"We believe that poverty is a form of violence and that food is a human right, not a privilege. By sharing food we start a revolution." -- Text from a "Serve the People" flyer.
It started with a Facebook post picked up on while randomly scrolling down my feed. "Hit me up if you wanna be in a group chat to talk about the Serve the People pop-up adjacent to the march in Norfolk. Food share, winter items, etc. Gonna need all the help we can get!"
I had been thinking a lot about the then-upcoming Women's March, which would be the third such local event under that banner in as many years. And hey, fair notice here: I'm a man writing about an event designed for and by women. This isn't my space to work in really -- but as a writer I can't help but have thoughts and try to make sense of what it all means. If you feel like my being a man disqualifies me from any critical opinions on the topic? That's fair. You're entirely justified in scrolling through to check out the photos my daughter took and telling me to bugger off.
That said, I've been covering local protests since slightly before the 2016 election -- from one of the first Anti-Trump marches in the area that took place with about a hundred attendees in Ghent to the thousands strong Gun Control protest downtown that was at least nominally led by high school student organizers. The "Fund the Equality Study" march that unfolded along the Oceanfront in Virginia Beach. The first Women's March out in front of the Chrysler Museum of Art. The campaign to remove Norfolk's Confederate Memorial statue, which has stood in a place of dubious honor downtown for over a century. The Anti-ICE protest that occupied the front steps of our city's venerable Customs House.
In the days when I was regularly writing for AltDaily, I had become the go-to guy to cover such things. When I started the Antonym it made sense to continue the practice. I've always believed in the value of protest. But of late, I've begun to question the efficacy of spectacle. I've wondered whether these events were actually accomplishing anything in the face of the rising tide of fascism in our nation. I'm not convinced that we're making a difference. And in the grip of uncertainty over whether or not there's any real point to these gatherings, that single notice peaked my interest. I knew the organizer behind the post. The proposal of direct action alongside the march interested me greatly, so I decided to reach out.
As part of that I kept this journal to document the experience, and as a result of that I came into contact with some remarkable human beings. Some folks who spent a year on trial facing seventy five year sentences for participating in the J20 Protests. People who have organized against ICE raids. Who gave service in support of disadvantaged indigenous victims when Hurricane Florence plowed through North Carolina. Some who were in the crowd when Nazis murdered Heather Heyer. Who frantically tried to find each other in the chaos and the horror of it. Some who were among the street medics desperately trying to save her life. I left this experience in awe of the deep commitment and wide breadth of experience in these ranks.
I've had a hit and miss history with some of the people who would be working on this. The leftward activism community is widely splintered with factions across its spectrum, and we can be highly prickly with each other, to be honest. Items of disagreement that might seem minor to outsiders can turn into unbridgeable chasms. I immediately noticed that there were organizers I had blocked in the past on the group chat and vowed to approach this with a spirit of avoiding conflict in favor of aiding productive action.
I opened up with a private message to get a sense of what they were trying to accomplish here and where I could fit in with their plans. A dialogue began. I was pointed to an article on Medium that informed some of the thinking on this new approach. Much of it sounds well-reasoned, at least.
From there it progresses to a phone conversation where we hash out how I'll cover this. Participation journalism. First person. Subjective. Getting involved. This is the only way that makes sense to me. If you're going to write about people whose lives are on the edge, you ought to at least have the common decency to help them out while you're doing it..
Things progress quickly. I'm struck by the spirit of cooperation and how effective these folks are. The tone is respectful all around. Gender pronouns are used carefully, until preferences have been established. Unnecessary conflict is avoided. I'm struck by how much better the world would be if everyone operated like this.
It's established without much fanfare that the immediate needs here are:
- winter items: coats, jackets, sweaters, hoodies, etc socks, gloves, blankets, anything related to keeping warm
- food: food that can be prepared and cooked for the pop up. pasta, veggies, sauces, fruit, bagels, basically anything that can be easily prepared, transported, and given to folks
- hygiene products, toothbrushes, toothpaste, mouthwash, razors, deodorant, tampons, pads
- first aid and basic over-the-counter medical supplies, antibacterial ointments, anti-fungal creams
- candles and batteries just because the power will go out soon with snow coming
- headache pills, antacids, bandaids, allergy medicine, decongestant, immune boosters, basic supplements and vitamins
Just like that, we're off and running. Things are happening fast here.
Drop off points for collecting items and clothing to hand out have been determined. Tables and a pop-up tent have been secured. Decisions have been made collectively about handing out literature explaining some of the groups involved here as well as how folks attending the march who might be interested in direct-action can get involved. Discussions over what food should be prepared are under way. I contemplate volunteering to cook something to help out, but I'm not sure my limited kitchen consisting of a toaster oven and a single burner is up to the task.
We've started talking about how to get the word out to the homeless population that we're going to be out there. There are concerns that the march may have an unintended effect of pushing the local in-need peoples out of public view. We discuss perhaps handing flyers out and other methods to raise awareness. The location where we're going to set up has been determined, just on the other side of Town Point Park from the march, where the statue of the sailor reuniting with his children is positioned.
