Rob Parsons

True blue change

A trip to the Mainland reveals the two faces of Americat

by Rob Parsons

November 13, 2008

"People get ready/ There's a train a-coming/ You don't need no baggage/ You just get on board?"
-Curtis Mayfield

As I walked through the streets of downtown Chicago on the day after the election, warmth suffused me. Yes, it was an unseasonably balmy November day, and would later reach 68 degrees. But beyond that, the exuberance that filled Grant Park the previous night, with an estimated quarter of a million people celebrating Barack Obama's election, held the city in an afterglow.

"Looking at national
maps of red and blue
states, one might get
the impression this is
still largely a
Republican nation."

So many people wore T-shirts bearing the likeness of Obama, our president-elect. More often than not, my glance at a passerby's apparel would be met with an unabashed smile. I saw a mother with a boy perhaps 10 or 12 years old, who sported a shirt with Obama's portrait and the word "Hope" underneath it in colorful letters. When, I pondered, did it become cool for a boy of this age to wear a shirt with the image of a presidential candidate? These are remarkable and uplifting times, indeed.

I made my way to the Palmer House Hilton, a stately, century-old landmark with a huge lobby and frescoed ceiling. There, I met three campaigners with the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network (RAN). Andrea, Bria, and Adrian had arrived the previous night and were part of the mirthful revelry in Grant Park. Though they had stayed up until 3am, they were nevertheless wide-eyed with stories of the mood of the evening and of spontaneous, congenial interactions with strangers in the crowd.

We ventured across the street, crossing under the tracks of the el, the Windy City's elevated transit system. We entered a Kinko's to pick up printed and laminated posters, to be used the following day. There, an African American man with yet another Obama T-shirt broke into the rhythm of a hip-hop poem:

"Eloquent speaker, smooth demeanor/High achiever, justice redeemer/Avid reader, Jesus believer/Irresistible charismatic leader."

Grinning broadly, he introduced himself as Geoffrey "Doctor Groove" Watts, a "subway poet." He was at Kinko's making copies of his Obama poem. We each handed him a dollar for our own copy of the full verse.

Our reason for coming to the Midwest was to attend the annual shareholders meeting of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a huge agribusiness conglomerate with holdings in several continents that produce and transport food, feed and fuel. We would drive three hours to ADM headquarters in Decatur, Illinois, smack dab in the middle of the state.

Michelle Anderson Maui County Council Member

Voters want change, big agribusiness wants more of the same.

This would be the second annual trip for Andrea and Bria, both well acquainted with the unsustainable corporate practices of ADM, Cargill and Bunge throughout the world. Hugely invested in both corn and soybeans in the U.S., ADM reaps federal price supports both for growing the crops and for producing biofuels (corn to ethanol, and soybean oil to biodiesel).

But the rapid push toward biofuels has been a mixed bag at best, with food prices soaring, ethanol producer VeraSun filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy and petroleum prices dropping nearly as dramatically as they rose earlier this year. A gas station in Decatur advertised regular gas for $1.95 per gallon.

Elsewhere, ADM is heavily invested in soy and sugar production in South America, is the world's largest cocoa producer in Africa and is invested in palm oil production in Southeast Asia. In each case, there is ample evidence of rainforest and vital ecosystem destruction, displacement of indigenous people and small farmers, environmental pollution and exploitive labor practices.

And so it was that we headed to Decatur, the "Soybean Capital of the World," for a brief opportunity to address shareholders during the public comment period and to express our concerns. The positive vibe from the streets of Chicago earlier in the day began to dissipate as we hummed down the interstate lined with mile after mile of flat terrain, mostly the stubble of harvested cornfields, periodically adorned with cell phone towers.

Beyond the country and Christian music stations, the reality of the rural hinterland stared us squarely in the face when we stopped at a Road Ranger gas station/convenience store. Outside, gallon bottle displays of windshield wiper fluid the color of blue shave ice syrup greeted us. Once inside, we stepped into a world of processed, packaged, sweetened snack foods, while an orange-red heat lamp gave rotisserie hot dogs an eerie glow. There were ample signs that we had reached some sort of cultural backwater, but none so apparent as when Bria found novelty gag gifts of hunting licenses for Osama bin Laden and Hillary Clinton. "Take careful aim," the Clinton license warned, "as target has been known to suddenly swerve to the left."

