Review: Cooking up a Revolution

Sean Parson, Cooking up a Revolution: Food Not Bombs, Homes Not Jails, and Resistance to Gentrification. Manchester University Press, 2019 ISBN 9781526107350. Xi + 147 pp.

David Sutton (Southern Illinois University)

Every so often a I come across a headline like this in social media or through other browsing: “Miami Escalates Assault on Homeless People by Regulating Public Feedings .”[1] What can one feel but outrage at attempts to clamp down on public feeding of homeless populations, which seems to go hand in hand with attempts to make it illegal to pass out water to those waiting in line to vote in Georgia, or, even more outrageously, to prevent people from leaving caches of water for those crossing the desert from Mexico to the U.S.? But water is about survival, while food evokes something different, the companionship, and basic conviviality of a shared meal. In my own research on food sharing in Greece since the economic crisis (Sutton 2016; 2021), I have not encountered attempts to regulate this practice, indeed, the man best known for cooking on the streets of Athens and other parts of Greece, Kostas Polychronopoulos, has become something of a national hero through the work of his group “The Other Human.” It’s hard to imagine that authorities in the U.S. would ever offer accolades to an activist group who feed those in need, especially if, like “The Other Human,” they occupied public space as an essential part of their program.

This suspicion is indeed borne out in the study of the activist group Food Not Bombs titled Cooking Up A Revolution. While not focused on food per se, Cooking up a Revolution goes a long way in explaining what is at stake, beyond the simple cruelty that is so much part of US politics, in exploring conflicts between Food Not Bombs (henceforth FNB) and the city of San Francisco over the period of 1988-1995 and two different mayoral administrations. Even though there were many points in the book where I wish the author had more to say about food in general, or in its specificity, I still found this book stimulating and potentially useful, at least in parts, for classes on food anthropology or food studies more generally.

The author writes both as researcher and as an active member of FNB, and uses many of the chapters not only to explore the rocky relationship between the group and  the mayoralty and police, but also to introduce some of the key concepts in anarchist theory, including prefigurative politics, mutual aid, and autonomous zones/spaces. His own relationship to the organization begins with an encounter with a FNB flier advertising the slogan “FOOD IS A RIGHT, NOT A PRIVILEGE,” and with a photo of the organization’s founder Keith McHenry being led away by angry riot police. As Parson notes: “It might have been the militant righteousness of Keith McHenry, the fear and anger emanating from the riot cops, or simply the idea that by giving away free food we could change this culture of violence and suffering, but this flier changed my life” (1-2).  The introduction provides a background on FNB since its founding in Cambridge, Ma in 1980, and its early links to the anti-nuclear movement. But the main focus, as noted, is San Francisco in the late 80s and early 1990s, a period that corresponds with what Parson analyzes as “the neoliberalization of homelessness” (6-7). He suggests that an approach to homelessness that focuses on the agency of the homeless, and the joy, rather than solemness, involved in sharing meals is more productive than seeing them as victims or as “bare life.” Indeed, often in Parson’s experience of participation in FNB, “people would play music, tell stories, or engage in art projects that enlivened our meals…In one such story, an activist told me what happened when he jumped into a fountain in front of City Hall with a pot of soup, to avoid being arrested by the police. The water fight, laughter, and arrests that followed serve as a powerful reminder that people often engage in radical activism because they have fun doing so” (15).