There's always been friction between march organizers and the more radical activist community. Left-of-center organizers more often than not view the far-left as extremists and distractions from their agenda. The socialist community generally regards centrist liberals with suspicion and distrust. Part of the mission here is to find ways where these disparate groups can overcome their differences and find common ground. This is seemingly challenged immediately in correspondence with the Women's March leadership, where it seems as though they're trying to funnel our group into playing by their rules. The group chat is aflame with concern on how to proceed, but ultimately it's decided to communicate as civilly as possible that we aren't asking permission. We'll be there with the intention of peacefully coexisting while engaging in direct-action activism by serving an at-risk population, demonstrating aims that positively impact our community.
Ultimately, by the end of all this, it appears that concerns were unwarranted. The marchers do their thing, and we do ours. No conflict occurs at all.
It's been brought up that the local authorities could shut us down for not having a permit to distribute food. After a discussion with the leadership, I've volunteered to back-channel reach out to the city through my contacts and take the temperature. A call is made, a meeting is set. I'm advised off-the-record that we should be fine as long as we quietly set up and just do the work we came to do. Historically speaking, Norfolk's police department monitors these events with an eye towards keeping the peace and are less interested in enforcing permit codes during the goings-on. No promises are made, but I'm able to take that back to the group chat and allay concerns.
I ended up deciding to cook, settling on buying about fifteen pounds of chicken and prepping it up through my meager kitchen facilities. Here's the thing though. To do this I'm going to have to pretty much stay up all night broiling chicken in my toaster oven a few pounds at a time. Then it'll need to be wrapped in single servings in aluminum foil. It'll need to be kept either hot or cold enough that it doesn't go bad for a few hours. It'll likely be greasy. We'll need forks. The more I think about it the more I realize that this doesn't make sense for the people we're trying to serve.
At the last minute, I changed course and decided on buying frozen chicken patties and hamburger buns instead -- a far more practical choice. I've set everything up in my kitchen to run through cooking everything in the morning. My film and camera are packed. I've got layers selected to wear -- it's likely going to be cloudy without sun to bring any warmth to a relatively chilly day, and I want to be ready for it. I check with my teenage daughter before she heads off to sleep, "Hey.. The women's march is tomorrow. Do you want to go with me?"
She makes a face, "Ugh. There's gonna be so many people."
"Well.. Yeah. There might be. But we're gonna be a little ways away from them at a pop-up to feed homeless people."
"Oh.. That's cool. Um.. Do we have film? Can I take my camera?"
Hah! Like father like daughter. I love her so much. I assure her that we have plenty of film, and that there will be lots of opportunities to take pictures at the march. She decides she's onboard and we both head off to our beds to get some shuteye before the big day..
"Oh hey.. I don't have a sign?"
"No worries love. Where we're going? We don't need signs."
I get an eyeroll for that.
January 19th. 11AM.
I've finished the cooking and we're running around the house getting everything together to go. Ordinarily I'd take the bike, but this is a fair bit of food to transport that way so we decide to call an Uber instead. We have a bit of trouble getting close to the park where the march will be forming, the roads have been closed down in spots. Eventually I decide to tell the driver to just drop us off in front of Waterside. We can walk the rest of the way easy enough.
We head over to the agreed upon meeting spot, but only one other has arrived so far. The rest are wrapping up their cooking efforts in their respective kitchens and packing cars with supplies. I task my kid with watching our stuff, and wander over to where the march is gathering to snap off some quick photos with my 35mm.
It's hard not to notice how much smaller the affair is this year as compared to prior events. I estimate that maybe three hundred total are in attendance. Is this outrage fatigue? Is it simply too cold for people to make the effort? Or perhaps the failure of the so-called blue wave to actually effect any change as of yet is depressing turnout. Maybe folks are just tired from being constantly angry.. Or maybe they simply want more than these protests have been able to deliver. The speeches are starting. It looks like a largely centrist Democratic crowd, from what I can see. Mixed with the old-school-been-protesting-all-their-lives contingent. It is what it is, but I can't help but wonder whether the failure to turn out more isn't hurting the cause. Decisions are made by those who show up. And the large crowds don't seem to be showing up any more. I cringe at what this could mean for the 2020 election. Maybe borrowing the language of revolution and rebellion only goes so far if you don't actually.. You know.. Rebel?
January 19th. 12:30PM.
The rest of our motley crew have shown and after some lugging of supplies and tables we've set up and are ready for action. Trays of food are out. We have coffee courtesy of Karma Cup -- a start-up nonprofit that employs the indigent through guerilla coffee shop pop-ups. The only trouble is that turnout on the part of the people we're here to serve hasn't happened yet. I volunteer to go walk around downtown to help get out word that we're here for them.
January 19th. 1:15PM.
