"This is a lot heavier than I'd thought," said Sarah Ryan, 23, an organizer with Change.org, as she lifted a cardboard box with printouts of 250,000 names. All the people had signed an online petition hosted by Change.org and another organization, SumOfUs, asking Apple to reform its labor practices in China.
The Grand Central action in New York City took place simultaneously with one in Washington D.C., as part of six around the world. They began in Bangalore, India, and will end in Sydney, Austrailia.
She was joined by 25-year-old Shelby Knox, the director of organizing for women's rights at Change.org, who was wearing a costume that made her look like a curly haired iPhone. "The majority of workers who are exploited are women," she explained.
Around 10 a.m., Ryan, Knox and perhaps three to four dozen journalists walked across the massive main hall of the station and up the steps to the Apple store, perched commandingly on a giant balcony over the main floor. Ryan and estimates that their contingent had a dozen people, mostly petition signers, but it was hard to tell amidst the hoard of photographers. One companion was Mike Daisey, creator of the one-man show "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs."
Daisey had appeared on an episode of the NPR show "This American Life" – the same one that prompted a man named Mark Shields to start the petition. (Shields, a resident of Washington, D.C., attended the Apple-store visit there.)
"We have a lot of interest, a ton of interest," Ryan had said earlier that morning. "It's a matter of turning interest into action at 10 a.m. in the morning."
The scene at the store was anticlimactic. The women delivered their box to the store manager, coincidentally named Ryan, who accepted it without incident. Security guards, who said they worked for Apple, stopped the press at the top of the stairs. (Unrelated, hacktivists associated with the Anonymous movement broke into computers of Foxconn, Apple's contractor in China, and took staff email usernames and passwords, as well as login credentials for the company's intranet.)
This wasn't the first time Change.org has visited the store. They showed up at the grand opening Dec. 9 to protest Apple's use of "conflict minerals" – which are mined by warring factions and under conditions constituting abuse of human rights, primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They joined with The Enough Project and Delly Mawazo Sesete, a Congolese activist who created a Change.org petition that has gathered over 60,000 signatures urging Apple to stop using conflict minerals.
Protest theater is a regular activity for Change.org. Yesterday in California, activists dressed as trees protested plans by the California Codorniu’s Artesa Napa Winery to expand by clearing a stand of coastal redwood trees, said Knox. And recently the group delivered to the State Capitol in Texas, along with several burros, a petitions to protest state policy of eradicating wild burros.
Despite her current campaign, Ryan makes no secret of her love for Apple products. "As I work on my Apple phone," she said, smiling, while checking messages before the action.
Knox proudly brandished a Google Nexus Android phone. "Apple has a terrible record on worker rights," she said. Though she added later, "I think that they all have shoddy practices, and they all could be a target [of protests]."
Ryan seemed comfortable reconciling her tech and human rights desires. "Apple is the cooler product. But if they are also the ethical product, that will be another reason to buy an Apple."
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