The people who gathered on the street were from all walks of life.
Day and night, they stood up for the economically disadvantaged. They pitched tents, learned each other's names and backgrounds, shared food and stories - but this wasn't 2011, or New York City.
The year was 1989. The place, San Francisco's City Hall. The cause was in support of the homeless and Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs, was among those helping to feed the occupiers. It wasn't the only time, and since then he's encountered resistance, controversy and even arrest in the name of his peaceful movement.
These days, he's touring the nation visiting sites of the Occupy Movement and talking about his new book, "Hungry for Peace: How You Can Help End Poverty and War with Food Not Bombs."
So far, McHenry said he has helped collect, cook and share meals at 15 occupations, including Occupy Wall Street in New York City and other current demonstrations against economic disparity and injustice in Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, Chicago and more.
He's heading back to Taos for a book signing and reading where he has been living for the past several years, in conjunction with the release of his book and in honor of Human Rights Day, Saturday (Dec. 10), 2:30-4:30 p.m., at the Taos Public Library, 402 Camino de la Placita. Admission is free and the public is invited.
Food Not Bombs was founded by McHenry, Jo Swanson, Mira Brown, Susan Eaton, Brian Feigenbaum, C.T. Lawrence Butler, Jessie Constable and Amy Rothstien after the May 24, 1980, protest against the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station in New Hampshire. From its beginnings, the group was linked to the peace movement and is dedicated to nonviolent tactics, according to McHenry.
The nuts and bolts of its activities is to collect excess food from grocery stores, bakeries and produce markets to create vegan meals that are fed to the homeless or anyone for free in public places. The meals are provided as a way to educate the public on issues of "food justice," including "the economics of war and poverty," according to its website, www.foodnotbombs.net. There are roughly 1,000 chapters around the world today.
Although Food Not Bombs would appear to project a benign mission, McHenry said the group has had numerous run-ins with the law. He has been arrested several times and says he has been the victim of police brutality. The arrests have largely been related to alleged violations of ordinances against large group feedings, trespassing and political demonstration without a permit.
Federal law enforcement has also apparently been attempting to link Food Not Bombs to terrorist affiliation.
This is a notion addressed on the FNB website: "The United States government started to claim we were ‘America's Most Hardcore Terrorist Groups' soon after we were first arrested for sharing free vegan meals in Golden Gate Park in the fall of 1988. This is a year before the end of the Cold War and all we had done was claim we had the right to feed the hungry in protest to war and poverty. Military contractors are worried that we might influence the public to realize our taxes could be spent on human needs instead of war and that this could threaten the billions of dollars they were making arming the United States government. The fact that we didn't stop sharing food when told was also a concern as that threatens their ability to manipulate the hungry by moving food programs to more desirable locations or by threatening to withhold food if the public didn't cooperate with the authorities. Since we will provide food where ever and when ever it is needed this interferes with their ability to use food for social control."
Despite this, he said his interest in activism has not waned, nor has the activity of the group. For McHenry, the message of Food Not Bombs is simply about the importance of taking care of people's basic needs. From that perspective, McHenry commented on the current Occupy movement, and its use of consensus-based decision-making in general assemblies.
"This whole thing about they don't have a message - I think it's so much bigger than that," he said. "The thing is, the message is, the system does not work ... it's so big. It's not about changing a law or a rule. Basically, there has to be an entire mindset change ... I think a lot of people see the connection between climate change, the collapsed ecosystems and the collapse of economic and political systems ... We have to come up with solutions that are so huge it's not like we need to get more Democrats in, or we need to get a third party, or we need to strengthen EPA or something like that. It actually has to be a transformation that is complete and total in a way that hopefully the general assemblies will imagine."
"Hungry for Peace" is McHenry's second book. In addition to its description of ways people can take direct action to end hunger, war and poverty, it also comes with recipes to feed groups of 100 people or a family of six. There is also a history on the movement, as well as practical information on how to start a local chapter. Like the Occupy movement, Food Not Bombs is made of local chapters that are each autonomous and independent decision-making bodies run by consensus, and open to anyone.
McHenry, who has lived in Taos since 2006, stressed that "Hungry for Peace" is a Taos-made book. Since he lives out of his van and bus, McHenry wrote the book in many of Taos' coffee shops and Wifi spots. "It's really a Taos project," he said. "It's people in Taos that have made this book into a book."
McHenry will sign copies of his book after the presentation and donate two copies to the Taos Public Library making it available for the public to read for free. The Taos chapter of Food Not Bombs meets Saturdays from noon until 2 p.m. on Taos Plaza to feed anyone who shows up. McHenry said the free meal is for everyone in the community to share.
For more information on McHenry's book signing and reading, call (575) 758-3063.