Get the Lead Out – Sunflowers love Heavy Metal

Dumbfounded, I watched the toxic sunflowers sail over the fence — seeds, heads, stalks, and all. It was one more comic moment in the struggle to bring phytoremediation, the use of green plants to clean up toxic soil, out of the laboratory and into the hands of backyard and community gardeners. I hopped the fence, collected the plants from the empty lot, and routed them towards their proper new home, Milwaukee’s lined landfill.

Using sunflowers to clean lead out of soil has become popular in activist gardener circles, thanks in part to widely-publicized efforts by Common Ground volunteers in post-Katrina New Orleans. This past fall I visited two current phytoremediation (“fido-ree-mee-diation”) projects, and spoke with one of the founders of the 2006 Common Ground sunflower campaign. These activists are tackling soil toxicity head-on by growing sunflowers in lead-contaminated soil, harvesting them after the plants have sucked up some of the heavy metal, and disposing of them like hazardous waste. With every crop the soil gets cleaner.

Low-tech, low-cost tools for Do-It-Yourself soil remediation are desperately needed, and bioremediation might be the key: many plants, mushrooms, and bacteria can be used to take up toxic metals like arsenic and mercury, and break down organic chemicals like pesticides and diesel fuel. Traditional cleanup methods include removing toxic soil and putting it in a landfill or chemically washing it, techniques that are expensive, wasteful, and rarely benefit poor people. Lead in particular is a problem in urban areas where as much as twenty percent of children might face lower IQ’s, attention deficit disorders, and behavioral problems from high exposure. Furthermore, communities organizing to build food security need to restore soils full of leaded house paint, gasoline, and battery remains.

Phytoremediation is not new, but transferring the available research into good guidelines for smaller, DIY projects is tricky. For more than 20 years, capitalist heavyweights like the United States Military, Dow Chemical, Chevron, and Ford have been investing in the field. Most research has been done in controlled laboratory conditions, not in field experiments that reflect nature’s great variety. The published case studies that do exist are mostly industrial scale and report mixed results. Lead cleanup with sunflowers is chemistry, not magic; the process is affected by numerous variables, including soil pH, the form of lead in the soil, and the variety of sunflower used. Since phytoremediation is still experimental, soil testing is an important part of knowing whether it’s working. Although soil lead tests are cheaper than others, the expense of repeated testing is a common hurdle for low-income projects.

Despite the difficulties, sunflowers are a promising tool enabling people to take soil clean up into their own hands. Several positive, field-based test studies have been published recently in scientific journals, and one of the groups I interviewed for this article is doing their own New Orleans-specific experiment. Using phytoremediation safely doesn’t hurt the soil and probably helps, as Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew point out in their recently-published book, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living, which includes excellent guidelines for soil cleanup.

Milwaukee mix-up

I heard through the grapevine that an old friend of mine was working at a community health clinic in Milwaukee, WI, and was a part of a project using sunflowers to remediate the soil in the clinic’s garden for chronic care patients. I stopped by for a visit, excited to learn something from their project.

When I arrived, my friend told me that we could certainly visit the clinic garden, but there wasn’t much to see because the sunflowers were already harvested and in the compost pile. “What?” I replied, “You can’t put those sunflowers in the compost pile- they might be full of heavy metals!” A little knowledge can be dangerous, I realized. We got in touch with the head gardener and arranged to pull the contaminated plants out of the hopefully not-yet-frozen compost pile and put them in the dumpster.

On the next garden workday we biked the 8 miles under grey November skies down to the clinic. The clinic was sited on an old industrial site and the factory rubble had been topped with a thin layer of topsoil and sod. The garden beds were all raised, but sunflowers had been planted around them to clean up the soil around the beds. The paths were covered in woodchip in an effort to add organic matter and keep the potentially contaminated dust off the vegetables and away from children’s hands. I also learned that while they had researched the history of the site to understand the past soil contamination, they had not done any soil testing to see what was actually in the layer of topsoil, rendering their sunflower-based cleanup essentially a good-faith effort. Quite possibly the topsoil was clean since it had been brought in to cap the site.

Let’s be clear: lead is a heavy metal, an element, by definition something that cannot be broken down by plants. As we worked, we discussed the basics of phytoremediation. Some plants accumulate toxic elements like lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic, requiring that the plant be harvested and disposed of in some appropriate manner. Other contaminants, like diesel fuel, pesticides, and fertilizers — which are organic compounds made of chains of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and possibly other atoms like chlorine — can be broken down into harmless carbon-based compounds by secreted root enzymes and microbial activity hosted by some roots, as well as by some mushrooms. When the clinic gardeners put the sunflowers in the compost pile, they were essentially adding heavy metals to the compost that would later be mixed into the raised beds.

There is quite a bit of debate about what to do with harvested toxic plants, especially in the DIY community. Industrially, plants may be incinerated, composted, or chemically treated to leach out the heavy metals. If you don’t live near an old mine shaft, appropriate disposal means at the very least making sure the bagged plant material goes to a lined landfill, or possibly taking it to household hazardous waste sites. It could also be carefully composted before disposal, but only in a separate, enclosed area, to prevent the lead from leaching out as the plants break down.

At the clinic, the sunflowers heads were still fully seeded even though it was late fall. We wondered if the plants transmitted any heavy metal load into the seeds, and if animals had shied away from the seeds due to a potential bad taste. I later read that there is some evidence suggesting that seeds of sunflower plants used for remediation have an almost negligible amount of heavy metals, which would still make it a bad idea to eat them, but would allow the oil to be used for industrial purposes (Madejon et al). I also read that animals do seem to avoid plants naturally high in heavy metals due to their bad taste (Henry). When I saw my friend’s co-worker throwing the plants over the fence in that misguided attempt to seed sunflowers in the empty lot, I realized again how complicated the issue is. Safe phytoremediation means posting signs advising against eating the plants, and emphasizing that the plants are toxic once they’ve done their job.

Old toxins, new energy

Hurricane Katrina didn’t necessarily bring more lead to New Orleans’ already toxic soil. It did, however, bring a flood of volunteer energy geared towards finding creative, accessible techniques for cleaning up the city at the mouth of the entire Mississippi basin. One of the projects started by Common Ground Relief volunteers was the Meg Perry Healthy Soil Project, which ran a sunflower-planting campaign in 2006. After I witnessed the confusion around bioremediation in Milwaukee, I wanted to find out more about one of the first well-publicized activist uses of sunflowers for lead cleanup.
I tracked down Emily Posner, one of the founders of the project along with veteran gardeners Starhawk, Lisa Fithian, and Scott Kellogg of the Austin-based Rhizome Collective.

One of the first things Healthy Soil Project volunteers did was independently verify the post-Katrina soil analysis done by the EPA and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Already-high lead concentrations had been spread around by the floodwaters. In 2006, forty percent of New Orleans properties were in areas with soil lead content over the EPA residential limit of 400 mg Pb/kg soil. Common Ground recommends following lower limits: the Canadian standard for children’s play areas is 140 mg/kg soil lead, while the agricultural soil lead limit is 11 mg/kg!

The sunflower project really got off the ground during Spring Break when volunteers planted sunflowers in people’s yards and adjacent empty lots. There are a number of plants that accumulate lead, including Indian and Japanese mustard, scented geraniums, corn, penny cress, and sunflowers. Emily said they chose sunflowers for the summer project because “sunflowers can grow much better than Indian mustard down here in the summer time. You can’t really use Indian mustard because it’s too hot; they’re a brassica.” Eventually they used Indian mustard during the cooler winter months, in a two-pronged approach.

The Healthy Soil project chose Giant sunflowers because of their prolific roots systems. Wide-spread root systems are important for two reasons. First, experiments are still being done to determine where exactly the lead ends up in a sunflower plant. While it’s more desirable for the lead to be transported up into the stalk and leaves, making it easier to harvest the sunflowers without worrying about pulling up the roots, I found several studies indicating that a generous portion of lead remains in sunflower roots (Nehnevajova et al 2007; Rock 2003). Sunflowers have a strong tap root that can penetrate down 6.5 ft, and an extensive lateral spread of root near the surface. Phytoremediation is only effective in the root zone, which typically includes 8-10 inches of soil below the surface, where most soil contamination usually is. Perhaps sunflowers are effective at removing lead from deeper soil horizons with their branched taproot. Pulling up a long taproot is not realistic, but it is important to include as many roots as possible when the plants are harvested.

