Like many subversive plots, this one began at a cafe. Beneath a hot sun last week, about forty activists met outside a Starbucks in a San Leandro strip mall, their base camp, before heading toward their true target a few blocks away: the local Caterpillar tractor sales office.
The group, Jewish Voice for Peace, wants Caterpillar Inc. to stop selling its bulldozers and tractors to the Israeli government. According to the activists, the company's machines are being used as weapons and are responsible for destroying thousands of Palestinian homes. Also, on this particular day one year ago, the American-born activist Rachel Corrie was killed when she got pinned between a D9 bulldozer and a home slated for destruction. The protesters planned to ambush Caterpillar's office with a video camera in tow á la Michael Moore, list their immediate demands, and then leave.
"Keep your signs down," urged one organizer who was standing on one of those iron-cast cafe chairs. "We don't want them to see us coming."
As the group marched out of the parking lot and thinned itself along the sidewalk, another organizer in a green blazer and jeans ran the length of the protest, trying to shepherd the stragglers in the back to keep pace with the front. "We all want to arrive together!" she yelled.
"Not all of us can walk that fast," snapped one middle-aged woman wearing Tevas and a fanny pack. "We're coming, we're coming."
"This isn't a race," another woman from the back added.
The green-blazer organizer slowed to apologize. "I know, I know," she said, tilting her head and putting her hands out in front of her. "I just want all of us to get there at once." Then she ran back up to the front.
The line moved east on Marina Boulevard, which is San Leandro's auto row, a wide street made up of car dealerships and chain fast-food restaurants. It passed a Ford lot with its rows of neatly parked SUVs, a Firestone tire outlet, and a Valero gas station that advertised low prices on unleaded fuel.
"$2.01 a gallon?" exclaimed one of the female activists. "Sheesh. I'm filling up over there."
In front of Peterson Tractor Co., a big green lawn welcomed its visitors. A shining bulldozer with the CAT logo was on display out front, its scoop proudly in the ready-to-plunge position. The protest group's videographer ran onto the grass and stopped behind the machine to get a shot of the activists passing the bulldozer in the background. A few tractor salesmen, who were roaming the lot in short-sleeved shirts and ties, watched the line of people pass them by. The videographer hurried for another shot at the front of the line to get the protesters as they entered the office.
The square building's interior was cool from the air conditioning. The lead protesters passed the receptionist's desk and surrounded the square cubicle station directly behind her, which housed about six file clerks, mostly middle-aged women who wore sensible clothes and had framed pictures of their children on their desks, but were now crowded by strangers reading Jewish prayers and holding lit candles. One clerk stood dumbfounded, a brown file in her right hand dangling at her side, and her mouth gaping open as if thinking: Why do these people have a problem with me? I don't even work for Caterpillar.
A few men in suits and ties came out to the front, then walked back down the hallway and closed their doors. For a few seconds, the activists just stood there. One positioned a large cardboard poster of a smiling Rachel Corrie on the receptionist's desk. Others decided the candles might set off the fire alarms, and yelled to everyone to blow them out, which merely caused a plume of smoke to waft through the office.
Finally, a short man in a yellow oxford shirt appeared and asked the lead organizer to direct his minions to leave the building. The man would identify himself only as a controller, and he pointed out that business was being disturbed.
"Caterpillar bulldozers disturb Palestinian lives every day," one protester countered, to applause.
The lead organizer read his demands aloud. He likened Caterpillar bulldozers to weapons of mass destruction and considered the company culpable in Corrie's death, then held the company's shareholders and employees all but responsible for the devastation taking place a hemisphere away. One clerk turned up the volume on her radio. The organizer spoke louder.
The workers inside the cubicle believed they were the victims of a misdirected effort. One woman said to her colleague, "This isn't going to help one bit, I tell you that much." Her colleague nodded in agreement, with a look of such bitterness that it seemed as if she'd been forever turned off to the activists' cause, as if personally insulted by their righteous implications. Why do these people have a problem with me? I don't even work for Caterpillar.
The protesters believed they'd scored a good one. As they exited the office, just ahead of two arriving police officers, they were pumped up with pride. They'd established that yes, this was a serious campaign, and they left with the hope that the yellow-shirted controller would tell his boss all about his uncomfortable afternoon, who would tell his supplier, who would tell his boss, who would tell his, who would tell his. Until one day, Caterpillar stopped selling bulldozers to Israel.
"Hey, you guys," one female organizer shouted as they left the building, "let's go back to Starbucks and debrief."
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