Hard-Left Politics Enters the People’s Food System

Historical Essay

by John Curl, Part Ten of an excerpt from a longer essay “Food for People, Not for Profit: The Attack on the Bay Area People’s Food System and the Minneapolis Co-op War: Crisis in the Food Revolution of the 1970s”


Peoples Food System at the US Bicentennial parade, 1976.

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous.”
—Mao Zedong

The lead article of the November, 1975 issue of Storefront Extension was a letter to the Food System from a group called Prairie Fire Unemployment Committee (PFOC).(114) Prairie Fire had been formed earlier that year by one faction of the Weather Underground Organization (WUO), the clandestine revolutionary group that had begun as part of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and had been putting into practice the slogan, “Bring The War Home” by bombing government and corporate buildings, and similar acts. WUO was a primary focus of FBI and COINTELPRO infiltration operations. One of their leaders, Bernardine Dohrn, was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.

Dear Food System,

We of the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee Unemployment committee would like to establish good relationships and eventually close ties between our group and yours. We see ourselves as having many things in common with you: desire for workers to control their jobs and lives, to build a system based on the needs of people not profit, to combat imperialism in all its economic, racist, and sexist forms. Reading the latest issue of your Storefront Extension, we came across an article by Paula Giese, a longtime co-op activist from the Mid-West.(115) For someone who is involved heavily in the co-op movement, she came to some rather exciting conclusions, one in particular which we would like to emphasize: she says that co-ops and alternative food systems cannot, by themselves pose a threat to capitalist economy, not while the huge corporations have such a stranglehold on the means of production. She states that alternative systems are bound to cop out or self-destruct unless they link up with larger struggles going on elsewhere in society.

We very much agree with your analysis. Alone, none of us are strong. United, we are unstoppable. We would also like to point out how we as the unemployment committee have particularly close links to the Peoples’ Food System. The food system is a direct inheritor of the results of battles waged by courageous working people of the ‘30s. Today we are faced with another economic crisis, and our response should be the same. The government does not respond to mere appeals. It moves in our interest only when we, through mass action, make it move. The P.F.O.C. unemployment committee wants to help to set up councils similar to those in the ‘30s to achieve even greater accomplishments. There are several ways in which food system people could help. One would be to join and participate in the San Francisco Unemployed and Welfare Council which is now forming. The first meeting will be on Mon., Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m. at Mission Family Center, 3013 24th St. Please Come! . . . . Eventually we want to work with the food system in an organizational way. For now we would like to have contact with many of you as individuals. If you have any questions or would like to contact us we can be reached at 497 3rd St., 495-7230. Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings are the best time.

In Solidarity,

P. F. O. C. unemployment committee, in support of building the San Francisco Unemployed and Welfare Council

On the surface it seems pretty strange. Underground revolutionaries, hunted by every force the government can throw at them, publishing an address and phone number where they can be reached, and the best days and times to call or come by. What could they have been thinking? Can you image that meeting at the Mission Family Center? Of course, not everybody would associate Prairie Fire with the Weather Underground, so maybe some people other than FBI and police agents did show up.

Actually PFOC was not WUO per se. PFOC was not a cadre organization, but a mass above ground organization, albeit connected to the underground. Those were very radical times in the Bay Area, as a cursory glance at any of the “underground” newspapers of the time will demonstrate. Underground revolutionary organizations with political goals needed to interface with the above ground world beyond the moments of revolutionary acts. They usually wanted to take credit for their actions and explain their motives, goals, and demands. This was commonly done through the media. They would send a note to a newspaper. If they wanted to publish something, they used one of the radical print shops, of which there were a number in the Bay Area. Working in those print shops were people sympathetic to the revolutionary cause. The radical print media were the interface, Alice’s rabbit hole or looking glass. Although that media was called “underground” because its content and methods of dissemination were not mainstream, they were not actually underground. Far from it. They formed the interface between the real revolutionary underground and the above ground. In the Bay Area at that time, the underground weekly newspaper Berkeley Barb had become one of the main venues for these kinds of communication. Communiqués from revolutionary groups appeared regularly in their Letters pages. False communiqués also arrived, and denials, so there was always confusion as to whether the communiqué was actually sent by the underground group or by the FBI. One former FBI informer claimed that her handler, FBI agent Charles Bates, had been told that there was a mole at the Barb who made sure they edited out anything too embarrassing to the agency.(116)

The political orientation of Turnover appeared with increasingly clarity, alongside food articles. The issue of December 1976 had a focus on prisons and, right above a notice for a “Sea Vegetable Cookery Class,” was a picture of prison revolutionary George Jackson accompanied by a quote, “Settle your quarrels, come together, understand the reality of our situation, understand that fascism is already here.” In the following issue, across from an article about a coffee boycott, was a picture of Che Guevara, and a quote, “When we were engaged in guerrilla warfare we studied Comrade Mao Tse Tung’s theory on guerilla warfare. Mimeographed copies published at the front lines circulated widely among our cadres; we called them food from China.”