Extensive root systems also help combat potential groundwater contamination during cleanup efforts. One challenge with lead is that it is “molecularly sticky”: lead wants to be attached to something, whether it’s joining with soil organic matter, clay particles, or forming complexes with carbonates, phosphates, and other soil molecules. There are very few free lead cations (Pb2+) available in the soil for plants to uptake. What lead the plant does absorb tends to complex with plant nutrients in the roots, instead of traveling up into the plant shoots. In other words, lead is not very bioavailable.

Fortunately, soil amendments can be added to make the soil more acidic, ideally with a pH around 5.0, which makes the lead more soluble while still allowing plant growth. Backyard gardeners can add sulfur, coffee grounds, or pine needles. Many published case studies and industrial operations use synthetic chelating agents like EDTA (ethylene-diamine tetraacetic acid), which are organic compounds that surround metals to inactivate them, preventing metal atoms from precipitating with soil molecules, for example. One of the great quandaries of metal phytoremediation is that soluble lead that is bioavailable to plants is also bioavailable to humans, and available to contaminate groundwater. It is particularly easy to add too much EDTA and essentially just leach all the lead into the groundwater, instead of making it gradually available to plants at the rate they can absorb it.

“Everyone recommends adjusting the pH. We tried to do that with sulfur,” Emily said. “One strategy we used to try to confront [groundwater contamination] was that we did a massive, almost scatterseed project so the root systems of the sunflowers really dominated the plots of land.”

In late summer 2006 they harvested the sunflowers with machetes, making sure to get the whole plant including the roots, and chose to contain the potentially contaminated plants in plastic bags and dispose of the bags in a lined landfill. “That’s a huge debate, what to do with the plants now that they’ve accumulated lead,” Emily noted. “Our solution isn’t the best solution but we had no other choice really. Some folks would say you should do some composting [of the contaminated plants in an isolated pile] and then contain the lead in that spot. But resource and space-wise we thought it would be best for us to have it contained with all the other toxic shit that’s in landfills.”

A major part of any clean-up project is follow-up soil testing, but it was hard for the Healthy Soil project to accomplish this due to issues with funding and personnel. “One of the mistakes I learned was that . . . gardens are long term. . . . You put a seed in the ground and you have to wait 40 to 120 days for it to produce, and you have to take care of it the whole time. It’s a constant project; it’s hard to have that kind of sustained interest. But the financial thing was also a huge barrier. It was hard to keep going when we were having trouble doing follow-up testing. We couldn’t necessarily produce our results. . . . Our biggest impediment is . . . develop[ing] a more scientific understanding of what’s going on. Some people say that it works and some say that it doesn’t, and I can’t necessarily answer that question based off of our experience, …because soil testing is so expensive.” With a soil heavy metal test running $30 at the well-respected UMASS Amherst soil testing laboratory, for example, it is easy to see how the repeated testing needed to build a good foundation of data could have been cost-prohibitive.

Critics of the Common Ground project with whom I spoke in New Orleans felt Common Ground’s efforts channeling outside volunteers into solidarity relief efforts made the project less interesting and accessible to city residents, who might have had the long-term commitment necessary to help the project reach a fuller potential. Although the sunflower project is long over, local involvement is something the Healthy Soil Project is addressing with their new focus on community gardens. An active member of the Lower Ninth Ward Urban Farming Coalition, they still provide soil testing to residents looking to start gardens.

Despite the fact that the amount of lead removed from the soil remains unknown, Emily counts the project a success. “Whether it removed a ton of lead or it didn’t, it certainly added to the regeneration of soil by adding to the microbial life through the compost tea that we added, and by turning the soil and getting it uncompacted. Based off of scientific evidence I know we were adding some more life to the soil, as well as adding more life to the community. We were planting some of these lots in places that were so destroyed and devastated; for people to come across lots in places that were filled with sunflowers in bloom I think was a really powerful experience. . . . This type of activity adds life and proves that life can come in some of the most unusual places. I think that was a good stepping-stone for us to establish ourselves, our roots metaphorically and the fact that we do care about healthy soil and we care about having food access. Now we have an opening to be able to work under the guidance of local people who are taking care of some of this land. It’s been a really good experience in that way.”

Filling in research gaps

Across town from the Lower Ninth Ward where Common Ground Relief is based, a community coalition is attempting to answer some of the questions surrounding the efficacy of using sunflowers for lead cleanup. On a sunny afternoon in early December I met Bric
e White, one of the coalition members, at a test plot on a street corner a mile west of Downtown. Brice is the Operations Manager for the People’s Environmental Center (PEC), an organization started after the storm with the goal of making soil testing accessible to the people of New Orleans. Like many groups started in the post-hurricane ferment of 2005-6, PEC has gone through many changes; now their main focus is supporting this sunflower experiment along with students from Dillard University, where the Director of PEC, Dr. Lovell Agwarmgbo, teaches chemistry; students from Delgado Community College; and the New Orleans Food and Farm Network.

Thanks to New Orleans’ long growing season, all the sunflowers had been harvested mere weeks before I visited, and were in the lab awaiting analysis. The project, started this past spring, is the next logical step in Katrina clean-up: “Everybody was talking about remediation after the storm, what the contaminants were, and doing a lot of testing. . . . We decided to find a place were we could test out sunflowers to see if they actually worked. Sunflowers became the thing for everybody to use, to talk about and plant,” Brice explained. “I was discouraged . . . with people coming from the radical hippie punk thing, where they’re like, ‘If you plant the plants it gets rid of the lead!’ But when you look at lead, which is a metal, it doesn’t go anywhere. People don’t even think that far, they just think ‘sunflowers get rid of lead.'”

Brice eventually developed a positive working relationship with Healthy Soil Project phytoremediators, although initially he shared Emily’s concerns about Common Ground’s approach to the sunflower campaign. “I had a lot of backlash against Common Ground . . . for several reasons, about this sort of North-South divide, liberal people coming down to say they know what to do — it’s kind of a classic, too. Some of those people didn’t mean that, but they didn’t stay here long enough to really see projects through. A lot of it’s an organizational problem. But for whatever reason, a lot of sunflowers got planted in New Orleans after Katrina…” This was fine, he pointed out, but any phytoremediation project needs a caveat: “If you’re actually trying to remediate, there’s just not much data. …You can’t plant sunflowers and then say that somehow there’s less lead . . . if you haven’t done testing to at least get a sense of what it does.”

PEC and other coalition members saw an opportunity to fill in some of the research gaps when a donation of sunflower Seedballz arrived. The gift was a trademarked version of a standard seedball with sunflower seeds rolled into a ball of clay to make them easy to grow. Through their connections with Dillard University, the coalition has the testing facilities that the Healthy Soil Project struggled to access.

The test plot is a corner lot on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard that was donated to Café Reconcile, a job-training organization for young people. In exchange for upkeep, they were happy to have the lot used as a test site. With a history of several houses now torn down, illegally parked vehicles, and illegal dumping of house foundation material, the lot is typical of New Orleans. Because the study hasn’t yet been published, Brice couldn’t tell me any specific lead content numbers, but presumably they reflect the fairly high background levels of lead in the city.

One early lesson learned was that community-oriented science isn’t easy. Brice and his fellow coalition members encountered numerous difficulties in the process of turning the rubble-filled lot into a functioning field experiment. After trying to till it themselves, they were forced to hire a bulldozer to level the lot. Despite the addition of weed fabric, it was hard to control weeds in the nine experiment plots in the voracious New Orleans environment. The Seedballz didn’t perform well; the hot summer sun baked the clay into a hard ball, and birds picked out the seeds as the balls sat on top of the soil. “Figuring out how to get them to germinate was the real success,” noted Brice. Eventually they ended up burying the seedballs and also planting a crop of black oil sunflower seeds in an effort to not tie the project to one specific patented product, one donation.

Additionally, there was no record of the type of sunflowers in the Seedballz, and type of sunflower does seem to be an important variable in lead uptake. Researchers in Zurich, Switzerland examined the toxic metal accumulation in fifteen sunflower cultivars grown in a field contaminated with sewage sludge (Nehnevajova et. al). Because some metal uptake also varies with the kind of fertilizer used to reduce the pH, they used two different soil amendments, ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate. Surprisingly, they reported a wide variety in lead accumulation — almost 10 percent. The most lead, 26.5 mg/kg Dry Weight, accumulated in the Salut cultivar, when the plants were fertilized with ammonium sulfate, while the least amount of lead, only 2.8 mg/kg Dry Weight, was found in the cultivar Alzan, also grown with ammonium sulfate. To make matters more confusing, some cultivars accumulated more lead with the ammonium nitrate fertilizer than they did with ammonium sulfate. Neither of the varieties used in New Orleans, the Giant and Black Oil sunflowers, were included in the study, which used varieties widely available in Switzerland.

