Airspace used the occasion of World No Tobacco Day, May 31, to push back against the "Tobacco Six": the British Columbia grocery and drug store chains that oppose the end of tobacco sales in pharmacies. British Columbia is the only Canadian province that still permits pharmacies to sell cigarettes and other tobacco products.
The plan was to spend about 45 minutes picketing each of the three grocery stores that represent half of the TOBACCO SIX: Thrifty Foods, Save-On-Foods (part of Darrell Jones' Overwaitea Food Group) and Safeway. There aren't a lot of Thrifty options, but we chose the one in South Surrey, in a mall called Morgan Crossing. While I carried a large placard that said "TOBACCO IN PHARMACIES! WTF???" on one side...and "JIM DORES, GENERAL MANAGER, THRIFTY FOODS IS A BULLY!" on the other, Marc and Dave handed out leaflets that explain exactly why we were picketing these stores (check out several stories about the issue of tobacco in pharmacies, including a Global TV BC report on this site. While we always encounter a few ignorant people (who refuse to take our literature and learn about the issue... and say things like, "Get a job!", "Get a life!", etc.), the vast majority -- yes, even including several smokers -- were very receptive... and happy to chat with us, tell us their personal experiences with tobacco, thank us for what we're doing, wish us luck, etc.
That said, the reactions of employees/managers/security of our target stores are always so funny! Obviously, no business wants to have protesters in front of it. But some of the things they say to us... and some of the lame arguments they put up are absolutely hilarious.
At Thrifty, several employees came outside to look at us and, in some cases, take pictures... which we happily posed for. About five minutes later, the Assistant Manager came out, with another employee. The AM was clearly livid although, for the most part, she managed to keep a lid on it. Her main message was something like, "I'd appreciate it if you would just take your sign down." Even though she hadn't yet read the handout we'd given her, she didn't seem to have a problem with us handing them out; it was mostly just this big (2 feet high, 4 feet long) double-sided sign on high-vis paper, with big, thick black felt-pen lettering that was 8 or 9 feet in the air that she was concerned about. I advised her why we were there... and reminded her about our right to free speech.
Five minutes later, a security guard showed up... a very nice young guy who didn't quite know how to deal with us. Eventually, he told us that if we didn't leave, he'd have to call the police. I said, "Fine, go for it." He left, to return to his office and call the cops. We hung out in front of Thrifty for a few more minutes, then we spotted a London Drugs just across the parking lot. Even though we hadn't planned to visit London Drugs during this particular protest, given the fact that London Drugs' Chief Operating Officer Clint Mahlman is "Chief Bully" of the TOBACCO SIX, we couldn't resist. And, as we headed across the parking lot, we joked about the police showing up to nothing going on at Thrifty, then getting a call about another anti-tobacco protest at London Drugs and, by the time they got to London Drugs, we'd be back at Thrifty! 8-)
We were only at London Drugs for about ten minutes. It was really quite uneventful; the only "hilite" being when a security guard came out of the store, didn't say a word to us and just kept walking!?! Boring!
Then we headed back to Thrifty. We were only there for a couple of minutes when a male RCMP officer arrived. Again, a nice guy, we all chatted, told him why we were there and, of course, he was given the obligatory handout. The issue of private property vs. public property was brought up a couple of times, but he didn't really seem to push that. In any case, after a few minutes of really quite jovial chatting, the cop told us to hold on, he was going to go and talk with the AM. At about that point, a second RCMP officer (a female supervisor) arrived. And, of course, this police presence was attracting more attention to us than we could've otherwise ever hoped for. Then the security guard showed up again... and we had a very cool conversation with him (he actually thanked us, for 'spicing up' what is most often a pretty dull and boring job!). He wanted pictures of the big placard... and actually posed with Dave and I as Marc took pictures!
By this point, we were about ready to leave... our 45 minutes was up. But, since the cops were still chatting with the AM and her sidekicks, we were prepared to go into a little overtime... just wanting to wait and see what the "official verdict" would be... if we'd be leaving "voluntarily" or because we "had to".
I forget exactly what happened, but the male cop finally came back to us, to "chat" (and, of course, I was holding the sign high during all of these conversations... and Marc and Dave continued to hand out our leaflets). I think somehow it had "leaked out" that we were planning to leave anyway so, after a little more light-hearted and sometimes funny conversation (even about Bill C-51, politics, religion, etc.), we all shook hands with the cop and said "Hi!" to the supervisor. He asked us where we were going next and, while I did not feel any obligation whatsoever to tell him, I saw no harm in it... and told him about the Save-On-Foods and the Safeway, both in the 10300 block of King George Blvd. (he gave us his name... and told us that if cops showed up at either of those locations, to just let them know that he had dealt with us, etc.)... and we slowly made our way back toward my car. But we weren't completely done yet. After getting permission from the cops, we posed for a few more pix beside the police car... as a third police car arrived! We joked with them about turning the red and blue dome lights on for us, for the pictures, but they didn't approve of that. I thought about climbing into the back seat of the police car too, which is clearly where the AM thought all 3 of us belonged.
