September 2008 – Food Not Bombs – Serving the Community

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By Mark Lipman

Often when you speak to people they will tell you that they “Do lots” to help the community, but then suddenly become hard pressed and defensive when you ask them to provide concrete examples. The reason behind this is that “Lots” usually amounts to nothing more than tending to their personal, private, fenced in gardens and complaining about their neighbors. The sad fact is that very few of us care anything for the well being of those around us. “Just give me my privileged lifestyle and leave me alone,” is too often the case. So it is no wonder why the media has such a difficult time finding anything positive to report. This however is not one of those articles.

If by chance on a Sunday afternoon you happen to be strolling down Ocean Front Walk, you might see mixed in with all the commercial jewelry and T-shirt vendors a small group of people up on the grass giving out free food to anyone who wants it. This group is Food Not Bombs.

Food Not Bombs traces its origins to the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s, when anarchists banded together to help feed the poor. They were later mercilessly crushed by General Franco’s dictatorship, yet the seed they planted took root.

In the United States, Food Not Bombs first appeared in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1980, organized by anti-nuclear activists concerned with social justice issues. The Cambridge chapter was instrumental in helping to close down the Seabrook nuclear plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire, a small coastal community much like our own.

Today, Food Not Bombs is one of the fastest growing groups in the world. 

The local Venice/Santa Monica chapter was started in 2001 by two homeless men, David Bush and Calvin Moss, in response to their concern for the plight of the poor and less fortunate. Though David has moved on, last seen helping the tenants at Lincoln Place fight their unlawful evictions, Calvin is still there, joined by Peggy Lee Kennedy, Eden, Demetrius, Char and Karen, who form the nucleus of the local group today.

Though they shudder at being defined – there are no leaders and not everyone considers themselves anarchists – it is clear that they adhere strongly to non-violent principles and all decision making is done in the Quaker tradition of group consensus. “It is a free association,” Calvin says. “We use food as a way of protesting war and poverty.”

“There is nothing like this kind of direct action,” Peggy adds, “because you literally change the world each time you feed someone.”

Though giving out food to those in need might be considered by some as honorable, charitable work, following in the traditions of Mother Teresa, Gandhi and Jesus, there are others who would consider it subversive and even anti-American to help thy neighbor. In fact, it has been anything but easy going for Food Not Bombs.

Over the years the group has fallen victim to a string of harassments and abuses by the city and the LAPD, including the false arrest of Peggy in 2006, so much so that they recently had to sue the City of Los Angeles in federal court for a second time (Venice Food Not Bombs vs City of Los Angeles).

Thanks to that battle, which they won, anyone can now distribute food along the boardwalk and by federal mandate the new ordinance that restructured Ocean Front Walk now includes two spots, P53 and P89 solely for free food distribution.

So, why are they still up on the grass? According to Calvin it is because the commercial vendors just move in and are even encouraged to do so by the LAPD and the Parks and Recreation Department.

Twice he was even physically assaulted by the vendors for trying to serve food in the specified locations. Food Not Bombs was told that they could get the LAPD to escort them in, but calling the same police that are harassing the very people they are trying to help they feel runs against their moral beliefs, so they stay on the grass until another solution can be found.

All in all, it continues to be an uphill battle, so much so that one could wonder why they would bother to keep fighting the system to feed others? But as Calvin says, “It just fit in with what I thought was the right thing to do.”

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