The event, organised by hardworking parents and staff was effectively taken over by a sponsor - McDonald's - on the basis of a promised 500 pound donation.
There were two performances by 'Ronald McDonald', the fast food marketing character, who promoted company products to the children. McDonald's commandeered the only marquee all day (which had been hired for 250 pounds) for their promotional materials, whilst local children and parents ran stalls in the rain and any parents who were concerned were followed by McDonald's representatives and told to leave! What guidelines should there be to protect our vulnerable children from being targeted by sophisticated marketing strategies? It should be noted, for example, that last year McDonald's spent $1.8 billion worldwide on advertising and promtions, and their head of marketing has stated that "children are virgin ground as far as marketing is concerned". How do we prevent outside organisations taking advantage of the underfunding of our local services? We call on all local people to organise and support their local parents and residents group, to discuss such matters and to speak out in defence of our vital local services.
International Society For
Ecology and Culture
The city of Montpelier, VT recently won a hard-fought battle against the McDonald's Corporation, which wanted to turn part of a century-old building in the city's historic district into a 34 seat "Express" restaurant. The city's Planning Commission turned McDonald's application down in March, but as is their practice the corporation quickly appealed that decision in the courts. After a two-day court hearing, the judge again ruled against McDonald's. Today, McDonald's announced it would not exercise its only remaining legal option, an appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court. For now, the citizens of Montpelier have won. In the hope that what we learned fighting McDonald's here will offer not only inspiration but also practical information to those fighting McDonald's and other corporations elsewhere, here is our story.
Montpelier is a small town, with a little over 8000 residents. Because it is the state capital, as well as the commercial center for a number of much smaller farming communities nearby, it has a surprisingly vibrant business core for its size. Residents of Montpelier can actually get everything they need from local businesses in the five or six square block central business district; for many residents, everything is within walking distance. This is a rarity in America today, where strip developments and malls - largely composed of corporate chains - have eaten away at small towns like a voracious cancer. But Montpelier, like Vermont itself, is not immune to the economic forces that spread this disease. Although it is the only state capital without a Donald's, Montpelier does have a Dunkin' Donuts and a Subway; just this year the local pharmacy that had served people's needs for 40 years closed not long after the Brooks Drugs chain moved into town, and a locally-owned photocopying business closed within weeks of the opening of a Mailboxes Etc. franchise.
Unfortunately, most of Montpelier's residents seemed resigned or oblivious to these changes. But when McDonald's announced its intention to open a restaurant in the heart of town, much of Montpelier's population was instantly galvanized. At least part the explanation for the public's response is that McDonald's symbolizes and exemplifies the worst of modern consumer culture. The handwriting on the wall was finally clear for all to see: Montpelierites are in danger of losing control of their economy and the character of their town.
The initial Planning Commission hearing devoted to McDonald's was an inspiring example of spontaneous participatory democracy. Without prior organizing, over 100 citizens packed the hearing room, carrying homemade signs and passing out hand-drawn cartoons and cardboard anti-McDonald's buttons. Many in the crowd were clearly angry and upset, and the issues they raised spoke to the heart of the destructive changes happening around the world: the corporate dominance of everyday life, the emphasis on economic growth rather than quality of life, the loss of community identity in a world homogenized for the benefit of corporate producers and marketers. Citizens wanted the Commissioners to consider the effect on the local economy of a business whose goal is to pump money out of communities and into distant corporate bank accounts. People linked local environmental issues - like the trash and litter fast-food restaurants generate - with more distant ecological damage, like the clearcutting of rainforests for cattle ranching. People talked about the corporate strategy of targeting their advertising at young children, a practice which puts to rest the argument that consumers are "free to choose" whether or not to patronize the restaurant. Others pointed out how grossly inappropriate it would be to allow the premier icon of schlocky mass-produced convenience to inhabit a historic building imbued with the loftier ideals of an earlier era.
The Planning Commissioners, however, dismissed these issues as irrelevant: their mandate only allowed them to look at a very narrow range of issues centered around traffic and parking. But for a number of reasons it was still crucial that these issues were raised. For one, the myth of the public's tacit endorsement of creeping corporate dominance was at least temporarily shattered, and people had the opportunity to hear their neighbors echo what may have been until then private reservations about the direction of modern society. After a McDonald's representative referred to Montpelier as a "market", one resident angrily responded, "We're not a market, we're a community", a sentiment the crowd loudly applauded. Just as important, even if the "rules of e game" prohibited the Planning Commissioners from basing their decision on anything but traffic and parking, the broader issues had been broached, and the commissioners were clearly informed of the depth and breadth of public feeling. (Not every agreed, of course. The City Council, for example, voted to send the McDonald's Corporation a letter of apology for the citizenry's "rude" behavior, while the local newspaper has been tireless in its cheerleading for McDonald's).
