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Tangled Roots and Bitter Fruit: What Ferguson and New York Can Teach the Food Movement

Facing up to the complex issues of race, fear, and inequality is at the vital center of all efforts to combat injustice

Recent events in Ferguson and New York City should remind all those committed to social change that dismantling racism isn’t optional. (Photo: Nathan Congleton/flickr/cc)

The public outcry following the decisions of grand juries in Missouri and New York not to indict police officers for the homicide of black men reaches across color lines.

The rage and exasperation in the streets are just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the protests sweeping the country, grief, sadness and disillusion are seeping into the hearts and minds of many people who may not be the target of police violence but who know a miscarriage of justice when they see it—over and over again. There is guilt and fear too, among those who sense the police have gone too far, too many times, and that the widespread militarization of our police forces since 9/11 is making us less, rather than more secure.

"We can’t have a just judicial system, or an impartial law enforcement system, or build a sustainable food system on the foundation of an oppressive social and economic system."

In Ferguson Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson used his own fear as his defense in the flawed grand jury proceedings that saved him from indictment. The white policeman based his defense on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in Tennessee v. Garner, which states that "deadly force...may not be used unless necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious bodily harm to the officer or others." Fear of a "demonic" black man charging through a volley of bullets, he explained, drove him—a veteran police officer—to fire six rounds into the body and then the head of an unarmed, seriously wounded teenager who by different counts was anywhere from ten to thirty feet away and did or did not have his hands up, did or did not charge the officer...

In Staten Island, New York, the use of an illegal chokehold by officer Daniel Pantaleo was determined to be the cause of death for Eric Garner, an unarmed African-American man who was suspected of a misdemeanor (selling loose cigarettes). In this case the events were filmed and are irrefutable: Garner, visible upset at what he considered police harassment had his hands up and was surrounded by four policemen when Pantaleo threw the choke on him from behind, taking him to the ground. Garner’s pleas, “I can’t breathe… I can’t breathe…” went ignored. When he was unconscious, white police officers made no effort to resuscitate him or save his life. While we do not have access to the grand jury proceedings that failed to indict Daniel Pantaleo, it is likely he used the same defense: fear.

Fear is no excuse for murder. But whether one believes their story or not, the policemen’s fear is not imaginary. It is the foundational terror of apartheid.

Apartheid in South Africa (1948-1984) was the systemic oppression of the black majority to protect the privileges of the white minority. There are, however, many forms of apartheid. They all require violence and the abuse of civil and human rights. Inherent within apartheid is the minority's fear that they will lose their privilege, exposing them to retaliation and revenge. For apartheid, law enforcement—in the streets and in the courtroom—is supposed to ensure this does not happen.

Comparing our society to apartheid is so repugnant as to be almost incomprehensible… except to the African-American communities suffering from unparalleled and disproportionate levels of violence and incarceration; or to the immigrant communities who pick our crops and process, cook and serve our food, yet have the highest levels of food insecurity in the nation; or to the underserved communities of color whose poor wages, poor schools and poor diet have resulted in an epidemic of diet-related diseases.

Unlike the South African apartheid regime, in the United States there is no official policy sanctioning the separation and oppression of people on the basis of race. But by 2050 people of color will be the majority in this country. If the war on young black men and women and on immigrants continues, and if the widening wealth gap and the “privatization of everything” proceed apace, the über-privileged minority will indeed have recreated the social and material conditions of apartheid. Unless we all work to stop it, our legal and political institutions will be swept into the project.

The morning after the general prosecutor’s late-night announcement a colleague of mine came to our Oakland office to discuss possible research projects. Dr. Amie “Breeze” Harper is a young, accomplished author and blogger. Educated at Dartmouth, she holds advanced degrees from Harvard and the University of California. She is African-American and mother of three young children. We tried to talk about work that would highlight and inform the challenges communities of color face in providing healthy, affordable food for those that need it most. We tried, but the murder of young black men by the police in Ferguson and Oakland kept invading our thoughts. “I just keep thinking about my father, my brother and my son,” she said, gazing off, her voice dropping slightly. I choked up, overcome with sadness and anger.

We both know what many food justice activists have felt for a long time—that all the organic carrots and farmers markets in the world are not going to end hunger unless we also end racism. Not just the racism inherent to our food system, but its pervasiveness in the food movement itself.

As a person of mixed heritage I know that racism has tangled roots: white privilege, internalized oppression, violence, fear, guilt, grief. I also know that while it is structural, it is also visceral, bound up in our psyche and our emotions, hard to get at and painful to work through. This is why many people in the food movement choose not to address it. They are afraid that addressing racism is just too hard, too complicated and too messy. They’re afraid that bringing up the issues of oppression and privilege will end up dividing the movement rather than strengthening it. They’re afraid. They are also mistaken.

The bitter fruit of Ferguson and New York should remind all those committed to social change that dismantling racism isn’t optional. Neither is it work that takes us away from other more important tasks. We can’t have a just judicial system, or an impartial law enforcement system, or build a sustainable food system on the foundation of an oppressive social and economic system.

Dismantling racism isn’t extra work. It is the work.

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Eric Holt-Giménez

Eric Holt-Giménez

Eric Holt-Giménez, Ph.D. is a food system researcher and agroecologist. He is the Executive Director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy. His most recent books are: "Can We Feed the World Without Destroying It?" (2019), and "A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat" (2017).

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