GUEST POST: The Origin of Food Not Bombs?

[Below is a guest post written by Emory Rodgers, who contacted The Shitty Activist after seeing our meme below poking some fun at Food Not Bombs. -TSA]

– by Emory Rodgers

Might_Be_Activist_13I showed up in San Francisco in 1987, just off Dead tour and back from a Rainbow Gathering. A friend of mine pointed out how many tour heads and homeless were on Haight Street and asked me if I’d be willing to panhandle enough money to feed everyone in the park, in order to get everyone off the street for a few hours and give everyone that lived in the Haight district a break from all the panhandlers.

At the time I had taken a vow of dematerialization and the idea of panhandling wasn’t really my thing. But I saw the problem and reluctantly agreed. The first feed we had maybe 12-15 people at the barbecue pits by the Carousel Ballroom. We made a simple meal, chicken with plenty of vegetarian sides. People brought their guitars and some brought some weed and drinks and we had a mini rainbow gathering right there in Golden Gate Park!

Within a few days, the crowd grew to 30-40 people, so we approached the Haight-Ashbury Switchboard, which was still located on Haight Street, to see if they could give us a hand at it, because it was growing larger then we could panhandle for–after all there were only three of us. The switchboard director didn’t really know us and wasn’t sure he could trust us, but he threw caution to the wind and gave up switchboard canvassing cans and helped us change the label to identify what we were collecting for.

Over the next few weeks something brilliant happened, the feed grew to over 150-175 people a night, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. The entire homeless hippie population of the Haight started to join us for our impromptu gathering. But again, only the tip of the iceberg, with the help of the Haight-Ashbury Switchboard and the Haight-Ashbury Medical Clinic, we arranged a meeting with the entire business association of Haight Street and we told them if they bought us push brooms, on every Sunday we would sweep the whole street from the switchboard all the way to the park. They bought us the brooms.

Business started to see us as something other then homeless people, and some of us were actually hired by different shop keepers. It had become an unprecedented cooperation between the stores and the street people. It was something that neither I nor anyone I knew had ever see before, or for that matter, since. Meanwhile the feed grew to 200, on some nights 250 people. I could write a short story, maybe even a book, about all that happened that year, but I’ll stick to the feed that led up to Food Not Bombs.

The feed was no longer just homeless people. Local townsfolk, business owners, and musicians were joining us, if not for the food, for the celebration. The homeless people started to sleep together in a group of anywhere from 30 up 100 people a night. I want to say that there was nothing political about what we were doing, we saw a problem–a need–and we created a solution, nothing more. But that’s not what the universe had in store for us. You see it was an election year and amongst other positions now Senator Dianne Feinstein, then incumbent Mayor Feinstein, was defending her office against opponent Art Agnos for the mayoral seat. This didn’t matter to any of us because we really didn’t follow politics much, if at all, and as I said we weren’t doing this for any political reason. But to them the idea that public services had failed so much that homeless people had taken it upon themselves to feed the Haight-Ashbury homeless community without government was a big deal.

So one night in October as we were finishing feeding everyone and starting to play music, drink, and other things, a group of police officers wearing dress uniforms, a few men in suits, and a local news camera crew approached the meal. Amongst them were Art Agnos, the want-to-be-police commissioner, I think he was the current police chief, and the man that was running to be the Police Chief, approached the feed and asked who was in charge. All I saw was a hundred hands pointing at me. In my mind I was thinking, “But I have traffic warrants!”

Anyway, I looked at the men and I said, “Well, I guess I am,” and the cameras came on and I had a conversation with the men. Honestly, I don’t much remember what we talked about, but the next day a musician got real mad at me because I must have said that I felt because all jobs only attributed to the enslavement of humankind or the destruction of the planet on which we lived, that “the only honest profession was the beggar.” Anyway, the interview ended and we had our nightly party and then we all went to bed. The next morning I woke up in a car on the Panhandle and proceeded to walk to Haight Street. I didn’t get more than twenty feet towards the street before a friend of mine said good morning to me and then followed it up with, “You need to get to the street, because they’re looking for you.” So I walked on a little further and someone else said the same thing, and as I approached the street it was said to me a third time, to which I asked, “Who’s looking for me?” To which they said “everybody!”

