At an evening vigil in front of the courthouse in Ft. Myers, where a year earlier several members of a Southwestern Florida family were convicted of enslaving 12 immigrant tomato workers, CIW member Greg Asbed felt a presence behind him as he snugged a blanket around his son, who was nodding off to sleep in a stroller. Asbed wheeled around and came face-to-face with a stranger pointing a video camera over his shoulder directly at the child's face. The cameraman did not identify himself.
A day later, while walking a picket line in front of a Publix in Sarasota, Lucas Benitez, another CIW member, noticed that a cameraman focused on his one-year-old baby each time that Lucas passed him. "I thought it was kind of weird because he didn't identify himself or say anything," said Benitez in a telephone interview. "I was worried."
During a Port Charlotte demonstration, Jordan Buckley, also of the CIW, wondered why store officials were allowing one particular photographer unfettered access, while preventing others from filming at all on company property.
"Why are they letting you shoot," Buckley asked. "What's your name? Do you work for Publix?"
"No," the photographer said, giving the name Thomas McGuigan. "I'm just an old hippie doing a documentary about the modern protest movement." When Buckley got home, he did a quick Google search and found that a person named Thomas McGuigan was employed at Publix video division.
Could there be an undercover spy at work who had an obsession with very young children?
"I wonder how Publix PR people would feel if they were in the same position--if there was a stranger who was found later to be falsely identifying himself filming their children?" said Benitez, when I spoke to him.
"The bottom line for me is, spy on me, well, shame on you, that's wrong. But spy on my kid, what need does Publix have for that?" said Asbed.
Both questions struck me as a worthwhile, so I made a call to Maria Brous, Director of Media and Community Relations at Publix's Lakeland headquarters. She confirmed that McGuigan was indeed an employee of Publix, but said that he also owned a separate video production operation and was filming the CIW actions as a personal project. "We did not assign him, but we were aware that he was there. We like to document activities at our stores. It is typical for us to video-record events at our stores--positive ones, too--so we asked Tom to give us a copy we could keep ourselves."
Brous said that the store did not intend to destroy or give the footage of children back to the parents. "I think it's unfair to claim that we did anything inappropriate. The children were there as part of the event," she said.
As to the CIW's bigger question: Why won't Publix, whose stores are as ubitquitous as palm trees in the Sunshine State, join a campaign for fair food that is supported by the state's governor, Charlie Crist, fast-food outlets such as McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, and Taco Bell, as well as Wholefoods Market, Compass Group (a huge nation-wide food service corporation), and East Coast Growers and Packers, a major Florida tomato producer and packer?