Memo to FBI: Lettuce in the sink
I have a somewhat sticky feeling about bringing this up. I like to think of myself as an old-fashioned shoe-leather reporter, asking the hard questions, reporting without fear or favor and generally staying on the sidelines. So you can imagine what it must feel like to be involved in an organization labeled a “terrorist ” threat by the FBI.
One day back in March I walked into St. Mary’s House, the little Episcopal church I attend down the street from UNCG, to prepare a meal with my friends in Food Not Bombs. My priest pointed to a newswire story he’d printed off the internet and posted on the bulletin board near the door. It noted that Food Not Bombs was ranked seventh on a “terrorist watch list” prepared by a Texas FBI agent and presented to a class of law students in Austin.
It was not as dramatic a moment as you might imagine. I think we laughed about it first, pondered our importance, and forgot about it as we undertook the more pressing business of washing lettuce and peeling potatoes.
To demystify our activity, we gather food that would otherwise go to waste, prepare it and feed anyone who wishes to partake. We do not have a budget or an executive committee. We do not make any distinction between servers and clients. We are one autonomous chapter among more than a half dozen in North Carolina and hundreds, possibly thousands around the world. Given the above characteristics, we fit the classic definition of an “anarchist” organization, although I’m certain that some of the volunteers, including homeless people and church lay people, would resist being identified as anarchists.
I actually don’t find it that threatening to be associated with the FBI’s idea of a terrorist group. I find it sad, and more than a little disconcerting. I’m trying to reconcile the widely divergent perspective that I hold with that of Senior Resident Agent Charlie Rasner. I left a couple messages for Rasner at his office in Austin, hoping I could tell him a little bit about my work with Greensboro Food Not Bombs and, in turn, hear his concerns. He hasn’t called back, so I’m left to rely on an account by one of the law students who heard his presentation.
“Listing three categories of cause groups potentially linked to terrorist activity, Rasner named white supremacist groups, Islamic terrorist groups and anarchists,” reported Elizabeth Wagoner on Austin Indymedia (also a group on the FBI agent’s list, ironically enough). “Rasner then placed the FBI’s central Texas ‘Terrorist Watch List’ on the screen. On a list of approximately ten groups, Food Not Bombs was listed seventh. Indymedia was listed tenth, with a reference specifically to IndyConference 2005. The Communist Party of Texas also made the list. Rasner explained that these groups could have links to terrorist activity. He noted that peaceful-sounding groups could cover more violent extremist tactics.”
You may wonder about the political ideology of Food Not Bombs.
The premise set forth by its founders in Boston in the early 1980s is that there is more than enough food to feed the world’s people, but that capitalism creates artificial scarcity. War, which is necessary to enforce capitalism, further diverts resources that might otherwise meet the needs of people. I’ve read some news accounts referencing people affiliated with Food Not Bombs who are alleged to have engaged in property destruction and disruptive tactics at protests. I don’t doubt there is some truth to it. My personal truth, which I hope to share at some point with Agent Rasner, is that we’re so preoccupied with the small matters of each other’s lives here in Greensboro that we hardly even know the other Food Not Bombs activists in our own state.
He’s running the risk of giving us a big ego.
The fact is that many of the people who cook and eat with us have scarcely attained a high school education. Some struggle with mental illness. More than a few are addicts. At least one is a military veteran. Most days our conversations don’t include words like “anarchism,” “capitalism” or “militarism.” The matters that dominate our days generally tend to be about what can be done to help someone who sleeps outdoors get care for an infected knee, how someone will deal with lifelong anger toward a parent, why it is a woman we care about suddenly has a swollen eye.
So why am I involved?
First of all, I have a history with Food Not Bombs, having voluntarily allowed myself to get arrested as part of an effort to block the San Francisco police from confiscating a pot of soup at Civic Center Plaza in 1993. When I came to St. Mary’s House a dozen years later I was impressed that the church opened its doors to a group like Food Not Bombs. I don’t think I could belong to a church that did not authentically carry out Christ’s command to welcome the stranger and care for the poor.
Yet the work of hospitality is not always easy. As a new member of St. Mary’s House I discovered that there were strains in the relationship between the church and Food Not Bombs. Garbage bags, toilet paper and other essential supplies would disappear in the wake of Food Not Bombs’ gatherings. Church members expressed anger out of their belief that Food Not Bombs’ scavenged food was responsible for a roach infestation. Bits of lettuce would show up between the keys of the pastoral assistant’s computer keyboard. The church felt taken for granted, and Food Not Bombs felt demonized.
I realized my faith would mean nothing if I did not step forward to work side by side with Food Not Bombs and build a bridge between the two estranged parties. If that created a conflict of interest for me as a reporter, I would have to pay that price.
I also have to say this.
I’m not sure what to think about all the stuff about capitalism creating scarcity; I don’t even know if I’m against all wars. I don’t really put a lot of stock in Food Not Bombs as a force for revolutionary change. People come to Food Not Bombs for all kinds of reasons, politics probably being one of the least important. I would have to say I come mainly because I want to be a part of creating a community.
I like to think of Food Not Bombs as a relic of a more romantic and adventurous American past, a milieu populated with Wobblies, hoboes, derelict poets and soapbox orators. People pass through our soup lines who we might never see again. Others we know well, if only on a first-name basis. I wouldn’t trade their company for anything.
There was the woman called “Trouble” with short brown hair and bronzed arms who passed through Greensboro after spending a month or so at the Common Ground relief camp in New Orleans. We’ve enjoyed the company of a wiry, weather-beaten man who told how he’d lost his job when the pulp mill where he worked in either eastern Tennessee or western North Carolina shut down. The layoff came as a blessing, said the man whose name I don’t recall, because through it God revealed his true calling to go out and preach the word.
We recently met this family of four adults and three young boys outside the downtown Greensboro Public Library. It was hard to tell what the familial relationship was between them all. They were homeless and on the move, like a latter day version of the Joads from The Grapes of Wrath. The four adults seemed to share responsibility for the children. The youngest boy picked flowers from the terraced bed and gave them to strangers. The middle child caused the adults to cry out sharply when he ran out in front of cars. The eldest boy who might have been 13 seemed tired of it, as if he’d rather be with children his own age.
“My husband thought it would be better here,” said one of the women, who suffered from iron deficiency. “It turned out to be worse.”
The man named Rebel was in better spirits.
“I used to cook with the Boston Food Not Bombs,” he said. “Wherever you go it seems like there’s a Food Not Bombs.”
They were looking for someone with a van who might be able to give them a ride to Roanoke.
Well, Agent Rasner, there you have it.
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org