Did Somebody Say SHUT DOWN McDonalds?

by Kari Lydersen

Chicago Ink, April 1998

When Jennifer Beatty walked to her Moraine Valley Community College class in Palos Hills, Illinois, she was greeted by a professor wielding a letter forbidding her to attend school. When she refused to comply, the police were called in to restore order. Beatty's crime? A dislike for greasy hamburgers and the distasteful labor, marketing and environmental practices of Ronald McDonald -- and the gumption to protest these issues by locking herself to the metal mesh curtains of the on-campus McDonalds during the all-important lunch hour.

Students of the suburban college who were milling around as Beatty was handcuffed and arrested during her lock-down March 5 looked bewildered and amused by the serious treatment of the event. The fire department was even brought in with heavy- duty metal-cutting tools to dismember the curtain and haul Beatty away, with a Harley Davidson Cobra lock still dangling from her waist, allowing relieved students to resume their fast food transactions.

They may have been surprised by the quick and no-nonsense school and police response on behalf of McDonalds, but it was no shock to Beatty and other student activists versed in the tactics of the company. Having followed the McLibel trial closely and met with the defendants when they came to Chicago last year, Beatty and her comrades in the Red Gate (Chicago-suburb-based) branch of the Earth First! movement knew what they were up against when they decided to take on the hamburger giant. Having colonized every continent but Antarctica and become, according to actual studies, more recognizable than the Christian cross, the Golden Arches seem to be all-powerful. 

The infamous McLibel two are a good example of what happens when you incur the rage of Ronald. Helen Steel and Dave Morris, the McLibel Two, became the victims of a 1990 libel suit which led to the longest trial in British history when they dared to defend their right to free speech and handed out fliers detailing McDonalds' labor, environmental and health atrocities. McDonalds spent up to $15 million on that trial in a seemingly senseless move which brought the mostly-substantiated charges against them before an international audience. And that was after going to the trouble of hiring seven private investigators to go under cover and infiltrate London Greenpeace, the group responsible for the flier. The investigators even sent gifts to and had affairs with the Greenpeace members, according to a documentary about the case.

While many view McDonalds' ubiquitous presence and grease-dripping food as onerous, it is especially a thorn in the side for many Moraine Valley students. As the builder of the school's multi-million dollar student center, with a restaurant leased from the school in the center, McDonalds has a big financial stake and a lot of pull at the college in the Southwest suburb of Palos Heights. The McDonalds Student Center bears the trademark big golden arches on its otherwise blank brick facade, and throughout the day, especially at lunch time, these arches become a beacon for students and even non-students to form long lines in anticipation of fries and chicken nuggets.

The Earth First!ers and other members of the Ecology Club at Moraine Valley started their anti-McDonalds campaign over a year ago by handing out fliers detailing the health, labor and environmental hazards caused by Big Macs; the fliers were confiscated for not being approved by the administration and a subsequent attempt to get them approved was denied. Students said they later found out the owner of the campus McDonalds had asked an aide to pick up a flier, and after reading it, called school security to order the confiscation. 

Last fall the activists stepped up the effort by hanging an anti-McDonalds banner over the McDonalds Student Center arches reading "Educate Your Hunger" and giving the Web address of an anti-McDs site: www.mcspotlight.org. The student responsible for the hanging was detained, and fliers were again confiscated despite the students' declarations that they were only holding them and had no intention of handing them out.

With their disgust deepened by the suspension and flier confiscation, the group went into heavy planning for Beatty's "action" carried out March 5 during the student center McDonalds restaurant's peak lunch rush. Using tried and true nonviolent protest techniques, protestors pulled the McDonalds' chain link protective curtains closed across the bustling counter. Then 19-year-old Beatty chained herself to the curtains with a cryptonite bike lock around her neck and an industrial-strength Harley Davidson Cobra lock around her waist. 

While a crowd gathered round and a few "scab" students proceeded to order food through a break in the curtain, school security guards arrived quickly on the scene. Treating Beatty in a manner that was part condescending and part confrontational, they called police and the fire department when she refused to unlock herself. The fire and police departments came to the rescue of McDonalds by cutting through the chain mesh and snapping the bike lock around Beatty's neck after she had been in position for about 50 minutes. The Cobra was too much for them -- she was escorted to the "Serve and Protect"-emblazoned police cruiser with the sinewy lock still dangling from her waist.

Beatty was briefly detained, charged with two misdemeanors and then released on her own recognizance for a later trial and an April 18 judiciary hearing at the school. Meanwhile, the school administration got busy defending McDonalds' right to a criticism-free campus. They again confiscated fliers being handed out by Earth First!ers, and quickly drafted a letter warning Beatty of her suspension and imminent expulsion. And though Beatty is not a minor, the letter was hand delivered to her parents within hours of her arrest -- perhaps evidence of how little respect the administrators had for her act of civil disobedience. 

"In order to avoid the possibility of additional disruption or interference with normal operation of the college, as well as the possibility of someone being injured...you will be denied access to the campus (including classes) and to all other college activities," reads the letter from vice president of student development Jack Becherer to Beatty. 

Moraine Valley spokesperson Barb Wilcox confirmed the facts of Beatty's arrest but declined to comment on its free speech or student activism implications. "We're not in the position to give opinions," she said. "We can only provide facts." Beatty was threatened with expulsion and further arrest if she set foot on campus before April 18. Of course she never expected to follow this order: the school's ultimatum gave the anti-McDonalds crusaders even more fodder in their campaign to show the paranoia of the corporation and its stranglehold over the school administration. 

Beatty's first class after the action, on March 9, was cancelled due to the city-stopping raging snowstorm. Her second class was held at 8 a.m. March 10, at Moraine Valley Community College. Other activists escorted Beatty to class, which was, ironically, a course on media and communications. On arrival she found that her professor was prepared, armed with a copy of the letter from the administration forbidding her to attend class. When she refused to leave campus, Campus Security were called to usher her to the Public Safety office, where she was detained and eventually left campus voluntarily. Having caught the attention of quite a few students and media, the activists involved in the "action" are calling it an unqualified success. 

"This is probably the best anti-McDonalds action that's been done,and there have been a lot around the country," said long-time activist Mike Durschmid, who was also involved with the McLibel case. "People are ready to fight McDonalds' homogenizing of world culture and their role in the privatization of schools." 

The activists are also pleased to see the school administration squirm as it tries to backtrack and deny to media that Beatty was handcuffed and detained. But Earth First!ers have everything on video and hope to gain wider exposure with a video press release. They hope the event may be particularly newsworthy given the March 9 Business Week cover story about McDonalds' doomed marketing strategy and unhealthy food and Chicago based Oprah's time in the beef spotlight. They say this is just the start -- they will go to any length in hopes of opening people's eyes to the evils of McDonalds and the power of a determined Earth First!er. 

Red Gate Earth First! 
3400 W. 111th St #154 
Chicago, IL 60655 
(708) 276-5454 

Kari Lydersen works for the Chicago Bureau of The Washington Post. She also writes for Streetwise, Chicago's homeless paper, and Chicago Ink, the city's progressive news monthly. This story appeared first in April's Chicago Ink. 

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