Despite the difficulties and multiple variables in the project, Brice said their preliminary results indicate a promising reduction in soil lead content. The study opens the door for future research with a New Orleans, community-based focus. “A lot of people have said they don’t want to use phytoremediation because they say it’s too slow,” he pointed out, “but we thought the results from 1-2 crops were promising enough to possibly use it. Also, the growing season here is longer than a lot of places. If you started first thing in the spring, you could maybe get four crops of sunflowers in. But in a place in the Northeast where they said it was too slow, they probably only got one crop in. All these things are things to look into in the future.” There are other questions as well: “When do you harvest them to get optimum efficiency? Is there lead in the seeds? Are animals eating the seeds, are people eating the seeds?… The simple thing we want to know is, did it take the lead out, and if so, is the first step that you can plant [sunflowers] and harvest them, and make sure you throw them away. Maybe that is a good start. Like all the Common Ground stuff — if they actually knew there was lead, and they planted all these sunflowers and then harvested them, they certainly didn’t hurt anything, and they probably made it better.”

Community-oriented science

In addition to providing valuable data on sunflowers, this project is a good exercise in community-oriented science. I salute Emily, Brice, and all the other intrepid gardeners who are vastly expanding the field conditions under which phytoremediation is used experimentally. By keeping track of what works under what conditions, and doing soil testing when it’s available, we can turn our DIY efforts into a solid body of knowledge created by the communities it serves. This is an excellent example of science working for the people. While we build bridges with sympathetic members of the scientific establishment, we can work towards organizing our own radical science infrastructure, like accessible soil testing labs. Let’s free bioremediation from the clutches of bureaucracy and academia! Bioremediation is a natural chemical process. No doubt there are other tools in the ground that we can use to repair the effects of industrialization, if we take the time to understand them.

Thank you to Emily and Brice for the interviews!


Toolbox for Sustainable City Living, Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew, South End Press

Gardener’s Remediation Guide, EPA (just being published; contact

ommon Ground Relief,

People’s Environmental Center, Brice White, Operations Manager,


Hetland, M., Gallagher, J., Daly, D., Hassett, D., and Heebink, L. 2001. Processing of plants used to phytoremediate contaminated sites. In Phytoremediation, Wetlands, and Sediments, Leeson, A. et al. eds. Battelle Press.

Henry, Jeanna. 2000. An Overview of the Phytoremediation of Lead and Mercury. EPA,

Feigl, J. et al. A resource guide: The phytoremediation of lead in urban, residential soils.

Madejon, P., Murillo, J.M., Maranon, T., Cabrera, F., and Soriano, M.A. 2003. Trace element and nutrient accumulation in sunflower plants two years after the Aznacollar mine spill. Sci.Total.Environ. 307, 239-257.

Nehnevajova, E., Herzig, R., Federer, G., Erismann, K.-H., and Schwitzguebel, J.-P. 2005. Screening of sunflower cultivars for metal phytoextraction in a contaminated field prior to mutagenesis. Internat. Journal of Phytoremediation, 7: 337-349.

Nehnevajova, E., Herzig, R., Federer, G., Erismann, K.-H., and Schwitzguebel, J.-P. 2007. Chemical mutagenesis — A promising technique to increase metal concentration and extraction in sunflowers. Internat. Journal of Phytoremediation, 9:149-165.

Rock, S.A. 2003. Field evaluations of phytotechnologies. In Phytoremediation: Transformation and Control of Contaminants, McCutcheon, S. and Schnoor, J. eds. John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Engaging our values, choosing our freedom

I spend a lot of time thinking about the things that I choose to value and what those values actually look like as they interact with each other in my life. Ideally, the things I believe in are not like objects that I acquire, and set on a shelf, but things that I continue to pick up, turn over in my hands and engage with in some meaningful way.

Too often it seems like shared aesthetic tastes become a kind of shorthand for shared values. Rather than getting to know the people that we interact with, we rely on superficial codes to identify allies. The world that we want to live in often becomes defined as one that looks like our vision, rather than one that feels like our truth. It is easy to understand the appeal. When we express ourselves with the same language and interact in a similar cultural mode it is easier to avoid conflict on the surface of things. This is helpful on days when it is all we can do to put one foot in front of the other. The problem is that it is also easier to avoid the passion and processing that is attached to conflict, to decide that it is not possible to find a point of connection with those whose words and actions trigger us.

When we assume that someone else’s truth should look like ours, we become grotesque — we begin to build a system of morality that separates ‘right thinking’ people from ‘wrong headed’ ones and inhibits our ability to understand people who are not like us. This is true among conservatives and reactionaries, but it is also true in radical circles. The vast majority of mass social movements, whether political or religious, have worked to deny or minimize facts that don’t conform to their Truth. The channels of power put in place to do this, no matter how well intentioned, almost always lead to abuse and the dehumanization of people defined as enemies. When we state, as radicals or anarchists, that we want to create a better world, free from domination, and begin to build an aesthetic vision of what that world looks like, we run the risk of falling into the same trap.

If everyone in the world decided to become like-minded in regard to revolution, or pacifism, or anarchy, or whatever else is held up as ‘the way’, but the quality of their relationships and the way that they interact with and use power in their daily lives remained the same, the world would only be made duller and more grey. Trying to think intentionally about the essential elements of my values while continuing to grapple with and reassess them as I grow helps me focus on my goals and build relationships and structures in my life to support those goals in ways that are not loaded with aesthetic judgement.


One of the values that I think about a lot is freedom. So many people use this word in so many different ways that it’s meaning tends to fall apart when you look at it directly. One of the ways that I think about freedom is in terms of the autonomy each individual should have to construct/conduct their life as they see fit; that there is no right way to be in the world and that no person’s reality is more valid than anyone else’s. The implication of this statement is anarchy — it is what gives people the strength to cast off the bonds of received knowledge and defy power hierarchies that do not acknowledge their own humanity. It also means that I am not able to stand unreservedly behind a unified vision of a revolutionary society. If I believe that there is no one right way to be in the world, then no program or plan can be applied to all people.

Another definition of freedom that I find compelling is the existentialist view of freedom as an internal process connected to choice, responsibility and passionate engagement. Choice, here, is not the choice between products or political leaders, but choosing how we react emotionally to the world. We exercise our freedom when we choose how we are going to react to and be a part of the situations that occur in our lives, most of which lie outside our ability to control. This allows one to claim their freedom and embody it as they negotiate and create systems of meaning in the world, rather than to view freedom as a state that is to be achieved only in some distant future, after irksome struggles. Taking responsibility for these choices makes one aware of their own power. It is not something that can be done for the sake of others, or for all time, but that must be claimed and maintained by each person as they make their way through the world.

The ramifications of radical autonomy are not safe or easy, they are at the heart of what people fear about anarchy. Without rules and powerful hierarchies looking out for society, what prevents everything from just falling apart? What will compel people to recognize any responsibility to themselves and others? For me, the answer is obvious, and grows out of the way that I think about the nature of my relationships.


At the heart of feeling alive and engaged with the world is feeling connected to oneself and to others. When I decided to become a radical and build my life in an unconventional way in order to escape the quiet desperation that I associated with a conventional life, I thought, on some unconscious level, that changing what my life physically looked like was equivalent to changing the way that I emotionally engaged with the world. What I discovered was that even though I had found people whose lives more or less matched the broad strokes in my mind, I was still aching for a life I was not living. What I ached for was easy intimacy and shared trust, the ability for two people to expose a bit of their vulnerability to each other and come away stronger from the experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I love living in a community with other wingnuts and radicals, and sometimes a similar aesthetic can lubricate the process of building intimacy, it’s just that the emotional work of building sustainable intimate relationships is hard, even with people who dress and act and talk like me, and it is possible, even with people who don’t.

Often, political identities encourage people to ignore the health of their relationships. By shifting our focus to things very large and removed from our reality, political discourse runs the risk of allowing us an excuse to neglect the responsibility we have to be present in our own lives. If we are constantly aware of the abuse of governmental power but are unable to approach or confront the way that power operates in our relationships with the people we love, how are we ever going to be able to create beautiful realities in the lives we have been given? If people you know and are connected to began to heal themselves and learned how to talk to each other — about power and pain, passion and death — and became confident and aware of the ways in which their words, actions, and relationships shape the world they end up living in, how much more vibrant and less despairing would your existence be?

The charm of authoritarian systems is often in their ability to act as a surrogate for real connectedness. They pacify people by giving them simple answers and something they can easily hold on to. The ugliness of these systems is that they require shutting down our ability to recognize the humanity of people whose truth differs from the one we have connected ourselves to. Building substantial relationships in our lives that are based on trust and maintained through a mutual understanding of each other’s particular truth gives people a sense of security that is certainly more appealing to me than anything authoritarianism has to offer.


