Jean Grossholtz: A Lifetime of “Taking on the Empire”

On the first day of the Bhoomi Conference, we were blessed with a lecture from lifelong activist and inspiration to a generation Jean Grossholtz. At a spiritedly 82, Jean has been actively engaged in American democracy her whole life.  Arrested the first time at 12 years old for civil disobedience (she giggled as she told us she was protesting at a factory and was formally charged with “fornication”!), Jean is a strong proponent of peaceful direct action.

Jean’s talk was immensely inspirational. I have included as much of the text of her conversation as I could capture below. I will be turning this into a shorter article upon my return but I am posting this in its entirety here.

“We have a lot of issues in the United States as you may know, trying to fight the empire is extremely difficult, especially when the empire is rooted in every institution and every area.”

“Corporations have almost total control over the school system in terms of setting the agenda …the United States has a corporate structure that is almost impermeable because the ‘truth’ comes from that structure.”

I thought about how our collective resistance to genetic modification has come up against this- where what is “true” about how plants behave, how genes behave, how nutrition works, is set by a reductionist view of the world.

Jean spoke hopefully of the Occupy Movement, identifying that it is a “way of trying to put together groups of people who will figure out by thinking about their own issues and lives how we can get rid of this inequity- not just this one and that one but change the structure.”

Our modern “protest” culture has resulted in people backing away from addressing a fundamental structural shift.

“What the Occupy thing did was to put a center to all the different movements- to stop nuclear, to protect the earth, to increase access to education, especially to get rid of the military- all these issues have come together under the Occupy Movement to address the basic inequality that is at the root… “

SO what has happened to the Occupy Movement since it began a year ago? Jean spoke to the situation in Boston.  “The US is the biggest centre for creating this inequality, so what has happened is over the year we have created alternative structures- alternative radio, we have taken over a large part of facebook, we have a group that puts the three best pieces of media on the internet, we have at the level of colleges now alternative ways to get degrees, and that is beginning to make an impact.”

And what of Jean’s work in agriculture and food?

“In New England almost everyone has access to an organic farm and organic food. We have 100’s of small organic farms.  We educated about high fructose corn syrup.”

She described how over many years, New Englanders built a market- “we told people that if you want organic food you have to pay more than you do in the grocery store to have food produced that way… this whole movement is connected to local and the idea of conserving energy, and what has happened is the middle class community has started to buy stocks in organic farms (CSAs).  When the food is available they go pick up their allotment of food for the week- its a very good system, with very few exceptions everyone of these farms has a portion of food that goes to the places where people access food when they are hungry.”

Jean described corporate control of systems, including media and education, and suggests people wanting to affect change have to do an “end run” around these information systems.  “Try to contribute to your local media whether through alternative media or through letters to the editor… this material will never go through mass media, you have to go out and talk to people and tell them whats’ going on, when we fought high fructose corn syrup, we went to every church, every school, door to door, we had to tell people what is going on.”

Jean went on to talk about two other major campaigns she and other progressives are working on: the housing crisis and mining.

“We have a housing crisis where some people decided they could make a lot of money on housing…. everyone had a house, then the shit fell in… now we have a lot of people being thrown out of their homes. In my community we call it “nobody leaves”!  When someone is getting foreclosed we all head over and no one bids (at the foreclosure auction) on the house because a whole bunch of us are there, and the banks then make an arrangement with the owners… we tell the banks “we won’t let you do this to our neighbors” and force them to negotiate with the homeowners!”

The mining campaign is simple: “don’t blow up the mountain”, says Jean plainly.  “In the US, mines underground are running out of easily accessible coal, so coal companies are blowing tops off mountains so they can dig into the coal. In the Appalachians there are many mountains with the tops blown off this way…40% of children in areas where coal plants are have asthma!”

But do these protests and actions and letters actually affect change? According to Jean, 54 coal mines have been stopped by direct action, showing that when the people stay engaged and stand up for what is right, change can happen.

Lest we participants walk away with the notion that a stopped mine or a changed regulation means final victory, Jean cautioned the group that it “takes ever-lasting watching… you turn your back and its gone, you can’t trust these people, you have to watch them every minute. It is hard work , but its rewarding because you are on the right side. its good for your soul!”

Jean then took questions from the participants in the conference. Jean refered throughout her presentation to “we” but never named an organization. Who is this “we” to whom Jean speaks?

“That’s hard to explain, she began,  “I’m the we- its Vandana (Shiva), its Winona (LaDuke)…. I can’t say ‘I did this’, once you get the “we” feeling its hard to give it up, there is no “I” in this work, we are in it together.”

