Protests, Food Justice, and Cooperative Organizing – Stories from Power Shift

This blog post was written by Eric Recchia, a member of our Board of Directors. He also works as an organizer with the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFED), a non-profit working to network and support student food cooperatives. He recently attended Power Shift with over a hundred other CSSCers, and presented a workshop about student food cooperatives. Check out the CoFED blog and the CoFED website for more info!

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to join more than seven thousand youth activists from around the country in Pittsburgh for an inspiring and empowering three days, filled with peer-led workshops, panels, breakouts, and keynotes, culminating in a protest march through the streets and an occupation of the office of a local official that had approved fracking in county parks.

[Activists marching across the Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh. Photo Credit: Julian Ehrlich]

We came together to learn more about the different problems caused by the fossil fuel economy in communities all around our country, hearing stories firsthand from those being directly impacted. We came together to share the work that we, the people in those communities and their allies, are doing to fight back. We came together to envision what an equitable, just, and thriving future could look like and plan how we are going to make it happen. We came together to organize, strategize, commiserate, and celebrate. We came together for Power Shift 2013.

You may be asking why someone doing work supporting student food cooperatives would be attending a conference about organizing for climate justice. Good question. There are a few ways that the work I do fits within the work of climate justice organizing. First, I’m big on intersectionality. If you’re new to the word, here’s a quick synopsis: intersectionality is the way in which multiple forms of oppression interact to contribute to systemic injustice and inequality. No oppressive system or ideology is isolated in its impacts or influences from other systems of oppression and oppressive ideologies. This means that when we fight oppression and injustice, we need to ally with and understand the work of others that are fighting different but connected fights. The same systems of oppression and injustice that underlie the extractive fossil fuel economy and the root causes of climate injustice underlie the roots of food injustice and the inequities and inequalities of our economic system.

Second, industrial agriculture is one of the largest anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases, approximately one-fourth to one-third of all greenhouse gases released by humans comes from agricultural related sources. Also, the fracking boom has led to a drop in natural gas prices, which has also led to a drop in the price of petroleum based fertilizer that’s made with anhydrous ammonia, which comes from natural gas, as well as an increase in domestic production. Thus the title of my workshop that I facilitated during Power Shift: Using Student Food Cooperatives to Fight Fracking, Climate Change, and Food Injustice.

 [Myself facilitating a workshop on student food cooperatives. Photo credit: Emily Teague.]

 

Energy Action Coalition (EAC), the host organization for Power Shift (PS13), is made up of dozens of grassroots and large environmental and environmental justice groups. EAC has different working groups that each of these organizations come together to collaborate through and help decide the direction of the Coalition. EAC also has several members that, like CoFED, are working to realize a more just, sustainable, and equitable economy for all. These groups are organized into the Green Economy Working Group, which includes some of our friends like Green For All, Grand Aspirations, the New Economics Institute, and Groundswell. I joined with members of these organizations at Power Shift and helped facilitate a 400+ person breakout on food justice, and I helped out at the Green Economy Hub, a spot where PS13 attendees could learn more about green economy work (because “green” is such a vague and often appropriated word, I prefer the term solidarity economy, so I’ll use that from now on) and share the work they are doing.

[A nationwide map of green economy projects at the Green Economy Hub. If you could zoom in, you’d see two papers on the left, one for the Humboldt Student Food Collective, and the other for CoFED! Photo credit: Eli Sheperd.]

Cooperatives played a small but diverse role throughout Power Shift. In addition to my own workshop, there was a workshop on worker cooperatives organized by Grand Aspirations, as well as more than a dozen workshops related to the solidarity economy. Cooperatives were discussed as a breakout group within the food justice breakout I helped to facilitate, and also as part of the social entrepreneurship breakout. Within the California statewide breakout, we had a food justice sub-breakout, where we also discussed food cooperatives, along with student run farmers’ markets, campus and community gardens, and the Real Food Challenge. I’m sure there were many other spaces that I am unaware of where cooperatives were introduced as a solution to many of the challenges being confronted at Power Shift; such as consumer owned utility cooperatives supplying affordable, community controlled, renewable energy.