Having a sense of yourself and your own power, as well as the ways that you depend, in so many ways, on your connections to others is not about the music you listen to, the food you eat, how you dress, or how you dress your children. I believe that people best relate to one another when they can see their own humanity reflected in the other person. This is not saying that every
body is really the same, but that no one is wholly ‘other’. A direct implication of this is that I put much more stock into trying to understand how another person sees their world than I do in categorizing people. I deeply question whether the model of identity is the best way for people to talk about their differences and similarities; it can often obscure more than it clarifies. Only by placing ourselves firmly in our bodies right now and taking responsibility for our power and our freedom, even when that process is painful, or seems impossible, are we ever going to create engaged communities of strong and beautiful people who are connected to each other in healthy ways. The trick, for me, is figuring out how to be in deeply intimate networks of relationships with people while still maintaining an individual sense of freedom, finding a way to hold autonomy and mutual aid in my hands at the same time without reeling from the cognitive dissonance.

Humor is our Tool to address climate change

By PB Floyd

Fossil Fools day — Wednesday, April 1 — is your chance to put climate change back on the agenda by organizing and participating in creative, decentralized, inspired protests, blockades, street theater and organized pranks on the fossil fuel industry. With all the media hype about the world economic collapse, it can be hard to remember that something more important than banks and auto companies is at grave risk — the planet’s ecological balance is on the line. Politicians are rushing to spend trillions of dollars to restore profits and economic growth, but pitifully little is being done to break the human addiction to fossil fuels. Thousands of people will rise up with simultaneous actions on April 1 to try to re-focus attention on the real global crisis.

Pull a prank that packs a punch

Actions using non-traditional, funny-yet-in-your-face tactics like the ones held on fossil fools day are particularly effective because they are decentralized and diverse. In 2008 there were about 150 actions on four continents. Just a few folks can organize a modest action with funny signs, disguises, and gags like folks in Edinburgh, Scotland, where a group of clowns invaded supermarkets to try to locate the elusive Scottish banana to point out the absurdity of using fossil fuels to fly food to Scotland in the middle of winter. In Berkeley last year, a handful of us had a bike parade to gas stations which required hardly any organizing, time or money, but which was really effective in making people stop and think about fossil fuel consumption. Better organized folks tried more disruptive actions like the numerous blockades of coal-fired power plants last year.

Fossil fools day is a do-it-yourself opportunity — you don’t have to join some big structure or have a lot of fancy credentials — you can just gather your friends and get to it. In a world exhausted by boring, soulless protest rituals that are easily ignored, humor is a powerful weapon. Big corporations may control the media and the government, but saying something in a funny or unusual way can break through the static, complacency and hopelessness. Especially at this time of disruption and yearning for change, grassroots actions are essential and may be unusually effective.

Fossil Fools actions in 2009 are likely to focus on the numerous false solutions being offered by various corporate interests and politicians and the inadequate response offered by world governments who proclaim they are concerned by climate change, including the incoming Obama Administration. It is instructive to compare the timid, gradual response to climate change with the massive and rapid response to the economic crisis. No politician is suggesting it is too expensive to help banks, nor are any suggesting a target of reducing the recession 20 percent by 2030. But that is precisely the bullshit you hear about global warming.

Why is every politician united around taking aggressive action on the economy while they dither about the environment? Everyone knows the economy will eventually come back — it is called the business cycle for a reason. The same can’t be said about climate change. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) have increased from 280 to 380 parts per million since fossil fuel combustion began in the industrial revolution in the 1800s — C02 levels are now higher than they has been for 750,000 of years (Jonathan, 2006.) Without dramatic action, these gases will continue to accumulate, causing mass species extinctions as well as human famine, social dislocation and suffering. Green house gas emissions continue to climb dramatically, despite the last few years of rhetorical concern and despite all the greenwashing advertising campaigns and claims by ski resorts that they are carbon neutral.

No matter which ecosystem or creature fills you with awe and a sense of the meaning of your own existence — the silent redwood groves, the polar bear, the coral reefs, glaciers or the rainforest — they are at grave risk if people keep burning fossil fuels as usual. Climate change is the real global crisis.

Climate Feedback Loops

There is growing evidence that global warming is already triggering climatic feedback loop effects that will cause climate change faster than projected purely from human emissions of greenhouse gasses. For instance, as temperatures warm, permafrost in the Arctic is melting at alarming rates, releasing millions of tons of methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than the carbon dioxide released when humans burn fossil fuels. Another example of a feedback loop is how warming reduces Arctic ice exposing more dark colored water to absorb sunlight, with less white ice that reflects the light, thus trapping even more heat and speeding up climate change.

At a certain point, these feedback loops may gain such momentum that even if humans dramatically cut their emissions of greenhouse gases in a few decades, climate change will continue to increase. Scientists call this the tipping point — the point where natural feedback loops propel climate change out of human control. No one knows when the tipping point will be reached — or whether it has already been reached — but the need to avoid reaching it means cutting greenhouse gas emissions now, not in 2050 or at some long-off date, is crucial.

The real goal isn’t to cut emissions to 1990 levels (ala the Kyoto Protocol) or some artificial target — the goal is zero human emissions now. That means entirely replacing our industrial culture’s dependence on fossil fuels. In the USA, about 40 percent of emissions are generated to generate electricity, and another 40 percent are for transportation fuel. Cutting these emissions requires a much more dramatic shift than screwing in a light bulb or driving a Prius — the point of consumption. The key is shifting the supply side — replacing oil, gas and coal as fuels in the first place.

While Obama is giving lip service to addressing climate change, his proposals are pathetically timid — a few billion dollars, inadequate targets and slow timetables. He is pushing a number of false solutions to climate change — “alternative” technologies like “clean” coal, nuclear, and biofuels that are either unproven, cause other forms of ecological damage, won’t reduce over-all emissions, or all of the above. With climate change already causing ecological damage, there isn’t time to waste on dead-end false solutions.

The Clean Coal Myth

Obama’s constant discussion of clean coal merits special criticism. His campaign literature stated: “Develop and Deploy Clean Coal Technology . . . An Obama administration will provide incentives to accelerate private sector investment in commercial scale zero-carbon coal facilities. In order to maximize the speed with which we advance this critical technology, Barack Obama and Joe Biden will instruct DOE [Department of Energy] to enter into public private partnerships to develop 5 ‘first-of-a-kind’ commercial scale coal-fired plants with carbon capture and sequestration.”

The problem is, there is no such thing as clean coal — it is a marketing gimmick created by the coal industry. The reason coal is an attractive fuel is that it is extremely cheap to mine and burn. The reason Obama discusses clean coal is because the coal industry is immensely powerful and the USA has a huge supply of coal. But the inconvenient truth is that coal has to be phased out as a fuel source if humans are to avoid climate change. Coal is by far the dirtiest of the fossil fuels in terms of C02 emitted per unit of energy.

The idea behind clean coal technology is that the C02 released when coal is burned could be captured and then stored underground — so called carbon capture and sequestration. The problem is, no one has figured out a way to capture carbon economically on the scale at which coal is burned — millions of tons. Capturing the carbon dioxide gen
erated from burning coal is extremely complex and expensive. Even if you could capture all the carbon inexpensively enough to make it feasible (which appears highly unlikely), getting rid of the immense volume of gas so that it wouldn’t leak back into the atmosphere or pollute underground water sources is a problem.

In 2008, the US Department of Energy withdrew funding from FutureGen, a 275-megawatt coal fired power plant that was to have captured all of the CO2 emitted from burning coal, because of higher than expected costs. The public-private partnership, which never begin construction, is hoping to get a new chance at life under the Obama administration.

By the time you spend all the extra money to build new coal burning plants and develop infrastructure to get rid of the carbon dioxide underground, electricity from coal is no longer so cheap. It could end up being more expensive than solar or wind, which are increasingly price competitive with fossil fueled electricity already.

This says nothing of the other dirty aspects of mining coal. Increasingly, USA coal is strip mined or mined using mountaintop removal methods, both of which obliterate the environment in the process. The recent spill of 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic fly ash from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee is just a tiny example of the vast scale of pollution associated with the coal industry. Fly ash is what is left after you burn coal — the spill at Kingston covered 400 acres and flowed into the Clinch and Tennessee Rivers.