The following day, we arose early and made our way to ADM headquarters. Arriving well before the scheduled meeting, we pulled into a church parking lot across the road. Soon, security surveillance was doing a drive-by, photographing our rental car. One by one, five police cars entered the lot, including a K-9 unit van. This seemed a heavy-handed reaction to RAN's sign-waving efforts of a year earlier.

We abandoned our own plans to hold signs, and drove into the ADM facility. There, we were singled out, questioned and searched by a staunch suit and tie security force, equipped with ear buds and radio communication.

Though we had printed copies of shareholder proxies to attend-mine was on behalf to the New York City Police Pension fund, which holds 301,757 shares of ADM stock-we were told that we needed "admission tickets." Much discussion ensued and we were finally permitted to enter the meeting after being briefed about meeting rules and handing over my camera.

CEO Patricia Woertz, who received a 2007 compensation package in excess of $17 million, addressed a well-dressed audience of shareholders, many of them likely Decatur residents showing up for the free soyburger lunch. Woertz shared news and plans of the company and vital statistics.

"Every day, over 27,600 ADM employees in 60 countries on 6 continents at more than 320 sourcing facilities and more than 230 processing plants-interconnected by 2,100 trailers, 2,200 barges and 23,800 railcars-process more than 3 million bushels of oilseeds, 2 million bushels of corn, and 1 million bushels of wheat, among other crops, which together brought in more than $70 billion in revenue in 2008," he said.

We each read our statements, with special mention given to Hawaiian Electric Company's proposals for importing Malaysian palm oil, and I beseeched everyone to read the current National Geographic article on palm oil's key role in Borneo's dwindling rainforests, threatening hundreds of species on that incredibly bio-diverse island. Woertz dismissed much of what we said, though afterwards several shareholders came forward and thanked us, urging us to "keep their feet to the fire."

We left Decatur, passing by the large industrial installation on the outskirts of town, with its sickly sweet aroma of corn-to-ethanol processing. We passed a local outlet of another corporate giant, McDonalds, with its sign boasting, "Billions and billions served," a modern day update of Woody Allen's movie "Sleeper" from more than 35 years ago.

Back in Chicago, I checked in on Hawaii elections via the Internet. Apparently the call for change was limited to voters' choice of a new president, as all County Council incumbents and two former councilmembers were reelected. A Maui News poll asked what message can be drawn from that outcome. Only 4 percent of respondents agreed that the state of the county is good and we should continue the same policies. Forty-five percent believed that too much of the electorate is uninformed and doesn't take voting seriously enough.

Looking at national maps of red and blue states, one might get the impression this is still largely a Republican nation. A closer evaluation, showing county by county, increases the splash of red from coast to coast. Beyond the tanking economy, the languishing miasma of the War in Iraq and the eight-year unraveling of constitutional freedoms and environmental protection, Barack Obama will face an equally demanding task: unifying the people of our nation.

Or perhaps it is already happening. Though corporations can often act with impunity and without retribution, individuals may relate based upon what is in their hearts, not their bank accounts or investment portfolios.

After dining with a college friend and his family in South Chicago's Hyde Park district, I pointed my digital camera skyward to photograph a banner that bedecked lampposts across the city, proclaiming, "Congratulations Chicago's own Barack Obama, President Elect of the United States of America," signed by Mayor Richard M. Daley.

"You can stand on my shoulders," a voice called, "if you want a close-up." There on the sidewalk in the evening chill stood a young African American man listening to his iPod. I walked over, thanked him and offered a handshake. He clenched my hand, ran through an array of grips and finished with a shoulder bump. Just like that, I had been welcomed in South Chicago, and only blocks away from Barack Obama's home.

Change is happening all around us, galvanized around a man who spent his formative years in Hawaii. And though change seldom comes easily, there is no better time for it. Let the healing of our planet, and the six and a half billion people who inhabit it, begin now.