[Myself, Peter Hoy, and Jennifer Roach (both with Grand Aspirations) facilitating the Food Justice breakout. Photo credit: Eli Sheperd.]

One really neat workshop I was able to attend was put on by a group of Rebel Economists that are working to reform economics programs in universities, moving away from teaching only about neoclassical models, and towards a greater diversity of economic thought. I studied economics as an undergraduate (and was very frustrated by the lack of diversity of thought that I found in most of the classes I took!), so this holds a special interest for me. Economic thought underpins much of how our society functions, and we must reform economic thought as part of the work of reforming our society. I have a lot of ideas about this I’d really like to share, so I may do so here at some point.

The highlight of the weekend (besides the great Thai restaurant we found down the street from the convention center) was definitely the day of action on Monday. My friends and I woke early to head to to a park on the waterfront of the Allegheny River, just across the waterway from downtown Pittsburgh, where the march would head later. We were meeting in-between a trio of bridges named after famous Pittsburgh natives: Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol, and famed writer and environmentalist Rachel Carson, whose bridge ironically enough ended right next to a huge glass building, the operational headquarters of ALCOA, the Aluminium Company of America. ALCOA is the third largest aluminium mining and smelting company in the world. They are also the 15th worst emitter of airborne pollutants in the US, illegally operated the dirtiest non-utility coal power plant in the country for 20 years, built 5 dams in the (formerly) largest wilderness area in Iceland (one 633 ft tall, the largest for it’s use in Europe), poisoned Kangaroos in Australia, and contaminated wetlands and groundwater in New York with PCBs. Unfortunately, our target for the action that day wasn’t ALOCA, but there were equally large evil-doers to take on within walking distance.

When we arrived at the waterfront park, there was already a large crowd there gathered. There were signs and creative protest art everywhere; a large coal barge escorted by police boats was in the river, just behind the main stage. A huge, 200+ foot banner spanned the length of the barge; on one side it read “Welcome to Coal Country,” on the other “Support American energy, support American jobs.”

[Activists gather for a rally at the waterfront before Monday’s big action. Photo credit: Robert van Waarden.]

While the barge spun lazy circles in the distance, speakers took the stage who had travelled from the heart of coal country, the Appalachians, to tell of their struggles protecting their family homes and communities. We were there to support America, American energy, and American jobs. But we understand that in supporting clean energy, this is what we are doing. The current fossil fuel economy doesn’t support any of these three, and the stories we brought with us reinforced that. Ironically enough, Consol Energy, whose name was draped across the tug driving the barge, that same week sold their main coal subsidiary, including it’s river transportation operations (possibly including the tug and barge that sported the banner). Consol’s only remaining coal mines will be mining coal for overseas markets. It’s easy to see why some of my friends were initially confused into thinking that the barge was out there supporting us. Don’t worry though, we had a banner of our own prepared to answer their charge.

[Activists drop a banner from the Roberto Clemente Bridge during Monday’s action. Photo credit: Heather Craig.]

 

After getting powered up by a series of awesome, real, and motivating speakers (and youth rappers), and with a rousing urge from our MC (and friend from Green For All) Julian Mocine-Mcqueen, the march got started and we headed for the bridge. Our targets were PNC Bank, a leading financier of mountaintop removal, and UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which has been criticized by local activists for not paying taxes, tax revenue which they hope could be used to support local transit services.

[Local union members stage a counter protest. Photo credit: Robert van Waarden.]

Our spirits were high as we crossed the bridge and moved into downtown. On the far side of the bridge, just as we finished crossing, we encountered members of a local union, holding signs with peace symbols, asking us to stop the war on coal. There were a dozen or so union members there, staging a counter protest, thought once again, it was easy to get their message confused with our own (especially with the peace signs). In the end, hopefully we’ll end up being on the same side. We may be fighting a war against coal companies, but we are fighting for the future of coal country, something these companies may not really care all that much about. There were a fair share of aggressive shouts at the workers; unfortunately understandable because of the anger that many activists hold over the work we do. However, there was at least an equal number of signs of encouragement and support given to the workers as we passed. I heard a story later that an activist that was part of the march stopped to talk with the some of the workers, and their conversation ended with a hug and some tears.