The coal industry is using the theoretical possibility that coal could someday be burned without emitting disastrous amounts of C02 as an excuse to avoid limitations on the coal industry now. While discussion goes on, millions of tons of coal are being burned — none of it in a clean fashion. Hundreds of new coal fired power plants — none of them clean — are being built around the world. This is to say nothing of new mines and trans-national shipping facilities. Did you know that the USA exported 59 million tons of coal in 2008 according to the Energy Information Administration? All of this investment in coal will only make it harder to phase out coal as it becomes increasingly clear that clean coal is a cruel myth. Meanwhile, money and time that could be invested in clean technologies like solar and wind NOW continued to be poured into coal.

Direct Action Gets the Goods

Public awareness of climate change has been building for years, but the scope of the technological, political and economic response — as opposed to the rhetorical response — has remained minimal. Some people are experiencing crisis fatigue, figuring, “We’re already doomed, it is too late to do anything, we may as well not worry about it and have fun while human societies last. . . ” Although no one knows how dramatically the environment has already been damaged, grassroots action to address the problem at this moment is still crucial. Concluding we’re already fucked will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our action is worth it if there is even a chance to avert climate/ecological disaster.

While the economic collapse has taken the focus off global warming and the hype around the incoming Obama administration has allowed Obama to get away with a timid, vague plan, both of these factors may create special opportunities for grassroots action on climate change right now to be effective. Just like a lot of new infrastructure was built during the Great Depression to create jobs, the recession could be a great time to convert the fossil fueled economy to wind and solar power. Going beyond business as usual and standard band-aid solutions — like bailing out an auto industry that has resisted alternatives to fossil fuels since the oil shocks in the early 1970s — will require grassroots pressure and organizing. Obama is sexy but cautious and mainstream — he isn’t moving to make the kind of historic changes that are required.

Which is where actions like fossil fools day come in. Fossil Fools day comes out of the direct action, grassroots, radical environmental movement. Real dramatic change — replacing a worn-out, unsustainable way of life with something entirely new — won’t come from politicians, big business, or Hollywood movies. It will take radical vision — understanding new ways of living that are more humanistic, more fun, more gentle, localized and small-scale, and thus more in-tune with the cycles of life. We need new thinking to transition away from the fossil fueled “use it once and throw away” mentality we have all grown up with. Radical change requires disruption of the agenda of those in charge, not just asking for a seat at the table or going along for the ride. Change will come when the status quo can no longer continue.

In 2008, fossil fools day actions “spanned the full spectrum from the simply subversive to the downright disruptive: office occupations, banner drops, street theater, Big Carbon blockades, city center parades, spoof product launches, subvertising, leaflets, lock-downs,” according to Rising Tide North America. “Oil, gas, coal and aviation were all targeted. Fossil fuel extraction, production, financing, PR and greenwash all felt the jester’s wrath.” Since every aspect of our lives — from our food to our housing, to our jobs, to our transport to the way cities are designed — are related to the fossil fuel addiction, every neighborhood has appropriate targets.

Disruptive actions raise the economic cost of the fossil fuel lifestyle — this is one of the only languages the corporate political structure understands. Fossil fuels dominate our lives because they are efficient in the short term — they make things seem easy and instant by exporting the costs and harms to where they can’t be seen, or to the future. Fossil Fools day aims to expose this false ease and efficiency by connecting the harm to fossil fueled machines and ways of life. The point isn’t to impose guilt — often the mark of ill-calculated, careless activist efforts that divide us from those who can be our allies. Rather, clever pranks can put a smile on all of our faces, because ultimately we’re all dependent on fossil fuels, and we all have to abandon them together.

In Berkeley, those of us who did a bike parade last year have been thinking of ways to expose the greenwash and fake alternatives associated with the huge biofuel research industry at the University of California, Berkeley funded by oil-giant BP. What will you do in your town? Think zany, beautiful and for yourself. If no one has ever tried it before, that may be the best possible option. The joke is yours to make April 1.

For more info, updates, and ideas, check out Or in Berkeley, email us at

Introduction to issue #99

Slingshot is an independent radical newspaper published in Berkeley since 1988.

Making this issue was an exciting yo-yo. During editing weekend, there were a dozen people and a lot of good articles actually turned in on time! But then a week later right before layout started, it looked like just a handful of us were available to do 20 pages. Imagine our collective surprise when an overflow crowd of people showed up from all directions to make the paper happen in terrific style — some people we already knew and a bunch of folks whom we had the pleasure of meeting for the first time.

How many people out there may be looking for opportunities to plug into collective projects like publishing Slingshot? Sometimes it can feel like there’s barely enough energy to keep a handful of alternative projects afloat, but just below the surface there are hidden reservoirs of energy just aching to express themselves. Like throwing a message in a bottle into the ocean, we need to take the risk of seeking community, engagement and action. And we hope this applies to direct actions of all kinds, not just publishing zines.

The protests that turned into riots to protest the murder of Oscar Grant could be a preview of things to come this year. People are straining on the sidewalks, ready to take the street. If you’ve been imagining building that community garden, starting that free clinic, carrying that sign or erecting that barricade, this is the year to turn your dream into reality.

• • •

We had an unusually large number of article submissions for this issue and had to cut a number of them because there wasn’t enough space. In the computer age, less and less materials get physically published on paper — where physical space is a limitation — and more and more writing ends up on-line, where length is irrelevant. The collective discussed whether it would make sense to publish a shadow on-line edition containing articles we received but didn’t include in the paper edition due to space considerations. The discussion felt funny. We don’t want radical print publications to be entirely replaced by the internet, but we don’t want to stick our heads in the sand and refuse to engage with other forums for distributing information. Let us know what you think. As an experiment, if you look at the on-line edition of this paper, you’ll see a few articles that we didn’t print.

We get lots of letters that we could have published, but many of them didn’t react to what we publish in very interesting ways. So we ended up cutting the letters section and publishing a page of obituaries, instead. The lives described in the obits are messages to all of us about how to find meaning through resistance and action.

We neglected to include an obituary of anarchist political prisoner, writer, painter, and jailhouse lawyer Harold H. Thompson who passed away, November 11th 2008, in the West Tennessee State Penitentiary. May he finally be free.

We also missed getting an article on the RNC8. An angry voicemail from a corporate newspaper organization claimed that someone had put a stack of Slingshot papers in their newspaper boxes somewhere in southern California. Of course they threw our papers away. If you’re a volunteer distributor, keep that in mind — Slingshots like to end up in places they won’t get thrown away.

Slingshot is always looking for new writers, artists, editors, photographers, translators, distributors & independent thinkers to make this paper. If you send in something written, please be open to being edited.

Editorial decisions are made by the Slingshot collective, but not all the articles reflect the opinions of all collective members. We welcome debate and constructive criticism. Please stop peeing in the drinking water.

Thanks to all who made this: Asphalt, Cometbus, Compost, Crystal, Daisy, Dominique, Eggplant, Ginger, Glenn, Gregg, Gerald, Hunter, Julia, Justin, Kate, Kathryn, Kermit, Kerry, Lesley, Melissa, Memoria Collectiva, PB, Samantha, Stephanie, Will, Xarique and all the authors and artists.

Slingshot New Volunteer Meeting

Volunteers interested in getting involved with Slingshot can come to the new volunteer meeting on Sunday, March 8, 2009 at 4 p.m. at the Long Haul in Berkeley (see below.)

Article Deadline and Next Issue Date

Submit your articles for issue 100 (!) by April 11 2009 at 3 p.m.

Volume 1, Number 99, Circulation 20,000

Printed January 30, 2009

Slingshot Collective

Sponsored by Long Haul

3124 Shattuck Avenue. Berkeley, CA 94705

Phone: (510) 540-0751 •

Circulation Information

Subscriptions to Slingshot are free to prisoners, low income and anyone in the USA with a Slingshot Organizer, or $1 per issue or for back issues. Outside the Bay Area, we’ll mail a free stack of copies of Slingshot to you if you give them out free.

Sequoia Greenfield, 1944 – 2008

Wild woman warrior, defender of the earth, witch, pagan juju conjurer, biker owl, office queen, Berkeley Mardi Gras frog priestess . . . Sequoia, we will miss you! You have gone to the other side on Oct. 20, two months after being diagnosed with myelomic leukemia.

Sequoia loved grand entrances, roaring up on her motorcycle to the doorstep of the Pacific Lumber office, or into a crowd of several thousand people at a Headwaters Forest rally, in full spotted owl get-up, wings on the handlebars and huge clawed feet on the pegs. Grand exits worked for her too. One of the most hilarious Sequoia stories involved an incident following a successful civil disobedience action atop Mt. Graham following a 1992 Earth First! Rendezvous at the telescope sites being imposed on the mountain. Somehow, in the negotiations around the blockaders avoiding arrest after we occupied the site all day, Sequoia managed to throw in a ride down the mountain (bad knee, you know) — but not in a vehicle — we were beyond vehicle access — but on the shoulders of the deputy sheriff! She cackled and reveled in riding the deputy the whole 2 miles down the mountain. To this day, I don’t know what possessed that deputy to say yes (Kali magic, I think).

