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The Future of Our Movement: The Occupation On Trial Across the Nation

by Anna Baltzer, National Organizer
February 15th, 2013

On an otherwise average Tuesday evening in July 2012, a small but determined group of activists in Sonoma County, California caught the attention of corporate America, multinationals, and official representatives of the State of Israel in a stirring hearing before the local Commission on Human Rights (CHR).

The North Coast Coalition for Palestine (NCCP) was troubled by local bus contracts with Veolia, a French multinational corporation heavily implicated in the Israeli occupation, and sought a recommendation by the CHR that the Board of Supervisors investigate the corporation's activities before considering renewal of any contracts with it in 2014.

People vs. Power

In a stirring five-hour session of testimonies, the residents of Sonoma County put the Israeli occupation and its corporate enablers on trial. This is what the future of our movement could look like: hearings in courthouses, town halls, and municipal departments across the nation as the culmination of locally-led, grassroots campaigns that have global reach.

It was historic. The group -- comprised of local Palestinians, Jews, artists, teachers, students, business owners, veterans, engineers, professors, activists, and others -- asking for a probe into Veolia's practices prompted the multinational to fly in two vice presidents from D.C. and Chicago, and the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco to send its Pacific Northwest region Deputy Consul General Gideon Lustig to monitor and testify at the hearings. Stand With Us leader leader Mike Harris testified and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in San Francisco -- a beneficiary of the local Jewish Federation -- organized 40-50 others to speak against the resolution. All this turmoil because a bunch of local unpaid activists wanted the county to have full information about a company it was contracted with.

Setting the Stage

The small hearing room was standing room only, with testifiers overflowing into the lobby waiting to speak. On one side of the issue were Veolia representatives and some member of the Jewish community. On the other side were local community members and other members of the Jewish community. In other words, it was only the Jewish community that was divided, while all the rest of the local Sonoma County residents unaffiliated with Veolia stood unified in support of the resolution. The CHR allotted 30 minutes for each side to present, each followed by 45 minutes of public testimonies of 60 seconds per person and a discussion by the commissioners.

The cards were stacked against NCCP when the Chairperson Judy Rice began with an announcement that such a resolution was outside the mandate of the CHR, which she said was restricted to addressing local human rights concerns. Without waiting for the period of commissioner discussion and commentary, Rice read aloud letters from two absent commissioners who agreed with her assessment, while another commissioner present, Ann Zimmer, nodded along in agreement. Although she did not disclose a conflict of interest, Zimmer had also been the Sonoma County chairperson of the San Francisco-based JCRC from 1990 to 1994. The JCRC strongly opposes campaigns for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) on Israel. In fact, the current Executive Director of the JCRC, Rabbi Doug Kahn, worked himself on controversial guidelines that censor Bay Area Jewish organizations by blacklisting from San Francisco Jewish Federation funding organizations that "Advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure independent, democratic Jewish state, including through participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in whole or in part."

It would seem that Veolia and the JCRC had nothing to worry about. Not so.

Veolia and the International BDS Movement

Veolia is no stranger to such campaigns. The multinational has been a primary target of the international, Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement due to the company's extensive involvement in servicing illegal Jewish-only Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Veolia operates settler buses on segregated roads, both off-limits to local Palestinians. Veolia has also been involved in the construction and operation of the Jerusalem Light Rail Train (JLRT) linking settlements with West Jerusalem, further entrenching the illegal colonization and annexation of East Jerusalem. Additionally, Veolia continues to operate the Tovlan landfill, transporting waste from Jewish-only settlements and areas inside Israel onto Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.

In a report to the General Assembly, on October 25, 2012, UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk called on the GA and global civil society to boycott Veolia Environment for its violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law through involvement in the establishment and maintenance of illegal Israeli settlements.

Following local campaigns to block contracts with Veolia due to its transgressions, the multinational has been excluded from contracts in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Palestine/Israel, Australia, and France, its home turf. Conservative estimates place the company's resulting losses thus far at more than $16 billion.

