Stars and Stripes or brands and bands?

Since Sept. 11, American flags have been flying high on car antennas, outside homes and in shop windows. And with flag pins dotting backpacks and T-shirts, the signature patriotic colors of red, white and blue have splashed into fashion. It’s all been part of a national sense of solidarity in the midst of troubled and uncertain times.

This May, however, Chicoans will notice an American flag with a different kind of message.

Adbusters, a Vancouver, B.C.-based corporate watchdog group, has declared 2002 the year for a Corporate Crackdown Campaign to raise Americans’ awareness of powerful business elites that Adbusters members think are taking power out of the hands of the people. In New York, Adbusters has been running a billboard with an American flag—but this is not just any flag. This is a “corporate flag” embellished with the logos of major U.S. corporations instead of 50 stars. This May, it’s flying in Chico.

“This country is supposed to be by, for and of the people, not the corporations,” says Bob Trausch, a member of the board of the Chico Peace and Justice Center. Trausch is organizing the effort to run the corporate flag on a Chico billboard.

The billboard will show the flag with the shadow of a human body superimposed and a caption that reads, “Declare independence from corporate rule.” Logos displayed on the flag include those of Playboy, NBC, CBS, ABC, IBM and Microsoft Windows. For the month of May, Chicoans will see them on the billboard near the intersection of The Esplanade and Cohasset.

As the city has grown it has become a new home to such giants as Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Best Buy, among others. Trausch says these stores “keep people happy because they give us cheap goods,” and not everyone stops to think of the downside. Often goods come cheap because they are manufactured in Third World sweatshops—which means not only that foreign workers are possibly being exploited, but also that Americans who previously worked under good labor conditions have been put out of work. Manufacturers on American soil simply haven’t been able to survive the competition from the foreign-factory option that brings the highest profits to top management and shareholders.

“This is no longer a mom-and-pop town,” Trausch says. Consequently, local workers find themselves playing a different ballgame. Home Depot isn’t going to have the same feeling between management and employees as a hardware store with local “heart” can have, he says.

But Trausch and others at the Peace and Justice Center aren’t trying to drive anybody out of town; they just want to raise awareness. “We have lost our potential for power in government,” he says, adding that although a democracy is supposed to be a rule of the people, corporate control tends to make things happen from the top down. The goal is for May to be a time of education, to get people thinking about corporate power.

Another goal for Trausch is to encourage people to seek out alternative news sources. “The media in this country [are] so controlled. It’s sad that I can go to a country like Honduras and read more about the United States’ policies and what it’s doing than I can in my own country.”

The money to run the billboard for the month of May has been raised completely through donations, so the Peace and Justice Center has already seen an indication of local support for the message the billboard will send.

Although there is a possibility the corporate flag will spark controversy, Trausch thinks any negative backlash is unlikely, but he’d be OK with any kind of feedback. "Controversy leads to debate, and that’s good. It leads to awareness, and that’s good."