Mischief and magic were her calling cards, whether sneaking around in the dark to yank down the drawers of Dana Lyons from behind as he sang a slow and sensitive song at an Earth First! campfire, or suddenly appearing as the goddess Kali in full juju regalia as for a march into the uranium mine site at the Grand Canyon to shut it down.

Sequoia was an amazing seamstress/tailor, fashioning costumes for actions and but also floats and wicked finery for Berkeley’s wingnutty celebration of Mardi Gras and for Samhain. Her favorites guises for cloaking herself were spotted owls, mountain lions and leopards. Also trees — she confronted then-Secretary of the Interior Don Hodel in Yosemite during a call to take down Hetch Hetchy dam as a redwood tree. Her black fringed leather jacket with the full size mountain lion face sewn on the back was part of her alter at her memorial. But she didn’t just dress up. She became those wild species, who were her totems. She was a wild animal and a wild human. Those close to her knew she had an especially intense childhood and adolescence that made her very tough and gave her an ability to defend herself as passionately as she defended the wild.

Around 1987, we all went to hearings in the redneck city of Redding when we were fighting against trophy hunting of mountain lions in California. Even we were surprised when Sequoia leaned into the mic at the lectern and said to the assembled Fish and Game officials and scores of hunters in the audience, “I have a gun. I know how to use it. I’ve used it successfully to defend myself, and I’m a very good shot. I live in Mendocino County, and if I ever see any of you hunting mountain lions where I live, you’ll be in my sights.” Thundering ovation from our side, and gasps from the opposition and mainstream groups.

During protests in Seattle in 1999 against the World Trade Organization, she was the oldest, loudest and most opinionated member of the generally youthful Wingnut cluster of East Bay affinity groups. Each time she saw a cloud of tear gas, she wanted to go straight to where the action was.

She embraced biocentrism as passionately as she embraced her motorcycle, and brought lessons learned from her earlier life experiences — her witchiness, her tough biker persona, and her organizational skills that made her an excellent office maven at the Cove Mallard Forest Defense and base camp mama during tree-sits on Georgia-Pacific land.

She was also a key person in the women’s movement in LA, and one of the first members of the Susan B. Anthony Coven # 1, founded by Z Budapest in 1971. It seemed to me that it was too soon for this wild woman with the big red hair and outrageous open mouth cackle to pass over to the other side, but she showed remarkable wisdom, love of life, calm, and even humor when she explained to me that she felt settled and felt that a lot of her life goals — her bucket list, as it were — had been achieved. She was an accomplished potter, had a pilot’s license, jumped out of airplanes numerous times, traveled the world, mostly alone, biked thousands of miles, could fix almost anything on 2 wheels or 4 wheels, and was caring for the land she loved on Greenfield, as it cared for her.

She noted in an interview published years ago that a phrase she always lived by was “tits to the wind.” So to you, Sequoia. May your tits always be to the wind. Viva Sequoia!

Jennifer Futrel, 1979-2008

Activist Jennifer Futrel, also known as Calico Future, died in her hometown of Louisville, KY on October 4 after being hit on her bicycle by an aggressive driver. From an early age, Jen was involved in activities to create a more cohesive and peaceful community. As a teenager, she participated in a youth-driven zine called BRAT and was a member of the progressive DIY community center, The Brick House, in downtown Louisville.

More recently, Jen became interested in cooking for activists. While participating in the 2004 Democratic National Convention-to-Republican National Convention march put on by Seeds of Peace, Jen quickly switched from being a marcher to working in the kitchen. This experience later inspired her to buy a diesel truck and trailer and convert them into the “Down Home Hospitality Cafe.” Jen took her mobile kitchen on the Grassroots Caravan bike ride from Madison, WI to the RNC in St. Paul in August of 2008. She fed and nurtured all of the participants on that ride with vegan food and her spirit of love and the passionate belief that change can happen.

In an interview during that ride, Jen said, “Hospitality is a concept that can change the world. At its heart, a hospitable service or person provides their service to any or all comers. . . There is no community without a hearth; there is no household without a hearth. That’s the one most important element that can draw a group of people together and make them feel like family: eating together, being nourished with love.”

According to the obituary printed in the Louisville paper, Jen was known to her friends and family as an avid musician, writer, cook, bicyclist, activist, and organizer in Louisville’s vibrant alternative community. An acquaintance said of Jen, “I always sought our random conversations for their unusual depth and, really, for her unusual honesty. She was an absolutely compelling person, and full of real courage.”

Claiming as her heroes fellow Kentuckian Wendell Berry and Kurt Vonnegut, Jen once wrote that the person she would most like to meet is “anyone with a manifesto in their head and the courage to talk about it. Anyone that would rather speak inappropriately than not at all. Anyone that can hold their head up high and stand for something. Anyone who will fight by my side.”

Rick Christofferson, 1949 – 2008

Rick Christofferson died peacefully in his home, surrounded by friends on December 7, 2008. Many people in Berkeley and the Long Haul knew him from his work with Berkeley’s Needle Exchange Emergency Distribution. He was a most appropriate person to coordinate NEED’s needle distribution and harm reduction activities: A lifelong injection drug user, in and out of jail as a youngster and a wild, rambling soul, he got his shit together in his late forties, cleaned up, helped countless others in their recovery, then graduated from law school.

For the past eight years, Rick channeled his expertise and drive into bringing NEED to a new level of organization and helped train a new, young generation of harm reduction workers. Rick was always a listener, questioning, respectful of almost everybody. At the exchange, clients adored him and respected his warmth, generosity, support and attention.

Earlier in 2008, Rick was instrumental in rebuilding the back loft area of the Long Haul. He had been a construction contractor and gracefully shared his knowledge of woodworking with the volunteer crew.

At 59, Rick Christofferson was too young to die, but ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) struck him down just when he was beginning yet another of the many chapters of his life. He died completely on his own terms, surrounded with love, light and tons of dignity. We will all miss Rick’s company, his work, his compassion, and his stories.

From Food Not Bombs Russia With Love – Building Trasnational Solidarity

Anya and Daria

When we traveled to Russia this January, we learned that nine Russian cities held FNB solidarity actions to protest the arrest of the RNC 8 at the Minneapolis Food Bombs house. Along with meals, Russian FNB groups protested with banners in front of US embassies and gave out literature denouncing the persecution of RNC 8 under the Patriot Act. “We say NO to the repression of Food Not Bombs groups in USA! Freedom to our comrades!” read the leaflets in Varonezh, a city in southwestern Russia. In Moscow, FNB activists were met with police violence and arrest.

This is solidarity blurring transnational boundaries, and uniting a movement across the world. Today our Russian comrades face repression, let’s stand up to support them!

On New Years, FNB Russia held regional meetings across the country. We traveled from Berkeley to Moscow to meet with members of FNB from five Russian cities. We passed along a lovely package of photos, videos, and zines from SF FNB and the Long Haul. Some activists asked us — When you return, tell all the activists you know about the repression we face. Stay in touch, help us form supportive relationships with FNB in the US. These are our observations about repression and resistance in Russia:

We noticed a growing nationalist sentiment in Russian daily life. There is a new metro station opening in Moscow, it’s called The Slavic Boulevard. The newly designed metro train is called The Russian. Within the Russian ultra right-wing circles, the line between nationalism and neo-fascism is barely discernable. The difference is especially blurry on days like November 4th, the Day of National Unity, when the right-wing citizens march through Russia’s main streets. They give Nazi salutes and chant — Glory to Russia! Russia for Russians! This phenomenon is called the Russian March, and it began recently in 2005.

We learned a lot about neo-fascism and xenophobia from Lubava, an activist who helped organize the FNB regional meeting in Moscow. “Attacks on immigrants occur daily; we hear about several nationalism-motivated murders every day,” she said. The week before our arrival, the market where Lubava buys* produce for FNB was bombed. Lubava believes markets are targeted with violence because the vendors are primarily immigrants and Russian people of color. [*It is common for Russian FNB groups to buy food out of their own pockets or to steal it; there is so little surplus food that donations and dumpster diving yield no results].