Many other radical groups entered into the Food System, looking for recruits, a forum for their ideas, and funding. According to Paul Kivel of Earthwork, “there was a bigger and bigger push to do something with the Food System, make it into something that it wasn’t. There was a lot of fighting for virtually no power, but people playing it as if there were high stakes. They didn’t realize that getting control of the Food System would not actually give them access to the warehouse’s money. It looked tempting I’m sure to a lot of sectarian groups. There were folks from all kinds of groups who just showed up or started working at different stores. And of course, there were government infiltrators as well. There were folks who were just looking for information that they could use to disrupt things or provoke things. It was such an unsophisticated system and there were such complicated forces set against it. This was only a year or two before Reagan was elected. This was at the end of the period of the hopes and idealism of the late 60s and early 70s.”(117) While control of the Representative Body did not equal access to the cash flow going through the Warehouse, however the economic unity movement led increasingly in that direction.

Another group in the Food System was the White Panthers, with members in Veritable Vegetable and other collectives. The White Panther Party (WPP) in the Bay Area organized communal houses in San Francisco and Berkeley, as well as street fairs and free concerts. The core group consisted of a few dozen people. A feature of White Panther street fairs was a huge banner on which was written the entire Bill of Rights. Central leaders in the Bay Area were Tom Stevens and Larry Weissman, both in their early thirties. Weissman worked at the Warehouse. Shirley Freitas, the wife of Tom Stevens, worked at Veritable Vegetable. During the period that many core members of the Food Conspiracy left to work in the Food System collectives, the White Panther Party took over running a large part of the Conspiracy. WPP was also targeted by the FBI COINTELPRO program and was the subject of their warrantless wiretapping. Stevens served time in San Quentin prison following a 1974 shootout between the White Panthers and the San Francisco police. WPP claimed they were defending themselves against a violent, unconstitutional police raid on their home. Later they organized a campaign to try to recall then-mayor Diane Feinstein. John Sinclair, Lawrence Plamondon, and Leni Sinclair founded the White Panther Party in 1968 in Detroit in response to an interview in which Huey P. Newton suggested that white people could form a White Panther Party in support of the Black Panther Party. WPP dedicated its energies to anti-racist “cultural revolution.” A case against Sinclair and Plamondon for bombing a CIA office in Ann Arbor was thrown out of court because of illegal gathering of evidence. Plamondon and Sinclair defined the White Panthers as “fighting for a clean planet and the freeing of political prisoners.” Like the Black Panthers, they had a ten-point program:

White Panther State/meant

1. Full endorsement and support of the Black Panther Party’s 10-point program and platform.
2. Total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope, and fucking in the streets.
3. Free exchange of energy and materials—we demand the end of money!
4. Free food, clothes, housing, dope, music, bodies, medical care—everything free for everybody!
5. Free access to information media—free the technology from the greed creeps!
6. Free time & space for all humans—dissolve all unnatural boundaries!
7. Free all schools and all structures from corporate rule—turn the buildings over to the people at once!
8. Free all prisoners everywhere—they are our comrades!
9. Free all soldiers at once—no more conscripted armies!
10. Free the people from their phony “leaders”—everyone must be a leader—freedom means free everyone! All Power to the People!(118)

In many ways, the Food System and the West Coast food network were plums waiting to be picked. The natural and organic food movement, although in its early stages, already showed enormous potential, not only for changing the world, but for channeling large amounts of power, money, and energetic young activists. That was a great attraction to groups with radical political orientations looking for sources of power and income. While these entrist groups had many sincere and dedicated members, some had leaders with calculated and cynical motivations. The police and FBI were closely monitoring all Bay Area radical groups at that time. Provocateurs often intentionally spread internal strife and “bad jacketed” sincere leaders by rumor-mongering that they were the undercover agents.

