The 30th Anniversary of Food Not Bombs

Veterans for Peace activist, Brian Wilson, helped organize the "Nuremberg Action", to blockade weapons shipments destined to Central America, at the Concord Navel Weapons depot. The activists sat on the tracks before each train load of arms left the base for ships docked in the Sacramento River. One afternoon the train didn't stop, and ran over Brian, cutting off his legs. McHenry had met Brian at a "fast for peace" in Boston, and went to the protest that weekend. He was so moved by Brian's dedication, he decided to start a second Food Not Bombs in San Francisco. This time he decided to take notes on how the group started , to help other people start chapters in their community. The first action for San Francisco Food Not Bombs was to provide meals to the protesters at the Nevada Test Site. While serving miso soup to activists blockading the nuclear workers, a group from Long Beach, California reported that they had started to collect produce and bread, and were sharing meals in a local park. "We heard about Food Not Bombs in Boston and thought the name might be copy written so we are calling ourselves, Bread Not Bombs." "Call yourselves Food Not Bombs, and we will have three chapters." which they did.

Keith returned to San Francisco to organize a weekly meal. It was the perfect city for Food Not Bombs, with good weather and history of radical activism. During a meeting at a Chinese restaurant, the San Francisco activists realized there was no free meal served in the Haight Ashbury on Mondays, so that week they set up a food table at the entrance to the Golden Gate Park, at the foot of Haight Street. There was always a nice little crowd of people sitting on the lawn, and they welcomed the free lunch and the message of peace. That July, the director of the Haight Ashbury Soup Kitchen suggested the volunteers could get a permit from the Recreation and Parks Department office a block from where they were serving. On August 15, 1988, this small group of dedicated Food Not Bombs activists was surprised when 45 riot police marched out of the woods , and arrested 9 volunteers, for sharing food with the hungry without a permit. The police had tipped off a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle, who filed a story and photo about riot police arresting volunteers for feeding the hungry. People all over the Bay Area were shocked, and asked if they could be of help. The next Monday, nearly 200 people joined a march down Haight Street banging pots and pans on their way to risk arrest at Golden Gate Park. The police made 29 arrests. News of these arrests made CNN, the London Times, the New York Times,and many other media outlets around the world. The next week the police told Food Not Bombs that they didn't mind that they were feeding the hungry, "it's just that they are making a political statement and that isn't allowed." The police told the media that the group could feed the hungry in an armory out at the ocean, but not in public. On Labor Day, over 1,000 people came to Golden Gate Park to risk arrest. Fifty Four activists were jailed , and a number of people were injured by the police, including a TV cameraman, who was disabled for decades. Facing a crisis, Mayor Art Agnos held two afternoons of meetings with members of Food Not Bombs, the ACLU, city officials and neighborhood activists. The mayor issued a permit to end the arrests. So many people were inspired by the resistance of Food Not Bombs, that the group not only returned to the park, they also started to share their ideas and food, without police interference, Tuesdays at the Federal Building, and United Nations Plaza on Wednesdays. People in other cities wanted to know how they could get arrested sharing vegetarian meals, so the volunteers in San Francisco took their notes and made a flier called: "Seven Steps to Starting A Local Food Not Bombs Group." New Food Not Bombs chapters started in Washington D.C., New York City, Seattle, Victoria and Vancouver B.C. As well as several other cities.

All went well until the next summer, when the police started a campaign to arrest the homeless for sleeping in the city parks. One Monday, people eating at Food Not Bombs, told stories about the police ordering the Fire Department to soak their camp, and about the police taking their sleeping bags, blankets and personal belongings. The next day , the volunteers heard more stories of police repression. The homeless started a Tent City Protest at Civic Center Plaza, across from City Hall. On Wednesday the hungry asked Food Not Bombs to join them in Civic Center Plaza. That evening the volunteers started a 24-hour a day vegetarian soup kitchen in solidarity with San Francisco's homeless. The homeless organized concerts, dances and rallies every weekday at noon. After several weeks, and lots of news coverage, the Police Activities League hired a carnival to set up bumper car rides, a ferris wheel and other attractions in the plaza, but this didn't stop the protest ,now called "Tenement Square" in solidarity with the Tienanmen Square protests in China. New York Food Not Bombs was busy feeding a Tompkins Square Park Tent City Protest on the lower east side of Manhattan. On the morning of the 27th day, the mayor of San Francisco opened an additional shelter, declaring that all the homeless now had a place to stay and ordered the arrest of any of the homeless unwilling to sleep in this converted auto dealership. Riot police surrounded Civic Center Plaza as the campers rolled up their tents and packed away their belongings. For many, though, the shelter was not an option. Men had to leave their families on the streets, women and people with pets were not allowed to stay at the new shelter. You had to bring your own card board box to sleep on. The police started to arrest Food Not Bombs again, and homeless people were harassed all across the city.