Veolia's Corporate Talking Points

It is therefore unsurprising that Veolia pulled out all the stops, submitting two letters to the Sonoma County authorities prior to the hearings, including one that asserted, among other things, that excluding Veolia from future contracts would violate both federal U.S. and California state laws. Veolia's bullying, false claims were skillfully refuted in a letter from attorney Barbara Harvey on numerous grounds, including that: the constitution protects free speech; counties have complete freedom to refrain from renewing contracts based on serious misconduct by a contractor; the Export Administration Act (EAA), commonly referenced as the "anti-boycott law,"only applies to boycotts called for by foreign countries (not local citizens' groups like NCCP) and targeting friendly countries (Veolia is a corporation, not a country); and that even if none of the above were true, the EAA has, in fact, expired.

For the hearing, Veolia sent in two slick corporate representatives: Ruth Otte, Vice President of Marketing and Communications; and Alan Moldawer, General Counsel, corporate lawyer, and -- are you ready for this -- Veolia's chief ethics and compliance officer. Otte and Moldawer asserted that Veolia's raison d'ętre is to serve, to help get people where they need to go. One primary claim was that Veolia's JLRT primarily benefits the Palestinians, whose usage and approval of the tram, according to a survey conducted by the JLRT, exceeds that of Jewish Israelis. "The plight of the Palestinian people deserves the sympathy of all people and a peaceful resolution,"read one Veolia slide, "but depriving the people of Palestine and Jerusalem of essential services and attacking companies that provide those services is not the way to resolve an international conflict."

One can imagine National City Lines -- the target of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott -- touting how many African Americans used and benefited from their buses, even as those same bus-riders struggled for their rights. Otte and Moldawer conveniently left out another question in the same survey that asked if tram riders were okay with riding with Palestinians. Imagine a survey today asking people if they were okay with sharing a bus with African Americans.

In a classic "green-washing"move, the executives bragged about Veolia's involvement in the Tovlan landfill, saying the company had "modernized a raw dump, raising it to international solid waste standards"-- conveniently omitting reference to the illegality of operating the landfill on stolen land to begin with. The Veolia representatives touted the JLTR's success in reducing urban congestion, suggesting that Palestinians' principal grievance is traffic and not the everyday denial of their basic rights, including but not limited to the denial of freedom of movement through a system of permits, bypass roads, checkpoints, and walls, as well as land expropriation to build that infrastructure.

Maligning BDS

Otte and Moldawer then shifted straight to classic Hasbara talking points, asserting that because NCCP supported the BDS movement and had a link to the Electronic Intifada (EI) on its website, it therefore supported violence and destruction, citing a past EI article that they alleged supported violence. This was a reprehensible guilty-by-association accusation, based on a false claim. Take note that this was not Stand With Us speaking; this was the corporate lawyer from Veolia-- a multinational company maligning and defaming a grassroots community organization for their support of a nonviolent, rights-based movement.

Perhaps Moldawer's most ludicrous assertion was that because BDS is supported by Palestinian civil society and Palestinian civil society is recognized by the Arab League as being the Palestinian State [sic], it follows, so the logic went, that BDS is the same as the Arab League boycott of Israel and hence illegal under U.S. law.

Several arguments by the public against the resolution were reminiscent of comments made at the recent Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Methodist Church gatherings. Both assemblies chose investment in the Palestinian economy over Palestinian calls to divest from corporations involved in their oppression. One speaker claimed that the way to help Palestinians was to buy their products. As in the church hearings, almost nobody even attempted to defend the indefensible: Israel's occupation and apartheid policies. Veolia and the JCRC knew that that battle was already lost.

One opponent to the resolution complemented attacks on NCCP with claims that Jewish supporters of the resolution were Kapos, a reference to Jews who collaborated with the Nazis.

The People Speak

In stark contrast to the vicious, desperate bullying and attempts at emotional blackmail by Veolia and the JCRC recruits were the principled, factual, and heartfelt testimonies of local residents. NCCP presentation began with local Palestinian-American mother and son, Therese and Nick Walrath. Testified Walrath:

"I no longer ride the county buses because I do not feel safe on them: I feel that my human rights are being violated. I am a member of the Sonoma County community… These are our tax dollars, and we should only give them to corporations that support human rights."

Israeli researcher Dalit Baum followed with a presentation countering a claim by Veolia that it was no longer operating the Tovlan landfill. She said matter-of-factly, "The Israeli research project Who Profits called the landfill on Sunday and asked if Veolia was still operating it. They confirmed and seemed surprised that anyone would claim otherwise, asking if we would like to speak to the Veolia operators."