The second chapter is perhaps the most directly relevant to food classes, and I am planning to use it in my own classes. It begins with an exploration of the mixed joys of dumpster diving, and another public outrage in the fact that it is considered not only trespassing, but theft to salvage the “property” of the trash companies to use for food, which Parson illustrates drawing on his own experience of getting screamed at by a security guard for “Stealing from Sanipac” (21). As Parson notes, FNB has played a role in reframing such moments calling on us “to express our rage against an economic, political, and legal system that criminalizes being poor and valorizes that which creates poverty in the first place” (ibid).[2] Such reframings run throughout this chapter, though Parson does not draw, as many anthropologists no doubt would, from Mary Douglas (1966) to explore ideas of “matter out of place,” and the ways that societal definitions of the “clean” and the “unclean,” the “pure” and the “taboo” are shaped as much by hierarchical social concerns—that is, keeping some people “in their place”—as by worries about hygiene. In this chapter Parson also explores the notion of prefigurative politics, by which a new society is built “in the shell of the old” (28) and notes the role of “quiet meals, where no one is arrested” in offering “a glimpse into what our emancipated future might look like” (27). Another of the principles of FNB explored here is “solidarity, not charity” (28), a concept that has become taken for granted in many anti-austerity movements that emerged in the 2010s in the wake of the economic/financial crisis. The embrace of solidarity, or horizontal empowering structures, over charity, or disempowering, vertical structures—also connected with the concept drawn from early anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin of “mutual aid”—was a keystone of FNB activists, and part of their belief in overthrowing, rather than potentially reinforcing societal structures. This also leads to dilemmas and potential critiques of FNB, and how their goals and interests can conflict with that of other oppressed groups (working class, non-homeless, minorities, etc. (32). This suggests the difference between providing food and eating together, a distinction that has been key to the Greek group “The Other Human” mentioned above. Unfortunately this distinction is not explored here.[3]  The chapter is amply illustrated by suggestive photographs as well, including  the FNB logo, in which a raised fist is holding a carrot. Suggestive again, and perhaps useful for class discussion. Parson discusses it in terms of the FNB principle that “food is not a weapon,” which means that hunger should not be used as a weapon to control people politically and economically, because food is a right. Parson also explores the tenet that animals should not suffer in the satisfaction of human hunger (meat is not on the menu at FNB gatherings).

The following several chapters explore the politics of homelessness management under conditions of early Neoliberalism through a comparison of two San Francisco mayoral administrations. Chapter 3 focuses on the administration of Art Agnos, elected as a progressive, but whose administration put into place a strategy of negotiated management in an attempt to control and moderate groups like FNB by “includ[ing] the group within the institutional structures of the state-charity nexus, and thereby moderat[ing] the group’s activism and regulate their political practices in public spaces” (44). By trying to shoehorn FNB into cooperation with the police through lengthy permitting processes that would create restrictions on times, places, and types of action that the group could engage in. The administration hoped to restrict meals to private (indoor) locations that would be out of the eye of tourists, businesses, and gentrifying San Franciscans (again Mary Douglas would be useful here to talk about how feeding the homeless in public was defined as “out of place” (58)).  This went against the group’s commitment to creating autonomous spaces: “’those spaces where people desire to constitute non-capitalist, egalitarian, and solidaristic forms of political, social, and economic organization through a combination of resistance and creation” (48). These autonomous spaces were important because they made for the possibility that ordinary people could engage with each other and develop their own, agentful politics around homelessness, as opposed to the city government’s wish to make homelessness invisible. Parson notes that this led FNB to a confrontational politics with the city, which often led to mass arrests, and sometimes meant that fewer people were fed. It also had its victories in terms of dramatic moments, such as when, “echoing the spirit of the 1909 Wobblies’ free-speech fights in Spokane, the next activist in line to serve would take up the ladle, serve another bowl of food and promptly be arrested by another police officer. This process continued until all 57 activists had been arrested” (54).

In the end FNB helped to shatter Agnos’s “precariously built coalition” (61), and the election of a mayor more discursively hostile to homeless issues, Frank Jordan. In Chapter Four, Parson compares and contrasts the politics of Jordan’s “Matrix”[4] program, a “broken windows” approach to homeless protest. Jordan replaced metaphors of “management” with those of “war,” and attempted to label many of San Francisco’s homeless population as migrant outsiders, arguing that less generous policies would discourage many from seeking out San Francisco as a hospitable destination (prefiguring the discourse of Trump and others on migration). This more confrontational, “war”-based approach in the end was not that different in its intended results: to remove homeless from public spaces, to make them invisible. Here, and in a more extended theoretical discussion in Chapter Five, Parson considers the politics of visibility and invisibility, and how different kinds of visibility are claimed or avoided. In essence, the mayoral administration wanted the activists (and the homeless) to be visible to the state, but invisible to the public, while FNB fought to make it the other way around. These harsher policies were in some ways less effective. By 1993, FNB was serving 500 meals a day (88), including several meals that were held in front of the mayor’s home with much publicity and press coverage (82). During this same period, ongoing police harassment of the group led Amnesty International to threaten to list FNB activists as “prisoners of conscience,” strengthening the group’s public profile (92).  Like Agnos before him, Jordan failed to win reelection, and Parson suggests that FNB helped in this regard, as Jordan became the only candidate promising further arrests at FNB food distributions (89).

