Keep the Aspidistra flying: Olly Twist, the Black Panthers and Food Autonomy
|William Ronan |
Imagine a different story.
It’s unfortunate Dickens got it mixed up.
Oliver Twist finishes his soup and slides his shiny spoon into the bottom of the bowl. It clatters still. Looking round at the other slurping faces he feels a hunger for more.
He rises from the long table pushes aside his chair and marches to the big vats of soup at the front of hall. Spoon and bowl in hand.
Olly — lets call him Olly as that’s what his mates call him — picks up the giant ladle and serves himself a healthy portion of carrot and coriander soup. The liquid spills over the sides like a river angry from torrential rain and droplets fall to the oak floor.
The young rebel smiles contently as steam rushes to warm his face.
From the left of him a fat glowing man — the master of the workhouse — looms large and rushes towards him.
Grabbing the ladle the master hollers: “Oliver Twist, what the hell do you think you’re doing — you skinny little scrounging runt.”
Olly calmly turns to the master — who doesn’t have a name because he doesn’t deserve one — and bonks him on the head with the soupy ladle.
The fat prick of the master crumples to the floor as our empowered friend says to him: “Fuck you mister — I grew these carrots myself!”
The point of the story ends there. But obviously the kids of the workhouse put on some dubstep, dance on the food hall tables, burn the Master’s quarters, put up barricades and defend their new workhouse squat from state forces for months as they munch the bounty from their garden in mighty collective meals that keep the rebels well-fed and energized for their resistance.
And to top it off, no-one got nicked.
1. The Panthers, food and ungovernable communities
He smiles. ‘At first I was thinking of something along the lines of the Hutterite community.’
‘Those lunatics over by Nikolsburg?’
They’re the ones. They live completely isolated from the rest of the world and claim to be self-sufficient.’ ~Luther Blisset, Q
Captain Gurt from the Well talks to the merchant-manipulating pleasure-seeking Eloi in the novel Q written by the elusive Luther Blissett.
While Captain Gurt leads rebel cities with swords and canons to fight the evils of Empire during the re-telling of the bloody reformation in Q, the ‘lunatic’ Hutterites are empowering a different form of resistance.
They may not have had wind-turbines to power laptops but what we share with the Hutterites is a desire for resource autonomy; we take control of the means of meeting our basic needs, we unlearn powerless consumption and mould new ways of living. Energy, housing and food.
Food. Food! Glorious food. The sustenance that satisfies our belly rumbles and the elixir of revolutionary movements.
Bread and roses! Peace, land and bread! Bread and bin-burgled strawberry jam.
a) Community Survival Programmes
In the late 1960s the Black Panther party began a series of community survival programs. The ‘Free Ambulance’ programme, ‘Community Health Classes’, the ‘Free Buses to Prison’ programme, and the ‘Free Breakfast for Children’ programme.
Every morning 10,000 black kids across America would start the day with a lovely nibble provided by community cooks in berets.
This is some revolutionary shit.
Funded by community businesses under the threat of boycott — socialism in practice or maoist protection racquets, whatever you feel — the Panthers began to create social infrastructure to feed people experiencing heavy oppression from the State whilst reducing reliance on it.
They began the process of closing their loop of participation in capitalist methods of production to meet the basic need of eating.
Black communities began to cut the capitalists out and feed themselves.
b) Breaking coercion in ya Breakfast Bowl
The Panthers strategically used legal loop-holes to arm party members with shotguns to patrol state police who inflicted violent brutality on black people in America. This was a creative method of self-defence to break the state’s monopoly on violence and the fear it creates in forcing citizens to be compliant and docile.
The Panther guns didn’t have to be fired to be effective in community self-defence. And it was the guns of the FBI, as well as other dirty tactics such as infiltration, and nasty in-fighting that led to end of the powerful Panther movement.
The ‘Free Breakfast for Children’ programme on the other hand was another way to challenge the power of the state. By the state and corporations having control of infrastructure that allows us to meet our basic human needs they also maintain a very persuasive threat of deprivation.
