What’s contentious about free food?

By Alex Barnard

Six days a week in People’s Park, Berkeley, 75-100 people—most of them homeless, disabled, or unemployed—line up for a free vegetarian meal served by the group “Food Not Bombs” (FNB). On most days, there’s little to spark the interest of a social movement scholar: no flyers or banners declaring a message, no attention or repression from the authorities, and no disruption of the normal rhythm of life for the students walking one block away on Telegraph Avenue. At most, FNB looks like what Sampson et al. (2005) might call a “civic group” with a “purpose”—ending hunger—but lacking the “claims” for real transformation that make for a social movement.

The people serving the meal, however, see things differently. They insist they are “activists,” not “volunteers,” and that they are offering “solidarity,” not “charity.” What’s more, according to Lydia—a retired professor in her mid-80s, who spent decades attending anti-war and civil rights protests—the meal is a form of “resistance against an oppressive capitalist society,” a “meaningful and positive political act.”

What should social movement scholars make of Lydia’s insistence? Perhaps, “not much.” The late great Charles Tilly (2008) argues that we should think about contentious tactics—and thus, the boundaries of what constitutes a social movemens—in terms of “repertories.” Repertoires capture the ensemble of public, performative actions that participants, audiences, and authorities recognize as ways of agitating for social change outside of normal institutional channels. For Tilly, since the early 19th century, the dominant repertoire—and implicit understanding of what “contentious politics” is all about—in Western democracies has centered on symbolic claims that seek change through elite responses to demonstrations of worth, unity, numbers and commitment.

The concept of repertoires performs enormous work for social movement scholars. Because a repertoire contains the ensemble of “observed interactions” that constitute contentious politics in a given place and time, we can study social movements without “probing the consciousness of individual and collective actors.” The newspaper event catalogs that have moved social movement studies so far forward rest on the notion that we can reliably identify the ensemble tactics within a repertoire from the outside, prior to data collection. And while social movement studies have moved beyond Tilly’s focus on claims made on only the state, they still look at a single repertoire. Even studies that consider an enormous range of tactics—from vigils to civil disobedience—still assume a single coherent way of doing politics: collective claims against outsiders.

Which brings us back to People’s Park. Many FNB activists see themselves as pursuing an entirely different vision of politics. As one flyer from East Bay FNB explains, “It is by working today to create sustainable ways of living that prefigure the kind of society we want to live in that we build a vital and caring movement for social change. Food Not Bombs serves food as a practical act of sustaining people and organizations, not as symbolism.” While this notion of “prefigurative politics” is nothing new—precursors can be seen in, for example, the Black Panther free breakfast program or early labor unions’ mutual aid societies—it has been invoked with increasing frequency in recent mobilizations, notably the Anti-Globalization Movement (AGM) and Occupy Wall Street.

One way to reconcile this vision of politics with existing scholarship would be to pass direct-democratic assemblies, free meals, or “people’s libraries” in encampments as a way of organization tool that builds up movements for “real” contentious tactics, drawn from the classic repertoire of marches, demonstrations, or petitions. But, as Graeber (2009) shows in an ethnography of AGM activists, for many direct democratic practices in “temporary autonomous zones” were not just ways of preparing for political actions, but were transformative in and of themselves. As Judith, another FNB activist, declared in a meeting: “I’ve been involved in social justice and counter-militarism activism for too many years of my life to be at all swayed by specious arguments that we as FNB are here to feed the ‘real activists.’”

Of course, many observers—including sociologists—are dismissive of the idea that tactics within this repertoire of prefigurative politics can ever compete with the mass rallies and civil disobedience that brought the civil rights or labor movements their greatest successes. Cooking meals with dumpster-dived food, gardening in abandoned lots, decision-making based on consensus (replete with twinkle fingers and “vibes-watchers”), foraging wild dandelions in urban parks, building bikes in anarchist “infoshops”, or experiments in composting human waste don’t seem likely to overthrow capitalism anytime soon. Indeed, the repression of Occupy provided a stark reminder that even movements that try to create a “new society in the shell of the old” cannot circumvent the state.

Yet a shift towards prefigurative politics is not born of naivety. One of the main organizers of East Bay FNB described being beaten during Freedom Summer and arrested during anti-nuclear civil disobedience. He switched to FNB because, reflecting on his life, he felt that traditional tactics had not brought about the change he wanted to see—and so decided to try something else. In another, similar group I studied in New York—“freegans,” people who attempt to “withdraw” from capitalism through recovering and using commercial waste—participants told the same stories. Many got their start in the animal right’s movement, until they got tired of waving signs, jumping off buildings in banner drops declaring “meat is murder,” or painting themselves with fake blood to little effect. Even Tilly (1986) concluded that the classic repertoire seemed to be losing effectiveness over time.

What does this mean for social movement scholars? First, we have to find ways to capture and count these prefigurative actions—if only to measure whether this repertoire represents a blip or a meaningful part of the social movement field. Second, we have to reconsider the assumption that we can study tactics without getting into activists’ heads. In fact, both freegans and FNBers often perceived the same actions through the lens of very different ways of doing politics. Activists talked past each other as they conceptualized actions as making symbolic claims, building a new society from the bottom up, or transforming individual lifestyles.

Just as social movement scholars have insisted that politics isn’t just about elections, we must evolve to accept that it isn’t just about marches and protests, either. Of course, BlackLivesMatter—whose tactical innovations, like “die-ins” and freeway blockades nonetheless fit within Tilly’s standard repertoire—shows that old ways of challenging power are alive and well. But we must be open to the idea that, in an era of mass disillusionment with the responsiveness of states and other actors to movement claims, new ways of doing politics are being born.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, New Ways to Define Activism

One response to “What’s contentious about free food?

  1. Pingback: activism forum at mobilizing ideas | orgtheory.net

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