Sunday, February 26, 2012

#F27: Occupy the Food Supply, Seed Bombs, and the Struggle for Human Preservation

For years now, I have enjoyed taking part in the movement to save the community gardens in New York.  Each year, we conduct a ride and tour through the community gardens.  This year, the Occupy Wall Street Sustainability Committee has organized such a ride. 
Times Up! will take a part in the ride to visit the gardens. Through community gardening, citizens connect with community-supported agriculture, urban planning, and nutrition programs, and participate in the process of community regeneration by planning, planting, weeding, and harvesting in spaces once filled with garbage and rubble. Through a close engagement between the environment, social justice, and green space, gardeners tap into a space for difference, health, and creativity. 
Earlier this year, my daughter Scarlett and I joined Harry and Ray of the Friends of Brook Park for Mulching Day in the South Bronx.  There we encountered a large lot of green space where we played soccer, dug in the dirt, learned about composting, played with chickens, and hung out with kids from the neighborhood.  “Community gardening is a way to fight the systemic injustice of poverty and other forms of structural oppression. Most gardens are in poor areas of the city, with much higher rates of asthma and lower rates of open space equity. Gardens offer a way for our community to heal itself and to recover a humanizing sense of itself in an otherwise very hard city” explained Friends of Brook Park gardener Ray Figueroa.  
While gardening has been part of my since I was a kid, in recent years I have come to see the struggle for the gardens as part of a conflict between those who have conflicting visions of space.  We were aware of this when Reclaim the Streets staged its 1999 action “Reclaim the Street and Turn it into a Garden” action transforming Ave A into a garden.  We were aware of this when we fought for the garden rules in 2010.  While gardeners and their supporters see them as a spaces for convivial social relations, developers see urban space as a commodity from which to maximize profit.     Yet, this is a short sited vision, for gardens give us so much more than yet another building could ever provide.  They give us a space to grow our own food, create solutions, create oxygen, and struggle for human preservation.   Jeremy Brecher has written about this struggle as something  we can all take a part in.  My review for his book is pasted after the garden call.  Hopefully it helps us see that the struggle for the gardens as a space for a larger conversation about actions we can all take to create a better future in the present.  Tomorrow we ride to Occupy our  Food Supply.  Come connect the gardens into this larger struggle.
On Monday, February 27th, 2012,* *OWS Food Justice, OWS Sustainability,
Oakland Food Justice & the worldwide Occupy Movement invite you to join the
Global Day of Action to Occupy the Food Supply. We challenge the corporate
food regime that has prioritized profit over health and sustainability. We
seek to create healthy local food systems. We stand in Solidarity with
Indigenous communities, and communities around the world, that are
struggling with hunger, exploitation, and unfair labor practices.

On this day, in New York City, community gardeners, activists, labor
unions, farmers, food workers, and citizens of the NYC metro area, will
gather at Zuccotti Park at noon, for a Seed Exchange, to raise awareness
about the corporate control of our food system and celebrate the local food
communities in the metro area.

At 2pm, this event will take to the streets, to educate the public about
the effects of GMOs on our health and environment, with GMO labels and GMO
buying guides. Also at 2pm, the Seed Ball Bike Ride will depart, launching
seed balls to remediate soil & green NYC en route to the La Plaza Community
Garden, where Lower East Side Community Garden Tours will commence at 3pm.

Join us throughout the day in this community celebration, and help us
realize our shared healthy food future together!!

