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Gimme an A!

On an otherwise quiet, balmy night in Auburn, Alabama, in an otherwise empty, over-air-conditioned Taco Bell, three young, blond women huddle over a fast-food dinner. Suddenly, the door to the restaurant swings open and about 50 people -- mostly young women -- burst inside, chanting in unison:

Hey Taco Bell
You better listen, listen
cause we ain't kiddin', kiddin'
and we are stayin', stayin'
till you are payin', payin'
a living wage (clap-clap-clap-clap)
for blood (clap)
sweat (clap)
and tears! (clap)

Some clang metal mess kits; others shake water bottles full of pebbles, forming a makeshift percussion section. The restaurant has protest acoustics: The sounds echo off the walls. A tall, thin, blond woman in a hot pink pleated tennis skirt waves pompons made of strips of shiny, blue-and-gold Mylar. Punk kids and anarchists in tattered T-shirts and olive-drab army fatigues dance and stomp on chairs and tables, their flesh pierced and tattooed, their noses and mouths covered, cowboy-style, with bandannas.

The customers in the corner are outnumbered by protesters by more than ten to one. They stare in disbelief; eyes wide, hands clasped over mouths full of refried beans. In their surprise they seem to forget their food. Bean burritos, chalupas, and tacos lie amid sheets of waxed tissue paper like abandoned Christmas gifts.

After a couple minutes, an employee phones the police, then calmly informs the protesters of that fact. They don't leave immediately but instead start another round of chants, gleefully circling the dining room as if taking a victory lap.

Regrouping outside on the sidewalk, they debate the legality of blocking the drive-thru. Two police cars glide up, without sirens or lights. A bespectacled, middle-aged officer emerges, inquiring what they're up to.

A young woman comes forward and raises her trembling voice. In an awkward, roundabout way, she explains that Taco Bell is the largest buyer of tomatoes from Six L's Packing Company, Inc., an Immokalee, Florida-based firm that, she says, pays its workers paltry wages with no benefits.

He gives her a satisfied smile and pauses. "OK," he drawls patiently, "so if y'all are through with Taco Bell?" In other words it's time to leave.

These activists aren't nearly finished with Taco Bell, but for tonight, at least, the protest is over. Their display was bright and brief, excess enthusiasm burning off like the flame from a kerosene lamp. Though it seemed to come from nowhere, the ten-minute spontaneous demonstration had been building since early afternoon.

The participants in this impromptu action were among the roughly 500 activists in town for the Third Annual Southern Girls Convention at Auburn University July 20 through 22. Southern Girls was organized to make radical feminism visible in the South, to combat discrimination, and to challenge stereotypes about life here. It was also devised, the program explains, "because we have an intrinsic desire to revolt." It was summer session, though. Few remained to hear them scream.

The show went on anyway. The schedule included workshops on do-it-yourself pet care; ecofeminism; preparing for the upcoming International Monetary Fund protest in Washington, D.C., this fall; and "big women in the porn industry." There were also a few workshops organized by and for men, including one about peer education to end violence against women.

Because the weekend of workshops, discussions, speeches, and impromptu parties drew attendees who'd met at earlier radical conventions, Southern Girls had the friendly feel of a reunion. Participants were mostly white women in their early twenties along with a sprinkling of Asians, blacks, and Hispanics; a few men; and a few who identify as transgender.

Workshop organizers took pains to include minority participants. On the fourth page of the convention program is a "trans policy" that advises which of the student union's toilets transgendered participants should use. "We apologize," it reads, "for the gender-segregated bathrooms."

Meanwhile, parts of the conference were intentionally gender-segregated. A man was asked to leave a workshop about sexual assault, while a white woman was kicked out of a workshop aimed at women of color.

No one, however, was barred from attending a radical cheerleading workshop held by Classic City Chaos, a squad from Athens, Georgia. About 60 mostly female conventioneers scattered about the sun-scorched grass in front of Foy Student Union to learn stunts, cheers, and matching moves from a squad of young women dressed in matching camouflage miniskirts and black T-shirts with the squad's name emblazoned in red letters across the chest. They focused on popular feminist and anticapitalist cheers; the repertoire also includes chants against harassment, consumerism, sweatshops, and work and in praise of bicycles, anarchy, gender-bending, and being fat.

One woman wondered aloud whether Cara and Aimee Jennings of Lake Worth, Florida, would show up. When another gave her a blank look, she smugly launched into a spiel about radical cheerleading's origins, proud to be an insider in an outsider's scene.

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Amy Roe

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