Baum made the telling point that Veolia not only services settlements but that its light rail is a settlement in itself -- settler infrastructure built illegally on occupied Palestinian land.

One local resident, Heidi Mairno, testified:

"When the Montgomery Bus Boycott took place almost 60 years ago, African Americans were not alone with their sentiments or their actions. During the civil rights era, many Americans and people from all over the world were in solidarity or directly involved with the struggle… No human rights struggle occurs in a vacuum. Today, it's about buses, again."

Many other moving testimonies came from diverse members of the community including a local imam, a Holocaust survivor, an Israeli student, veteran anti-Apartheid activists, and a local resident who witnessed the Palestinian Freedom Riders arrested for trying to board buses to Jerusalem. A father and a teacher spoke about the importance of speaking out for the oppressed, showing youth that everyday people can and must follow their consciences and make a difference.

Response of the Commissioners

Following the presentations and testimonies, the nine present members of the CHR discussed what they had heard. Conspicuously, there was no discussion about or even acknowledgment of Veolia and the JCRC's arguments, including the issues of legality, BDS, or NCCP. It was as if Veolia and the JCRC had not come at all -- an observation surely not lost on them.

The only discussion was about what could be done in response to Veolia's unjust practices. Despite legal intimidation and veiled threats of anti-Semitism and losing local jobs, the majority of commissioners openly felt that something should be done, including Commissioner Evelyn Cheatham, who shared that talk of bus boycotts and segregated buses "tugs at the strings of my heart."

The sticking point was uncertainty over the jurisdiction of the CHR. Gail Jonas, a commissioner supporting the resolution, placed a motion to "establish an ad-hoc committee to examine the jurisdiction of the commission to address the issue and see what other actions might be appropriate…"She said she believed that the bylaws were ambiguous as to whether the CHR could act in response to human rights issues outside of Sonoma County, and that establishing this committee could examine the question rather than accepting as fact Rice's claims that it was out of jurisdiction.

The final vote was taken, immediately preceded by a last-minute testimony -- inserted after discussion had officially ended and the vote was called -- by Chairperson Rice. The final count was split 4-4. Some of those openly concerned about Veolia were nonetheless convinced that the CHR was powerless, and therefore voted against the motion. They weren't sending the message "Don't do this,"but rather "Something must be done, but we are not the ones who can do it."Rice, who normally does not vote, was empowered to break the tie and defeated the motion.

The Outcome

NCCP lost the vote but was the clear winner. Veolia was on the defensive the entire night. It took hundreds if not thousands of corporate dollars and all their power to get half the votes -- and arguably not even that. Veolia left weaker; NCCP left with a freshly organized and galvanized support network and a strong mandate to bring their case to the county Board of Supervisors.

The hearing was a brilliant manifestation of people vs. power. This was civil society vs. corporate America, multinationals, and the Israel government. This was the 99% vs. the 1%.

Why Pick Veolia?

Are you considering a BDS campaign in your local community? Veolia campaigns are becoming among the most popular BDS campaigns in the United States, for many good reasons:

●   As illustrated in Sonoma County, a town hall style hearing on Veolia can be one of the best educational, empowering, movement-building, and media-garnering strategies out there. And it is a clear manifestation of people vs. corporations.

●   NCCP made this awesome toolkit that you can use to start a campaign!

●   Veolia is an easy target and opens the door to important coalition-building. In addition to human rights abuses in Palestine, it is renowned for anti-labor practices, mismanagement, corruption, bribery, embezzlement, fraud, failure to make good on promised improvements, and atrocious environmental practices. It is the largest water privatization company in the world. It's an opportunity to work in coalition with natural allies including environmentalist groups and labor.

●   Veolia is compelling as a target because of the parallels between buses on segregated roads in Palestine and segregated buses in the Jim Crow South. The Palestinian Freedom Riders, inspired by the U.S. Civil Rights Freedom Riders, have helped solidify this natural connection, which can be tremendously educational, motivational, and good for coalition-building with communities of color and others.

●   Dump Veolia is considered the world's flagship BDS campaign, with more victories (in number and scope) than any other campaign. Across the ocean, we can support one another and apply pressure from all sides on Veolia, rather than all working on separate campaigns.

