McLibel and Wal-Suit trials: people who fought against these companies and made a difference

was eerily familiar to our own Wal-Mart experience. After viewing this important and inspiring film recently, I must recommend that all activists see this film immediately. It started with one woman-Helen Steel. She was the first to take a stand, and then she was soon followed by Dave Morris who fought by her side to the bittersweet end. The two British activists made history in the longest ever English trial, by taking on the multi-national corporation McDonald's. 

It began in 1982 when both activists were busy handing out leaflets with their group London Greenpeace. The group started by protesting environmental issues such as nuclear power and social justice issues including Third World Debt. In 1985 they launched International Day of Action Against McDonald's, which continues on Oct.16th to this day. In 1986 they produced a six-sided fact sheet called "What's wrong with McDonald's-Everything they don't want you to know." The leaflet attacked many aspects of the corporations business accusing them of exploiting children with their advertising, promoting an unhealthy diet, exploiting workers, and environmental damage as well as cruelty to animals.

London Greenpeace held regular meetings, and were soon infiltrated by private investigators hired by McDonald's. They actually hired two separate firms, and even had them spying on each other, as well as the activist's in the group. Some meetings actually had as many spies as it had activists. The information obtained by the spies was used to issue libel writs to 5 volunteers in the group. There was no public legal aid for libel cases and the only legal advice they got was that this type of law was extremely complex and would be very costly so best to just end it by apologizing to McDonald's.

Three of them apologized. Dave Morris, a mailman and single dad, and Helen Steel, a gardener, chose to take on the challenge. Helen said, "It just really stuck in the throat to apologize to McDonald's. I thought it was them that should have been apologizing to us-well not us specifically, but to society for the damage they do to society and the environment."  Keir Starmer, a progressive barrister, admired their courage and offered his legal advice. They would however, have to actually try the case themselves.

This case has many twists and turns, and is well worth the time to view the film as well as their website: exploit children with advertising and produces misleading advertising. They were also guilty of being ‘culpably responsible' for cruelty to animals and ‘antipathetic' to unionization as well as paying low wages. This verdict was a devastating blow to McDonald's. On the other hand, the Judge ruled Dave and Helen had libeled McDonald's on the remaining points and should pay 60,000 pounds in damages. They refused to pay and McDonald's, having already suffered the worst public relations nightmare in history and having spent over 10 million pounds, chose not to pursue the fine. In March 1999, the Court of Appeal made further rulings against McDonald's in regard to workers treatment and the food being linked to risk of heart disease. The legal issues continued into the next century, when Helen and Dave took the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights, to defend the public's right to criticize multinational corporations. The court ruled in the activists favor, stating the case had breached their rights to freedom of expression and a fair trial.

The enormity of this triumph, may take some time to absorb. Two everyday people, changed the law for an entire nation, and it happened in your lifetime.  These were not ‘great' people and they are not ‘great' people. They are simply human beings like you and me, who used their personal power to initiate a change in our world. You, too, can enact these types of changes. 

A story a little closer to home is of course the Wal-Suit case on the Anclote River. There are many newspaper articles written about it, and they may continue until the near future date that the land becomes preserved by the Trust for Public Land, and is officially made a riverfront park.  This story began with a small group of citizens, first spearheaded by Tarpon Springs residents: breaking all night City Commission hearing in Tarpon Springs on January 18th 2005. The City Commission Ruled 3-2 in favor of approving Wal-Mart's illegal site plan. Commissioner Peter Dalacos was one of the dissenting votes and the other was cast by Peter Nehr who now sits as a State House Representative.  It is worth noting (for you political whores), that on 7/17/2006 Nehr took a $500 campaign contribution from Wal-Mart for his 2006 State House run while he was still sitting on the City Commission.  Could it be true that his vote against the project was merely political theater?  It had been widely whispered that since Commissioner Dalacos would be the only real opposition on the Commission for the project that Nehr could easily gain favor from the overwhelming citizen activists who opposed the project by safely voting against Wal-Mart at the all night hearing. So with a wink and a nod to Wal-Mart, the future Representative cast his vote in favor of the people. And so goes the world of politics. Many citizens believed, and some probably still believe that Rep. Nehr was on our side that night and thus eagerly donated time and money to his campaign. Let us not forget another major Nehr campaign contributor; Attorney Ed Armstrong. He was representing the land owner who was to profit from selling the riverfront land to Wal-Mart. This guy is quite ubiquitous throughout Pinellas County, in a zeal to develop every inch of green earth. Interesting how forgiving these contributors were to the one who had recently cast a vote to shut them down.

