A couple of years ago the Food Not Bombs group in Greensboro found itself with an abundance of both food and cooks, so we decided to add another day. No one else in Greensboro was serving dinner on Monday so we chose Monday; a lot of homeless people spend the day down at the Central Library—Greensboro should have a day shelter but it doesn’t, which means that the library serves as a de facto day shelter–so we chose the library. There’s a low brick wall outside the library windows that makes a good buffet table and a couple of park benches where people can sit. It’s nice when the weather’s nice, not so nice when it’s cold or rainy or, as happens in the winter, dark. Still, no one complains.
Until, that is one day when a security guard came out and told us we had to leave. We had been serving there for well over a year but had never asked permission, partly on the Food Not Bombs principle that food is a right not a privilege, and partly on the principle that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission. Except that we didn’t want to ask forgiveness either. In many cities Food Not Bombs servings double as a form of non-violent civil disobedience, a tacit protest against the way poor and homeless people are shuffled out of sight. Food Not Bombs-related arrests are common around the country; it’s crazy, but the movement has even made the FBI terrorist watch list. All for serving food without permission.
It was a chilly night, winter, lit only by the streetlights and the glow of the library windows. “You can’t serve food here without written permission,” the security guard said. He was standing with his legs spread a little apart; he rocked a little back and forth on his toes as he talked.
“Permission!” several people said. “Permission! Permission for what? We’re eating, we’re hungry, this is a public sidewalk!”
“No it’s not,” the guard said. “This sidewalk belongs to the city. You have to have permission to be doing what you’re doing. Who’s in charge here?”
“Nobody! Nobody’s in charge!” That’s true. Food Not Bombs is a decentralized, consensus-based, leaderless organization. I’ve been volunteering with the Greensboro group longer than anyone else so a lot of people think I’m in charge, but I’m not. I was deeply gratified that the people clustered together on the sidewalk recognized that.
“That would be me,” I finally said. “I drove the food here, but I’m not in charge.”
“Well you need to have permission to serve food here,” he said.
“Permission!” someone said again before I could speak. “Why do we need permission?”
It went back and forth like that for a while. At one point the guard went inside and got one of the librarians. The two of them stood in the chill telling us we had to ask permission; we stood in front of them saying we didn’t.
“If you come back and serve food here next week without written permission you’ll be arrested,” the guard said.
“For what?” people shouted. “For eating? For eating?”
“For serving food without permission.”
Nobody would budge but eventually, inevitably, the confrontation ran out of steam. The security guard wrote out a name and phone number on a page of his spiral-bound notepad and handed the paper to me. “This is who you ask,” he said, and he and the librarian left.
“Permission!” The crowd had dwindled a bit but those who remained still felt strongly. I had the little lined piece of paper in my hand. If this had happened a couple of years ago I know what I would have done—I would have apologized to the security guard, taken the piece of paper, and called to ask for permission. Except that a couple of years ago I don’t think I would have found myself in this situation in the first place. That was before I understood the concept of consensus, and the extraordinary power of direct action, before I had read the famous essay of the same name by Voltairine de Cleyre, one of the great anarchist thinkers of the early twentieth century. “Every person who ever thought he had a right to assert, and went boldly and asserted it, himself, or jointly with others that shared his convictions, was a direct actionist,” she wrote in 1912. ”…Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it, or who laid his plan before others, and won their co-operation to do it with him, without going to external authorities to please do the thing for them, was a direct actionist. All co-operative experiments are essentially direct action.”
“So what do we do?” I asked. Homeless people are particularly vulnerable to arrest and get treated very badly when they are arrested. I didn’t want to do something that would put them in a dangerous position. “Should we come back next week?”
Yes, everyone said immediately. We should come back next week and we shouldn’t ask permission. “I’m tired of asking permission for everything,” one man said. “I can’t even sit in the park without a cop coming up and asking me what I’m doing. We don’t need permission.”
I love libraries; I love librarians; Greensboro has a terrific library. I was so proud of the direct action that the people at Food Not Bombs were taking, in awe of their courage at standing their ground, but as the week went on I began to feel worse and worse about the library. I finally emailed a librarian friend and explained what had happened—explained that this was not about the library, but that we would be back on Monday. We wouldn’t be bringing signs or drums or chants, we wouldn’t be making declarations or demands. We were just coming with soup and bread and salad. But we weren’t going to ask permission.
The next day my phone rang. It was Sandy Neerman, director of the entire library system. “I heard about what happened on Monday,” she said. This whole thing was taking on a life of its own; if this is such a leaderless organization, I thought, how come I’m the one in the hot seat? I stood in my room with the telephone to my ear and looked out the window at the big pine trees at the end of the yard. “I heard about what happened on Monday,” Sandy went on “and I want to apologize. Of course you don’t have to ask permission and of course we’re delighted that you’re doing what you’re doing. Please go on doing it.”
So that’s how it came about that last Monday 40 or so people sat down to eat together in the Nussbaum Room of the Central Library. This is the second winter now that the library has invited Food Not Bombs inside—inside!—to serve. Last winter we simply served food for the most part, but this year Jen Worrells, our wonderful library liaison and a direct actionist if there ever was one, suggested a full winter of programming. We’ve shown movies, done blood pressure tests, held discussions. Cakalak Thunder played after dinner on New Year’s Eve, filling the library with radical drumming (that was Jen’s idea!) This past Monday volunteers gave shaves and haircuts. One of the as hoc barbers was a man who was at Food Not Bombs for the first time—he had come for a free meal, but when he saw what was going on he said “I can cut hair” and picked up a pair of clippers. (Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it….) We’ll be inside for another couple of months. We have some meetings with government officials planned, we’ll be showing more movies, having more parties, maybe having a massage night, a dental care night, a poetry night, who knows?
Anything can happen.
UPCOMING WINTER SERIES EVENTS:
Mondays, 6:00 pm, Greensboro Central Library, Nussbaum Room
If you’re interested in being part of the process, join the Winter Series wiki
January 14 – Government Official
January 28 – Movie Night: War of the Worlds (2005)
February 4 – Culture / Celebration
Febraury 11 – Health and Beauty
February 18 – Government Official
February 25 – Movie Night
March 3 – Culture / Celebration
March 10 – Health and Beauty
March 17 – Government Official
March 24 – Movie Night
March 31 – Culture / Celebration