It was 20 years ago today...

IssueOctober 2005
Feature by Helen Steel, Dave Morris

On 16 October 1985 (international World Food Day), London Greenpeace -- an independent, anarchist/anti-militarist group originally set up in 1971 by people around Peace News -- launched an annual international day of action against "McDonald's and all they stand for."

The group's leaflets brought together criticisms of McDonald's business practices made by different movements in relation to the environment, workers' rights, cash crops and world trade, nutrition, advertising to children and exploitation of animals. It used McDonald's as a high profile company to take an overall look at the effect of multinational corporations on our world, and to promote an alternative society based on sharing and co-operation, rather than money and power. McDonald's was focused upon not onlybecause it was a powerful and influential corporation but because it was pioneering business practices that were being adopted by other companies.   

In 1990 McDonald's issued libel writs against people involved with the group. The junk food corporation hoped to suppress the leaflets, and public criticisms generally. In fact, thanks to the determination of campaigners, the opposite happened! What started as a campaign against a specific (if symbolic) multinational evolved into what is now a well-documented epic struggle to oppose corporate propaganda.

The leafleting mushroomed, and after the longest and one of the most controversial court cases in English history some damning judgments were made against the corporation. It was described as "the worst corporate PR disaster in history". Arguing that such an oppressive and unfair case should not have been able to have been brought at all, the defendants Helen Steel and Dave Morris sued the UK government in the European Court of Human Rights.

On 15 February 2005 the Court declared that the case was in breach of the right to a fair trial and right to freedom of expression.

PN: What do you feel are the mostpractical things you have learnt as a result of this lengthy struggle--what sustained such a protracted campaign and what do you feel the most significant outcomes have been?

D&H: The McLibel Campaign showed that oppressive laws can be rendered unworkable if people defy them, that people can fight back against seemingly impossible odds (and win!), that different movements can work together and discover they have common cause and similar goals. That we cannot rely on the legal system to protect us, but thatwhere those in power attempt to stifle us by using various laws, the court cases can be used as an opportunity to publicise the issues further.

When we decided to fight the casewe knew that we would have to mobilise public opinion and also build up a strong support campaign--particularly focusing on defiance and a determination to continue to hand out leaflets against the company. And the results spoke for themselves--when London Greenpeace first began distributing, the leaflets were being handed out in their thousands--by the end of the campaign it was in millions, in dozens of different languages.

The London campaign, and groups of activists all around the UK (especially Veggies in Nottingham) and indeed the world, worked hard to step up the protests, and to spread the truth about the legal case and the fast food industry. Campaigners offered support to residents opposing local McDonald's stores, workers standing up to the company, parents challenging McDonald's sponsorship in schools etc.   

It was very empowering being part of a collective struggle that was reaching out to and engaging with the wider public. Although the focus has been on us, it is important to remember that we were just two members of an oppositional, alternative movement that has continued to grow in strength and vision.

The anti-McDonald's campaign was one of the pillars of the modern global anti-capitalist movement. We now see massive protests against the G8, the IMF and World Bank and so on. This exciting upsurge of global protest against the planet's most powerful organisations didn't come from nowhere. It has roots that go back years, through the patient day-to-day local work, regional and international work of specific struggles and movements.   

Our background as activists involved in diverse struggles (such as in supporting the miners strike, the anti-poll tax movement, environmental direct action, local campaigns etc) gave us a lot of experience and inspiration to draw on. There's a myth created by the media that we fought this case alone. In fact it was a collective effort--we could not have fought this long battle without a network of personal support from friends, babysitters (Dave is a single parent), and a whole range of volunteers helping in different ways. And the overwhelming support and encourage ment we received from all directions. Regarding the court case, so many people volunteered their time and efforts as witnesses, experts, researchers, in-court helpers and legal advisers etc.

PN: As well as McLibel and LGP, you've continued to campaign and take action in other areas and are currently involved in the organising group forthe Freedom To Protest conference taking place at the end of October. Can you tell us more about your "campaigning life after Mclibel" and specifically about the catalyst for the FTP conference, why our readers should go, and what you hope will come out of it?

D&H: In April to mark McDonald's Corporation 50th birthday and to celebrate 20 years of growing anti-Mcdonald's campaigns, McLibel held an anti-birthday party in Conway Hall. During this event there was a discussion on the increasing use of repressive laws and measures by the state and companies tosuppress protests. People are being intimidated by some of these measures and so the idea of a conference was put forward to encourage a "fight back".

The conference will focus on how groups and movements are standing up for themselves, and have done in the past, and also in other countries, despite oppressive laws. The aim is to learn what tactics and strategies have worked and will work.

People must have the freedom to criticise, organise, demonstrate and campaign against oppression and injustice. Such freedoms have to be continuously exercised and fought for--especially in the current repressive climate.

We would always encourage people to stand up to bullies--whether corporations, governments, police or whatever--and refuse to be intimidated by legal or other threats. But it's essential to get organised, to refuse to be marginalised or criminalised, and to constantly engage with wider opposition movements and the public in general. Any movements for change can expect to have to resist and overcome repression. We need to work out how best to transform court cases into arenas around which public debate and struggles can be stimulated and mobilised. Apart from the FTP conference we are both active in a wide range of activities and campaigns in our local community and with Haringey Solidarity Group and intend to continue being a small part of a much wider movement for a better world

PN: What advice would you give to people finding it hard to stay positive in the face of all the problems in the world, and the repressive measures against those trying to make things better?

D&H: Together we can achieve anything. There are billions of ordinary people around the world. If we or ganised ourselves together street by street, workplace by workplace, we could create a real alternative to the way the world is run at the moment. It is important to do our best, get involved and think for ourselves. We need to work on getting rid of oppression and powerlessness so that we can get on with living in a society that enables everyone to have the best possible life for all.

There is no reason why the world should be run by corporations and governments--they've created a horrible mess of it. As anarchists, we believe that workers should run their own workplaces, residents should control their own neighbourhoods, and that corporations and governments shouldbe abolished--that we need to take responsibility for our own lives and planet.

It is something we can all get involved with--whoever and wherever we are.

Topics: Corporations
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