Born in 1957, American activist Keith McHenry is one of the founding members of Food Not Bombs, a revolutionary movement that works for non-violent social change by serving surplus food to the public that would otherwise be thrown away or go to waste.
Established in 1980 by eight anti-nuclear activists in Boston, Food Not Bombs has served food to rescue workers responding to the attacks on 9/11, to survivors of Hurricane Katrina and the Asian Tsunami and to the tent city protestors during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Today there are over 1000 Food Not Bombs chapters in over 70 countries.
Ian Sinclair caught up with Keith after he spoke at the Peace News Winter Gathering in January.
IS: What is the philosophy behind Food Not Bombs?
KM: That the food is always free to anyone without restriction. That it is always vegan or vegetarian. That we are dedicated to non-violent social change. And that there are no leaders and each chapter is autonomous.
IS: Has your work with Food Not Bombs brought you in to conflict with the US Government?
KH: Early on in the Boston chapter of Food Not Bombs I was arrested around 20 or 30 times, mostly for gluing posters on poles, doing graffiti, or being at a protest and handing out fliers.
In San Francisco I was arrested over 105 times, and did over two years in jail. Mostly these charges were either for serving free food without a permit, or the felony of conspiracy to serve free food in violation of a court order.
I was beaten by the police about thirteen times while serving food in San Francisco… On one occasion I was clubbed between the eyes. I had to get two surgeries to repair my sinuses. I was also picked up three times by police intelligence officers in San Francisco… they threw me on the floor and ripped my clothes off and lifted me by my arms and legs until my tendons and ligaments started to tear. Then they stuck me in a tiny cage that was hanging from the ceiling - they called it the ‘K’ cell. Apparently it was the same size as the tiger cages the CIA used in Vietnam. I stayed in there in my underwear for three days for the first two times and four days for the third time. This has caused me to be permanently in pain as a result.
IS: Why do you think you have been arrested and spent so much time in jail for your work with Food Not Bombs?
KH: From what we have read in internal FBI memos and other documents defence contractors are extremely concerned that we will be effective in communicating to the public the logic that money should be diverted from the military toward human needs… when you have so much hunger, homelessness and poverty and you can see people out there collecting and serving food - doing something that theoretically shouldn’t need to be done because we are the wealthiest country on earth - the military contractors know they might lose support... I think this is why we are considered one of the top ten terrorist groups in America and why I have been listed on the State Department’s 100 most dangerous persons list.
IS: How would you describe your own politics?
KH: I’ve been an anarchist since 1965 when I read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Civil Disobedience… Also my great, great, great grandfather was James McHenry, who signed the Constitution and fought against the British…. through hearing about him when I was a kid I felt people could get together and create social change.
IS: What keeps you motivated through the tough times?
KH: Every once in a while I’ll meet a girlfriend or someone and they will say “Why don’t you take a break or do less” and then I tone it down for a while. But then I think about all these problems that are happening in society… I read articles about US policies in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or see strip mining in West Virginia, or I hear about inhumane treatment of immigrants and I feel I need to do something about that.
The other thing is that cooking and feeding people with Food Not Bombs is so inspiring. I hear people saying Food Not Bombs has changed their lives or I speak to mothers who say that we saved their family because we fed them.
IS: What do you make of Barack Obama?
KH: When Obama was appointed the Democratic Party candidate I already knew he had worked hard to keep universal healthcare from happening in Illinois, that he was a big booster of nuclear power and that he had voted not once, but twice, for the Patriot Act. So I was not optimistic he would be the change he was implying he would be. Then I read his website when he was running for President. He was advocating a dramatic increase in funding for the military and more soldiers…. said he would move the war in to Pakistan, and sure enough he has.
It’s a common tactic in America – to get in the harshest, most right-wing corporate agenda, you put in somebody like Bill Clinton, or in this case Obama. Obama is a clever pick because he is African-American and therefore builds up lots of hatred from the right. This is designed specifically to scare the left from critiquing Obama. But the reality is the policies of the Obama Administration are outrageous and we should be organising against them. That’s why I organised a two-month vigil outside the White House after he was elected called ‘The change we need now’.
Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. firstname.lastname@example.org.