In Chapters Six and Seven, Parson moves a bit further away from food issues in considering larger questions of gentrification processes and the work of the related activist group Homes Not Jails, drawing on David Harvey to provide a broader framework for understanding economic processes related to urbanization and gentrification, as well as considering a politics that focuses not simply on working conditions, but on the right not to work (particularly relevant for our current, covid-inflected times). It engages with squatting in particular, and Parson provides a fascinating discussion of some of the mixed politics of squatting, both challenging dominant notions of private property, while at the same time often seeming to constitute a first wave in gentrification processes. Considered together, Chapters Five, Six and Seven all raise questions about the ways that the categories public and private have been formulated to serve capital accumulation and define the realm of the “political,” and how FNB and similar groups might challenge these distinctions. FNB raises issues of where and when one has a right to privacy, given that it disrupts middle-class patterns of eating, washing, socializing, defecating in domestic spaces closed from public view. Once again, the role of food in challenging public/private distinctions is suggested, but not fully developed in an otherwise provocative discussion of thinkers including Jacques Ranciere and Eduardo Glissant. Again, this is something that might be further developed in classroom discussion if you were using this book. For example, Parson includes a provocative picture of a FNB gathering with the caption “Eating food on the ground” (91). Another Mary Douglas moment for sure, but the suggestive implications of this moment are not discussed.

This book is a useful and provocative introduction to the work of FNB and related segments of anarchist thought. It makes a clear argument for some of the key reasons that the “charity” model of hunger and homelessness is deeply problematic, while still recognizing the tensions and contradictions within the “solidarity” model that FNB offers in its stead. As noted, it would be useful either in whole or in part to provoke interesting discussions in a food studies or anthropology of food class. It is readable and accessible at both the undergraduate and graduate level. And while I wish the author had been more explicit about the role of food itself,[5] his intention was not to make a contribution to food studies. And what is left unsaid may provoke more classroom discussion or interesting papers than what might have been made explicit.

REFERENCES CITED

Sutton, David. 2016. “’Let Them Eat Stuffed Peppers: An Argument of Images on the Role of Food in Understanding Neoliberal Austerity in Greece.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies 16(4): 8-17.

—-. 2021. “Revivifying Commensality: Eating, Politics and the Sensory Production of the Social.” In V. Nazarea & T. Gagnon eds. Gardens of Memory: Itineraries and Sanctuaries. University of Arizona Press.

Tidwell, Rachel. 2015. The Social Life of Dumpsters: An Examination of the Transformative and Communitive Properties of Dumpster Diving. Masters Thesis, Southern Illinois University.


[1] https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/miami-ordinance-limits-public-feeding-of-homeless-11665011

[2] The book doesn’t explore dumpster diving in greater depth. An MA thesis that I supervised by Rachel Tidwell (2015) examined dumpster diving primarily in Southern Illinois, and included extensive interviews with members of FNB locally and nationally. Tidwell found that FNB preferred to avoid dumpster diving for a variety of reasons, including the fact that many stores were willing to give them food that they were getting rid of. As this research was completed in 2015, it doesn’t include the impact of new laws in France in 2016 and in some urban areas of the U.S. more recently to compel supermarkets to donate food that they would have otherwise thrown away. See: https://newint.org/features/2018/11/01/illegal-waste-food and https://www.nycfoodpolicy.org/food-policy-snapshot-excess-food-law/

[3] Cf. Sutton 2016; 2021.

[4] This was several years before the release of the movie The Matrix (1999, L&L Wachowski dirs.), but there is certainly some retrospective irony in that appellation.

[5] Indeed, he never discusses or rebuts the claim by a police sergeant made to a reporter that stopping the distribution of food was “’not worth the hassle [because] if they just let [Food Not Bombs] distribute their stuff, nine out of ten people wouldn’t eat it. It’s really crummy food’” (94).

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