Health Food Chain Says "Yes" to Democracy

It's not easy being a petitioner, a gatherer of voter signatures. Just ask Kristen. She's been at it for thirteen years, collecting voter signatures for items to be added to the ballot on election day. We're talking outside a Target store in Tampa where Kristen has set up her table with a stack of petitions titled "Replacing the current appointed administrator with a non partisan elected county mayor." The petition asks if you're a voter registered in this county, your name, address, date of birth, and telephone number. For this particular intiative to be placed on the ballot, Kristen and her fellow petitioners will need 50,000 to 60,000 verified voter signatures. It takes less than a minute to answer the questions and sign. Still, not many shoppers are stopping. Kristen asks them to sign the petition only when they leave the store. "This is not a harassing thing," she explains.

Wearing a bright blue football jersey that complements her deep tan she is a woman in constant motion, speaking in her rapid fire clip, while simultaneously fielding questions from the writer, answering calls on her cell phone, and asking exiting customers to sign her petition. She stands well back from the rows of red shopping carts banked in front of the store. Her small card table is at least twenty feet away from the store's entrance/exit doors, near the doors to the parking garage--not blocking elevator, stairs or anything else.

There's a soap sale this week, so I'd headed over to my neighborhood Target to stock up. About twenty feet out from the red double doors I noticed the new sign, propped up on a metal stand in front of the red shopping carts. It's one of those circle with a slash signs denoting the universal NOT symbol. Inside the red circle are the words, "SAY NO TO SOLICITORS." Although Target's ban against Salvation Army's bell ringers is well known, it is a bit early for holiday anti- solicitation signs. After all, it's only June. Curious, I asked the cashier if he knew what the No Solicitors sign was all about. He smiled, seemed amused, but shed no light on the subject.

Walking toward my car on the ground level, I pass the local Wild Oats Natural Marketplace. This is a national health food chain, headquartered in Boulder, Colorado. The first Wild Oats in this area opened recently in my neighborhood, if this urban sprawl can rightly be termed a "neighborhood." Outside the store stands a personable young man, clean cut and dressed in conservative, casual Florida wear: shorts and polo shirt. I notice a nearby folding table set up with papers and clipboards. I ask him what he's gathering signatures for, and he says it's to allow voters to vote for an administrator of county comissioners rather than have this be an appointed position. He asks if I'm registered to vote in the county, and if I want to sign his petition. I ask him about the newly posted Target sign, wondering aloud if the sign was meant for him. He smiles, answers in the affirmative. Asked if Wild Oats had given him any trouble about setting up his petition table a few feet in front of their store, he says no, adding they (store personnel) have treated him well, have even come outside and given him free drinks.

He asserts that since he's not asking for money he is not truly a "solicitor," and has a legal right to be there, a right nonetheless that Target apparently wants him and Kristen to exercise elsewhere. Last week, says Kristen, the store called police on her. A store security guard told her: "Management doesn't want you to be here." Kristen responded that she has a "constitututional right to be there." A police officer showed up and made her produce ID, she recalls. Something in his manner made her "afraid," she says, so she called her office. Her office then called his supervisors. The standoff was resolved and Kristen was allowed to stay. It's an uneasy truce. In this "Right to Work" state, your right to work depends on who you're working for.

"The main complaint (from stores like Target and Walmart) is we're blocking the door, and people aren't free to come and go." Walmart told her she'd be "responsible for the deaths of thousands if there was a fire." It should be noted here that local Walmart and Target stores have recently allowed on their properties (cookie selling) Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts (selling hotdogs), other (Christian themed) groups selling t-shirts, and Goodwill donation vans.

"As you can see," she says of her job today, "it's very difficult. If you are shy, or lack confidence..." In other words, it's easy for those who don't know their rights to be intimidated, chased off. She continues: "There's the heat, the rain. It would be great if (petitioners) could be inside the post offices, the libraries--out of the elements, but now post offices say they are private property." Some of the local postmasters are friendly she says, but adds "I've had the police called on me more times than I can count."

One time she remembers, she went to the post office and they called local police, (who) "said we could be there." Then, the post office called a "federal cop, who had a gun, and they told me to leave." What makes her stay in such a harrowing job, she is asked.

She does it because "I like the challenge. I feel like I'm kind of a freedom fighter. We are losing our freedom to speak." Most people who attempt to force her out say they are "just doing their jobs." Her reply: "That's what the Nazis said." Asked about state laws governing petitioners, she says there are laws on the books, but they're "very gray, and can't be easily enforced." Kristen sees what she's doing as a civil rights issue: the right to petition the government. A legal eagle to take up the petitioners' cause and fight on their side would be most welcome. She says it's different in some other states, like California. There, petitioners are free to work, wherever. "Here (in Florida) we have limited access. Everything is private property."

Inside Wild Oats, I mention the male petitioner outside to the Asian cashier. Smiling her approval, she remarks that the company appears to support such freedoms as the right to gather signatures on a petition. Assistant Service Manager Alexis echoes this sentiment. Beyond a certain point, it's not private property so he's allowed to be there, she explains, but adds she'd have to check with her store director as far as giving a statement. Both women told me they could call the store manager for me or I could send an email to Wild Oats from their web site.

My email requesting comment from Wild Oats brought no immediate response. Although I'm not normally a corporate cheerleader, this time I have to give 'em a thumbs up for peacefully co-existing with the petitioners in our midst.

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