When asked to explain the difference between the movement now compared to the movement in the 60s:  “One of the things we have had trouble with as activists is we put our energy into mobilizing the most oppressed, put them in leadership roles” when they may not have the capacity to remain engaged because they are dealing with basic survival issues.  “We haven’t organized the middle class- they have a certain amount of security – “if I knew you were going to win I would come out-” they often say.  Yet they have avoided threats to their financial stability so they don’t understand how to take risks- that’s the group that we got to mobilize. The level of inequality is now enormous. “

“Middle class people began to see that with the Occupy Movement- what we did was to talk about the 1% and the 99% and that put together the rest of us. On October 17th last year in NYC- 7 hours- nurses, doctors and brokers and accountants and teachers and students marched- it was everybody.”

A woman named Patricia who has done work in Kabul and is a former lawyer put forth the following discussion:  “One of the ways (the 1%) has succeeded is to keep us in different quarters. Under-pinning all of this is the monetary system, its what keeps things working the way they do- we can’t make fundamental changes unless we take on the monetary system. Do you feel more people are starting to understand that?”

Jean answered adamantly “Yes!!! That’s the whole point! How do we jerk loose some of this thinking? When Jean was teaching, she would begin the semester asking the students to answer a question about a fictitious American, a 50 questions kind of exercise.  She revealed through the students clarifying questions that the first three things people ask to understand someone’s position in the US culture are race, gender and income related.  The exercise led students to inquire “how do I know what I know? Where did I get the information to think this? Who told me? Who benefits from me thinking this way?”

Winona LaDuke shared that in Wisconsin they defeated a mine in April, but that the mining lobby is reloading.  Before the April victory, a 28 year battle saw “Ojibways and farmers fought them off- the battle ended by the Indian tribe buying the mining rights to shut the mine forever…”

Vandana Shiva shared some insights into a mining battle in the Himalayas.  The mining company had gone after the limestone and the local people’s water dried up.  When the people were able to demonstrate that the water had been coming to the people through limestone “rivers” in the mountain, they were able to get the government to shut down the mine.  “When commerce undermines life, commerce must give.  The “right to life” in India is a good term, its in our constitution” that resources needed for life come before commerce.

Another attendee pointed out that “most of the corporations’ activities are done by regular people, also CEOs are normal folks with normal aspirations…. so what creates this madness, is there any way for a corporation to “Co-exist”, or is it an annihilation of one side or another?”

“I think there is a way for corporations to co-exist. I am puzzled why heads of corporations will create conditions that undermine their own children’s health, futures… once you are in corp mindset your view is limited… making money is driving them- so when you ask them to take money out of Monsanto they don’t want to give up the 13%… there is  whole structure imposed on us of what we are supposed to want, for those of us who were able to escape, the people on the inside don’t know.”

Doctor Anna Pawar, a nutritionist and powerhouse in her own right, added that in developed countries CEOs have a misconception that the world is in two: people who are poor and can’t afford vaccinations and die, and those who think if something goes wrong they can buy spare parts (in their hearts and livers, etc.) they eventually come to the realization that if their basic connections to the earth aren’t there no matter the spare parts you will not get well…  “the green is not cosmetic, it is your life. you may not be a farmer, you may not be a doctor, but you can’t pretend you are not a human being…”

Winona LaDuke, an Ojibway activist, economist, farmer and grandmother shared her thoughts: “I was listening to Patricia’s question about monetary systems… I work on a reservation, I am a rural economist, I work to keep people from becoming entrenched in the capitalist system, because there system is false, they don’t count the subsidies, the health costs, the EG&S, they get to externalize it, they don’t account for the water and the resources… their analysis needs to be challenged .”

Patricia added that in her view, we don’t have capitalism, we have a small kabal who control the money supply, creating a debt-slave economy.

Jean asked us to pay attention to the fact that in agriculture we have 5 major agribusinesses that control the government: “we need a government run by the people!”

Vandana Shiva picked up on this point:  “you have commodified everything, you take the seed, which is for free and spin a trillion dollars of royalty out of it! You create the real economy with the seeds. Where does the power of Cargill come from?  Buy cheap from farmers and control the vertically integrated system…. when we create local food systems that are organic we provide an antidote… if we have life without  money, then maybe life without money is focused on life! The 99% will keep finding a way to exclude us….”

Dr. Shiva’s point sparked a reaction from Jean, who jumped up out of her seat again and asked “why do we go about our lives like commodification is okay? People get mad with me when I ask, but I want to know!”

Dr. Shiva then reminded us that “most of the (Indian farmer) suicides have to do with cotton- 90% owned by Monsanto- so we have been weaving cotton as Gandhi had (and she showed us a shawl woven from Navdanya’s own cotton).  One line (from the corporations) is that we can have no money this way (following traditional practices) and that we must have industry- yet nature can give us capacity to make money (cotton into cloth) and industry COMES from nature!”

Jean thanked us all for our attention, and we rose to our feet in honour of Jean Grossholtz, a true hero for our times.

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