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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Healthy food as self – defense

“We thought if we gave the people food, they might want clothing. If we gave them clothing, they might want housing. If we gave them housing, they might want land, and if they had land, they might want some abstract thing called freedom.” —Elaine Brown, 1992

Last year, my husband and I attended an event with some of the leading food justice advocates in the Bay Area, including one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party (BPP), David Hilliard. The event took place in Vallejo and encouraged people to get involved with food justice in the community. 

After the event, I contacted David as I wanted to share with him the work Food Empowerment Project had done on access issues in Santa Clara County, and I was interested in learning more about the food programs organized by the BPP in the 1960s and ‘70s.

During this meeting, David asked if we would work with him and the Intercommunal Institute for Research and Social Change (IIRSC - a project of the Huey P. Newton Foundation, which he is the director of) on access issues in Vallejo.

Since then we have been busy doing research on Vallejo and updating our tools with the volunteer help of our intern from Stanford, Emily Alsentzer, and sociologist Dr. Carol Glasser.

David and I have also had some enriching conversations about activism and what the BPP stood for, and so much of it is truly relevant today.

But what has also come out of this is a better understanding of the BPP and Huey P. Newton. I have been incredibly lucky to sit with David and watch old TV interviews of Huey as well as listen to interviews of him.  His integrity was something I feel so many leaders lack today. In one of the interviews he is asked his opinion of someone (whom the interviewer knew he was not fond of), and Huey stated that he was not going to say anything publically against this person as he had not said anything publically against him.

And for those of you who know me and how I feel about similar issues in the animals rights movement, I particularly liked this statement by him: “Too many so-called leaders of the movement have been made into celebrities and their revolutionary fervor destroyed by the mass media… The task is to transform society; only the people can do that – not heroes, not celebrities, not stars.”

And as incredible as it is to hear the interviews and be blown away by this articulate, holistic and humble man’s insights, it is tough to realize that, in some ways, very little has changed. 

What the BPP is mostly known for today is arming themselves for self-protection.

And yet, rarely discussed is their full Ten Point Program approach to self defense “in terms of political empowerment, encompassing protection against joblessness and the circumstances that excluded blacks from equal employment opportunities, against predatory business practices intended to exploit the needs of the poor; against homelessness and inferior housing conditions; against educational systems that denigrate and miscast the histories of oppressed peoples; against a prejudiced judiciary that convicts African Americans and other people of color by all-white juries; and finally, against the lawlessness of law enforcement agencies that harass, abuse and murder black with impunity.”

I would argue (if I even needed to) that all of the issues listed above are still, unfortunately, real concerns facing communities of color in the US.

In his introduction to The Huey P. Newton Reader, David goes on to say, “Still, it was the police patrols and not our work on behalf of jobs and housing that won the Black Panthers immediate notoriety.”

And yet, some of the lasting impact of the Black Panther Party is their work on food issues.

In January 1969, the Panthers would cook and serve breakfast to poor inner city youth in the area – it started in Oakland and they were eventually set up in cities across the country.  The program fed thousands of kids across the US.

According to the Panthers, "Children cannot reach their full academic potential if they have empty stomachs."

Hmm….it seems they knew a long time ago what researchers are still working out: students perform better when they are well-nourished.
This and their free grocery giveaways were part of their Survival Programs.

Food Empowerment Project, which in comparison is a very young organization, is honored to continue our work on food justice with members of the IRRC, who have been pioneers in looking out for the people.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Looking in their eyes

To commemorate my 25th year of being a vegan, I have decided to share some stories from various investigations I have done of factory farms, auctions and slaughterhouses. Though these investigations were conducted with the organization I started and ran, Viva!USA, they are a powerful part of my life and hopefully will help many understand why veganism is a key part to Food Empowerment Project’s goal of a more just food system.

The first animal rights video I ever saw was The Animals Film in 1987. That was the first time I saw the “debeaking process” of chicks – it has been seared into my mind ever since. In case you are not familiar with the film, it actually goes through the many different ways in which animals are killed, exploited and abused.  

I was in high school at the time, but I remember thinking, “I could never take footage like that.” But as all activists know, many times we do things that we never thought we could. Somehow, we find the strength through our convictions to do what we never thought possible.

My first investigations brought me to look for farms in California, where baby male calves are raised for the “veal” industry.

And I found one.  When I first walked through the door, I saw dozens of stalls (maybe 50). If you have ever seen footage of calves raised for the “veal” industry, you know what the stalls look like: dark, small and with chains nearby. But these stalls were empty. Half relief and half disappointment came over me. I was glad there were no animals there, but I was also disappointed, as we were trying to prove the industry was still alive in California.

As I was leaving, I walked by half a dozen stalls. Housed in some were the most adorable jersey cows – the cows with those big, beautiful brown eyes and long eyelashes. They were covered in flies. Now these stalls were outside and bigger than the ones I had seen in the shed – but don’t get me wrong, they were small. 

I imagine it was this farmer’s idea of a more “humane” method.  These sheds were still so small that the calves could not take free steps and there were no food or water troughs for them, either.

But this is where some of the real pain of doing these investigations happens. After taking the video footage I left – physically; however, my mind stayed with those calves, looking into their eyes – wondering how I could have left them. My mind went over having to accept that I was indeed a speciesist. I knew that if those had been human animals, I would not have left their side. I would have called the police and stayed with them until justice had been served.  

However, I left. I left those babies, with the only satisfaction that I could get, which is that I could share their story with others. I could help people to understand that dairy consumption is the reason calves like these are confined in tiny stalls.

Not too far from where I videotaped these calves is an auction house. The auction house is open one day a week, and it auctions off a variety of animals. The place is filthy, smells awful and, well, has a restaurant on site.  Yes, a restaurant. Ugh…I guess it shows you the mentality of these folks.

This is where I realized another intense difficultly for me doing these types of investigations. It is horrible videotaping animals suffering and in typical farming conditions; however, once humans begin abusing the animals, I have a hard time not intervening.

During the auctions they would prod the animals in and out of the ring and to turn around. The calves would sell for mere dollars.  I will never forget the most beautiful Black Angus calf who, while entering the auction house, slipped. My heart wrenches remembering it now. This magnificent creature full of strength and grace (under normal circumstances) left at the mercy of a merciless system.

But luckily we know we don’t have to be a part of this system.