Tribal Thumb’s Attack on the People’s Food System

Historical Essay

by John Curl, Part Eleven 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”


Earl Satcher under arrest in the mid-1970s. There's a lot of circumstantial evidence that indicates he had a cooperative relationship with federal authorities.

“I envy you. You North Americans are very lucky. You are fighting the most important fight of all—you live in the heart of the beast.”
—Che Guevara, 1964

Until 1977, very few people in the People’s Food System would have recognized the names Earl Satcher and the Tribal Thumb. Satcher never belonged to any of the collectives or co-ops. But he had an enormous impact on the fate of the organization.

A mainstream glimpse into the Bay Area’s radical netherworld in that era is provided by the cover article of Time magazine, Oct. 6, 1975, entitled, “Radicals: California’s Underground.” The immediate impetus for the article was two recent attempts on President Gerald Ford’s life in San Francisco, and the bizarre saga of Patty Hearst and the [[:|Symbionese Liberation Army]]. It does not even mention the Black Panther Party, founded in Oakland but by that time decimated by the FBI and police. The article draws sketches from federal and state “dossiers” of a number of small revolutionary groups operating in the Bay Area, including the Tribal Thumb: “Tribal Thumb. With 25 members, predominantly men, the group is centered in Palo Alto. Its leader is Earl Satcher, a reputed black karate expert and ex-con with an 18-year criminal record. When some members were arrested for parole violations recently, they were found to have quantities of revolutionary tracts. But one member said that the pamphlets were for show; he asserted that the organization sought money from radicals but actually is chiefly interested in nonrevolutionary crime.”(121)

Satcher founded Tribal Thumb in Long Beach, California in the early 1970s. In a letter to the Berkeley Barb of August 8, 1975, he expounded on what he claimed to be the Thumb’s aims, although the rhetoric may have been mostly a smoke screen for a very different agenda: “[T]he dangerous task of bringing down oppression in all its forms yet prevails and we intend to participate in destroying it. Our regards to all the strong men, women and children fighting to attain the new world.”(122)

According to an article in Grassroots, a Berkeley community newspaper, Satcher, about thirty-five years old at the time of the Food System incidents, had a criminal record dating back to 1960.(123) While imprisoned on charges of auto theft and armed robbery, he apparently became politicized, or picked up the language of the revolutionary movement. Released from prison in the mid-’60s, he got involved in the Black Panthers and attracted the attention of the FBI, which asked the Department of Corrections to keep them informed of his movements. In 1969, Satcher joined forces with Bennie S., who had also served time and later worked for Veritable Vegetable.

During the 1960s, many Black Panther leaders were imprisoned, and articulate convicts such as George Jackson became radicalized while in prison. This resulted in the Left tending to idealize all prisoners as vanguard revolutionaries. A widespread slogan of the time stated, “All prisoners are political prisoners.” Satcher insinuated that he was a friend of George Jackson and San Quentin Six member Hugo Pinell, and belonged to the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), but none of that was apparently true. Far from it. The Black Guerrilla Family was an African-American prisoner organization, which George Jackson and others founded in 1966 at San Quentin State Prison, with a revolutionary Marxist ideology and the stated goals of eradicating racism, maintaining dignity in prison, and overthrowing the government.(124) BGF and Tribal Thumb became bitter rivals.

Meanwhile, a number of ex-convicts got jobs at Ma Revolution. According to Katherine Fusek of Ma Revolution, “Many of these people who were involved with the prison movement were very articulate and intelligent. Some of them worked at our store, then they’d bring a friend of theirs who was part of the prison movement. They had been very politicized while they were in prison. They were young. They saw some of the bigger picture. They were trying to educate us that all prisoners are political prisoners, and we were starting to get that kind of talk at our collective meetings. It got a little difficult, because some of it didn’t seem to fit. Some people wanted to just deal with accessibility to food, and support the small farmers and venders, and didn’t want to enlarge that mission.”(125) Among the people who had been political activists while in prison, and then joined the Ma Revolution collective, was Willie Sundiata Tate, who had actually been a member of the San Quentin Six and truly a close friend of George Jackson. Tate and the others in his group were well aware of the history and reality behind Satcher’s Tribal Thumb.