Each FNB activist we met cited the neo-fascist movement as a major threat to the radical left in their city. FNB Chelyabinsk explained that FNB groups cannot freely use the internet to share information about cookhouses or meals. If they post information about locations, they risk being targeted by fascist groups in their homes or being met by a gang of fascists at their servings: “In Yekaterinburg, there have been instances where neo-Nazis have threatened to disrupt FNB meals. Additional activists had to accompany FNB meals so that nothing went down.” In St. Petersburg, FNB activists have experienced attacks, sometimes even fatal ones, after serving meals. Groups of fascists are known for organized attacks on people of non-Slavic appearance, the poor, and the radical left.

In 2008, FNB Russia organized a safe and solid communication strategy — the publication of a monthly zine. Each issue publishes reports on meals and radical actions from FNB groups across Russia. The zine supports the growth of FNB in smaller Russian cities by creating a sense of connection to the greater movement. Fourteen cities submitted material for the last issue, which came out in time for the regional meetings. It can be found at

In addition to the constant threat of fascist violence, radical left groups struggle against state repression: “The Russian government supports the ultra-right, while antifascist views are violently repressed,” Lubava explains. “In many cities across Russia the law enforcement and neo-Nazis work together.” FNB Saratov says “… the local police force is closely tied to fascist groups… when antifascists are detained by the police, the kids have it really bad. They’re beaten, questioned, and tortured.” Antifascists in Minsk, Belarus write about repression in Russia: “The governing bodies interfere with anarchist and antifascist actions and concerts, detain and beat up activists, but when it comes to the neo-Nazis… the police either let them go without serious consequences or don’t pursue them at all. In Russia, the government and neo-Nazism are one in the same. This promotes the continuation of attacks and murders. In October, Feodor Filatov was murdered on the doorstep of his own apartment; he was one of the founders of the skinhead-antifascist movement in Moscow.”

On the 20th of December, Saratov held a solidarity action against police violence: “… we hung a six meter banner across our bridge that read ‘POLICE MURDER, NOT ONLY IN GREECE.’ We gave out leaflets. One side talked about the murder of Alexander Grigoropoulos. We won’t forget him. The other side talked about the murder of Armen Gasparan [an Armenian man], in Saratov, on the 20th of October. Drunk police officers detained him for stealing. First they beat him, and then they poured kerosene all over him, and set him on fire. They kicked his body until he died.” When we returned to the Bay, we were horrified to learn about the murder of Oscar Grant by the BART police. Police violence is a transnational phenomenon, something we can stand against together.

Oppression is always met with resistance. Russia’s growing Antifascist movement challenges neo-fascist and state violence. Antifascism unites many groups in Russia’s radical left — anarchists, punks, skinheads, hippies, vegans/animal rights activists, sXe — straightedge, hardcore, and others. Antifascists use diverse strategies to propagate anti-racist views: zine publications, independent media sources, art, theater performances, graffiti, direct action, and community organizing. There is a movement for militant resistance within antifascism, called Antifa. Members of the Antifa organize non-hierarchal groups that practice street fighting, as a self-defense strategy against fascist attack.

We learned of other forms of resistance. One of the Moscow FNB activists we met works with the direct action art group Voina (War). Voina commemorated the last anniversary of the October Revolution (Nov 7th) by scaling the famous Hotel Ukraina with a green laser, and projecting a 12 story skull and crossbones across the Moscow River and on to the Russian parliament building. We think they chose the jolly roger to symbolize anarchy and piracy, as well as the toxic government located inside.

Activists from FNB Archangelsk work closely with the animal rights movement. Archangelsk is a northern city on the coast of the White Sea, where baby seals are culled for their fur. Tasya of FNB Archangelsk told us about their anti-fur actions: “In February, radical activists blocked the entrance to the regional administration building, by chaining themselves to the doors. Others unfurled a banner that read ‘Kiselev, Save the Lives of the Seals.’ Kiselev was our regional governor at the time… We held a contest in our city’s grade schools for the best drawing on the theme of defending baby seals. In April 2008 we held a protest [against seal culling, where] … we handed out the children’s drawings of seals.” This year, the Archangelsk animal rights activists achieved a temporary national ban on the culling of white baby seals.

We noticed that sexism and homophobia are rampant in Russia. When we asked FNB activists about movements for LGBT and women’s rights in their cities, the standard reply was “we don’t have any of that, there isn’t anything to tell, we don’t have any activists of that kind, no one is really interested.” We did meet one active feminist, Natasha from FNB Saratov. Natasha is par
t of an anarcho-feminist art collective called VolgaGirrlz. They use mixed media to promote feminist ideas and issues. VolgaGirrlz shot a short film about housewives leaving the boundaries of their kitchen, becoming cosmonauts, and exploring the far reaches of the universe. You can watch it at Other women we met were not in organized feminist groups, but they were vocal about feminism and women’s rights within their own lives.

Attempts to organize for LGBT rights in Moscow have been met with institutional and civil disapproval and violence. Lubava participated Pride-Moscow 2007: “150 LGBT people gathered in front of Moscow City Hall. Police officers, fascists, and Orthodox Christian extremists violently beat not only the Russian LGBT, but the attending deputies of the Euro Parliament as well… Slogans like ‘NO to LGBT Discrimination’ were labeled as homosexual propaganda in all mass media resources.” Today, all gay pride parades are prohibited by the Moscow mayor. Despite the violence and the bans, those that are active in the decidedly underground LGBT movement continue to organize. They find that ties with international LGBT organizations are very supportive.

Please support FNB in Russia. Form a relationship of mutual aid with a FNB chapter in a Russian city! Start up regular contact, exchange photos, videos, news. Plan solidarity actions! Share your political strategies, and struggles, and learn from theirs. Help translate radical left literature into Russian (especially about women’s and LGBT rights, fair trade and organic food). And if you ever get a chance to visit Russia, get in touch with the local chapter of Food Not Bombs.

Russian FNB Forum —

Contacts of groups we meet with:

FNB Saratov —

FNB Kirov —

FNB Chelyabinsk —

FNB Archangelsk —

FNB Moscow —

Additional contacts for FNB Russia can be found at

Photos from the actions mentioned in this article and translated texts from our interviews will be posted at A good resource that documents nationalist violence against immigrants is

Contact Daria at and Anya at

Alternatives to Panic – Bringing to life a new wolrd from the ashes of the old economy

The deepening economic recession is beginning to cause a lot of stress and insecurity for people who are losing jobs, facing piles of bills they can’t pay, and dealing with losing houses and other material things they spent years working to obtain. Even for those of us who are still working and still have enough money to get by, there is a sense of uncertainty — will it all come crashing down next month?

If you’re critical of the system, you have to be suspicious of the level of hype and the narrowing of the discourse surrounding the recession, even while you feel concern for people at the short end of the economic stick. The fact that the recession is causing such mass suffering reveals the failures of the capitalist system — its mal-distribution of resources, its inequality, and its focus on production and growth divorced from human needs or happiness. Mainstream politicians want to “fix” capitalism so we can return to a state of steady economic growth. But capitalism is broken when it is growing — we don’t want to return to business as usual. How can we use this period of economic collapse to move farther away from capitalism, rather than allowing its problems to hijack our lives?

Perhaps there are ways in which the recession can be a creative time for the human energy that would have gone into the fast-moving economic machine to go in different directions: to the community rather than selfishness, to social change rather than the status quo, to living outside the system now rather than trying to live up to its pre-set goals of property accumulation, status and the future.

The recession can help us see the absurdity of the capitalist system that is better hidden when business is booming. It can provide time to wonder whether our lives during the good times were really making us happy, or whether all that frantic activity was ultimately meaningless. If so, what would a more meaningful existence look like? Can we build alternative economic structures that last beyond the recession and build opportunities for cooperation outside of the capitalist machine?

The Invisible Hand

Recessions are not really malfunctions of the capitalist system — they are a fundamental part of it. The history of capitalism features an inevitable business cycle of boom and bust. Pro-capitalists who hope to perfect capitalism so it can exist without recessions don’t understand the way their economic system works. Conversely, radicals who predict the demise of capitalism each time the stock market falls aren’t studying history carefully enough, either. This recession — like all the other recessions and depressions before it — will not on its own spell the end of capitalism. That doesn’t mean that recessions can’t be used by radicals against capitalism — just that we can’t fool ourselves into thinking capitalism will end itself. It needs our help.

It is instructive to see the politicians and business owners — from Bush to Obama and from China to Russia to Germany to the USA — united in their powerlessness over the economic system itself. The recession makes it clear that people don’t control the economy — the economy controls people. Just as the economy controls what you can do for work, what you can buy, and how you live, the system controls the actions of the politicians and the business managers who supposedly are in charge.

