Boycotts, bath salts and brawling

Toxic politics at Sac Natural Foods Co-op

Barry Broad says proponents of an Israeli boycott are like the Nazis.

Barry Broad says proponents of an Israeli boycott are like the Nazis.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op is located at 1900 Alhambra Boulevard near S Street.

There’s only one thing infighting members of the popular Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op can agree on: The Co-op is doing nothing to save the Middle East.

But should it even be trying?

For the better part of a year, the progressive grocer of natural foods has been embroiled in a nasty fight about whether to boycott Israeli products in the name of Palestinian human rights.

Supporters of a boycott say they’re attempting to use the democratic principles of the cooperative system to do what worked against South African apartheid. Opponents counter that this is a ginned-up assault on Jewish Israelis and Jews in general.

Caught in the middle is a co-op that misses the boring old days when board meetings were spent dissecting the term organic.

“It’s a hostile environment,” said Steve Maviglio, chairman of the Co-op board and a Sacramento political consultant by trade. “These meetings used to be a quiet little environment where people wanted to talk about farming. Now it’s a demilitarized zone.”

The dilemma facing Maviglio and his colleagues isn’t exactly new. BDS (boycotts, divestments and sanctions) movements waged similar efforts last year at co-ops in Davis (failed) and Olympia, Washington (succeeded).

Proponents view progressively run cooperatives as more likely to take up their cause, but co-op boards in Davis and now Sacramento have refused to put boycott initiatives to a vote of their members, much to the chagrin of the Sacramento Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Working Group.

“The board, for whatever reason, they don’t want this particular issue placed on the ballot,” said Maggie Coulter, one of the effort’s chief proponents and a Co-op member since the 1990s. “What you’ve ended up with now is the suppression of free speech and democracy, and has unfortunately exposed some pretty undemocratic behavior and policies of the board.”

If the Co-op dropped the handful of Israeli products it sells—mostly matzo and bath salts—it’s unlikely Israel would notice. “In terms of the products themselves, they are a very small part of what the Co-op sells,” Coulter acknowledged. But she believes a successful campaign (and possibly even an unsuccessful one) will generate enough media attention to make the battle worth it.

Asked if the Co-op should go on to boycott other nations with human-rights problems, Coulter hedged. “This is a particular, focused campaign,” she said. “I don’t know what would come after this.”

Co-op officials and boycott opponents say a grocery store is not the proper venue to debate Palestinian human rights.

Maggie Coulter really, really wants Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op to stop buying Israeli products like bath salts and matzo. She might even sue.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“They’re entitled to the issue,” said Co-op general manager Paul Cultrera. “They’re bringing it to the wrong place. They should be at the state Capitol. They’re not at Whole Foods. They’re not at Trader Joe’s. They’re not at Safeway. They’re here because we’ll listen.”

For months, pro-boycott representatives with Sacramento Area Peace Action have manned a table in front of the store to gather signatures and advocate. After complaints from customers and at least one Co-op employee that the petitioners were being too aggressive, Cultrera suspended their tabling privileges.

On May 8 and 9, however, he allowed the Jewish Community Relations Council, which has taken point in opposing the boycott, to man a “Save Our Co-op From Politics” table outside the store. Boycott proponents have cried conspiracy.

Cultrera says he will boot the JCRC folks if they start harassing customers as well. He may have to revisit that statement after JCRC chairman Barry Broad and an unidentified SacBDS member engaged in a grabbing match while Broad was tabling outside the store.

Broad, a former union organizer and the managing partner of his own law firm, says the woman approached him in an aggressive manner to pick up some literature. When Broad refused her, she grabbed for it anyway and Broad deflected her hand. According to Sacramento Police Department spokesman Sgt. Norm Leong, the woman claimed she was grabbed on the wrist.

Broad has pointedly accused the BDS movement of anti-peace, anti-Semitic values. “They’re not the Nazis because they don’t have guns,” Broad quipped. “They’re the Nazis before the Nazis were Nazis.”

That sort of rhetoric has found its way into the Co-op’s board chambers, too, where meetings have been dominated by debates about the Middle East and both Coulter and Broad have been tossed out for unsportsmanlike conduct.

“Both sides of this argument have roiled the board … over peace in the Middle East and how to achieve that,” Maviglio said. “And we’re not about that. We’re about food and sustainability and local agriculture.”

That argument has not satisfied BDS proponents, who say they’ve satisfied the Co-op’s bylaws by gathering enough signatures and introducing the ballot measure during a recent board meeting. Board members counter that they are the final arbiters of what goes to a vote before some 12,000 shareholding Co-op members.

The actual Co-op election code, however, refers to the board’s certification of ballot measures as a “formality.” (Note: Since publication of this story, SN&R learned that the word “formality” has been dropped from the latest version of the Co-op’s election code, adopted earlier this year.)

“They say human rights are not a Co-op value. Animal rights are a Co-op value,” said Jeanie Keltner, a 73-year-old retired literature professor who joined the BDS movement. “That seems odd to me.”

The double-sided craziness has put the board and Co-op in triage mode. Cultrera is considering banning tabling in front of the store, and the board is looking at strengthening the nondiscrimination clause in its bylaws. All of which fuels BDS supporters’ suspicions about ulterior motives.

Coulter has challenged the board to put the initiative on the ballot and “campaign against it if they want.” Not doing so, she contends, has made this a much larger issue than it started out as.

If the ballot measure isn’t granted, Coulter says all options are on the table, including the possibility of a lawsuit. The pickets and rallies will also continue, with one of each scheduled in the coming weeks. And the JCRC has promised to be right there as well. “We realized after 1933 to take these people seriously,” said Broad. “These people are very marginal, but they’re also very energetic.”

This story has been corrected from its original print version.