●   The campaign is flexible. See the different angles outlined below.

●   Campaigning against Veolia fits into the nationwide We Divest Campaign, so your local work strengthens the national momentum as well.

●   This is something every community group can do, not limited to campuses, churches, and other niches.

The most useful part of Veolia's presentation in Sonoma County was a map of all the existing Veolia operations in the United States, a roadmap to many more potential campaigns. The model of putting the occupation on trial in local arenas can and should be replicated across the country.

How to Do It

Convinced? Okay, here's how you do it:

●    Click here to find out if your city or county has contracts with Veolia, or search these maps. None of them are exhaustive so if you don't find something do some online research.

●    If you discover a current contract with Veolia, find out when it ends and mobilize against renewal. If it doesn't renew for a while, you can follow the lead of the NCCP and work on a resolution to investigate before considering renewal.

●    If your area has no contracts with Veolia, what about with Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, G4S, or Elbit Systems?

●    If there are no current contracts, why not pass a resolution preempting future contracts? In Europe, many cities have declared themselves "Veolia-free."This is sometimes easier than stopping a contract and it sends the same message to Veolia. Evergreen College in Olympia, WA declared itself "Caterpillar-free"in 2010.

●    Beyond corporate contracts, this is a forum in which municipal bodies can publicly call for an end to US military aid to Israel -- seen by many as the "S"in BDS. The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation has produced a How-To Kit for carrying out such a campaign.

In Good Company

The Sonoma County hearing was not the first time that the occupation and its corporate enablers have been put on trial in the U.S. The past year has seen boycott and divestment hearings in the United Methodist and Presbyterian Church assemblies moving hearts and making headlines around the world. One of the most well-known divestment hearings occurred at the University of California at Berkeley in 2010, with powerful testimonies continuing deep into the night. Three months prior to the Sonoma County hearings, the Davis Committee for Palestinian Rights challenged Yolo County, California contracts with Veolia. Then, in December 2012, following controversy from DCPR, environmentalists, and other activists, Veolia withdrew from the bidding.

The high-profile Sonoma County hearings placed U.S. Veolia boycott and divestment campaigning squarely on the map. Desperately trying to counter campaigns on three other continents, the failing company must now reckon with the growing U.S. movement, which is making tremendous strides. In 2012, the Quaker Friends Fiduciary Corporation, which handles investments for hundreds of Quaker institutions nationwide, divested from Veolia and Hewlett Packard following concerns expressed by Quakers regarding the company's violations of Palestinian rights.

Meanwhile, the California statewide Israel Divestment Campaign is urging CalPERS and CalSTRS, the public employees' and state teachers' retirement systems, to divest from Veolia. Local campaigns challenging Veolia Transportation contracts in Los Angeles, Boston, Baltimore, and beyond -- as well as other Veolia activism as part of the We Divest Campaign calling on financial giant TIAA-CREF to divest from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation, including Veolia -- show no sign of letting up.

In December 2012, the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee (STL-PSC), inspired by NCCP, launched a campaign to compel the Board of Estimate and Apportionment to investigate Veolia prior to considering a proposed contract with the company. Following calls from hundreds of concerned citizens and others showing up to pack the meeting, the Board agreed they could not in good conscience vote to approve a contract with so many outstanding allegations. STL-PSC then reached out to diverse constituencies to join the fight against Veolia, all under the coalition St. Louis Dump Veolia. At the January meeting, STL-PSC members; environmental activists; workers; civil rights leaders; veterans; local business owners; students; members of the local Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities; and other concerned citizens lined the halls leading to the mayor's office. Two mayoral candidates on the 3-person board took opposite sides over the contract, marking the first time a BDS campaign has entered mainstream public discourse. This prompted the third Board member to call for a public hearing. Now, following in the inspiring footsteps of NCCP, St. Louis hopes to put the occupation and Veolia on trial once more.

Update: In September 2013, 14 months after the Sonoma hearing, Veolia Transdev sold off all bus lines operating throughout Israel/Palestine -- a historic BDS win.

Special thanks to Sydney Levy, Advocacy Director at Jewish Voice for Peace and US Campaign Steering Committee member, for his contributions.

Both Baltzer and Levy testified at the Sonoma County hearings.