The Friends of the Anclote River filed 2 court challenges: a writ of certiori and a 163 complaint. The writ was essentially a challenge to the procedure that was conducted at the all night hearing, or in other words and appeal of the 3-2 ruling that approved the site plan. The sixth district circuit court denied the writ on March 22nd, 2006. The 163 complaint was a challenge to the inconsistency of the site plan with regards to the comprehensive plan and was ruled against much later. The group had hired a legal team that rivaled Wal-Mart, not only in its ability to overcharge money, but also its ability to make ridiculous mistakes. Needless to say, the court battles did not favor the activists, even after raising and spending over $100,000 in legal fees. 

Oh yes, and the next twist (a theme that I found repeats itself in other cases) is when the Friends' attorney calls the group and tells them they must sign a settlement agreement with Wal-Mart. The proposed settlement agreement read like Wal-Mart drafted it alone. The Friends of the Anclote got absolutely zero concessions. No trees, nor wetlands would be saved- nothing. Wal-Mart on the other hand would get a free ride and a promise that none would ever sue them again. I personally spoke to our attorney and told him no, I will not sign that. He next attempted to scare me into signing, by telling me that he was withdrawing from the case and I would be on my own (again a foreshadowing of the lost. 

I tell this part of the story to emphasize the fact that people who dare to stand up to tyranny often find the help they need, just at the right moment. Greg helped advise me and listened to my whining, long enough to challenge Wal-Mart's illegally gained Army Corps Permit. By this time the Friends of the Anclote River came back to the fight and I took the 163 case pro se, and continued down the list of ‘good guy' environmental attorneys (another repeating theme) and expert witnesses (yep, this too), until finally an angel called me on the phone. I had just left an attorneys office after having a bit of an anger management issue with a lawyer that just didn't see things the way I did, when I got a call from Jane West from Collins and West attorneys at law. Martha Collins had told me she was too busy to take my case when I first called her, but now her partner was ready to help.

The case took many twists and turns. Greg had left WARN and it was Colin Fiske's turn to help with advice and give me a shoulder to cry on. Jane West successfully argued against Wal-Marts attempt to toll the projects deadline, in front of Judge Nelly Kouzam. And we had learned our lesson on how much to spend on an attorney and just when and how to use them. We successfully challenged the Army Corps Permit and had it revoked. We successfully challenged the SWFWMD permit and had it revoked. We successfully challenged them when they tried to steal the gopher tortoises, and they were forced to put the animals back, etc. There were so many details and ups and downs over the years, that I dare not take the time to tell it all here, so I will attempt to wrap it up. 

Ultimately, we beat them right back where it all started. We beat them in City Hall. Over the years many citizen activists chose to run for City Commission with anti-Wal-Mart campaigns. Several more chose to join influential City Boards. Still others already sitting on Boards, chose to side with the people, instead of the developer.  Some still felt the sting from a threatening letter written prior to the first all night hearing all those years ago. City Attorney John Hubbard told the Planning and Zoning Board and City Staff that they would be individually sued by Wal-Mart if they voted against approval.  This opinion was repeated by later City Attorney Jim Yacavonne of the same law firm, only to be spun 180 degrees later still, when his opinion changed to the exact opposite.  We beat them at the Board of Adjustment, Planning and Zoning, and finally in the Board of Commissioners, who had to rule against their own Attorneys advice.  Yacavonne had asserted that the Certificate of Concurrency (a document that states that a project must stay current in regard to things like traffic and safety) was good for 10 years. The City had recently agreed that such a Certificate on the neighboring Lowes project was only good for 3. Somehow the City Attorney as well as Wal-Mart's attorney were asking us to believe traffic would not change in 10 years time, nor would safety standards increase. This laughable argument ended shamefully for the evil corporation and was the final straw to break Wal-Mart's back. 

I tell these stories to accentuate the point, that any one of you can help change the world. You can make our planet a better place to live. It does not take special people with special abilities. I have said it many times:  There are no great men or woman, only great ideas and great deeds. People are human, and humans make mistakes. Avoid making people into heroes and putting them up on a pedestal. This creates a false sense that there is something special or greater than yourself, about an individual. All of us possess the ability to make change. The McLibel trial demonstrates how an untrained citizen can rip apart the best expert McDonald's money could buy. And in our BOA hearing, Dory Larson (9 months pregnant at the time) ripped apart Wal-Mart's zillion dollar expert engineer during cross examination (a must see video clip, I will someday post for all to see).

The opposition may have more money, but in the end they are mere mortals like you and me. I remember when my first karate instructor would hold up one finger and say, if only one would stand up the empire will fall.

Stand up!


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