At that point, I turned the corner and heard, “There he is,” and before I knew it a dozen news cameras and interviewers rushed me. Amongst them were reporters from 60 Minutes and 20/20 and all the local news channels were in tow. As we were there, like I said, a musician that was mad about what I had said and other citizens either shook my hand and thanked me or expressed other views about what we were doing. This was the first time in my life that I came to realize that no good deed goes unpunished. Because of the interviews with the national news syndicates, homeless awareness became a national crisis, and quickly moved its focus onto the New York homeless issue. (Maybe their problem was really more of a problem?)

Okay, so we kept on feeding everyone for another two months. The election came and went and San Francisco had a new mayor. Christmas and New Year’s came and went and then the new mayor, police chief and police commissioner were all sworn in. A few days after that happened we were approached by some local cops who were friendly to us, because they had seen what we had done for the community, and they told us that Agnos and the police chief and commissioner were going to clean up the streets of all us homeless bums. Wow, we didn’t see that coming! But these few good cops told us that they were going to bust the feed in mass and arrest all the people there that were there to eat, and all of us organizers.

Well, like I said earlier, we weren’t there to be political and we did not want to get hundreds of people arrested for trying to get a free meal. So we put out the word that the feed was cancelled that night. For me, this was a nice break, being dematerialized it was the first time in months that I didn’t spend all day panhandling and all evening cooking a meal. But a group of college students from Berkeley didn’t see it the same way. No, I never heard of their group before and have no idea if they had ever had any other actions associated with them. And I had lived in Berkeley only a few months earlier and had lots of friends still residing there, and the idea of Food Not Bombs sounds like a noble concept to me. But these students at the time took it upon themselves to come to San Francisco, and at the entrance of the park on that very day we cancelled the meal feed, they subsequently got arrested, 179 homeless non-activist people! Which I and others thought was very uncool.

Now, I will say what that organization has evolved into I have respect for, how can I not? The idea of food over war, “Food Not Bombs,” is a great idea and anytime a group of anyone–especially homeless people themselves–that want to share food with people in need is great by me. But it does go to show that not all noble quests start out that way.

Let me say in conclusion, I want to thank the brother that approached me with the idea, Bear (real name, who knows?), and the director of the Haight Ashbury switchboard, Doug. If I’m not mistaken, it has been 29 years? I want to thank them for their contribution to who I am today and to the city of San Francisco.

Also let me say that, twenty-nine years ago–or twenty-nine days ago!– I had NO political aspirations. But today and here let me announce my candidacy for the United Sates Senator of the great state of California! We can leave a better world for our children and all future generations! My name is Emory Rodgers and I ask you for you support in electing me so that I may help us all! Thank you.


  1. says

    I should note that is is a nice story about how it felt to eat at Food Not Bombs in San Francisco in 1988 but this story is NOT a story about the Origins of Food Not Bombs.

    First Food Not Bombs started in Boston and Cambridge in 1980. I designed the logo ( I am NOT Emory Rodgers – I am a co-founder of the Food Not Bombs movement – Keith McHenry and yes I did live on Clement Street.) I did Food Not Bombs in Boston until I moved to San Francisco where I started a second group that shared vegan meals at the entrance to Gold Gate Park at Haight and Stanyan Streets We started the Haight Street meal when we returned from providing food to the protesters at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in March of 1988. We shared food at the park from March to August and the energy was much as Emory Rodgers reflects ( He was not a Food Not Bombs volunteer as far as I can remember but may have join us for food.) The police arrested nine of us for sharing food without a permit on August 15, 1988. This started what became a total of 94 arrests that fall and inspired people to started Food Not Bombs groups in several cities in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe. In all the police made nearly 1,000 arrests from that August day ending in the summer of 1995. You can read about the origins of Food Not Bombs in more detail but reading Hungry for Peace where I tell of the Bake Sale to Buy a Bomber, the protest against Seabrook Nuclear Power Station and the hobo meal outside the stockholders meeting of the Bank of Boston.Feel free to read the book on line for free here. Thanks Keith McHenry co-founder of the Food Not Bombs movement

  2. mikeedwards says

    wow,i was there for all of it,i was a broom pusher,and got arested.i got very involved in that whole seen for1 and a half years. my name is mike Edwards, creeder,monocle mike…..

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