David Graeber, 1961-2020

Nasruddin was a thirteenth-century Turkish mystic and philosopher who used humor to teach. David got hold of a book of Nasruddin’s tales in graduate school and would retell the stories to entertain us, over a dinner of dim sum, while walking in a protest march, or during an endless anarchist meeting.

I met David at my first such meeting in New York in 2001. The World Economic Forum announced that it was moving its annual meeting from Davos, Switzerland, to New York, ostensibly in solidarity with the tragedy the city had suffered on September 11. A group of students was organizing a rebuttal to the forum—a counter-summit of sorts—and I attended the gathering to connect with other activists. It was at Saint Mark’s Church in the East Village, a hub at the time of anarchist organizing. David was one of the few friendly faces there.

He was writing an ethnography about the direct action movement, he explained, and then proceeded to break down the culture and social hierarchy of the New York City anarchist scene. I was captivated. David inspired me to study anthropology and to pursue graduate school. He embodied the example of the scholar-activist, even if that wasn’t how Yale University felt. After being rejected for tenure, David moved abroad, and found work in England. Over the years, we stayed in touch sporadically.

I was gutted to learn that he passed away. I always thought I’d have another opportunity to share a meal, a story, or a laugh with him. I will remember him as our generation’s Nasruddin, mumbling a joke with his eyes twinkling.

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Commoning in Los Angeles: Emergent Solidarity Economies

This essay is a part of the forum on Carving Out the Commons

Jorge Juan lives with his wife and two children in an apartment complex in the rapidly-gentrifying Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. A densely populated area – more than 100,000 people live in nearly three-square miles – Westlake has been the destination for immigrants from Mexico and Central America for many years.[1] However, as the average rent for a studio increased from $1,782 to $2,600 in the neighborhood where most are renters, so has the Latinx population dropped from 74 to 68 percent from 1990 to 2015, based on the American Community Survey.

Juan’s family had their monthly rent increase from $950 to $1,350 – a 37 percent increase. Their household wasn’t alone; all tenants of the 192 units at 131, 143, and 171 South Burlington Avenue were told that their rent would increase by 25 to 40 percent. Juan told a reporter at L.A. Taco his concerns about his children who attended the elementary school across the street.[2] “We just want them to learn and not be worried about a meal for tomorrow because all of our money is going to the rent.” The tenants started to collectively organize as a tenants association called Burlington Unidos, and decided to withhold rent until the owner addressed the inhabitable conditions plaguing the apartments: rats, roaches, bed bugs, sewage water leakage, and toxic mold. 92 tenants agreed to participate in the rent strike.

On a warm Friday evening in May 2018, members of Burlington Unidos gathered in a Craftsman house on a block lined with Jacaranda trees. Dishes of rice and beans were arranged on the kitchen table while children squirmed in their seats. About twenty adults – mostly tenants participating in the rent strike – sat on an assortment of folding chairs and benches in the living room. The tenants were gathered to learn about cooperative models where tenants purchased their buildings and converted them into tenant-controlled housing.

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Shutdown at the Port of Oakland

About 30 truckers and 150 supporters rallied in front of SSA’s terminals at the Port of Oakland yesterday. The truckers formed a picket line in time for the 7pm shift of ILWU longshorman. Unfortunately, ILWU Local 10 called the Oakland Police to stand guard in front of the rally, to protect the ILWU members who crossed the picket line. The SSA terminal was not shut down.

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Beyond the Second Shift

Mothers working in restaurants face numerous challenges balancing their precarious work, for which some earn subminimum wages, with little to no child support.  Mothers must also work an unpredictable “third shift,” thanks to the erratic schedules endemic to our new service economy.  Working mothers are a floating and flexible workforce, always on call, without any control over their jobs or their hours.

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Decolonizing the Occupy Movement

When the Great Recession sank its fangs into the veins of this country on December 2007, for the first time, millions of white people woke to a different world. Unemployment and poverty are not unfamiliar bedfellows to people of color: Black unemployment has been at least double that of the rate for whites from 1973 to 2009; while Latinos were 1.5 times more likely to be unemployed than whites for 28 out of the 37 years. The white middle class wasn’t able to get a job or pay their mortgage or healthcare bills.

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Detroiters Rally to Stop Corporate Land Grab of Vacant Lots

The eyes of the food justice movement are turned towards the Motor City, where the local city council will vote Tuesday on a corporate investor’s proposal to purchase nearly 2,000 city-owned lots. Millionaire money manager John Hantz, who first proposed the scheme in 2009, says that the land will be used to create the world’s largest urban farm, returning Detroit “to its agrarian roots.” But community activists fear the sale will displace residents of the city’s Lower East Side neighborhood, most of whom are low-income black families.

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Farmers, Workers, Consumers, Unite!

