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Politics on your plate

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As most of us in America wallow in a season of gastronomical over-indulgence, here's some food for thought: In the late 1960s, thanks to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW), deciding whether or not to buy grapes was a political act.

Three years after its establishment in 1962, the UFW struck against grape growers around Delano, California...a long, bitter, and frustrating struggle that appeared impossible to resolve until Chavez promoted the idea of a national boycott. Trusting in the average person's ability to connect with those in need, Chavez and the UFW brought their plight-and a lesson in social justice-into homes from coast-to-coast and Americans responded.

"By 1970, the grape boycott was an unqualified success," writes Marc Grossman of Stone Soup. "Bowing to pressure from the boycott, grape growers at long last signed union contracts, granting workers human dignity and a more livable wage."

Chavez is perhaps best known for the grape boycott, but in line with his collective soul, he was always the first to admit that it was not entirely his idea. In fact, he was initially against the boycott until his co-workers explained that the best method was not to boycott individual labels, but all grapes. In this way, the grapes became the label itself.

Through hunger strikes, imprisonment, abject poverty for himself and his large family, racist and corrupt judges, exposure to dangerous pesticides, and even assassination plots, Chavez remained true to the cause and to the non-violent methods he espoused. Even when threatened with physical harm, the furthest Chavez and his comrades would go is deterrence.

Once in 1966, when Teamster goons began to rough up Chavez's picketeers, a bit of labor solidarity solved the problem without violence. William Kircher, the AFL-CIO director of organization, called Paul Hall, president of the International Seafarers Union.

"Within hours," writes David Goodwin in Cesar Chavez: Hope for the People, "Hall sent a carload of the biggest sailors that had ever put to sea to march with the strikers on the picket lines...There followed afterward no further physical harassment."

"The fight for equality must be fought on many fronts-in urban slums, in the sweat shops of the factories and fields," said Martin Luther King, Jr. in a telegram to Chavez after a UFW electoral victory. "Our separate struggles are really one-a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity."

The roots of Chavez' effectiveness lay in his ability to connect on a human level. When asked: "What accounts for all the affection and respect so many farm workers show you in public?" Cesar replied: "The feeling is mutual."

"He never owned a house," says Grossman. "He never earned more than $6,000 a year. When he died...he left no money for his family. Yet more than 40,000 people marched behind the plain pine casket at his funeral, honoring the more than 40 years he spent struggling to improve the lives of farm workers."

Another food-related struggle for freedom, dignity, and humanity just marked 25 years since its inception: Food Not Bombs (FNB).

Created in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1980, FNB was the brainchild of Keith McHenry and seven other activists. "We came out of the Clamshell Alliance," says McHenry, " [which was] trying to shut down Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. It was a collection of mostly anarchists but also included Quakers and the Red Clams, who were socialists."

FNB is responsible for starting hundreds of autonomous chapters throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia...where food that would otherwise be thrown out is recovered and transformed into hot vegetarian meals that are then served to the homeless and at protests and other events. With roots in a variety of social causes, it's not surprising that McHenry describes the FNB project as essentially "the food wing of a movement that includes anti-authoritarian music, art, unlicensed radio, zines, squatting, needle exchange, bike and hemp liberation, info shops, computer networking, autonomous decentralized non-hierarchical organizing, consensus decision-making, and sharing a philosophy of tolerance, joy, and free expression."

By linking the national problem of homelessness with the larger issue of rampant militarism, McHenry's goal is to address "the inhumane agenda of the government at both the personal and international levels" as a path towards beginning a nationwide debate.

"The FNB volunteers believe that it's not too late to help build an alternative to transnational corporate greed," says McHenry. "People, through their actions, can change the political agenda."

Excerpted from "50 American Revolutions You're Not Supposed to Know: Reclaiming American Patriotism" (Disinformation Books). Mickey Z. can be found on the Web at
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