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When authorities got wind of a demonstration planned for Monday outside the Food and Drug Administration’s offices in College Park, Md., they fortified their defenses.
A motorcycle and nine police vans, ominously marked “Homeland Security,” parked in front of the FDA building, and uniformed officers fanned out across the entrance, where they waited.
They needn’t have. The demonstrators, demanding that the FDA require the labeling of genetically modified foods, hadn’t come with violence in mind, or even civil disobedience. They had come to cook a 50-gallon vat of soup on the sidewalk and then consume the stuff — a first-ever “eat-in” at the FDA, they said.
There were no foul-mouthed anarchists dressed in black — just the sort of well-heeled crowd you’d come across at Whole Foods.
This is the face of the new protest movement — or at least organizers hope to make it so.
“We wanted a comfortable event,” Tom Llewellyn, the 30-year-old organizer, said of the FDA action, billed as “a day of sunshine and picnic-style protest” against GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. “It’s all about who you’re appealing to. There has to be a face of the movement for every single demographic to connect with.”
Taking a page from the gay-rights playbook, other causes on the left are holding fewer of the disruptive protests of recent decades and opting for persuasion over confrontation.
The campaign against GMOs is typical: The movement has dropped its demand that such altered foods be banned, instead embracing the more reasonable goal of labeling such foods accurately.
Llewellyn based Monday’s event on “Stone Soup,” a European folk tale about a traveler who persuades villagers to contribute to a communal meal. He borrowed the idea from peace activists of decades past, but made his a GMO-free soup.
But the organizers found their target audience in Kristi Marsh of Massachusetts. Marsh, who writes tips on healthful living, said the image of the typical protest, angry and defiant, “scares people away.”
But as the soup simmered Monday, she told her fellow demonstrators that she would convert other mothers — “everyday me’s,” she called them — to the cause. “As long as you are out there doing this kind of stuff, I will be out there,” she said. “And I will be educating the everyday me’s, because that’s the masses that you need your support from.”
DANA MILBANK is a political reporter for The Washington Post and has authored two books on national political campaigns and the national political parties.