On Labor Day in 1988 two hundred hungry and homeless people went to Golden Gate Park in search of a hot meal, while fifty-four activists from Food Not Bombs, surrounded by riot police, lined up to serve them food. The riot police counted twenty-five served meals, the legal number allowed by city law before breaking permit restrictions, and then began to arrest people. The arrests proceeded like an assembly line: an activist would scoop a bowl of food and hand it to a hungry person. A police officer would then handcuff and arrest that activist. Immediately, the next activist in line would take up the ladle and be promptly arrested. By the end of the day fifty-four people had been arrested for “providing food without a permit.” These arrests were not an aberration but part of a multi-year campaign by the city of San Francisco against radical homeless activists. Why would a liberal city arrest activists helping the homeless? In exploring this question, the book uses the conflict between the city and activists as a unique opportunity to examine the contested nature of urban politics, homelessness, and public space, while developing an anarchist alternative to liberal urban politics, which is rooted in mutual aid, solidarity, and anti-capitalism.
Understanding the politics of public space occupations 1988–1991
Chapter 3 uses the struggle between Food Not Bombs and the Art Agnos Mayoral administration (1988–1991) as a backdrop to discuss the role of permits in regulating and controlling space. It argues that Food Not Bombs, through public feedings and organizing tent-cities, made specific claims regarding the nature of public space and claimed that the city had no legitimacy to regulate political activism and expression. The city, on the other hand, attempted to use permits as means of forcing the group into a negotiated management with city officials. When that negotiation broke down, the city turned toward an escalation of violence and harassment in an attempt to purge the group from public space. The chapter considers anarchist and autonomous conceptions of public space and expands on Margaret Kohn’s conception of populist space (2003, 2013) by exploring how autonomous politics complicates the topic. Conversely, it argues that a complex dialectical relationship exists between the autonomous populist politics of Food Not Bombs, the populist representational nature of public protest, and the regulatory desire of the City.
Frank Jordan, broken windows, and anti-homeless politics in San Francisco
Chapter 4 discusses Mayor Frank Jordan’s (1992–1995) revanchist Matrix Quality of Life Program, which sought to enforce a broken-windows policing system in San Francisco. The impact of the policy was felt largely by the visible homeless in downtown San Francisco, who were regularly harassed and arrested by the police and forced out of the city. Because quality-of-life policing desires to sanitize the public space of disruptive and asocial behaviour, the public meals of Food Not Bombs near City Hall resisted the city’s attempt to criminalize homelessness. This chapter argues that the city attempted to construct the homeless as anti-citizens and exclude them from the political and physical spaces of the city.
Chapter 5 turns to the activism and politics of anarchist homeless activists in resisting the city’s attempts to exclude the homeless. I turn to two important political theorists to make sense of the resistance of Food Not Bombs: Jacques Rancière and Eduardo Glissant. Rancière’s short piece “Ten theses on politics” provides a powerful understanding of the way that disruptive actions and resistance expand political space, while Glissant’s idea of right to opacity examines the complex relationship of violence, power, and visibility. The chapter argue that the homeless have a right to opacity from the state, and state surveillance, and that the homeless should only be as visible as they want to be. This means that public occupations, political protests, and public meals are legitimate forms of visibility, which respect the right of the homeless to be opaque, while programs such as San Francisco’s Matrix plan are a coercive form of violence.
Homes Not Jails, urban squatting, and gentrification
Chapter 6 looks at the response from the Jordan administration on Food Not Bombs’ sister organization, Homes Not Jails, which illegally housed the homeless in abandoned buildings. In interviews with people involved in both Food Not Bombs and Homes Not Jails, I was often told stories of police leniency with the squatters, something that was unheard of for Food Not Bombs’ actions. This differential treatment concerns the political nature of space and the city’s desire to hide the homeless from public view. Because the city wanted to push the homeless into private space, Homes Not Jails, by illegally housing the homeless in abandoned houses, ended up unintentionally working to help the Jordan administration achieve part of his public space goal. This chapter argues that city agencies react to autonomous political projects differently depending on whether they erupt in what the state defines as public or private space.
Chapter 7 puts the lessons from the anarchist urban activism and praxis of Food Not Bombs and Homes Not Jails into dialogue with the work on the Right to the City. While sympathetic to and inspired by these theorists’ work on radical urbanism, the author criticizes productionist predilections and highlights that centralized homelessness removes the focus on formal economic production. The chapter contends that by focusing on the homeless, a more robust and radical conception of urban space as commons can be developed, which allows for rights to opacity and survival in urban space.
Theses on homelessness, public space, and urban resistance
In the Coda, the lessons and theoretical positions of the entire document are condensed into four short theses, which can start a conversation around the role and politics of a radical homeless urban politics within the context of the twenty-first-century capitalist political economy and the rise of Trumpism in the United States.
Chapter 1 provides a brief introduction to the politics of homelessness by discussing the predominance of “sick talk” in addressing homelessness. In the literature review, I contend that the neoliberalizing of homelessness has shifted the “fault” of homelessness onto the individual, thus pathologizing homelessness and justifying increased criminalization and surveillance. Counter to this view, I present an alternative radical homelessness politics rooted in anarchist political theory and the praxis of Food Not Bombs and the Catholic Workers. This approach seeks to personalize the homeless, while maintaining a systemic critique of capitalism. The chapter ends with a road map for the coming chapters.
Chapter 2 provides an introduction to Food Not Bombs and gives a brief history of the group. This shows the group’s strong connection to a large range of movements, and contextualizes San Francisco Food Not Bombs and their role in the rapid expansion of Food Not Bombs, which now has around 1000 chapters worldwide. Finally, an analysis of Food Not Bombs’ political project is provided.