A Berkeley Barb article reported: “Although it is not clear whether Tribal Thumb was a provocative outfit deliberately set up by police agencies as part of some covert COINTELPRO-style war on the local Left, there is no question that the group’s actions benefited police red squads and the Right wing. It is suggestive that at several crucial points in Tribal Thumb’s history, the intervention of FBI agents and police officials either enabled the group to continue operating or helped it accomplish tasks which ultimately had a devastating effect on radical political organizations.”(126)

In 1972, federal agencies intervened in a parole revocation proceeding against Satcher, allowing him to remain out and relocate to Northern California. The following year, Satcher, living with a group in a Berkeley apartment, organized a robbery of the local Bank of America, apparently to raise funds for the organization. Doing the actual robbery were six women, with Satcher as the getaway driver. But he failed to show up in front of the bank; the robbers fled on foot and were quickly arrested. Satcher was caught with all the loot. But the FBI reported that they lost all the evidence against him, and again he was released. The five women were convicted and sent to federal prison. He set up headquarters at Honeydew ranch in Mendocino county, where he began a business of raising Arabian horses, and which the Tribal Thumb used as a retreat.

In 1974 several Tribal Thumb members became involved in the United Prisoners Union (UPU), where they spread rumors that its chairman, Popeye Jackson, was a police agent, without any evidence, causing harsh internal disruption. Meanwhile, the FBI assigned an agent named Sara Jane Moore to infiltrate UPU. Her FBI “control agent” was Burt Worthington and her San Francisco police department primary contact was Inspector Jack O’Shea. Moore brought Popeye Jackson an offer from Randolph Hearst to pay for his son to go to school in exchange for information about the SLA. According to the New York Times, Moore also claimed to have loaned Jackson $2,000 and let him use her car.(127) Jackson reportedly turned down Hearst’s offer. Meanwhile, up at Honeydew Ranch, Thumb members were learning marksmanship from undercover FBI agent Walter Hansacker, their weapons instructor, including how to fire the pistol that one of them would use on June 8, 1975, to assassinate Jackson around the corner from Moore’s apartment.

The local police found the barrel of the murder weapon at the scene; a Tribal Thumb member turned the rest of the pistol over to undercover agent Hansacker.(128) But for the next eight months, the FBI withheld the hot weapon from police investigating the case. They finally turned it over, the police put the pieces together and charged a Tribal Thumb member with the murder. The Grand Jury named five other Thumb members as co-conspirators, including Bennie S., a woman named E.P., and a man named Gary Johnson, but charges were never filed against them. Johnson was actually another FBI agent. The killer was convicted.

That summer, E.P., one of the un-indicted co-conspirators, moved in with Moore, and both of them spent time at the Thumb’s Honeydew Ranch. At some point during that period, Moore apparently did a bipolar flip: she turned on her employers. On September 22, 1975 in front of the downtown St. Francis Hotel, she attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford. The Assistant U.S. Attorney in charge of the case “refused to confirm or deny the information about the relationship” between Moore and Tribal Thumb.(129) The investigation began and ended with Moore, the most probable reason being the deep involvement of the FBI. Once again, the government let Satcher and the Thumb off the hook.

At that point, the Tribal Thumb apparently set their sights on the People’s Food System. In addition to providing a power base, the Food System offered a ready source of legitimate income and jobs waiting for other associates when they got out of prison. Convicts could get early release on parole if they had a job waiting. The ex-prisoners at Ma Revolution, along with some of the other Food System workers, knew the truth about the Tribal Thumb and their actions against the United Prisoners’ Union, and suspected that Satcher intended to use Tribal Thumb’s foothold in PFS, in alliance with the White Panthers, to take over the Food System.(130)

The Thumb got their first foothold into the Food System through a small vegetarian restaurant called Wellsprings Communion, which was run by a collective. It was listed in the 1976 and ‘77 editions of the Directory of Collectives. It was founded by Herb Jager until he was threatened and driven out when Tribal Thumb took control. Wellsprings was incorporated by three members of the Tribal Thumb as a charitable and educational nonprofit corporation. Unlike any of the Food System nonprofits, they actually received tax-exempt status from the State. Their reported purposes were “to operate a food service providing 1) at-cost nutritionally balanced meals to people of limited income—the handicapped, welfare recipients and their children, the unemployed, the elderly and prisoners; 2) job training for the unemployed in food service; 3) instruction in food cultivation, preparation, nutrition, and health.”(131)

A number of Tribal Thumb members, most of them ex-convicts, worked at Wellsprings. Also working there were members of the White Panthers. They got most of their produce through Veritable Vegetable. With the help of the White Panthers, they were able to land jobs for two Tribal Thumb members—Bennie S. and “Red”—at Veritable Vegetable, which at that time was seeking to involve ex-prisoners and other working-class people in their collective.(132)

Wellsprings tried to get accepted into the Food System but was rejected because restaurants were outside their purview and many of the Food System workers who were aware of Tribal Thumb sensed danger.