In effect we are coerced into staying good little citizens of the state as we all need to eat. Our ability to engage in revolutionary practice is thinned out as we are controlled by invisible lines of power that end up in our breakfast bowl.
The breakfast bowls of the Panther program, however, are not so filled up with these lines of coercion and instead become an empowering way to break dependence on state capitalism.
c) Food is dangerous
As the Panthers show us the way we feed ourselves is fiercely politically powerful.
Taking control of our food systems doesn’t just allow us to engage with greater zeal in revolutionary practice, it is revolutionary practice.
So those lunatics by Nikolsburg who Captain Gurt from the Well refers to, although isolated on their island of self-sufficiency, do have some revolutionary flavour in their soup.
Eating food we have grown in our communities with the likes of Olly Twist is a taste of empowerment and an act of rebellion — what makes this particularly delicious is when we have invested in the form of how this happens.
It may not be asking for some of your local shop’s profits and threatening a boycott otherwise, it may not be running to an island and trying to cut ourselves off… let’s experiment!
As we inject our political fantasies into how we meet our very basic needs together our actions take on dynamism that create new forms-of-life, new ways to relate to eachother outside of capitalist modes of exploitation and bring, practical (and nutritious) benefit.
These forms-of-life rub up and break our coercive and violent binds to state power and ultimately lead us to become increasingly ungovernable.
I can’t help but feel a niggling empathy with Captain Gurt’s tone when he refers to the Hutterite community.
It’s madness to be isolated in seeking self-sufficiency. The lunacy of self-sufficiency is made possible by the relationships that forge it, the exchanges based in mutual aid, and the passing on of skills from community to community, comrade to comrade.
Whether it is borrowing a hammer from a neighbour, or hearing stories of a successful harvest from friends overseas.
It is connectedness that enables our autonomy, not islands of isolation.
a) It’s the taking part that counts
Growing food to feed ourselves creates physical space to engage, learn and form empowering relationships with eachother.
The garden is a politically potent place to make relationships revolutionary in form.
This is important as we make autonomous spaces and movements that dangle between politically dangerous counter-cultures to self-effacing identity driven sub-cultures.
After the Greek uprising in 2008, Alex Trocchi reflects in Introduction to Civil War that: “ The insurrectionary question should transform from “How to increase the intensity of attack?” to “How can the number of people in the attack increase?”
Working in the garden is ripe for rich beginnings of friendships based in the values of mutual aid and co-operation.
As soil meets hand and seeds are passed and plants begin to grow, the community garden shows itself to be as deeply rooted in the natural rythmns of freedom and horizontalism as the rhizomatic root systems of creeping buttercup.
The community garden is a place that contrasts our atomised neighbourhoods. It lifts us out of closed doors and netted windows. With fresh vegetables to share in harvest the benefits of the community garden are easy to see and automatically gives the community a stake in what happens in the space, and reason to make it work.
This basis of co-operation is vital in wanting to make the garden work.
Prole Cat writes in 2004, “We must begin our egalitarian relations today, among our damaged selves, if we are to live in a free world tomorrow.”
Our damaged selves heal well and slip naturally back into supportive relations with one another in the garden today. As we share a beefy tomato, a joke over tea on a frosty morning and ideas for building the compost bin.
b) The capitalism clause in our gardening relationships
Oh the utopia of the community garden! Of course the conditions of capitalism sneak into our tool sheds- sexism, racism, privilege and machismo. Informal hierarchies galore.
As we sow coriander, clean the tools, and keep the chillis warm we can challenge these forms of domination in a place where the benefits of our work reach beyond sub-cultures and our relationships begin with a shared desire for collaborative endeavour.
c) Social Fertility in the Garden
When, at a certain time and place, two bodies affected by the same form-of-life meet, they experience an objective pact, which precedes any decision. They experience community. ~Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War
The edge where the forest meets the field, and the field the forest, is well known in permaculture circles for its bio-diversity. The two meeting eco-systems complement each other to create fertile ground for a rich mix of plants and wildlife.
