Feeding Frenzy

Amid nervous cops and angry motorists, a squad of bike-riding activists delivered food to anti-war protesters

"People might be getting hungry," said the bearded man, dropping an armload of oranges into the box lashed to Nan Eastep's bike.

It was 8 a.m. last Thursday, the morning after war broke out with Iraq. Eastep stood outside a pink Edwardian in SOMA that was being used as a temporary cookhouse for Food Not Bombs, a Bay Area organization that prepares free vegetarian meals for the homeless and political activists.

In the living room, where punk rock posters were plastered on red walls, cardboard boxes packed with crackers, oranges, and sandwiches took up nearly every inch of floor space. A hairless white rat played in a cage, while the radio reported on the growing protests in the streets outside. In the kitchen, a woman with short gray hair stirred an enormous pot of black beans on the stove, while a second woman chopped carrots on an upside-down plastic bucket.

For months, Eastep, a 38-year-old clothing designer from West Oakland, had been attending anti-war meetings, preparing for a giant "day after" protest intended to seriously disrupt local businesses and traffic. The meetings brought together a host of Bay Area "affinity groups" -- from Stanford Students for Peace to the Pagans -- opposed to war with Iraq. The groups planned to use nonviolent tactics to tangle up San Francisco, halting traffic and blockading certain buildings. Among the targets were the Federal Building and the Bechtel Corp., the global heavy-construction company that many protesters regard as a war profiteer. Though some protesters were not willing to risk arrest, many were. Some had plans to lock their arms together with chains or PVC pipe in major intersections, forcing authorities to saw them apart one by one, a time-consuming process.

Her food basket filled, Eastep rode away in search of two girlfriends, who she suspected might be waiting for her at Justin Herman Plaza. When she reached Market Street, she found it jammed with protesters. She got off her bike and struggled to maneuver it around waves of people.

A few hours earlier, Justin Herman had swarmed with protesters arriving to meet up with their affinity groups. Now they were out protesting, and the plaza was nearly empty. Richard Lei, a long-haired Food Not Bombs volunteer stationed at the plaza, told Eastep she'd just missed her friends, who were en route to the cookhouse. He handed her a map of downtown San Francisco, with planned protest spots marked in pink highlighter.

"Could you check on a couple of these on your way over, and report back on what's going on?" he asked. "How many people are still there, what they need in the way of food?"

At 9 a.m., protesters in the downtown area didn't need much food. When Eastep hit the first highlighted spot on the map -- the Stockton tunnel -- nobody was there. Same story at the Pacific Stock Exchange. It looked like police had made the Financial District and adjacent areas a top priority, clearing out protesters right away.

At the intersection of Bush and Powell streets, a ring of about 30 protesters chanted, "Stop Bush and Powell!" But police had already captured the core group of traffic-blockers and were twist-tying their hands. Few protesters there wanted Eastep's oranges. Most were prepared for a long day, with food and water in backpacks. Eastep pedaled back to the cookhouse.

At New Montgomery and Market, where traffic had been blocked for some time, stalled motorists were testy. As Eastep walked her bike through the clot of protesters, a tall thirtysomething man with short black hair and an earring jumped out of his car.

"What the fuck are you doing this for, you assholes?" he screamed, swinging his fists wildly at demonstrators. They yelled back, "This is a nonviolent protest!"

"Can we get a camera on this guy?" called somebody as the man lunged at a bicyclist, knocking him off his bike.

Back at the cookhouse, Eastep's friends, Willow Rosenthal and Angelina DeAntonis, were waiting for her.

Rosenthal, a 31-year-old with Bettie Page bangs and severe librarian glasses, was loading French bread and black-bean-paste sandwiches onto her bike. She was gung-ho about distributing food to the masses. She works at a business training program for low-income women and, in her off hours, runs a mini organic farm in West Oakland. When Rosenthal first bought a weed-covered vacant lot, some residents of the nearly all-black neighborhood were skeptical of the raucous white girl who claimed to want to create a vegetable garden. But three years later, her farm is a reality and Rosenthal can't grow enough collard greens to keep up with neighbor demand.

Eastep and Rosenthal were joined by their pal DeAntonis, a delicate-looking pixie who also designs clothing for a living, and a San Francisco student named Steve Wertheim. The foursome excitedly headed out into SOMA, veering recklessly across Third Street in heavy traffic, trying to stay in a line.

At Fifth and Harrison, they came upon a roving band of bicycle protesters, who were riding round and round in a circle in the middle of the intersection, stopping traffic. Rosenthal handed out sandwiches as they passed, and the bikers screamed their thanks. Then a voice boomed through a megaphone, "Bicycles, we have a lawful order to disperse." The bikes zipped away down Fifth.

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