[Students at a local 6-12th grade magnet school cheer on protesters as they march by. Photo credit: Julian Ehrlich.]

A brass band played lively music as the march of thousands wound around the streets of downtown Pittsburgh. We received waves of support from students and teachers as we passed a building that was a local 6-12th grade magnet school. This was the largest action in Pittsburgh since the G-20 summit had been held there in 2009. About halfway through the march, a large number of activists turned off from the main group, led by Rising Tide, to continue on an unpermitted march to support those that we involved that day in some of the direct actions. Members of the Earth Quaker Action Team managed to shut down 15 branches of PNC Bank before 7 of the Team were arrested at the only remaining open branch in downtown. We marched through the streets and around cars, passing one of these branches and members of EQAT on the way, cheering them on. Chants rang through the streets. “What do we want?!,” “JUSTICE!;” “When do we want it?!,” “NOW!.” Or a new (and pretty catchy) one I learned, “Ah!” “An-ti!” “Anti-cap-it-al-ist-a!.”

[Members of Rising Tide lead protesters through the streets of Pittsburgh as part of an unpermitted march during Monday’s action. Photo credit: Robert van Waarden.]

Escorted by an activist with large papier-mâché hands and face, we eventually ended up at the county courthouse. We rallied in the main courtyard, before heading inside to support 11 activists that were occupying the county executive’s office. Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive and the man whose likeness the papier-mâché face was modeled after, is working to allow fracking under county park land in Allegheny County. For more than two hours, about 40 of us surrounded the office where the 11 activists had occupied all day, despite Fitzgerald’s convenient absence, singing songs and sharing our stories, while police dogs barked ominously in the background. I managed to sneak behind some of the cops to place a “Don’t Frack With Our Water” sign in one of the courthouse windows, to the cheers of those gathered in the courtyard below. Eventually Fitzgerald returned to his office, only to tell those gathered inside and out that he would be glad to meet us if we wanted to schedule a meeting, but that he was too busy to talk with us; he refused our requests to take even a minute to say anything more to us. Seeing that the police weren’t interested in arresting any of us, and after having occupied the office for the whole day, the 11 occupiers declared victory and vowed to return.

[Activists occupy Allegheny County executive Rich Fitzgerald’s office to protest his support of fracking in County Parks. Photo credit: Robert van Waarden.]

 

 

[Activists gather in the courtyard of the Allegheny County courthouse to protest fracking in county parks. Photo credit: Robert van Waarden.]

All together, Power Shift 2013 was an amazing and inspiring experience. More than 220 people made the weekend journey all the way from California (some of us spending more than 24 hours in airports, on planes, and on buses to do so). A group of us during the statewide breakout committed to continuing the work moving forward by starting a statewide Food System Working Group to network and support students working on various aspects of changing the industrial food system, from community gardens to food cooperatives. If you’d like to get involved with this effort, please email eric@cofed.org for more information. If you’re not a student in California, but you’re interested in finding out how you can work to change the food system on your campus and in your community, please email for more info, and I’ll connect you to an organizer in your area. If you’re interested in working to Shift the Power in some way other than through the food system, that’s great too! Feel free to also email me for more information about connecting with organizations, including the California Student Sustainability Coalition and others across the country, that are working to stop fracking, mountaintop removal, tar sands, and other forms of fossil fuel extraction, and are working to implement the clean energy and solidarity economy solutions that will bring about the thriving, just, and sustainable future we all know is possible.

[California Power Shift attendees gather for a photo after the statewide breakout. Photo credit: Jesse Lyon.]
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One Comment

  1. Hey this is tai with the counter culture collective and we are doing kitchen counter culture workshops at transformational gatherings to help activate our communities towards their own health and vitality and that of our local and global communities by empowering and supporting community gardens and coops and teaching people how to make and source locally their own fermented foods and become an Activationist starting at their own kitchen counter getting more in tune with their needs and how they affect their community.. Our kitchen counter culture workbooks are getting pressed, this second pressing of 800 all community powered and we will be doing a food justice summit here in Asheville with a couple popular edm groups to headline that are inboard and I could really use any help or guidance with this!! http://Www.facebook.com/newdimensionsfermentia

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