Last weekend I went to my very first protest. I’ve never been to a protest because I’m not really the kind of person who intentionally puts myself in situations designed to stir up trouble. Especially not one like the March Against Monsanto that is pretty well known for being an anti-GMO angry mob. Usually, I would stay far away from those kinds of protests. But, this time was different because this year there was a group called March Against Myths about Modification (or MAMyths) protesting the March Against Monsanto with pro-GMO messages. That’s a little more my style, except I still don’t really like the idea of poking a hornet’s nest. One of the reasons I started this blog was to give myself an outlet to talk about these issues, because I don’t really like to do it at dinner parties, in line at the coffee shop, or at the bus stop with my kids in tow. I was pretty reluctant to go at all; I’m generally non-confrontational and agreeable with strangers. I decided to go by promising myself (and my husband) I was only going as an observer, as a journalist covering the event for my blog. I wouldn’t get into any angry debates and if it got ugly, I’d just get back on the bus and go home. I took my camera and my notepad in my shaky hands and rode the bus to downtown Portland. I spent much of the ride practicing yoga breathing and giving myself a pep talk.
At first, I was afraid no one was going to show up. I arrived at the park and I didn’t see anyone holding a pro-GMO sign. At one end of the square was a stage surrounded by people holding signs that read, “Buzz Off Monsanto, You’re Killing Us,” “Monsanto is Murder,” “Hell No GMO,” and one pregnant lady was holding a sign that said, “Quit Trying To Get In My Genes.” There were little kids holding anti-Monsanto signs, people dressed up in bee costumes, people in straw hats passing out “GMO-free” organic tomato plants (I held back the urge to tell them that there aren’t any GMO tomatoes), a guy with an oversized bike, some people dressed up like clowns, and a couple of people wearing Halloween masks. I seriously started to re-think my attendance. But soon enough a few people came out of the woodwork wearing green and once a few people were standing together, 15 people emerged from nowhere. Understandably, no one wanted to be the first to hold up an, “Ask Me About GMOs” sign. But once there was strength in numbers, they set up a table, put some pro-GMO literature on it, passed out “I heart GMO” stickers, and turned to face the “angry mob.” There were about 20 MAMyths supporters facing about 200 who had come to March Against Monsanto.
And maybe they were a bit angry at the beginning, but amazingly, it never got ugly. People wandered over with pissed-off looks on their faces and started asking questions. One guy actually thought they were joking. But the MAMyths group faced them with smiles and calm voices. They handed out the flyer and started a conversation. I stood by the side and watched. Almost every single time, the anti-GMO person would start off really guarded and defensive but after a few non-hostile sentences from the pro-GMO side, their aggression deflated. They realized the group wasn’t there to fight. In fact, MAMyths had a sign that said, “Don’t start a fight, start a conversation.” And that’s what they did, conversation after level-headed conversation. A lot of them started like this, “Ok, I don’t know a whole lot, give me your spiel.” They talked about the scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs, and how GMOs have helped farmers increase yield and decrease the impact on the environment. For the most part, it was very civil. Some people remained unconvinced, agreed to disagree and walked away. Some talked for a good ten minutes or more and there were definitely a good number of people that seemed to walk away questioning their previous assumptions. Maybe a few were even fully convinced.
Some weird things did happen, though. A woman who seemed to be in charge of the march came over and demanded MAMyths get off the square because they had reserved the whole place. Fortunately, MAMyths had already called the city and confirmed they didn’t need a permit, so they stayed put and she didn’t bring it up again. One lady did a walk-by yelling, “I’m going to find out who funds you!” To which a few MAMyths folks mumbled, “Let us know when you find out.” One guy yelled, “You’re in the wrong F@!#ing place, you better get the f@!# outta here, I’m serious!” But the group ignored him. I overheard, “Oh, so you’re pro-vaccine, too?” and “You LIKE high fructose corn syrup?!” Then one of the MAMyths guys went and bought the whole group Starbucks coffee, which was awesome. But then the coffee drinkers caught flak for drinking Starbucks by one lady who walked by and yelled, “Starbucks? Really? Low wages and they treat their employees bad? Nice.” But that was balanced out when a lady gave the group a Starbucks gift card because she said her employer gave it to her and she wouldn’t use it, but they might. Maybe the craziest thing was when a lady dressed in a bee costume started doing a wavy dance at the group with her Stevie Nicks-style scarf and said, “I’m reprogramming you because you’re children of darkness.” Even though it was clearly a waste of time, one of the MAMyths crew engaged her in a very nice conversation about her conspiracy theories. All in all, I’d say it went pretty well. I’m pretty sure most of the MAMyths crew felt good about it.
There’s only one thing I’m really disappointed about. At the beginning of the event I looked around for reporters and spotted a few. I walked up to each of them to find out who they were and to make sure they knew about the counter protest. The Portland State University paper was there and a few other small publications, but I was pleasantly surprised when one guy said, “I’m with OPB News (Oregon Public Broadcasting).” I told him about the counter protest and said he’d know who they were because they’d be the ones wearing green and holding pro-GMO signs. I told him he’d be welcome if he wanted to talk to anyone in the group. He nodded.
Then he proceeded to ignore the whole group of 20 smiling people who were striking up difficult conversations about unpopular topics among people holding hate signs. Later that day he published 19 photos of the event, and not a single one of them included the MAMyths group. I can come to no other conclusion than he didn’t want to tarnish Portland’s “keep it weird” image with pictures of regular people supporting GMOs. I guess OPB would rather publish sensational images of clowns driving oversized bikes and people dressed up in bee costumes and people holding signs that say, “Monsatan Evil Seed” next to a hand-drawn picture of a skull, and a group of grandmothers singing anti-Monsanto songs. Maybe he didn’t think a group consisting of farmers, scientists, moms, students and vegans who support GMOs was newsworthy enough. Maybe next year someone needs to dress up as a big dancing Arctic Apple if they want to get the attention of OPB. It would be one thing to deem the entire event not worthy of news coverage, like the Oregonian did. But to come to the event and only cover the part you want readers to see? As a journalist, I find bias like that pretty inexcusable. But, no worry. MAMyths will be back next year to give OPB another chance to do it right.
I know they’ll be back again because we all learned something pretty important while we were there. March Against Monsanto is not intimidating. It took a lot of courage for that group of 20 people to show up to a GMO protest and hold a sign that said, “We Love GMOs.” But in the end, there was nothing scary at all. In fact, most of the people were just using the march as an excuse to get out and be angry about something. They weren’t even all angry about the same things – some people were marching with “increase the minimum wage” signs and some people were going on about chemtrails and government conspiracies. It was like everyone was pissed about a different issue and they were all coming together and talking about it like it was the same thing. They just use Monsanto as a catch-all for everything they’re upset about, even things that don’t make any sense. That’s not scary, it’s just well, kind of stupid.
I’m glad I went after all. It’s about time some reasonable people stood up next to March Against Monsanto so we can all see the juxtaposition of rational next to irrational. Maybe some people will change the way they think about GMOs, maybe not. But it’s a really good place to start.