Free to You and Me

By

Grub draws a crowd.

On a recent Sunday evening a steady stream of mainly twentysomethings began stacking their shoes outside a walk-up apartment in downtown Brooklyn. “It’s okay in the kitchen, but we try and keep shoes off of the wood floors,” explained one of the hosts, and, as more and more people began congregating in the kitchen and living room, the need for such a rule became apparent.

The aroma of pesto percolated through the apartment where a dozen housemates and guests were diligently slicing bread for bruschetta, cutting up mango and kiwis to throw in a fruit salad, and preparing a medley of fall vegetables for a mash. Baked apples just out of the oven sat steaming on the large wood-slab table alongside a bowl of leafy greens. A collection of cutlery, cups and mismatched plates sat in between. A mixture of strangers and old friends, including a pirate-radio host, a playwright, several poets and assorted looky-loos in search of conversation and a free meal, engaged in conversation over cooking until dinner was served, a little past eight.

“I’m happy to announce all the food at tonight’s meal was salvaged,” said A New World In Our Hearts member Thadeaus Umpster. “It was either donated by stores before it was disposed of, or…” he paused pregnantly, “…reclaimed shortly thereafter.” Umpster’s oblique description of Dumpster diving, or collecting food from grocery stores, bakeries and other businesses after it’s been thrown out, drew laughter from the crowd. This free, family-style community dinner better known as Grub occurs on the first and third Sundays of every month and and is one of several initiatives In Our Hearts oversees, including The Brooklyn Free Store.

An active collective since 2005, In Our Hearts describes itself as “a New York-based anarchist network made up of autonomous collectives, projects and individuals who share the goal of building a culture of resistance in the city and beyond” in its manifesto. Some intentional ambiguity surrounds In Our Hearts–anarchist organizations tend to shy away from overexposure and attendance lists–but the group has a core membership scattered throughout Brooklyn, and then many fans and loose affiliates around the borough and the country. In Our Hearts has more than 3,000 MySpace fans and their Facebook group is about 350 members strong. Still, their publicly posted information raises as many questions as it answers. For starters: What exactly are they resisting? And how?

A brave new world in our hearts.

“It’s about bringing the confidence back to the people which capitalism takes [away],” said Caio Juca at a recent In Our Hearts discussion. In one member’s living room, visitors sat in a circle as Juca, a member of Brazil’s Ativismo ABC anarchist collective, discussed anarchist economics. He led a lively debate that touched on strategies for finding work, food and health care outside of capitalist institutions. Solutions such as community gardens and Dumpster diving for food and items to sell online were all weighed as viable options.

In this particular collective, anarchism is defined as turning a cold shoulder towards capitalism and consumerism rather than engaging in confrontational actions. That’s not to say members of In Our Hearts haven’t ever embraced militant aspects of anarchistic resistance, but at the moment, they’re content to focus on community-building initiatives like Grub and their newest project, The Brooklyn Free Store.

Free stores are an anti-capitalist idea that dates back to at least to The Diggers, a radical underground theater group in 1960s San Francisco that advocated for a “Free City.” In Our Hearts officially opened their free store in July on Walworth Street between DeKalb and Willoughby Avenues in Bed-Stuy on a plot of land that Umpster says the organization “reclaimed from the city.” Made from fencing and plastic-tarp tenting, the free store is open daily and works under the premise of “share what you can, take what you like.” The inventory is always revolving, but mostly consists of clothing, books, movies, appliances and furniture. It also serves as a meeting place for In Our Hearts’ events, classes and workshops, including regularly scheduled film screenings on Thursday nights at 8pm.

Anyone can give or take items from the store–like the television and full-size mattress collected by an elated man last Thursday, who couldn’t thank Umpster enough for the Free Store’s existence, as he carted his goods away in the back of a van. The happy shopper said he intended to put them in his daughter’s bedroom when he got back home. [Ed. Note: Let’s hope it was bed-bug free.]

“These are things that are practical and positive,” Umpster said, commenting on the collective’s efforts to promote alternative, anarchistic models for living in Brooklyn and beyond. “We don’t need to reach everybody. We just need to reach enough people so they can reach other people.”

