Self-Critique Of Brooklyn's Community Feeding Program
by Orlando Green
“Some people talk a lot about communism, but the people can’t understand and progress to the stage of communism right away or because of abstract arguments. They say you got to crawl before you can walk. And the Black Panther Party, as the vanguard party, thought that the Breakfast for Children programs was the best technique of crawling that any vanguard party could follow. And we got a whole lot of folks that’s going to be walking. And then a whole lot of folks that’s going to be running.” -Fred Hampton, Chicago Chapter of the original Black Panther Party
The Peoples’ Community Feeding Program, in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy, was run by two young revolutionary grassroots formations, Forever In Struggle Together (FIST) and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM). The BI-weekly program took place on alternate Sundays at Brooklyn’s Slave Theater. Approximately 150 meals are shared on these days. Although we ran the program for three years, serious contradictions developed that will help us on how we’ll be successful in the future with these “serve the people” or “survival” programs. It is important for both the organizers and community to critically examine these efforts together. By doing this, we insure that our people will be moving ahead in the most successful of methods possible to achieve freedom and self-determination..
Before we go on, let’s briefly touch into several points as to why survival programs are important components for movements coming out of our communities: 1) as we create a new society we need to meet the needs of our people, 2) we need to keep the oppressors and their reactionaries from co-opting the struggle by doing such programs to pacify our communities, 3) it shows us how to run our own communities without the state, 4) we provide assistance for organizers that get involved too, 5) keeps our communities “afloat” until the revolution, 6) the political education of our communities (and activist) increases with our interaction with them. They get to understand the FIST and Malcolm X Grassroots Movement programs through direct interaction and not in an abstract way.
The use of community programs, to build peoples’ power, has it’s origins in Maoist strategy. The Chinese Revolution, under the leadership of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, had very important features that inspired many revolutionary and national liberation struggles around the world. One of the key methods towards successful and meaningful struggle is the adoption of community programs as it‘s outlined in Mao’s “Be Concerned with the Well-Being of the Masses” speech in 1934. In this important speech, Mao lays out that everybody concerned with revolutionary struggle must investigate the needs of the community and struggle to meet those needs to develop the masses’ commitment to the struggle.
Both FIST and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement recognized that the feeding program should evolve into something that will provide more than just food every two weeks. While we acknowledged the need for struggling against hunger in our underdeveloped communities, both groups were committed to the building of structures that would have a protracted effect on the people to develop revolution and self-sufficiency. There were plans to add parts to the feeding that dealt with homelessness, jobs, and drug and alcohol addictions too.
Additionally, the feeding program could have functioned as a forum in which politics relevant to the community would be openly discussed. Why does hunger and economic underdevelopment in our community resemble the statistics of third world countries? We intended to distribute forms of political education that would have contributed important information to the community. Aside from just feeding a segment of the community, there was a principled intention of connecting the issue of hunger to white state capitalism and how it connects with other issues like police brutality, welfare and economic strangulation. SELF-CRITIQUE OF OUR EFFORT AND SURVIVAL PROGRAMS IN GENERAL
What is the relevance of these programs when they are done by groups professing to have nationalist or revolutionary politics?” Depending on the political objective, or practice, of the organizer, these programs can either sharpen the revolutionary consciousness of the people or end up pacifying and halting the peoples’ revolutionary spirit. Community programs by both the reformist and the government act only to halt the political development of the masses of people by confusing us that America is “alright.” The former is done unintentionally and the latter is done for that purpose. This can be seen with the history of the survival programs of the Black Panther Party and other grassroots organizations when they tried to advance the political level of the Black community by meeting these needs. The white ruling class and the government met this effort with counterintelligence programs like COINTELPRO and reactionary community programs to pull community support from the radical-based programs.
All of a sudden, the free breakfast program of the Panthers was challenged and replaced by the government. The state would provide meals for Black youth and try to confuse the development of their collective consciousness. State funding was made available to some non-profit organizations to replace left-wing intentioned community programs with liberal fascist initiatives.
The organizers of a “serve the people” program have to develop strategy that allows for them to exist, remain revolutionary, keep them from becoming reformist and useless to the long-term struggle. The organizers and the community have to be weary of the problems of 1) the limited resources that keep the program from running, 2) that the service doesn’t fall into the trap of not raising the political consciousness of both the community that it serves and the organizers, 3) how to qualitatively have the community take part in their own survival by sharing with them the responsibility of developing forms of socialist and community building oriented programs. These are only some of the questions and contradictions that has developed out of our three-year experiment. More challenging issues will arise as we advance the qualitative effect of these programs.
