What can be learned from McLibel?
Around the world there is a war being waged on society by a powerful minority who seek to control and use other people, animals and the planet in order to make profits for themselves. But many around the world are fighting back, for ecological sustainability and for freedom for all people and animals. Increasingly companies are turning to the courts to suppress this dissent and opposition. But the thousands of people around the world who participated in the McLibel battle have demonstrated that when people are organised and defiant these corporations do not succeed in getting everything their own way, and that court cases can instead be used as an opportunity to draw the issues to the attention of many more people. In September 1990 McDonald's issued libel writs in order to suppress the distribution (at that time in the thousands) of London Greenpeace anti-McDonald's leaflets, and with the wider aim of frightening off and silencing all other critics of the company. Instead, 3 million leaflets have been handed out on the streets in the UK alone since the writs were served and there is a much greater public awareness of what McDonald's really represents (in a recent survey of young people, one in two said they did not trust McDonald's - Telegraph 6.5.99). There have been over a million more leaflets (now available in at least 27 languages) handed out in solidarity protests all over the world. The 'McSpotlight' Internet site, with over 65 million 'hits' in its first 3 years, enabled campaigners, researchers, journalists and interested people world-wide to have immediate access to a huge range of anti-McDonald's material and news. This victory in defiance of McDonalds' threats demonstrates the power that ordinary people have when they believe in themselves and decide to fight back against the powerful institutions who currently control our lives and the planet. The company had predicted that the case would last '3-4 weeks', but instead it was turned into an extensive public tribunal in which corporate 'McWorld' was put on trial. McDonald's spent an estimated £10 million as against a defence total of £35,000 raised from public donations. Despite all the cards being stacked against them, and the vast amount of work involved, it was an amazing and empowering experience for the defendants (and for others too). People rallied round to help out in all kinds of practical ways: as witnesses; helping with admin; giving legal advice; sending copies of press cuttings & company documents, money and even just messages of support. The defendants were determined to be seen as fighters rather than passive 'victims'. Representing themselves in such a huge trial was exhausting but was also the most rewarding aspect of the trial, giving them the opportunity to challenge corporate propaganda head on, bring out previously secret information about the company and put forward an alternative world view. Critics of McDonald's and of the food industry in general were completely vindicated by the evidence, the judge making some damning major findings against the company's core business practices. Following this McDonald's capitulated by abandoning all efforts to get costs, damages or an injunction to stop the leafleting (which had been their primary aim). But none of this would have been effective without the actions of thousands of ordinary people continuing to distribute leaflets, ensuring that the public heard the other side of the story to that spun by McDonald's. The McLibel Support Campaign was set up by volunteers to galvanise public interest and support, to help with legal finances and practical tasks, but amazingly for most of the time it was run from an office in someone's bedroom. Despite this it succeeded in ensuring that the private and often seemingly obscure legal battle in the courtroom became a public issue fought and won in the court of public opinion and on the street. Regular supporters' mailouts, hundreds of e-mailings and numerous international 'Days of Action' were organised to ensure the public got to hear about the issues. Although the media (establishment and alternative) were consistently contacted and given reports of what was going on, the capitalist media largely trivialised or ignored the case, focussing on the personal side rather than the real issues. The campaign, with varying success, also made links with residents' associations opposing plans for new McDonald's stores, gave encouragement to kids wanting to circulate anti-Ronald leaflets, and made contacts with disgruntled employees. So, despite being up against one of the most successful propaganda organisations in the world, campaigners were able to throw the company so much on the defensive that after the trial their usual sophisticated PR was reduced to an embarrassed silence on the subject. The courts were also shown to be powerless in the face of mass defiance. This was a real DIY victory, echoing other recent movements defying legal suppression - e.g. over issues of free speech, rights to organise and demonstrate, and to party, Poll Tax, environmental and animal rights direct actions, occupations of empty homes and buildings, and workers' struggles. We can all benefit from those movements which have gone before, giving us the perspective and strength to be able to fight and win current battles and ultimately, the long war for a better world. Social inequalities and controls, and conflict and environmental destruction are serious and growing problems, so public discontent and opposition is bound to increase - as will our contact with the courts. Rather than be intimidated by repression, we should see it as a sign of our success and be even more determined to fight back. We need to create a new society by taking direct control of our lives, workplaces, streets, neighbourhoods and land. Together ordinary people can reclaim our world, currently based on the greed and power of a minority, and create an anarchist* society based on strong and free communities, the sharing of precious resources and respect for all life. (*Collins dictionary: a harmonious system of society without government)