After a while, food deliveries began to disappear from various stores, and some Food System workers suspected that the Tribal Thumb members inside Veritable Vegetable might be diverting goods from the stores to Wellsprings Communion.(133) Veritable Vegetable workers had easy access to most Food System co-ops because they delivered the produce. But no concrete proof ever surfaced.

Many of the former prisoners at both Ma Revolution and Veritable Vegetable were furloughed under the same San Quentin prison work program, but some at Ma Revolution were connected with the Black Guerrilla Family, while those at Veritable were part of the Thumb. The tension between the ex-prisoner groups polarized the Veritable Vegetable and Ma Revolution collectives.

Meanwhile, Veritable Vegetable was having cash flow problems, and fell behind in their rent at the Food Factory building. They blamed it in part on Ma Revolution, claiming that Ma was the only collective not paying them on time, and was showing a lack of solidarity by continuing to buy some of their produce at the Farmers Market instead of exclusively from Veritable. Ma Revolution had quite a large volume, so it was significant for Veritable.(134) At the same time, some collective members in other Food Factory groups began to demand that Veritable catch up on their rent or leave the building.(135) The Veritable Vegetable collective thought they saw the hand of Ma Revolution behind that demand. Others in the Food System thought that the White Panther Party, allied with Tribal Thumb, was trying to take over Veritable Vegetable, and didn’t want to work with them because of it. The White Panthers apparently remained in naïve denial about the Tribal Thumb throughout the events.

On April 17, 1977, the Food System convened a system-wide All-Workers’ Conference, originally scheduled to discuss the Basis of Unity, but the burning issue of the moment took over the agenda, the escalating conflict between Ma Revolution and Veritable Vegetable.

According to Nina Saltman of the Warehouse, who chaired the fateful meeting, “Many at the warehouse thought the Food System was being targeted. There was a lot of suspicion. Part of what that meeting was about was who’s really real and who’s really an agent. There were other people who were on the fringes of the Food System, who were they, where did they come from? We clearly thought there was some attempt to break us up, to make us less functional, both before and after the shooting. It was obvious there was something going on.”(136)

Paul Kivel of Earthwork saw it from a different perspective: “Those who were grappling for power one way or another in the Food System wanted it to succeed, because that was the power they were trying to gain. They had no interest in destroying the Food System; they were working to control it, to gain control over aspects of it, over the resources, so in that sense I would say it was collateral damage.”(137)

Some Veritable Vegetable members came to the April 17 meeting with several outsiders—Tribal Thumb members who wanted to act as “observers” during the conference, including Earl Satcher. The women doing security at the door told them they couldn’t enter, but they pushed their way inside. Satcher and the others demanded to be allowed to participate and were twice refused permission by the chair of the meeting.

Satcher insisted that he “had the right to stay.” An overwhelming majority of the Food System workers present voted to expel them, but they still refused to leave. A shouting match broke out. A Food System worker began to snap pictures of the Tribal Thumb members. Satcher confronted the photographer and offered to buy the film. The man refused. Tribal Thumb members began to surround him; the photographer bolted for the door. Tribal Thumb members began punching Food System workers and struggled with the photographer over the camera, which was passed to a female worker. She ran away with it, but was tackled by “Red,” who opened the camera, took out the film, and hurried to Satcher with it. The entire Tribal Thumb-Veritable Vegetable group then left immediately. The rest of the Food System meeting was spent discussing the disruption. A resolution was passed to suspend Bennie S., one of the Veritable Vegetable-Tribal Thumb members involved in the fight.

Shortly afterward, Tribal Thumb issued an “Open Statement” in which it accused the Food System of “lynch-mob behavior” and “fascism,” and suggested that the PFS workers who opposed them were police agents: “It is overwhelmingly evident that the only body that has reason to fear Earl Satcher or anyone connected with him [is] the SYSTEM, its agents and its provocateurs!”(138)

On April 21, the following Thursday, the Representative Body met and confirmed the All-Workers Conference’s suspension of Bennie S. Veritable Vegetable tentatively agreed to the suspension but later refused to cooperate in an investigation.

On April 26 a special RB meeting was convened at the Warehouse, to discuss the possibility of expelling Veritable Vegetable from the Food System. Many people from the Veritable collective attended the special meeting. Satcher appeared at the door, accompanied by two Doberman guard dogs and another Tribal Thumb member, claiming they were there to provide protection to Bennie S. After unsuccessfully attempting to gain entrance, they waited outside while the debate over the suspension went on upstairs.

