liberation Orchestra and Occupella, and spoke about the boycott.
The best part came with an entourage of ralliers armed with shopping carts, marching into Sprouts “Farmers Market” to the head-turning resonance of brass instruments and snare drums. As I danced between the aisles of individually packaged containers of dried fruit and gourmet candies, I mused that this was probably the closest the store had come to resembling an authentic farmers market. You know — the kind with actual farmers, live music, and values not preceded by dollar signs.
What a travesty! The whole situation is so absurd it makes me laugh. Not only does the corporate chain of Sprouts continually misrepresent its products as “local” and “natural” and plaster its walls with romanticized agricultural imagery, but it also neatly packages the entirety of its capitalist culture, union-busting actions, and monolithic corporate structure within stucco walls and hardwood floors and labels it in big green letters: FARMERS MARKET. And then proceeds to layer a thick slab of cement and pavement atop the last remaining bit of viable agricultural land in the Berkeley-Albany area. Land rich with humus and sweat and tears. Land sold by the Gill family almost hundred years ago to the land-grant University of California for the purposed of agricultural research to benefit the public. Land labored, loved, and defended by dozens of student farmers, stewarded and shaped by the hands of a community for the development of community. Not simply rows of beautiful purple kale and hearty beans and summer squash, but the tangible staging ground for defiance in the face of the privatization and commodification of public resources (e.g., food, land, and education) and the destruction of community common spaces and active civic participation. At the very least, I hope Sprouts customers can recognize the blatant irony if not the atrocious insult of abusing the phrase “farmers market” in this way.
A visibly puzzled Walnut Creek shopper turned to me amongst the commotion, “What’s going on?” I explained, “We’re farmers of the Gill Tract— one of the last pieces of farmland in the Berkeley-Albany area. And this store is trying to pave over our farm, so we’re protesting — disrupting Sprouts’ business as usual until they stop disrupting our community.”
Indeed, a handful of the Sprouts staff stood by passively at the back of the store behind rolling smartphone cameras. A fellow rallier repeatedly asked a butcher, “Excuse me. Can I please get five pounds of ribeye?” who politely nodded and then mysteriously disappeared behind the meats counter. Sprouts customers quickly grew more confused and/or annoyed trying to navigate the now crowded aisles. Business, indeed, was not proceeding as usual. A few moments later, and a police officer redirected me toward the second entrance, where Sprouts customers and ralliers alike headed in a sudden exodus, police nipping at our heels. I abandoned my half-full grocery cart and followed suit.
Abruptly, not more than ten feet ahead, grocery carts fell noisily to the floor in front of the automatic sliding doors. In the next moment, a storefront display was upset, and within seconds, multiple police swiftly rushed past me and shoved their way through the crowd, handcuffed the woman now down on the sidewalk, and escorted her to a police vehicle parked on Geary Road. The rally kept pace, shouting in unison, “Let her go! Let her go!” and offering the woman reassurance through the tinted glass. Another minute, and the police car sped away.
Infuriated and distraught, we returned to the storefront. Briefly it seemed the positive energy and enthusiasm of the rally would dissipate. At this point, however, one of the rally organizers picked up the bullhorn. He reminded us that we would not back down in the face of adversity and police diversionary tactics — that we would continue to exercise our rights and challenge oppressive institutions, be it police, corrupt UC regents, or the privatization of the commons. And after all, we had just successfully shut down the store. That said, the brass band picked up their instruments, and dancing and chanting ensued once again.
It’s exactly this kind of attitude that restores my faithincreating positive change in a world that often seems unkind. It’s the kind of thing that reawakens my heart when my mind has become saturated with one tragic news headline after another. And to know this is only the beginning, only the first of many things to come — that gives me hope. We’re not stopping now, nor anytime soon — not until Sprouts and the University of California drop the idea of paving over any inch of our twenty acres. We will disrupt business as usual until they terminate their contract with the University. We will continue to point out the hypocrisy of police who enact violence on our communities, target women of color, and protect the theft of public resources. I think I can speak on the behalf of many present at the rally when I say that I felt a renewed commitment to action against corporate land grabs, greenwashed groceries, and a privatized University of California.