17 Responses

  1. Jane -

    Just so you know, the person going by the name Thadeaus Umpster is actually named Dennis Burke, and he has a history of perpetrating verbal abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse in his intimate relationships. Women tempted to get involved in the good work that the Brooklyn Free Store is doing should be aware.
    http://thadeaus.wordpress.com/thadeaus-history/

    Reply
  2. Fedup -

    This will work until everyone gets tired of the fact that there are more takers than makers.

    Reply
  3. Fedup -

    This will work until everyone gets tired of the fact that there are more takers than makers.

    Reply
  4. Meg -

    It does work! Everyone always thinks that things like Grub and the Free Store won’t work because people will take advantage, but I have been continually surprised by the fact that the people who only take are significantly outweighed by those who give more than they take so everything tends to balance out.

    Reply
  5. Meg -

    It does work! Everyone always thinks that things like Grub and the Free Store won’t work because people will take advantage, but I have been continually surprised by the fact that the people who only take are significantly outweighed by those who give more than they take so everything tends to balance out.

    Reply
  6. Fedup -

    Meg,

    I think it’s a great idea, and I think it’s great to get away from so much consumerism. Sorry for my pessimism. I guess what I think is more accurate is to say that it doesn’t work on a large scale. (Too many union members, etc., used to getting something for nothing. 45% of households in this country receive a SUBSIDY from the govt.)

    On a local level, it’s great to see it work, but to me, it’s more of a charity then a viable long term form of commerce that has any scale.

    Reply
  7. Fedup -

    Meg,

    I think it’s a great idea, and I think it’s great to get away from so much consumerism. Sorry for my pessimism. I guess what I think is more accurate is to say that it doesn’t work on a large scale. (Too many union members, etc., used to getting something for nothing. 45% of households in this country receive a SUBSIDY from the govt.)

    On a local level, it’s great to see it work, but to me, it’s more of a charity then a viable long term form of commerce that has any scale.

    Reply
  8. Dana -

    Fedup,

    This really has nothing to do with charity. Have you seen it in person? This is an example of gift economy or mutual aid. Though not for long periods of time, there are examples of those models working on a large scale.

    Reply
  9. Dana -

    Fedup,

    This really has nothing to do with charity. Have you seen it in person? This is an example of gift economy or mutual aid. Though not for long periods of time, there are examples of those models working on a large scale.

    Reply
  10. Fedup -

    Dana,

    I’d love to hear some examples of that. I am being sincere, I am open-minded. I have a graduate degree in economics, and I spend a lot of time reading about different systems, with the goal of the greatest good for the greatest number of people, over the greatest period of time. I’d love to hear about some of the larger scale examples, I guess the ones that have been around for the longest, if you could point me to some. It runs counter to a lot that I have read and experienced, but I would research with an open mind.

    Reply
  11. Fedup -

    Dana,

    I’d love to hear some examples of that. I am being sincere, I am open-minded. I have a graduate degree in economics, and I spend a lot of time reading about different systems, with the goal of the greatest good for the greatest number of people, over the greatest period of time. I’d love to hear about some of the larger scale examples, I guess the ones that have been around for the longest, if you could point me to some. It runs counter to a lot that I have read and experienced, but I would research with an open mind.

    Reply
  12. Fedup -

    I don’t want to pollute the comment section here of debase good press for people being generous. I am researching it. I’ll tell you that I am a libertarian. There are some similar tenets, yet some diametrically opposed to this. I find this a little utopian. In my research so far, I have only found very small groups that did this or do this…small, small societies…and I have found others, where this is a small part of what they do. I think that this quote says a lot:

    “[edit] Mauss
    Sociologist Marcel Mauss argues a different position, that gifts entail obligation and are never ‘free’. According to Mauss, while it is easy to romanticize a gift economy, humans do not always wish to be enmeshed in a web of obligation. Mauss wrote, “The gift not yet repaid debases the man who accepts it,”[31] a lesson certainly not lost on the young person seeking independence who decides not to accept more money or gifts from his or her parents.[32] And as Hyde writes, “There are times when we want to be aliens and strangers.”[33] We like to be able to go to the corner store, buy a can of soup, and not have to let the store clerk into our affairs or vice versa. We like to travel on an airplane without worrying about whether we would personally get along with the pilot. A gift creates a “feeling bond.” Commodity exchange does not.[34]”