My efforts are going badly. I can't seem to find any homeless people anywhere. They're not at the benches where I usually see them hanging out. I wander over to the Seven Eleven on Monticello -- I almost always have someone asking for change when I go by there, but still -- no one's around. I ask the lady at the counter to pass the word to anyone she sees who might be hungry about where we are. I walk down to the front of MacArthur Mall. Usually there's at least one or two guys hanging out there, but still nothing. I try just standing there and lighting a cig -- that almost always brings someone over to me when I'm out there on any given day. Sure enough, one fellow steps up to me from out of seeming thin air and asks if he can bum a smoke. I strike up a conversation and let him know we've got lunch for him over at the park. He's speeds off in that direction after a few minutes of chatting. He promised to let his friends know, too.
I talk to the Valet Parking guy out front and ask him to tell anyone he might see. As I'm walking off, he remarks that they're probably over at the Slover Library because of the cold. That makes a lot of sense and I should have thought of it first. Libraries are one of the last places in our country where you don't need to spend money to be there, after all.
I make the trek over to Plume St and descend down to the basement where the free computer lab is after catching a couple of brothers who advise me to look down there. Jackpot. There's a good thirty or forty people. I quietly move from table to table. "Heya. We're giving food out over at Town Point Park. We've got chicken sandwiches. Salads. Pasta. Muffins and coffee. Can you help get the word out to others who are hungry?" Excitement spreads throughout the room as people start to gather they belongings. I feel a sense of accomplishment and pure joy at how happy they seem.
Stop reading and think about that for a moment. Imagine being that excited about food. And count your blessings.
January 19th. 3:45PM.
We're beginning to pack up. We've fed around forty to fifty people total by my estimate. The marchers are gone. There is an empty feeling across the field. There are posters depicting women of power still on the balcony where the speeches were given. We've moved our tables to the half circle to save having to carry everything as far as we had when setting up. Cars are pulling up and getting loaded. There's a discussion of where to take the remaining food to pass out while I'm serving some plates to a couple of last minute, hungry stragglers.
I'm tired. My feet and back hurt -- I really didn't wear the right shoes for walking around downtown Norfolk all afternoon, and I'm getting old. I try not to think about how badly I'd handle being homeless at my age. I'm grateful that I have a hot shower and a warm bed waiting for me.
Before leaving I'm approached by another activist with whom I had had a falling out with over disagreements on how to approach this kind of action. "Hey.. I was thinking about you the other day," she begins. We speak of reconciliation. We speak of the importance of the work yet to be done. We make promises to stay in touch. It feels like a victory with only winners, to me. The best kind.
With the last of the work completed, everyone parts ways with a sense of accomplishment. I've spoken with some amazing people today. Military vets whose lives took a horrifying turn. Folks suffering from illnesses that derailed them. I spent some time chatting with a couple who had been together on the street for fifteen years. There were grandmothers and sons and daughters. People who look out for each other inside a tight knit community doing the best they can to survive day by day. The hard truth is that while we'll all be home tomorrow, the people we fed will still be out here. And they'll be hungry again. We need so badly to do better by them as a community. As a society. As a nation.
January 20th. Afteraction.
I speak with the person who first threw up the post that caught my eye. I ask how they felt about the day. How they felt about the march whose space we worked alongside. And whether they felt like we had succeeded, however briefly. "Obviously we were here to take advantage of the crowd and an opportunity to do food sharing. And that was successful, but it's work that never ends. But another part of the reason we wanted to take this approach was the assumption that there were people affiliated with the march that may want something.. More? Or maybe they have issues with the establishment and more hierarchical organization structure. And maybe we could make connections."
"I don't know that we made the connections with the march organizers that we were hoping to, but we at least managed to stay out of each other's way. And that's maybe a start. We.. And by we I mean these different groups that pulled together that day -- The Solidarity Collective, the IWW, Food Not Bombs, etc., as organizations that are dramatically to the left of mainstream US political discourse very frequently find ourselves at odds with more establishment democratic party elements. There has been, in the whole time the women’s march has existed, a discussion about whether it's representative of women of color, trans and GNC women, disabled women, working poor women, and so on. Or if it's just about white women of the professional class working their way into positions to replicate the same oppression as men who currently dominate those positions. This is a split in feminist theory, to be honest, and in political theory, that's still being figured out with each passing day. In the past, a lot of the more radical and revolutionary leftists have been openly antagonistic of the march for this reason, but in this area and this year, we really wanted to find ways and make inroads about the most productive way to approach that divide. Ultimately we decided that doing something like this was maybe a better way to go about it."
"In the end, we have to be the element we wish to see. With the ethos we wish to see. We have to be the example for others. And hopefully by doing that we make some connections with people who want to do the same, but who maybe just don’t know how to go about it."
"And along the way we can all help some people as well. Which has to be what all of this really is for."
. . .
Maybe that's the takeaway, here. The moral of the story.
Maybe nothing in this world is more revolutionary than the kindness of action.
Maybe that's worth more than tens of thousands of signs any day of the week.
And maybe after reading this, you want to get involved?
Learn more at these links for more information on some of the groups who banded together in this story:
-- end transmission --
From across where the March began and has long since dispersed, our food share pop-pop tent is visible from a distance. -- Photo by Jeff Hewitt