This is precisely backwards from how an economic system should be. A reasonable system would serve people — giving them the things that they need, responding to their collective decisions, and balancing human interests and environmental concerns. Capitalism, to the contrary, by its very nature manipulates and constrains people — forcing humans to adjust to the system’s imperatives — while destroying the natural environment. Capitalism silences the self-determination of the population, while selecting a lucky few to hold somewhat more power to act within its artificial constraints.

Recessions are moments when the system’s intense productive energies turn in on itself — economic activity and growth fall off precisely because economic activity and growth have produced too much stuff to be purchased and consumed by those who have money. Note that the capitalist system can run out of consumers even while many people don’t have enough — capitalism only serves those with money, not necessarily those in need. As purchases fall below production, economic activity contracts, throwing people out of work, who then themselves must cut consumption because they no longer have money, leading to a downward spiral of decreasing consumption and production.

Capitalism’s own perverse logic requires economic inequality and scarcity of resources for huge numbers of people. Competition acts to depress wages for workers — with a desperate unemployed “reserve army of labor” totally without work and therefore without money to get what they need. And yet the system simultaneously needs to find consumers with money to purchase the goods it creates. The system ping-pongs back and forth between temporarily solving the problem by bringing new consumers, resources and methods on-line, only to hit a crisis point as its internal logic plays itself out.

This painful oscillation between boom and bust, competition and income stratification nonetheless overall produces limitless economic growth, i.e. greater and greater human transformation of natural resources into processed forms for use by human beings. This is determined by the internal logic of the system — each individual or company must expand production, efficiency and wealth or lose out to another individual or company which is better at playing the game.

The most crucial flaw in capitalism is not the boom and bust cycle, but its limitless growth, because capitalism exists on a planet with finite resources. While this problem hasn’t been very noticeable until recently, it is likely to eclipse the pain of income stratification and the boom and bust cycle as the key reason why capitalism cannot continue on its present course. Environmental crises like global warming, over-fishing of the oceans, deforestation, soil depletion and loss of species are not really scientific or technological failures. They are the new face of economic crisis in which the economy destroys the earth faster than it can regenerate itself.

Discrediting the rat race

Because the recession makes visible the ways in which the market economy doesn’t serve people’s needs, it can be a good time to nurture opposition to the capitalist system on a political and philosophical level. In good times, the economy is less visible — people get so busy buying and selling that they don’t have much energy left for critique. When the economy goes wrong, people have extra time to question why things are the way they are.

Radicals can seek to move the discussion beyond shallow media hyped fear about job loss, bank collapse and stock market decline and the need to get “back to normal.” We can question whether all this industrial production and consumption — which causes so much ecological damage — is really making us happy in the first place. A lot of what people are expected to consume — fast food, the newest gizmo, suburban homes — is superficial junk. A lot of the economy’s energy is used to market consumption for its own sake.

When times are “good” people are on a treadmill — seeking the next new thing. But when they get there, they feel empty until they start grabbing for something else. It is all about the pursuit, and not the enjoyment, awareness or appreciation of the destination. There is no now, only desire for some future experience that will trigger satisfaction. But to keep the cycle moving and the economy growing, you never actually get there. As the economy gets more efficient and productive, we’ve seen a speedup in the process — people develop a short attention span and seek more consumer stimuli every day.

Recessions ca
n help break the cycle and provide a path off the psychic treadmill. Right now, millions of people are re-thinking their consumption and trying to adjust to living with less. While the mainstream sees this as unfortunate and painful, there are other ways to understanding living with less. If all the stuff and speed of the boom times left us feeling unfulfilled, was it really worth all the overtime, deforestation, carbon emissions and sweatshops? Or could there be another way?

Getting off the grid

Cooperation, sharing, and doing stuff ourselves are the opposite of competition, each for themselves, and depending on an industrial economy for all our material needs. During recessions, the system offers forms of assistance designed to disempower people and make them more dependent on the system — welfare, unemployment insurance, charity.

What if people organized to build alternative economic structures to help us get through the recession, and off the system for good even after the recession is over with? This could mean cooperating to help each other rather than buying and selling services, re-learning how to make our own goods and grow some of our own food, and realizing that a lot of the stuff we have been consuming is not really all that important to our happiness in the first place. When you’re involved in creating what you use, the idea of consuming for its own sake no longer makes sense. The system is all about marketing and creating new needs — when you step off the system, you reclaim your internal sense of what you want and really need. Of course ultimately you can’t really reclaim your life without getting rid of capitalism once and for all.

In the end, the boom and bust economic cycle distracts from more fundamental questions. The real issue is not whether stocks are up or down. Perhaps we don’t want the economy to bounce back to frantic levels of growth — tearing up the earth in pursuit of more stuff, more technology, more hours spent at a job, less opportunities to do stuff for ourselves — and less satisfaction and space to engage with our lives. Since the capitalist economy doesn’t really supply many people’s needs even in the good times, maybe we need to find ways to meet human needs other than the very limited form of economic growth embodied by capitalism. When everyone is furiously building sterile condos and making pre-packaged “home cooked meals” in a plastic bag, we’re creating a lonely and sad world. We seek human satisfaction and ecological balance with a healthy planet, not gross domestic product. When we are faced with living with less, we may find that we can regain our inter-connection with others, with the planet and with ourselves.

Disrobing the system: Obama vs. "real change"

While making this issue of Slingshot, we have struggled with our desire to write something about Obama that could comment on what is going on without being either too negative or silly. Slingshot usually concentrates on direct action, not the mainstream political process, and yet a number of aspects of the current Obama mania seem to transcend politics as usual. The level of popular excitement and civil engagement related to Obama’s rise is palpable. We cannot remember thousands of people literally dancing in the streets like they did the night of his election. This goes beyond Obama merely being the first non-white president or being charismatic and it goes beyond mass relief at the end of 8 years of Bush.

It is easy to be cynical and dismiss what is going on as hero worship, hype, and a sort of mass false consciousness that the election of a single man can bring “change” (whatever that may mean to each listener). In fact, it is important to keep in mind that Obama has been elected president of the world’s most powerful imperial government. He has no interest in dismantling the unequal power relations that make the US government possible since he depends on those relations for his own power. He is by, of and for the mainstream, and to the extent he seeks change, it is to make the system function more efficiently and effectively, not to fundamentally alter the system itself.

But we also feel like there is an unfortunate tendency for radicals to be so aloof from mainstream politics that we miss opportunities to engage with other people. When millions of people are ecstatic about the idea of change, our only response shouldn’t be to tell them they are stupid. We have hope and seek change too, but the change we hope for is beyond what can be offered by the mainstream, hierarchical systems of government and capital.

Figuring out how to interact with people caught up in this moment is not an easy thing to do. Some of us feel that there is something important and optimistic about this moment, because the mood of engagement and excitement can be focused beyond just one man and mainstream politics. If this is true, the key for radicals is to figure out ways to emphasize the difference between false change within the system and the real collective action that can create social transformation. This outpouring of popular involvement can be powerful because once people start to think of themselves as actors in history — rather than pawns or witnesses — they are unlikely to long be satisfied with just voting for a leader. If people hold onto their sense of hope and engagement long enough, they’ll be able to think critically about Obama once they realize he isn’t living up to his rhetoric, and perhaps think critically about the whole damn system.

Others of us don’t believe that we can meaningfully engage with ‘change’ as Obama formulates it in any way because that idea of change is about making capitalism palatable for the masses and co-opting the real movement for freedom and revolution, turning it toward the cul-de-sac of electoral politics and the swamp of hierarchical structures. We believe the radical’s job is to show people he cannot deliver, that his promises are empty; not because he is a bad person or even a bad president, but because the job of the president is not to get rid of capital, alienation and all that; his job is to perpetuate the capitalist system as it is.

Despite our different takes on this moment, we have no illusions that Obama is going to create anything like the kind of change we are about. We are gearing up to critique him and protest his policies. There are many reasons for concern, from his silence around the Gaza slaughter to his generally conservative cabinet choices. For the moment, we’re holding off on getting bogged down in the details, since a lot of what Obama may or may not be pushing is not yet clear. And we’re interested in the complex racial dynamics of this moment — they are surely significant and complex but must await another article.

We agree that real change happens not because of speeches or governments, but because of grassroots action on a local level. Real change is do-it-yourself. Nothing about Obama’s rise eliminates the need for grassroots action to advance positive change. The social and environmental crisis has not been solved. It is amazing, however, that millions of people are engaged with this energy right now, because for years the accepted, mainstream, “reasonable” attitude has been one of resignation, selfishness and cynicism. We hope this new energy will not merely fizzle into passive confidence in the system, but rather lead people to reflect on how their lives are connected to each other and the world, and then take action.