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Feeding Frenzy 

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

Wednesday, Mar 26 2003
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"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.

"Get JOBS instead of protesting!" shouted a plump, peroxide-blond woman, hanging out of a white car.

At Fifth and Mission, a big group blocked traffic, and had dragged newspaper boxes into the intersection to form a barricade. Large squads of police, in riot gear, were arranging themselves on the sidelines, but hadn't yet moved in. The Food Not Bombs foursome held out sandwiches as people marched past chanting, but found few takers. Eleven o'clock was still a bit early for lunch, apparently.

Over at the Federal Building, things were tense. A "puke-in" had been staged earlier on the steps, which bore piles of barf. It looked like the vomiters had imbibed food coloring beforehand, since the puke was faintly tinted red, white, and blue. A chain of protesters stood with linked arms, blocking the entrance, while a group of federal employees waited on the other side of the street, watching with expressions that ranged from bemusement to boredom. They had been standing there since 9 a.m.

A woman employee in a camel-colored sweater dress and gold cross stood next to the protesters, so she could be the first one in when the police broke them up.

"Get the hell away from me, and leave me alone," she yelled.

"Nobody wants to touch you," one of the protesters said gently.

"That's what you're gonna do. That's what you're gonna do," she insisted angrily. "You're gonna put your hands on me, touch me in any kinda way, you're gonna find out what day it is today!"

The Food Not Bombs group offered water to the human chain, but only a few took it.

"Wait," said DeAntonis, eyeing a cup of water that had just been poured. "That one has a hair in it."

Sure enough, an eyelash-sized hair was floating on the surface. "We don't want to sacrifice our reputation," she said. Even amid the chaos of the protests, Food Not Bombs wanted to be clean and professional.

Just as the food deliverers were leaving, yelling erupted from the protesters. A phalanx of cops barreled out of the Federal Building, plunged through the line of protesters, and began dragging away as many as they could.

Satisfied that nobody was getting his head whacked with a billy club, DeAntonis and the group rode away. They pedaled through the Tenderloin and stopped at St. Boniface, a beautiful pink-and-yellow Franciscan church on a particularly blighted stretch of Golden Gate Avenue. The pastor was allowing protesters to use St. Boniface as a gathering spot. As one of her group ran in to use the bathroom, DeAntonis surveyed the depressing scene across the street, where a dozen young and middle-aged black people slumped on the pavement. Their movements were the slowed, awkward motions of the very drunk or the very high, and swarms of pigeons bobbed around them on the filthy pavement. The smell of urine was pungent, even inside the church courtyard.

"I just feel like what we're doing is pointless," said DeAntonis, looking across the way. "We should be giving food to these people. The protesters don't even want it."

"It's still early yet," replied Wertheim.

DeAntonis handed out a few sandwiches to the people across the street.

Her group then distributed the rest of their sandwiches on Market Street, where protesters had gathered into a huge, loud mass, blocking traffic for several blocks. In front of the Old Navy store, people chanted, "Stop the Shopping! Bombs Are Dropping!" About 50 cops tried to break up the crowd, but they themselves became hemmed in.

"We have you surrounded! Resistance is futile!" yelled a protester, tongue-in-cheek.

The group biked back to the cookhouse, where they met Mike Benham and a guy who goes by the name Keeeth. He and Benham know each other from cooking Food Not Bombs dinners together every Friday at Keeeth's house in the Panhandle. A trim 43-year-old with many silver hoop earrings and a goatee, Keeeth had piled his bike trailer high with water bottles. The others carted cardboard bowls, plastic utensils, and buckets of hot food onto the sidewalk to pack up. There was Spanish rice, tofu-vegetable stir-fry, and some undercooked-yet-burned black beans that everyone agreed were best left behind.

By the time the expanded group hit Market, the protesters had moved up to Van Ness Avenue. Unable to unload their food before half the marchers had passed by, the Food Not Bombs members joined the parade themselves. They stopped occasionally to hand out Luna bars and tortilla chips.

It was 3:30, and many protesters were hungry. "Oh thank you! Thank you!" cried out person after person, plunging their hands into plastic bags of tortilla chips.

"Oh no," groaned Keeeth, as the march took an unexpected right on California Street. The activists got off their bikes and pushed their heavy loads of food and water up the hill.

At California and Polk, a line of cable cars idled, and a few drivers let protesters ring the cable car bells. The bell ringers were euphoric and the drivers smiled back at them, tickled by their childlike joy.

One of the Food Not Bombs members suggested getting ahead of the march, and the bikers raced up to the Ritz-Carlton. There they leaned their bikes against the wall surrounding the hotel and unpacked their supplies before the marchers arrived.

When they did, there was a run on the bottled water. Mike and Keeeth scooped out Spanish rice and tofu stir-fry into drinking cups and passed it out. It wasn't long before all the water was gone, and the Food Not Bombs group filled the last thirsty marchers' cups with their own personal stash. By the time the final stragglers had passed, the cups were scraping the bottom of the plastic buckets.

A few extra-hungry protesters stayed behind, eating seconds. For an ebullient moment, the Food Not Bombs group basked in the glow of empty food containers and looked forward to a lighter ride back to headquarters.

"It was just what they wanted," said Benham, smiling. "They were thinking, "Man, I wish I had some Spanish rice right now.' And there it was! Spanish rice!"

About The Author

Lessley Anderson

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