Union Square Timber Protest (Dec. 2, 1998)

Three hundred protesters gathered at Union Square in the heart of San Francisco’s shopping district on the “biggest shopping day of the year” to protest the Gap owners involvement in the logging industry, calling for a nationwide boycott of Gap Inc. and its subsidiaries, Banana Republic, Old Navy, and Gap Kids. Before dispersing to picket targeted stores, demonstrators sang, danced, held signs, and spoke of their displeasure over the logging practices of “the Fisher family”-owned Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC). Simultaneously, thousands of non-protesters swarmed the downtown streets in a consumer frenzy, paying more attention to price tags than the demonstrators’ pleading, attempting to ready themselves for the birthday of Christ.

“The planet is sending us a message C.O.D.,” one speaker announced, with all the charisma of an infomercial shill, “Change or die.”

This was the general sentiment of the demonstration group, largely comprised of Forests Forever supporters, who despite pamphleteering, appeared unfocused in their attack and complaint. Aside from the boycott, they called for an “opening up of consciousness,” “uniting with other environmental groups,” and not being silenced by “corporate greed.” 

“We won’t settle for the crumbs off the table of corporate America,” was another speaker’s call to arms, lacking the punch of Jack Reed, and looking like he would settle for the seeds and stems off the coffee table of his corner dealer.

Julia Butterfly, a woman who has spent close to a year living in a redwood tree to call attention to environmental issues, communicated to the congregation via telephone from her tree. “Using our dollars,” she said, “We can take the power back for the Earth, and for the people that understand love and respect.”

Although “anti-fur” protesters also canvassed the square, the rally’s attempted focus was MRC and their link to Gap Inc. By Gap Inc.’s own admission, MRC is financed by a “private Fisher family investment firm Sansome Partners.” But in a letter to their customers, Gap Inc. spin-doctors claimed “a small Mendocino, Calif.-based environmental organization is inaccurately and unfairly using Gap Inc.’s name to publicize its concerns about the management of forest property in Northern California. MRC has no affiliation with Gap Inc. or its brand stores or employees.” 

A Gap Inc. administrator said, after being asked about the connection between Gap Inc. and MRC, “We were told it is a case of mistaken identity.” 

Several Banana Republic retail employees were instructed to, “not comment on the protest or any questions concerning Gap Inc. involvement in MRC.”

The facts remain: MRC is run by John Fisher, who is the son of Gap Inc. founder Don Fisher who is Chairman of the Board for Gap Inc. John Fisher is also the brother of Bob Fisher, the Gap’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. John Fisher has been quoted as calling MRC a “Fisher Family investment.” So has his brother Bob, which would indicate that MRC is more than the private investment of a ideologically wayward family member. 

In a copy of a letter to Linda Hill and Bill Heil, new neighbors of MRC, Bob Fisher stated, “For this investment my family is further represented by my brother John...” He also discussed the high-minded reasons: “Our family invested in Mendocino Redwoods” and continued ad nauseam about his “well known and long standing” involvement with environmental issues. Closing, with hopes that MRC “will be a shining example of the successful integration of environmental stewardship and a successful local business.” John Fisher has also asserted his family, worth an estimated $11 billion, “needs to balance business and the environment.” 

It is difficult to understand how MRC will fulfill its purported function as a shining example of balancing business and the environment. They plan to log 40 million board feet a year from their 235,000 acres of Mendocino and Sonoma County Redwood forest using the same methods as their predecessor, Louisiana Pacific, which included clearcutting, spraying herbicides and harvesting old growth. They also intend to log during winter months which is even more harmful to the endangered Coho salmon. It should be further noted, these large swaths of forest have been routinely described by environmentalists as already “over-cut” and “depleted.” 

“The Fisher Family could lead the way for corporate responsibility into the new millennium,” Starhawk, a spokesperson for the environment, told the crowd, “They don’t need anymore money. They could buy this land and let it remain. Trees that are thousands of years old don’t have to die. Our environment doesn’t have to be destroyed.” 

A Stanford graduate and Marin High School teacher told this reporter, “You have to pressure money interests. The student movement of the 80s did have its effect on South Africa. We have to approach environmental issues the same way. Find out where your dollar goes, and take responsibility.”

When asked if a boycott would effect her shopping, a woman exiting Banana Republic clutching several bags, said, “Obviously not.” 

One reason for this sort of response could be the ineffectual tactic the modern demonstration has become. Although they should be commended for showing up, the group in Union Square could have easily been mistaken for a Fort Bragg bake sale, minus the brownies. Serious-minded people had to suffer through two hours of rambling, tired polemics from marginally articulate speakers that looked like they woke up on the wrong side of a love pile. There was the obligatory singing of “Give Peace a Chance,” and the spiritually vacant “honkey dance” performed by five white women who will be broken-hearted when they learn the Anasazi Indians practiced cannibalism. One observer described the event’s apex as “achieving synchronized grooviness.” We were asked to observe a moment of silence for the trees which rang as false as James Cameron’s moment of silence for the Titanic. Meanwhile a Gap billboard smiled down on us mimicking the fashionable “fringe-look” so many protesters were unconsciously modeling. I suggested to a protester that one of the younger, nimbler dissidents should climb to the Gap billboard and graffiti it. His response, “This is a different kind of protest.”

Most of the participants in the demonstration became aware of MRC because they had a personal interest, living or owning property in Mendocino or Sonoma Counties where MRC will be doing its most immediate damage. But when the machinery arrives in your back yard, it’s too late. Unfortunately, in this divided and conquered nation, we can’t see how the environment and other world issues effect us as individuals. Or how as individuals we can effect world issues. Sorting through personal hypocrisies is difficult enough, if we get that far. We have allowed ourselves, as groups and individuals, to become marginalized, represented by unsavvy and ineffectual leaders. We have to present and support another option, say more than, “Give peace a chance.” Otherwise we will have to be content with begging for the benevolence of the ruling class.

“You have to wake up every morning and do your best,” said another teacher in the crowd, holding a sign that read, “Fishers: Mendocino is not your Banana Republic. Read, write, vote, inform yourself and others. Turn off the TV and talk to your neighbors. Make the effort. Remember what is sacred.”

“And,” his friend interrupted, “Boycott the Gap.”

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