As I alluded to before, I'm guessing the Thrifty AM seriously regretted asking the security guard to call the police; their presence was quite literally stopping traffic (both vehicles and pedestrians). Between that and the almost festive atmosphere, it was amazing... not at all the outcome she was hoping for.
Next up: Save-On-Foods. Somewhat emboldened by the experience at Thrifty Foods, we got even closer to the store, with Marc and Dave catching people as they entered/left the store... and me pacing up and down in front of the store, holding my sign right up to the windows near where the cashiers were (of course I had changed one side of the placard, so that it now said, "DARRELL JONES, PRESIDENT, SAVE-ON-FOODS IS A BULLY!"). As expected, about 5 or 10 minutes into the protest, the manager and some "muscle" came out to "greet" us. This guy was a little more hostile than the Thrifty one, asking us some crazy question about if we'd be picketing against alcohol or heroin use, if there were alcoholics/druggies outside the store?!? We advised him that we're focused on tobacco... and that tobacco kills more people than alcohol, all illegal drugs, blah, blah, blah. He asked how long we were planning to be there. I checked my watch...and said, "About another half hour." He looked at his watch, said, "Fine!" and went back into the store... not saying a single word about private property, etc.! So we just carried on, as we were before he came outside. We got into a bit of a shouting match with one loser (a customer) who told us to "Get a life!" but, other than that, it was pretty quiet. I was watching the time pretty closely... and we were literally winding down and getting ready to leave (at about 31 minutes after I'd told the Manager we'd be there for another half hour) when another big guy (a Save-On-Foods employee) came outside. I guess the Manager had been keeping a pretty close eye on the time too. Anyway, we left without incident.
And last but not least, there was Safeway. After changing the sign again -- to "CHUCK MULVENNA, PRESIDENT SAFEWAY/SOBEYS, IS A BULLY!" -- a security guard showed up within what seemed like mere seconds. Nice as the one at Thrifty Foods was, this guy was even nicer... and again, didn't quite seem to know how to handle the situation. We chatted with him for a bit... and he actually seemed to appreciate what we were doing... and didn't say a word about private property (in this particular case, it was NOT a mall, it was just Safeway... and where we were, in front of the store -- and the entire parking lot -- was, clearly, Safeway property)... our friendly conversation only being interrupted when shoppers asked for one of our leaflets...and they wanted to chat too.
A couple minutes later, the manager comes out, with a sidekick. We all introduce ourselves, shake hands, etc... and they were handed the obligatory handout. But, rather than making them read it, we explained to them, verbally, why we were there. While the manager seemed to agree with our position, he advised us that it was private property... and that we'd need to move out onto the sidewalk. Again, somewhat emboldened by our previous experiences (especially all of the humour) -- and trying to make light of this private property crap -- I said something like, "Well that's kind of pointless, isn't it? There's virtually nobody on the sidewalk!" Recognizing that we might not cooperate and not interested in discussing it any further, they all went inside the store, saying something like, "We'll leave it at that, peacefully, for now." Clearly, they would likely be calling the cops. Taking our time, we sort of sauntered off in the general direction of the sidewalk, on King George Blvd, when we spotted -- wait for it -- yet another London Drugs, right across the street!!! So we wandered over there.
First thing I noticed was a sign on a pillar, very close to the main entrance to the London Drugs. The sign said, "NO LOITERING, NO SOLICITING AND NO PANHANDLING." Anyway, mocking the sign, Dave and I went up to it, leaned against either side of the pillar, Dave took his hat off and held it as if he was panhandling... and, while holding my placard just above the "NO..." sign, pretended to put some coins into Dave's hat. Not more than a couple of minutes later, a customer was heading into the store with a young girl (his daughter?). I don't recall exactly what he said but, clearly not approving of what we were doing, he pointed to the "NO LOITERING" part of the sign, then took some cheap shot at us. Just as he was going in the door, I told him he was hilarious. When he came out, he just lost it... saying something like, "You have no right giving that to kids!", etc. ("that", referring to our handouts... I think?!?). He kept ranting as he headed toward his vehicle... and finally, I asked him, "Which tobacco company do you work for?" He screamed, "I don't work for any tobacco company, I'm in security!" No, not another security guard! Oh well, I guess 2 out of 3 ain't bad! I laughed... and told him I was shaking in my boots. He left... and if there were any shootings in Surrey today, I can assure you that no Airspace people were hit! 8-)
And, just when Safeway thought there was no need to call the cops, we went back there for a few minutes, right in front of the store. We had to, dammit... to get some pictures... of Dave chatting with receptive customers, me holding my placard right under the big "Pharmacy" sign, etc. We were there for at least 5 minutes, but the Manager did not come out...probably just too busy dialing 911!
And finally, for those incredibly few people who are offended by the "WTF???" part of our sign, they need to know that it actually stands for, "WHAT THE FUDGE" (thanks, Marc) and/or, as I suggested (certainly based on today's experiences), "WAY TOO FUNNY!"
We'd love to hear your comments.