The community garden attracts a wide and diverse range of people who desire interaction outside the strains of work and home, a quiet Sunday afternoon, and an environment that breaks city monotony — the garden too becomes edge space for our communities.
We join forces with others who run on different times and in other social circles to our own. We hear their stories, grumbles, mumbles and excitement. We get closer to understanding eachother. Our needs, our desires, our anger, our rebellions.
We learn what each other wants, what we hate, and our community grows stronger as spring turns to summer when we know new faces on the street and kids at the bus stop.
By September we experience closeness in community that the state can’t understand, and the corporations can’t co-opt.
These are the beginnings of rebellion. And to write about them anymore would bastardize their beautiful simplicity.
3. It was under my nose all along!
a) Back to the Barrio
What do we go back to when the spectacle dies? When the street has lost its flicker of hope and returns to the sound of boots on the way to work? The carnival collapses and the clowns have to go home.
We love a good spectacle. A counter-mobilisation. Rushes at the gates and with the cops. It feeds our inspiration. It gives a moment of freedom. It feeds mine.
A lot of what I have written in this previous section I think is applicable to forming empowering relationships in the streets; in the pig kettle as we break out of it with people we have just met; covering faces of unknown friends as the pig cameras try to take their pictures. The shattering glass to the shuddering bass.
I agree. The streets are sexy.
I do want to ask the question, though, where do we go back to when it’s over?
Something interesting happened in Barcelona last summer. After two weeks of occupying Catalunya Square it was agreed that the Indignados would dissolve the General assembly into local areas. The movement would take the political fervour back to the barrios.
A friend told me of the meetings he went to after the decision as he began organising in his community with people he had lived next to for years and never met.
The politics of dissent strikes well at home as well as the streets.
We need spaces to keep these unexpected relationships alive, to maintain their angry beginnings and harbour them into formidabble forces.
The garden can be one of these places.
b)Changing strategy — feeding our movements
From the garden we can feed ourselves, we can feed quiet film nights in hidden basements, we can feed the spectacles that shatter the silence of the city and bring joy to streets.
By growing our own food and feeding the political movements we are part of we can run a strong backbone of autonomy through the strands of our organising networks.
Re-asserting control of the food we eat complements and empowers our desires to bring anarchy to the decisions we make, our romantic relationships, and the workers co-operatives we build.
c) The garden can be our base
The community garden can be a staple building block in our revolutionary practice.
A place we return to when the spectacle is spent, a platform to give us security and serenity in the trauma and chaos of our resistance.
The tomatoes can sit with our conversations to new friends as we laugh, joke and chat breeze together. They can also hear our whispers as we plot attacks on the violent infrastructure of capital.
The garden can be our base. Our refuge, our hub.
4. It’s already begun
Walking on the moors in Dorset recently, it wasn’t the barren landscapes and domes of mist that left me in awe and took lasting effect. It was walking down the country lanes that lay at the feet of the wealthy houses of middle-England.
In the cracks of old cobbled walls, plants had worked their way through, crumbling rubble and bursting into spring flower after a long struggle.
It took four generations of Spanish peasants to build principles of anarchism into their daily lives before they were ready to rise up and face Franco’s fascism.
Community gardens are hidden in the cracks of our cities, in derelict Pyrenees farmhouses, in Italian valleys planned for high-speed trains — and so we can start work learning with experienced hands.
We can learn, too, from the Garden as we nurture the soil over years as she brings us fruitful harvests, as we should also invest in our relationships and communities so that we have longevity in our revolutionary practice.
Our raised beds are hotbeds for dissent
Our trowels the tools for new forms-of-life
And our Garden?
—a platform for revolutions in the belly of Empire.
William Ronan is an Irish Anarchist farmer working at ‘Grow Heathrow’ and involved in the London-based ‘Community Food Growers Network’ and ‘Reclaim the Fields’.