The counterculture was at core a peaceful transformational movement primarily of young people, fueled by the inequities and injustices in American society, most emphatically by the Vietnam War and the draft. From its beginnings in the mid-1960s through the 1970s, the San Francisco Bay Area was ground zero for the countercultural movement. American politics had been shattered by a string of political assassinations: JFK in 1963, Malcolm X in ‘65, MLK and Robert Kennedy in ‘68. In the minds of many people, particularly working people, poor, young, and minorities, their murders left the country in deep despair about any possibility of progressive social change. Since the system had cut off social change from internal channels, it had to come from outside the system, if it was to come at all. Revolution was in the air, by any means possible, and a great debate resonated over what was possible. Many who thought they were involved in a nonviolent countercultural revolution, got swept up into the logic or illogic of ideologies. The Vietnam War was the watershed of the era; it was still raging during the construction phase of the food system movement and ended only with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

Most of the people in PFS who were concerned primarily with international issues came from the widely held perspective that the proper role for “white” revolutionaries was in solidarity, in playing assisting roles. This was the era of “solidarity politics” on the Left. While anarchists held that the general population could rise up at any particular moment and abolish social injustice, Marxists turned to theories of history and class development. Ever since the late nineteenth century when the industrial working class did not fulfill its “historical mission” of leading a successful uprising, Marxist revolutionaries had been looking around for a substitute vanguard. Revolutionary theory in the Marxist tradition had devolved into a bewildering variety of theories as to what group or groups would be the new vanguard: peasants, prisoners, students, women, African Americans, all people of color, etc. Che Guevara proposed that small, armed revolutionary bands establish beachheads in the mountains. Mao was all about mass struggle and people’s war. Ho Chih Minh represented Third World anti-colonial and anti-imperialist “national liberation struggles.”

The Black Panther Party reflected a Maoist perspective; their first serious fundraising project involved selling Mao’s Little Red Book at the UC Berkeley campus. However, according to Bobby Seale, the Black Panthers “didn’t evolve out of Marxism. In terms of the concept of economics at that time, what I developed best was a concept of community-controlled cooperatives in the Black community, which largely I picked up from W.E.B. Dubois.”(119)

During this decade anti-colonial “national liberation” struggles raged around the world. One of the keystones of their ideology was Frantz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth, which expounded the idea that “national liberation” struggles, the leading force in this era, were in essence socialist, and by their very nature would inevitably ultimately became Marxist revolutions. From this perspective, the primary role of progressive groups in the imperialist countries, led by the United States, was to support these efforts, as well as to support the struggles of minorities in the imperialist country. The world was surely finally throwing off the yoke of European colonialism, country by country. But what would replace it? This was still the era of the Cold War, and the “Socialist Bloc” tried to define the worldwide aspiration for social justice in terms of international power politics and competing economic-political systems.

The air in the Bay Area was thick with this stuff. You could easily have thought that a revolutionary cell was working out of every garage, by what you read in the papers. Meanwhile through the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) and related activities, agents were watching, surveilling, infiltrating, attempting to disrupt, discredit and destroy every progressive political group. In September, 1968, J. Edgar Hoover declared the Black Panther Party the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and focused government forces to destroy them. Hoover personally targeted the Panthers’ breakfast program for children for destruction, because it was giving the Panthers too good a reputation in the community. Among the numerous police agents infiltrated into the Panther Party were the security chiefs of the Chicago and L.A. branches. Later another FBI agent would become the head of security for the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.). In the early 1970s, many small radical and revolutionary groups were operating in the Bay Area, and agents worked in most of them.

At the time, California had an “indeterminate sentencing” system, by which prisoners with good behavior could get an early release, particularly if they had a job waiting for them on the outside. Judges would give defendants sentence ranges and parole boards would decide when to release prisoners. This was based on the philosophy that the state should do more than just punish offenders and prepare them for more constructive lives through education. Some of the more progressive collectives in the People’s Food System offered jobs to former prisoners, including Ma Revolution, Veritable Vegetable, and the Warehouse. According to Nina Saltman of the Warehouse, “We were providing jobs and it was a good way for ex-cons to get back into the system. We also brought in ex-political prisoners, a number of people who had escaped from Chile, ‘illegals’. We had jobs, and who better to give them to?”(120)

However, there was a dangerous downside: along with the ex-prisoners came the prisoner organizations.


114. Storefront Extension 7 (November 1975): 2-4.
115. Paula Giese, “How the Old Co-ops Went Wrong,” Storefront Extension 5 (September 8, 1975); North Country Anvil 11 (May 1974), 12 (July, 1974) and (September 1974); Lindenfels and Rothschild-Whitt, Workplace Democracy and Social Change.
116. Geri Spieler, Taking Aim At The President (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 140.
117. Interview with Paul Kivel, recorded July 11, 2011.
118. John Sinclair, “White Panther Statement,” Guitar Army, Fifth Estate (1968): 105.
119. Spartacus Educational, “Bobby Seale, interviewed by CNN in August 1996”
120. Interview with Nina Saltman, recorded June 20, 2011.

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