Since its founding in 1996, the Community Food Security Coalition has been the leading voice for people of color and the poor in a food movement that often marginalizes them in favor of well-heeled “foodies.” This summer, the coalition announced that 2012 would be its last year of operation. The announcement left those of us in the food movement reeling.

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One Activist’s Fight Against Walmart’s Food Justice Takeover

via Colorlines

LaDonna Redmond, a longtime urban farmer from the west side of Chicago, wants to shake the movement from its somnolence, with her call for a gathering of people of color and indigenous leaders in the Twin Cities at the end of this month, the Food + Justice = Democracy conference, to craft principles of food justice.  “The food movement is characterized by projects like urban farming, but we don’t have principles that unite us or policies to support,” Redmond, a senior program associate at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a nonprofit food policy think tank, explained.

The food justice movement is at an impasse. And the timing couldn’t be worse. More of us are hungry than ever before. One in seven rely on a food stamp program, likely to be eviscerated in Congress’ next round. A disproportionate number of Blacks and Latinos suffer from obesity and diet-related health issues, compounded by lack of access to healthy and affordable food. And the drought that devastated the Midwest this summer, laying waste to staple crops, has experts predicting rises in food prices to levels seen in 2008, when the high cost of eating led arguably to political uprisings, such as the Arab Spring.

Yet, amidst all of this bad news, the primary national network for the food justice movement, the Community Food Security Coalition, announced last month that they were closing their doors, much to the shock and dismay of their members. In the absence of leadership, the loudest voice in food advocacy is coming from a surprising corner: the private sector.  This Sunday, the Financial Times reported that the incoming CEO Tony Vernon of Kraft Foods spoke up against cuts to food stamps. “The SNAP program is a program we are supportive of,” he told the paper, adding that food stamp recipients “are a big part of our audience.”

The problem is that corporations are acting on behalf of their own self-interests, not the public good. Our food system is broken, in large part because the business of growing and making food is dominated by large corporations. Economic power, as I wrote in ARC’s Good Food and Good Jobs report is consolidated in a few corporate hands with annual revenue over $1 billion. The names should be familiar to anyone who’s perused grocery shelves: Walmart, Nestle, PepsiCo, and, yes, Kraft Foods. These very same companies also spend millions lobbying D.C. to keep subsidies for corn, the raw material for high fructose corn syrup, the omnipresent sweetener found in soda and other processed foods. More recently, the likes of Monsanto and DuPont have sunk over $27 million on an opposition campaign to label genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in California, Prop 37.

Redmond thinks there needs to be a change in approach, and that activists can use recent history as a guide. The historical precedent in the environmental justice movement inspired Redmond, when people of color converged in the early 1990s to craft the principles of environmental justice. “Environmental justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making,” reads one of the principles, “including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.” This was a key milestone because the principles unified people of color into a multiracial movement. And, the principles elevated the leadership of those most impacted by ecological and economic catastrophe and asserted the right of peoples for self-determination. Redmond hopes the same will happen for the food justice movement.

Without principles for food justice, Redmond fears, the rhetoric of food justice can be used to amplify more corporate control in the food system. We’ve already seen this when Walmart partnered with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, to provide healthy food to low-income communities. The corporation pledged to open up 300 stores in so-called “food deserts.” However, research shows that the entrance of a Walmart store exacerbates the quality of food, not to mention jobs, available in an area. Food & Water Watch reported that milk the corporation touts as “organic” actually comes from a factory farm.

But for Redmond, the fight for food justice was deeply personal. “I didn’t chose food work, it chose me,” Redmond quipped. Like any mother, LaDonna Redmond was concerned about her son’s health and well-being. “My son developed food allergies early on, between the age of six and seven months old, when we introduced him to soft foods. He had severe allergic reactions and asthma: his eyes would swell up, he cried and wheezed so hard that we had to take to the emergency room.”

But, Redmond was Black and her family lived in the west side of Chicago, a working class Black and Latino neighborhood. “I tried to provide the best food for my son, free of carcinogens and pesticides, but it wasn’t available in my neighborhood,” Redmond explained. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford it, it just wasn’t available. We had to travel several miles outside to buy food to make our meals.”

Redmond decided to grow her food for her family, converting the family’s backyard into a vegetable garden. Her efforts then expanded into vacant lots and a farmer’s market selling collard greens and turnips, inaugurated a year after her son’s birth. But Redmond realized that lack of food access was a broader issue afflicting many communities of color. She became involved with food policy, but found that she often was the only Black person in the room.

“People would stereotype me because I was Black: I’m on food stamps or I’m a single mom,” Redmond remembered. “There was a real ignorance of my reality as a Black woman, but these people were setting policy for my community.” Not for much longer, if the gathering reaches Redmond’s hopes. “If we could swing the magic chicken to get the food system that we want, most people don’t know what we do want. We haven’t really sat down to say we want this and we want that. Our conference is about the what and the how.”