The feeding program effort failed to achieve an integrative relationship with the Black community of Central Brooklyn, where it was based. Although it was discussed, and efforts were made…the young collectives did not achieve the necessary component of acquiring food donations and substantial community volunteers that were not part of the organizations. Very few individuals contributed from the community and maintained a stable relationship with the program. In the past, survival programs by the Black Panther Party would acquire donated resources from local community food markets. We failed to acquire community volunteers from collectives from that community. The churches, temples and masjids were not actively supportive of our program. Among diverse reasons, there were cultural and ideological differences that did not allow activist to connect with these institutions. In other words…we did not try hard enough to develop a qualitative relationship with the community, connecting them to the program.
The feeding program itself ran in contradiction with church services on Sundays. With a majority of the religious community being Christian, it was almost impossible to compete with “God.” Religious institutions are not the only community collectives to work with, but they have historically been important in producing social movements in Black America. Even an atheist organization like the Black Panther Party had their first survival program out of St. Augustine’s Church in Oakland, California.
ALL POWER THRU THE PEOPLE!
If you remember what Fred Hampton said, “the people can’t understand and progress to the stage of communism right away or because of abstract arguments.” This is clear. The programs show our people how a communal, or socialist-oriented, society would operate in practice. This is what the proper community program can achieve in this stage of white supremacy and capitalism. Huey P. Newton said that the people learn through observation and participation. Through enough successful actions by the organizers, the Black community will observe communal behavior and become inspired to act in a similar matter. When the community participates in these successful actions and programs too, they will become personally and collectively empowered. This will lead them to a higher level of revolutionary consciousness that will propel the entire community forward.
In light of this understanding, certain things did not happen. The decision-making component of the feeding program was not integrative with the community. For FIST, the integration of the community into the work is important. This is expressed in the organization’s mission clarification where it expresses what they believe in. They state that they believe in, “The existence of democratic structures and institutions where the masses of our people actively participate in all decision-making processes of resource distribution and governance.” The participation of the community in decision and planning would have raised the level of impact that the program had. This would have integrated the people into the revolutionary process and sped up the development of both the program and the communities’ indigenous leadership.
There is qualitative difference between revolutionaries coming into a community to “meet the needs of the people” and revolutionaries developing methods of freedom WITH the people. Because of these things, I personally felt that the political development, commitment and discipline of the organizers were affected. Because the politics and program was not heightened, it became just a “feeding program.” It became somewhat COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY. The activist energy became “sapped” and the political components remained underdeveloped. Activist became dis-empowered. This was symptomatic in the lateness behaviors of the collectives and the further lack of information sharing. Methods of work became compromised. Micro-management became a bigger issue than political development. Both the management and politics are intertwined. HOW DO WE SERVE THE MASSES TODAY?
In the future we have to also question the type of community programs that we choose to undertake. We must be conscious that we consider developing new and relevant programs with the current landscape and situation in mind. The relevance of some programs in the past was heightened because nobody was doing it. A free breakfast program today has less impact for revolutionary organizations because the state does them in almost all inner city public schools. Almost all the past survival programs are still relevant today, but with the state providing many of these needs to politically halt resistance movements, the need for a new discussion on implementing strategy needs to be done.
The community is currently underdeveloped in both material conditions AND consciousness. Some survival programs that could deal with concrete conditions would entail food co-opts, health clinics, child care, drug rehabilitation, sickle cell anemia testing, computer literacy, police watches and legal education. The community could also consider consciousness-raising survival programs like peoples’ newspapers, activist training schools, gang unity programs, inter-cultural relations, spiritual development, and liberation summer schools. As the investigation of our communities goes further, the programs that are needed will present themselves. Needs and answers for both underdeveloped material conditions and mental consciousness will arise.
The questions concerning the “serve the people” programs will go on until the actual violent upheaval of capitalism and white supremacy. These programs will show Black people how to be self sufficient without being dependent on the white “mother country.” These acts of resistance are important for developing a revolution or a national liberation struggle. We can only struggle to answer each dilemma as they appear to us with purified hearts. With that I have to ask the community of Bed-Stuy to forgive our inexperience. There is no excuse for us not to have produced a better effort for our people…that we love.