    Reply
  13. Fedup -

    I don’t want to pollute the comment section here of debase good press for people being generous. I am researching it. I’ll tell you that I am a libertarian. There are some similar tenets, yet some diametrically opposed to this. I find this a little utopian. In my research so far, I have only found very small groups that did this or do this…small, small societies…and I have found others, where this is a small part of what they do. I think that this quote says a lot:

    “[edit] Mauss
    Sociologist Marcel Mauss argues a different position, that gifts entail obligation and are never ‘free’. According to Mauss, while it is easy to romanticize a gift economy, humans do not always wish to be enmeshed in a web of obligation. Mauss wrote, “The gift not yet repaid debases the man who accepts it,”[31] a lesson certainly not lost on the young person seeking independence who decides not to accept more money or gifts from his or her parents.[32] And as Hyde writes, “There are times when we want to be aliens and strangers.”[33] We like to be able to go to the corner store, buy a can of soup, and not have to let the store clerk into our affairs or vice versa. We like to travel on an airplane without worrying about whether we would personally get along with the pilot. A gift creates a “feeling bond.” Commodity exchange does not.[34]”

    Reply
  14. Dana -

    Fedup,

    I am glad we can have this discussion here. I don’t have a degree in anything and this isn’t my field of expertise, so excuse me if I quote some examples directly from wikipedia.

    “The anarchist collectives formed during the Spanish Civil War are the most famous example of an anarchist economy operating on a large scale. The collectives were formed under the influence of the anarcho-syndicalist union the CNT in rural and urban areas and successfully practised Workers’ self-management and Collectivist anarchism for a number of years in extremely difficult economic and political circumstances.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchist_economics

    Also

    “In place of a market, anarcho-communists, such as those who inhabited some Spanish villages in the 1930s, support a currency-less gift economy where goods and services are produced by workers and distributed in community stores where everyone (including the workers who produced them) is essentially entitled to consume whatever they want or need as “payment” for their production of goods and services.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gift_economy

    That page also lists other non-western indigenous example where gift economies prevailed over long periods of time and for a large populations. Including cultures based in what is now the Pacific North West of the U.S., Papua New Guinea, North Western Mexico and the Pacific islands.

    Reply
  15. Dana -

    Fedup,

    I am glad we can have this discussion here. I don’t have a degree in anything and this isn’t my field of expertise, so excuse me if I quote some examples directly from wikipedia.

    “The anarchist collectives formed during the Spanish Civil War are the most famous example of an anarchist economy operating on a large scale. The collectives were formed under the influence of the anarcho-syndicalist union the CNT in rural and urban areas and successfully practised Workers’ self-management and Collectivist anarchism for a number of years in extremely difficult economic and political circumstances.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchist_economics

    Also

    “In place of a market, anarcho-communists, such as those who inhabited some Spanish villages in the 1930s, support a currency-less gift economy where goods and services are produced by workers and distributed in community stores where everyone (including the workers who produced them) is essentially entitled to consume whatever they want or need as “payment” for their production of goods and services.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gift_economy

    That page also lists other non-western indigenous example where gift economies prevailed over long periods of time and for a large populations. Including cultures based in what is now the Pacific North West of the U.S., Papua New Guinea, North Western Mexico and the Pacific islands.

    Reply
  16. Fedup -

    None of those are large economies. I guess it depends on what you call large. I like it and I think it’s nice, but I respectfully maintain that this is more or less charity. I think that you’d find that there are people who give, and don’t take in return, and vice-versa. I would guess that you are either a net giver or net taker, there are probably precious few that do both in any reasonable measure. So it amounts to a transer from the haves to the have nots. That’s great. I just don’t think this amounts to a serious medium for commerce.

    Reply
  17. Fedup -

    None of those are large economies. I guess it depends on what you call large. I like it and I think it’s nice, but I respectfully maintain that this is more or less charity. I think that you’d find that there are people who give, and don’t take in return, and vice-versa. I would guess that you are either a net giver or net taker, there are probably precious few that do both in any reasonable measure. So it amounts to a transer from the haves to the have nots. That’s great. I just don’t think this amounts to a serious medium for commerce.

    Reply

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