The Park Slope Food Co-op Votes to Not Have a Vote

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Photo: Chadwick Matlin

Before the meeting, before the airing of grievances, before the vote on whether to have a vote, there was the wait. More than 2000 co-op members — about 1 out of every 8 members — queued neatly in Fort Greene, passing the time with endless sidewalk debate about whether or not the Park Slope Food Co-op should have a referendum on whether the co-op should boycott Israeli products by joining the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement. There were more people lined up than there are living in some Israeli settlements. It took nearly two hours to get everyone in the door. Inside there would be a vote on whether or not to have a vote.

Eyeing those in line like sitting yups, local news swarmed, activists proselytized, and entrepreneurs pounced. One Palestinian-American, Andrew Kadi, held a pro-boycott sign, and wasn’t pleased when I asked about his pro-Palestinian activism. “I wouldn’t call it pro-Palestinian advocacy. I call it human rights advocacy.” Next to him was Asher Israelow, hawking Negev Nectars, Israeli-made jams his father imports from Israel to sell stateside. I asked whether he was a co-op member. He said no. But the jams were organic.

Inside, co-op members offered up their proprietary co-op IDs (only members were allowed entrance), signed in, and were given two sheets of paper. One was the ballot — a simple yes or no on whether the co-op should hold a referendum that would bring the vote about a boycott to all members, not just those attending meetings — and the other a slip to submit one’s name to speak during the meeting. Those wanting to speak put their names into clear bowls, and were selected at random. A different kind of Hunger Games.  

At 7:45 p.m., with an estimated 2,000 people still outside, the meeting was called to order, 45 minutes late. The meeting was largely comprised of open discussion — 46 people would speak. And please, audience, don’t tweet what they say — “It’s not in the interest of the co-op for there to be a chilling effect in the way our members express themselves,” Carl Arnold, a member of the chair committee, said. It was a decree; no vote would be held (even about whether to vote). People continued to tweet anyway.

What followed was nearly two hours of a community in conflict with itself. There had been so much hype, so much expectation, so much plotzing over the past six months that the boycott issue had grown far larger than the co-op. It had become about what Park Slope — no, Brooklyn — no, New York City — no, America thought about Israeli-Palestinian politics. The store actually only sells a half-dozen Israeli items, but that didn’t matter. This vote — this vote to have a vote — was about the kind of beacon the co-op wanted to be. Did it really care about being a progressive organization? And if so, what was the more progressive option? The one that excluded Israel in the name of human rights? Or the one that included it in the name of political and religious diversity? And how would taking sides affect the co-op’s supply of vegan marshmallows?

The debate repeatedly turned nasty. After one woman told the story of 1,600 murdered Palestinians and Sabra hummus’s moral transgressions, the audience screamed “No! No! No!” and a woman muttered, “So we’re not allowed to have an army?” in disgust. There were so many bouts of applause and jeers that one speaker asked the audience to use Occupy Wall Street hand signals, applauding silently by wiggling their fingers. Carl Arnold, the droll master of ceremony, supported that move, saying, if “you have an opinion, you can twinkle."

By the time the vote was taken, the Beastie Boys had been quoted twice — co-op members were asked to fight for their right to party — a midwife, citing her experience delivering both pro- and anti-boycott babies, had implored everyone to play nice, and a woman pleaded for peace: "Please, make it stop!" she said. Dayenu!

Also, a man compared the meeting to an enema.

Finally, at 9:30 p.m., the ballots started to make their way to the people tallying them. About a quarter of the auditorium left right after voting, too eager to get home to their babysitters to stick around for the results. Democracy is not for the impatient. Meanwhile, the votes were tallied behind yellow caution tape outside the auditorium. Those still in the auditorium were asked to watch a documentary about the co-op made for Japanese admirers.

A half hour later, Arnold came to the stage to read the results. Total votes: 1,662. Votes in favor of a referendum: 653. Votes against: 1,005. The nays had it.

There was a smattering of cheers, and a little applause. But now, with a decision made, the air had gone out of the auditorium. The fun was over, the deliberations closed. Somebody won, somebody else lost. Democracy had denied democracy; one vote had prevented another. There was nothing left to wait for. Dayenu.

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Also check out New York correspondent Chadwick Matlin's (apparently prohibited) live-tweeting from the meeting, below. (The earliest tweets appear at the bottom.) And for more on this episode of the Hummus Games, watch a piece by The Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee, which aired Tuesday night. Bee interviewed Liz Roberts, a supporter of Boycott, Divestment and Sanction.