Mother Theresa and her Sisters of Charity agreed to stop their meals at Civic Center Plaza, so San Francisco Food Not Bombs decided to share food across from City Hall every day at lunch and dinner. The group organized a system where the food was divided into thirds. Several volunteers would start to share a small amount of rice, beans, soup and bread, and the police would make a few arrests. Then another group of volunteers with a little more food would arrive, and they would be arrested. While the police were busy booking the people they had arrested, the rest of the food would emerge and Food Not Bombs would feed everyone who had come to eat. After a few months of near daily arrests, the volunteers came up with a program called: "risk arrest one day a month with Food Not Bombs", and invited members of other groups to risk arrest sharing meals. Nuns and priests were arrested, students, peace groups, labor organizers were jailed, but when members of the National Lawyers Guild shared food, the police arrested the people eating and left the lawyers free.

The arrests were virtually a daily event. On October 5, 1989 at 5:05 p.m. San Francisco shook with the largest earthquake since 1909. Rice and beans were cooking on the stove at the time the gas and electricity went out. Food Not Bombs still had their propane tanks and stoves from the days of the Tent City protest , so the volunteers loaded up the truck and set up a field kitchen outside City Hall. This time when the police arrived, they joined the soup line and had a bite to eat and the arrests ended for the rest of Mayor Agnos's term.

Chevron Oil won the right to host the 500th anniversary of Columbus arriving in the new world , and planned to celebrate in San Francisco. Native American activists announced they would organize a protest. Food Not Bombs called it's first international gathering for October 1992. Around 75 people came to the gathering from many of the nearly thirty active groups, including several volunteers from Food Not Bombs chapters in Canada. New Society Press had asked us to write a book when they read the flier, "Seven Steps to Starting a Local Food Not Bombs Group." "Food Not Bombs, How to Feed The Hungry and Build Community" was published just in time for the first gathering. The principles of Food Not Bombs was a major focus of the gathering. The activists agreed that every chapter would be autonomous, there would be no leaders, and they would use the process of consensus to make decisions. They also agreed that the food would always be vegetarian, and free to anyone without restriction , and the third principle would be a dedication to nonviolent direct action. They also agreed to return home, and help people start new chapters in neighboring cities. The next day the Food Not Bombs volunteers cooked a huge amount of food, and provided vegetarian meals to the Native American protesters, some of whom pushed "Columbus" back out into the San Francisco Bay, 500 years was enough.

Food Not Bombs activists returned home and started organizing more meals and new chapters. Grassroots punk bands, such as Fifteen, J Church, Good Riddance, Propagandi, and MDC put information about Food Not Bombs in their lyrics and liner notes. And on top of all this grassroots dissemination and organizing, the Internet was just becoming popular, and became a major tool for spreading the word about Food Not Bombs. Chapters started everywhere almost like magic. Groups started in Melbourne, Australia, Prague, Czechoslovakia, Montreal, Canada and London, England, and in cities all across the United States.

Not long after the first Food Not Bombs 1992 Gathering, there was about to be an election in San Francisco and the man who lead the arrests of Food Not Bombs, Chief of Police Frank Jordan, ran for mayor on an anti-homeless platform, claiming he would round the homeless up and put them in work camps. Once elected, Jordan started what he called "The Quality of Life Enforcement Matrix Program". Attorney General Janet Reno's Justice Department donated a military plane, which the city outfitted with thermal imaging cameras so the police could "see" the body heat of people living in the parks. The program started in August 1993, with raids throughout the city's parks. The police ordered people to throw their shoes, sleeping bags and blankets in trash trucks. Many were arrested for sleeping in public. San Francisco's homeless were told to leave the city. Food Not Bombs volunteers were horrified to see this abuse of police power, so they joined with the San Francisco Coalition of the Homeless, and other community groups, in organizing protests for the human rights of people living on the streets. Food Not Bombs volunteers borrowed a video camera from the ACLU to film the human rights abuses. They filmed police confiscating shoes, and an officer struggling to tear a photo album from the arms of an older woman. The activists gave the footage to the local TV stations, and Oakland's Channel 2 aired some of the shots on their evening news. This angered the mayor, and in retaliation, Jordan ordered the city attorney to get a restraining order against Food Not Bombs sharing meals without a permit, and he ordered his Recreation and Parks Commission to delete the permit process. The courts agreed to issue an injunction, and the volunteers started being arrested and charged with "felony conspiracy to share free food in violation of a court order."