An informal, ad hoc group of about 15 people was formed from among those who had attended the meeting. As a group, we discussed strategy and our sometimes differing perspectives on the best approach to take. The ultimate consensus of the group was to pursue a two-track approach in the short term: since a Planning Commission decision in our favor could be easily overturned in court if it was based on factors other than the "relevant" criteria, we would confine our arguments in that forum to traffic, parking and design; elsewhere, including op-ed pieces and letters-to-the-editor, petitions, flyers and word of mouth, we would do our best to raise the full range of issues. The longer-term strategy - including strengthening the zoning regulations and working with others to redefine the powers of corporations - would wait until the question of this particular McDonald's was decided.
A great deal of work by a lot of people went into this effort. Countless letters-to-the-editor were written, and anti-McDonald's signs and leaflets appeared on bulletin boards and in windows all over town. We conducted our own traffic study (it's not too difficult) that refuted the claims of McDonald's traffic expert. Members of the group - as well as many other concerned citizens - spoke up at the two subsequent Planning Commission hearings, raising questions based on personal first-hand experience with traffic and parking in the city and with McDonald's outlets elsewhere. We tried to identify different ways of framing the issues - e.g. with regard to children, pedestrians, illegal parkers, etc. - to make sure that each of these was raised. We tried to avoid repeating ourselves, ensuring that each speaker before the Commission would be heard.
Ultimately, the strategy succeeded, as the Commission voted (by a 4-3 vote) to turn McDonald's down.
McDonald's almost immediately announced it would appeal, and our next hurdle would be in court. This is a venue far less open to public participation than Planning Commission hearings: a single judge would decide, and testimony was likely to be dismissed unless it was presented by an "expert". A knowledge of the law was required, and we would be up against the best lawyers McDonalds' deep pockets could buy.
The City Council was far friendlier to McDonald's than the general public, and they had to be pressured to allocate funds for a legal defense of the Planning Commission's decision. People were encouraged to phone their council representative at home and let them know that they expected them to do the right thing. Although the council finally voted to defend itself against the appeal, they did so only tepidly (and even tried to settle with McDonald's on the eve of the trial). While the council hemmed and hawed, we decided to file as "appellees" ourselves, so that even if the city backed out, we would be there to defend the Planning Commission's decision. Over 50 citizens agreed to list themselves as legal appellees in the case, and these were kept informed of the status of the case in periodic mailings and by telephone.
Since we couldn't depend on the city to defend itself, this approach meant finding our own legal help: without it we would easily find ourselves drowning in incomprehensible legal motions filed by McDonald's. Our search for a lawyer willing to take the case pro bono was fruitless, but we found one who would work for a reduced rate and donate some of her hours. The decision would again rest on traffic and arking issues, and we were fortunate to find an excellent traffic expert who testified on our behalf for free. Much of the work was done by local citizens, working long hours in unfamiliar legal terrain. Sleepless nights and lost weekends were not uncommon.
Even though the judge assigned to the case had a "pro-business" reputation, two days of hearings convinced him that McDonald's had failed to prove its claim that the restaurant would have no impact on traffic or parking, and their application was again rejected. Apparently feeling that they would have no better luck with the Supreme Court, McDonald's has decided against further appeal.
The citizens of Montpelier have won a small battle against corporate domination, but we would be deluding ourselves if we believed we have won the war. McDonald's -- or Burger King, Taco Bell, Kmart, Staples, Home Depot, and a dozen other corporate predators -- could be at our doorstep tomorrow, and we cannot afford to wage this same battle over and over. Long term success means work that is pro-active, rather than reactive to the moves of every corporation that wants to exploit us as a "market". If we care about the quality of life in our town, if we want want to nurture our local economy and retain the distinct identity that gives us a sense of community, we have to be sure that our local laws include language that allows those criteria to be addressed. We need to meet head-on the absurd argument that instead of consciously determining our own future we should "let the market decide" -- a stance that reduces democracy to the right to choose among a range of corporate-delivered goods, and ignores the subtle manipulation that billions of dollars in advertising will buy.
On an even more fundamental level, our recent encounter with McDonald's has revealed to Montpelier's citizens how vulnerable we really are, and how much needs to be done to protect our community from the corporate maw. Hopefully, it will spur us, and others, to join in the difficult but necessary work of redefining the role of huge impersonal corporations in our economic, political and community life, and to help shift the direction of change toward more human-scale institutions and relationships.
For all of you out there working to oppose McDonald's and other corporations in your communities, good luck in those battles. Keep in mind, however, that the work doesn't stop there, even if you win.