According to one account, Tribal Thumb members of the Veritable Vegetable contingent became disruptive, refused to recognize the chair, tried to change the agenda, and refused to go along with RB decisions. The meeting took a short break to allow Veritable Vegetable to caucus before the issue was to be brought to a vote. As they broke, the entire Veritable Vegetable contingent started downstairs, presumably to speak with Satcher.(139)

At this moment, a car with Willie Tate and three other people, two of them Ma Revolution workers, pulled up near the warehouse door. As Tate approached the entrance, Satcher began firing a pistol at him. Tate, unarmed, fell to the ground, wounded. Answering fire came from some unidentified source. Several volleys were exchanged. In the end, Satcher lay dead and Tate critically wounded. All the Tribal Thumb members fled.

The police arrived within seconds, as if they had just happened to be passing by or were waiting around the corner. The three who had come with Tate were arrested and charged with Satcher’s murder. All were eventually freed for lack of evidence. No Tribal Thumb member was ever arrested or charged. Tate recovered.

In the wake of the shootout, police and DA investigators harassed Food System workers. The Warehouse office was ransacked in the middle of the night. Health inspectors swooped down on the Warehouse, searching for health code violations. Food System energy was channeled into a defense fund for the workers in jail. Key workers abruptly left. Rumors abounded. Various people were suspected of being provocateurs.

Two weeks after the shootout the Representative Body told Veritable Vegetable to leave the Food System and initiated a boycott of the organization.(140)

The Food System immediately sank into a period of decline. Several collectives stopped attending meetings; many food activists were scared off, leading to the collapse of some collectives. The effect was greatest and most immediate on Ma Revolution. Its windows were boarded up and workers poured much energy into getting their co-workers out of jail. The community reacted with estrangement. Many were afraid to shop there, and sales fell off by a third. The store was unable to pay any of its bills or borrow more money and went bankrupt in August of that year. Several other collectives soon fell. The Flatlands store and the Oakland Community Food Store had always been out of touch with their communities, key workers left, nobody remaining knew how to run a store, and the customers stopped coming. According to Morris Older, “certainly there were people who by their actions hastened the disintegration of various collectives and of the Food System as a whole. Most workers felt that the disruption of the Food System that had occurred was the work of police agents.”(141)

The Representative Body ceased meeting. A planning committee drew up a new simplified Basis of Unity that was approved by a worker’s convention in May 1978. But by then, the energy that had sustained the Food System as an organization was gone.

After the debacle at the Warehouse, Tribal Thumb members disappeared from Veritable Vegetable and from town almost overnight. Most of the Veritable collective quit, but three courageous women held on to Veritable Vegetable’s core purposes and values throughout this terrible period, toughed it out, stayed firm, picked up the pieces that were left, and took over the company.(142) With the guidance of Mary Jane Evans, Karen Salinger and Bu Nygrens, Veritable Vegetable rose from the ashes and became a wonderful women-run enterprise.


121. Time Magazine, Oct. 6, 1975
122. “Satcher Replies to BGF,” Berkeley Barb, August 8, 1975, 4.
123. The Rabble Rousers, “Murder, Bank Robbery, and the People’s Food System,” Grassroots, July 15, 1981, 5.
124. Wikipedia, “Black Guerrilla Family”
125. Interview with Kathleen Fusek, recorded May 13, 2011.
126. Imilla Cabral and Bill Wallace, “Get those crazy people off the streets!” Berkeley Barb 28, no. 7 (January 4, 1979): 12.
127. Tom Buckley, “For Sara Moore, Brilliant Roles Enriched a Drab Life,” New York Times, December 21, 1975, 32.
128. Cabral and Wallace, “Off the streets!”
129. Tom Buckley, “For Sara Moore.”
130. Imilla Cabral and Bill Wallace, “Showdown and Shootout,” Berkeley Barb 28, no. 6, December. 21, 1978, 8.
131. “Articles of Incorporation of Wellsprings-Communion, Incorporated,” January 6, 1977. Franchise Tax Board tax exemption issued January 6, 1977.
132. The Rabble Rousers, 5.
133. Cabral and Wallace, “Showdown and Shootout.”
134. Interview with Mary Jane Evans, recorded July 25, 2011.
135. Interview with Morris Older, recorded July 30, 2011.
136. Interview with Nina Saltman, recorded June 20, 2011.
137. Interview with Paul Kivel, recorded July 11, 2011.
138. Cabral and Wallace, “Off the Streets!”
139. Cabral and Wallace, “Showdown and Shootout.”
140. Ibid.
141. Older, “People’s Food System,” 43.
142. Interview with Mary Jane Evans, recorded July 25, 2011.

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