Soda machine protest
frazzles tempers in the Castro
by Peter Hernandez
A small but spirited group of demonstrators held informational pickets outside Cliff's Variety on Castro Street last week after some of them were forcibly removed by employees for loudly protesting inside the store on Christmas Eve.
The cause of the dispute is an at-home soda machine, Sodastream, which is manufactured in an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank that is disputed by the Palestinians.
Some of the protesters filed assault complaints with San Francisco police after the incident. They and others distributed literature to passersby in front of Cliff's December 26 and 28 about the Christmas Eve flash mob while the store's manager said that a protester also hit one of their staff and pushed a stroller-pushing customer.
Store manager Terry Asten Bennett said her staff wasn't "emotionally or mentally prepared" for the two-minute adaptation of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" December 24.
"Cliff's, with your store so bright, won't you care about human rights?" sang the group of about a dozen protestors who donned shirts reading, "Boycott Israel till Palestine is free" on Christmas Eve.
Asten Bennett discussed the incident, adding that her store's surveillance tape shows a different account than what the protesters uploaded to YouTube, though she wouldn't share it.
"Nobody intended to push them out of the store until one of the protesters swung at an employee. It is not our policy to touch people," said Asten Bennett.
The video shows an agitated staff grabbing the protesters – mostly older lesbians – and then propelling them out of the store by grabbing their arms.
"I should have laid down so they couldn't push me, but I was afraid to. I allowed them to propel me out. They held me by the arm and pushed me. I went into shock afterwards," said Emily Wheeler, 58, one of the Christmas Eve protesters.
Cliff's staff, which was not trained to properly handle unwanted guests, had never before experienced a flash mob, said Asten Bennett.
Similar videos recently shot in Bed Bath and Beyond stores during Sodastream protests by CodePink, a women-led activist organization, show store managers, often overpowered by the protesters, asking the group to leave before police arrive.
Police didn't arrive at Cliff's Variety for 25 minutes though, and its staff is not apologetic for their actions.
Openly lesbian protester Nancy Stoller, 70, said she filed a complaint and will receive a case report within a week. She has osteoporosis, broke her hip two years ago, and was forcefully pulled out of the store by the shoulder.
She will decide whether or not to press charges upon receiving the case report, but hopes that she can at least receive an apology mediated by Community United Against Violence.
During the December 28 vigil, some passersby sounded off to the protesters. Petyr Kane, owner of the Castro Street businesses Body and Citizen, said, "What they did to you was not assault. I'll show you assault."
Another passerby, who refused to be identified, told the protesters that they "had it coming."
"This kind of reminded me of being at a sit-in. I have never been attacked since the 1960s. It was painful that it would happen at Cliff's," Stoller said. She has been a pivotal LGBT activist, notably for her successful advocacy for LGBT partner benefits at UC Santa Cruz.
The action was part of a larger nationwide protest of products manufactured in what the United Nations has denounced as an illegal Israeli encampment on former Palestinian land.
Since 1967, over 500 Israeli settlements have been built on the West Bank in Palestine, a violation of international law, according to the United Nations Security Council.
While the management of Cliff's Variety says their buyer told them that Palestinians working for fair wages produce Sodastream, activists say that Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements do not have the same labor rights or benefits as Israeli workers.
Sodastream did not respond to a request for comment.
The December 24 flash mob followed eight months of negotiations with Cliff's Variety to suspend the sale of the product, which have since fizzled.