*CREATE:* Local, Just, Fair Solutions
*RESIST:* Corporate Control of our Food Supply

*The NYC Events ...*
Noon - Symbolic presence at Stock Exchange
Noon - Seed Exchange at the "Stock Exchange" (location: Zuccotti Park)
2pm - GMO labeling (leave from Zuccotti Park)
2pm - Seed Ball Bike Ride (leave from Zuccotti Park)
3pm - LES Community Gardens Tours - (meetup location La Plaza Community

Save the Humans
November 14, 2011, Jeremy Brecher delivered a talk at the CUNY Graduate Center entitled, “What the 99-Percenters Learn from the History of Social Movements.” Marina Sitrin, a friend whose organizing links the global justice movement with Occupy Wall Street (OWS), had sent out an invitation.  I was not able to attend the reading so I decided to pick up the book instead.   A few weeks later I would meet Brecher on December 17th on the three month anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  He was standing outside the makeshift library for the movement as we prepared to donate copies of the work Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America, a group-edited project written in third person dedicated to the short history of the movement.  The author stood there with a smile on his face, the same smile as the back of his book jacket. He had spent the night at Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011, just as he had hung out at the post-King Civil Rights Freedom City  in the muddy flat of the capital four decades prior.  “[T]he movement never took off,” mused Brecher in his new book. “But I loved to visit the freedom city encampment, and I’ve often felt that someday we’d be back” (p. 56). 
Looking through his new book on fifty years of organizing, Save the Humans: Common Preservation in Action, it is hard not to recognize that the history of social movements does offer us some insight into just these kinds of moments.  The burning ambitions of a burgeoning movement are never easy to reconcile with the barriers faced once things start to get hot.  Brecher’s personal history of involvement with civil rights, labor, globalization, and direct action movements courses through Save the Humansand his other books.  Reading them, one gets the feeling history is moving faster than the writer’s pen.  Yet, the author is still writing.
Save the Humans begins in Madison,Wisconsin, where trade unionists fighting for a right to collective bargaining received a pizza from Tahrir Square in the winter of 2011. Egyptians had been pining for their freedoms all year long.  Yet after watching a fruit seller set himself on fire and revolution across a neighboring country, they started calling for a similar movement toward democratization.  The process began when a few organizers arranged meetings, using “Facebook and other new social media to get out the word.  Gradually, those involved started holding secret meetings in Cairo neighborhoods.  To their surprise, large numbers came out and supported the idea of an “Egyptian Tunisia.”  Meetings turned to daily demonstrations in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square (Arabic for “Liberation Square”) calling for Hosni Mubarak to go” (p. 2).  Over the next few weeks, protests swelled throughout the country… “To many people, the events in Egypt revealed a courage, a solidarity, an activism, and an intelligence that seemed to betray their very sense of what is possible,” (p.3). The upheaval in Egypt “electrified” the Middle East, inspiring comparisons to the events in Eastern Europe in 1989.  Commentators would dub this movement, “the Arab Spring” (p. 3). “The ripples even reached the United States” (p. 4).  Inspired by the uprising in Egypt, trade unionists converged in Madison, Albany, and around the country.  And labor started feeling like a social movement again. “The events inMadison were as unanticipated as those in Egypt,” notes Brecher in the prologue.  “Yet, from 1500 BC to today, history shows that nothing is as predictable as unpredictable popular upheavals.  How do they happen?  What do they mean?  Can they help solve the problems people face?  Will they instead end badly….?  How can we forestall these results?   I’ve spent a lifetime trying to find answers to these questions….” (p. 4).

From this snapshot of history as current moment, the readers are whisked through five decades of memories, dreams, and reflections of a lifetime of organizing.  “Sometimes people who appear powerless and stymied have used social movements to transform the problems they face – and history and society as well,” notes the author (p. 7).  “The U.S. sit-down strikes of the 1930’s forced U.S. corporations to recognize and negotiate with the representatives of their employees” (p. 7).  Through civil disobedience, Gandhi helped lead a movement for independence in India.   The U.S. Civil Rights movement followed a similar pattern in the U.S. South.  “The solidarity movement and its general strikes led to the fall of Communism in Polandand helped bring down its demise throughout Eastern Europe and the USSR.  The Arab Spring overthrew dictatorships in Tunisia and Egyptand reshaped the power configuration of the Middle East” (p.7).  Save the Humans is a study of this history. 