One morning a Food Not Bombs activist called the local media to invite them to cover their protests for the rights of the homeless, but the a staff person at the Bay City News Service explained that the management had posted notices claiming that it was illegal to take calls from Food Not Bombs because it "would be aiding and abetting in a felony." An electrical engineer, Steven Dunnifer, was starting to teach classes in building low-power FM radio transmitters. Food Not Bombs volunteers joined Steven in making transmitters for Free Radio Berkeley and San Francisco Liberation Radio, unlicensed, low-power or "pirate" radio stations. The free radio stations reported on government efforts to make it illegal to be homeless, and police violence against Food Not Bombs volunteers. The Federal Communications Commission tried to shut down the stations, but this only encouraged more people to start their own stations. At one point there were over 350 unlicensed low-power FM radio stations in the United States, many started by Food Not Bombs activists.

Food Not Bombs was still getting arrested almost every day and decided to add another project to their "Risk Arrest One day a Month" campaign. They talked with the San Francisco Tenants Union, and proposed to occupy an empty hotel across from Glide Memorial Church on Thanksgiving. The mayor's friend had evicted nearly 200 low-income people to turn his building into an expensive tourist hotel. As the mayor arrived for his televised turkey cutting at Glide's soup kitchen, activists dropped banners saying "Homes Not Jails", declaring housing as a human right. That same evening, several homeless families moved into an abandoned office a block from Glide. After the success of this first action, activists started to ride around the city writing down the addresses of empty buildings and looking up the properties at city hall. If the properties were in litigation by banks fighting over the ownership, the volunteers would break open the building and put their own locks on them. Volunteers would ask people eating dinner with Food Not Bombs if they would like a place to live. The activist would invite the homeless to meet them at 9:00 the next morning at an address of an empty building. The activists would arrive with a key, tools and cleaning supplies, unlock the door and invite the homeless families to move in. Neighbors were often happy to see the empty building occupied, not realizing that the "Homes Not Jails" volunteers were not really the owners. According to the book, "No Trespassing", Homes Not Jails had keys to over 400 houses, and housed people in over 200 of those buildings. Homes Not Jails also organized a campaign to house homeless veterans, by occupying abandoned housing in the Presidio, a former army base near the Golden Gate Bridge.

The day the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, January 1, 1994, several Bay Area micro-radio stations received an email from the Zapatistas about an uprising in Mexico. That evening San Francisco Liberation Radio broadcast the Zapatista's communique from the top of Twin Peaks , while Free radio Berkeley read the manifesto from the Oakland Hills. The next day, Food Not Bombs volunteers held a "Viva Zapatista , No NAFTA" sign as they shared their daily lunch. The mayor's film commissioner stumbled out of City Hall and started yelling at the people serving food. He took out a cell phone and called a tow truck to take away the Food Not Bombs truck. Keith McHenry set aside the sign and went to a pay phone in City Hall to call the towing company. The film commissioner followed Keith to the phone booth, and started pushing Keith against the inside of the booth. Unable to finish the call, he went upstairs to another phone booth and made arrangements to retrieve the truck. Two business men and a police officer stood at the bottom of the stairs and asked Keith to come and speak with them. "Yes how can I help you?" "You're under arrest for assault, battery and strong armed robbery. That happens to be a strike under the new California "Three Strikes" law." Once bailed, Keith continued to get arrested for sharing meals until May when he was arrested handing out literature to the Board of Supervisors. This time, he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, and possession of stolen property, 24 Berkeley Farms milk crates, and faced 25 years, to life, in prison.


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