“I use the phrase common preservation to denote a strategy in which people try to solve their problems by meeting each others’ needs rather than exclusively their own,” notes Brecher (p. 7).  “I borrowed the phrase from the seventeenth century English Digger Gerrard Winstanley” (p. 7).   The Diggers formed “self governing work teams, occupied uncultivated lands, and began producing food for their own communities” (p. 7-8).  The action laid the foundation for models of mutual aid practiced by anarchists and many in the contemporary Occupy movements. “In every one to seek the good of others as himself,” explained Winstanley, defining common preservation as “action in concert for mutual benefit” (p. 8).  In a world in which banks socialize losses and privatize gains as the rich accumulate more, global warming increases and nuclear power plants rust, common preservation offers an alternate route.  Here, Brecher offers a model of community development built on sustainability, interdependence, and a recognition of linked destinies.  MLK preached about it; Walt Whitman wrote poetry about it. And Benjamin Barber begs us to build a polis in which the grammar of community is spelled around the notion of we not me.  Here, democracy depends upon an awareness of the connection between self and other.  From community gardens to bike lanes built into cities where people share space and common purpose, the seeds of common preservation are already very much a part of current movement practices.  Yet opponents of the practice are many. The interplay between forces of me and we, this is the story of Save the Humans.

While common preservation is the stated theme of Brecher’s tome, the core subject is how people organize to build popular power in the face of a world of people doing anything but taking care of themselves or thinking beyond the everyday.  Opening chapters trace a struggle against nuclear arms and the Thanatos-like path toward self destruction of the arms race.  When people did speak out against this, they became subject to McCarthy-era panics and attacks. Yet, the 1960’s did arrive.  As a member of SDS, Brecher watched a generation sketch a different path toward common preservation.  This meant organizing for democracy, civil rights, women’s rights, and peace.  By the early 1970’s, Brecher took a step back to look at the ways movements organize themselves, sometimes achieving their goals, and quite often imploding along the way.  The author refers to his work in his 1972 book Strike!, a study of the ways workers organized to create their own power and capacity for preservation by disrupting mechanisms of everyday injustice.  Through gestures, such as sit-down strikes, workers stood up for themselves and made concrete gains.  From the 1970’s through the early 1990’s, the author traced the ways workers felt the squeeze of a global economic system rapidly globalizing, with jobs following the labor markets to environments with the fewest regulations, a phenomena the author describes as “the race to the bottom.” Here, businesses chase the cheapest wages for goods, moving factories to those places without strict labor laws, where they can hire younger workers, willing to do more for less.  The result is an economic system creating jobless recoveries and expanding inequality while doing anything but establishing a path toward common preservation.   And gradually labor struggles find expression in movements against corporate globalization.

By early 2011, this movement finds expression in an all out assault on public sector workers, and for many democracy itself.  Bridging the years between movements against austerity and occupations struggling against expanding inequality, Brecher reminds us where these movements find their origins.  With common preservation in mind, he helps us see how struggles for economic fairness, community gardens, non-polluting transportation, and nuclear energy free communities are tied in a common struggle for something better in the here and now.  Humans have been engaged in a slow dance toward suicide for thousands of years.  But they have also done everything they can do to create communities and solutions which help build spaces for resistance, preservation, and pleasure.  Eros vs. Thanatos – it is a delicate dance.  Through common preservation we trace an alternate set of steps aimed toward a space where hopefully we can all live together. 
It is rare that a movement schema is so thoroughly shaped through personal narrative.  Yet this is what Brecher has given us, a story about not only a framework for social change, but a model for writing about it.  In this way, personal stories help inform who and what a social movement really is. 
In a world with multiple specific demands, Jeremy Brecher outlines a concept for a politics which links environmental justice, economic fairness, and a movement for democracy renewal.  It is a vital contribution.   If anyone asks what connects the struggles between police and protesters, those out in the streets, and those who would rather see them disappear from the public commons, Brecher has given us a concise way of describing the way a movement is struggling for a common future for all of us.

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