One Spicy Meatball

An account of Food Not Bombs in the city of Kitchener.

One Spicy Meatball

There’s nothing like the world premiere of a movie to gather a couple hundred of concerned citizens into one place at one time. But I swear, I never intended to whip people up into a foaming frenzy!

My feature-length documentary, Escape from Doncatraz, had its world premiere in the City Hall of Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, which is the home of the film’s rightful owner, SilenceBreaker Media. Having sat through a ninety-four minute warning of what Canada might become in the coming months and years following Britain’s transition to a surveillance state, the shocked and angry Canadians had some suggestions for their Commonwealth counterparts across the ocean during my Q&A session with them: “Why doesn’t anyone just smash the CCTV cameras? It’s easy!” I then responded by saying I wasn’t entirely sure, but nor was I sure I was safe here considering I’m not a citizen yet and already I’ve led a few hundred people into the corridors of municipal power where they’ve become a (justifiably) angry mob talking about overthrowing a police state! Luckily, Kitchener has continuously pulled together to actually oppose any attempts to install surveillance cameras in their town.

I guess I gravitate towards centres of struggle. And struggle this town has. Kitchener was once known as Berlin, built by German immigrants who named it after a certain city you may have heard of in their homeland. Come the tensions and xenophobia of the First World War, the city’s lakeside statue of the Kaiser was actually thrown from its pedestal into the water, superseded just a few yards away by a statue of Queen Victoria – and the park was named Victoria Park, which lies just a stone’s throw away from where I now live. With Kaiser Wilhelm I swimming with the fishes (and later disappearing like something from a Simpsons episode on Jebediah Springfield), it was also decided that the city needed a change of name. And so, to disassociate themselves from such things as tyranny, ruthlessness and brutality, they did what any of us would do in such a situation, and named it instead after the British icon Lord Kitchener – the handlebar-moustachioed chap of confused sexuality whose most significant contribution to the world was his perfection of the concentration camp. Yeah, that’s much better.

Since those dark days, Kitchener has moved onwards and upwards, with a significant manufacturing sector that employs almost a quarter of the city’s entire labour force. But that figure’s been falling, and its employment power is probably far less than that by the time you’ve reached the end of this sentence. Western countries’ borders, you see, are continuously tightened for refugees fleeing war, famine, terror and torture, but are left open for corporations to come in, and also go out – meaning that many of them have taken advantage of the North American Free Trade Agreement that’s tightened borders and built walls stopping people, but made it easier in many ways for companies to move their factories to one of the other NAFTA countries where it’s easier to increase the gap between sales and wages (*cough*Mexico*cough*) and thus make more money. Kitchener’s felt the effects of this, losing factories and leaving people jobless, with an Ontario welfare system that – perhaps thanks to former Tory premier Mike Harris – leaves people receiving a cheque of barely more than $500 per month, meaning they can most likely choose to either feed themselves, or house themselves, but certainly not both. Well, most people choose food, and stay alive, even if it means sleeping in the street. Some are housed, but starved.

So, Kitchener’s had its ass kicked, and is still struggling to hold on, but is already regarded as a “post-industrial” city. Walk around the place and you’ll see several streets with tall buildings, unique stores, comparatively few multinational chain stores, cafes and coffee shops with people talking and laughing, and activity until the early hours of the night. You could be fooled into thinking Billy Joel was based here in his video for “Uptown Girl.” The Uptown Girl in question here, though, would likely be found up King Street, in Waterloo, last year named The World’s Top Intelligent Community – even though both “intelligent” and “community” likely come bottom of everyone’s list when they’re asked to think of two words to describe Waterloo. This single-street “city” feels more like a live-action Disney movie-set full of bars that seem like Hooters for the Higher Class – with the miserable expressions of waitresses to prove it. There, they actually take part in a kind of “cleansing” by picking up homeless people and dropping them off down in Kitchener (perhaps thinking the sign for “Kitchener” was referring to one of Lord Kitchener’s concentration camps to suit their disgusting mindset.) Heck, they even call Kitchener “downtown” and Waterloo “uptown,” and this is reflected by the down-to-earth blue-collar folk in the former and the green-washed middle class consumers – pardon me, “Ethical Consumers” – in the latter.

Waterloo, though, is home to the main campuses of two major Canadian universities. The first is Wilfrid Laurier University, where my partner studies culture as part of a uni undercurrent of arts and activism amongst a mass of fake-tanned orange skin and bought-and-paid-for business students regurgitating information in the hopes of being good little capitalist business people (rich capitalist business people, that is – too bad I haven’t the heart to tell them that the majority of them will actually end up poor – sink or swim, baby, just like the teacher told you!) The second one is the University of Waterloo, where geeks go to learn how to be ubergeeks, and also home to the Waterloo Public Interest Research Group (WPIRG), one of many chartered PIRGs that were essentially conceived by one Ralph Nader almost forty years ago, and one of my very first stops in my tour of the area during my preparations to move here. I was impressed.

WPIRG utilizes undergraduate funds to allow “students to work in the public interest,” researching and campaigning through action groups. One of these action groups, Food Not Bombs, has been active for many years, acting on a simple concept: war is bad, feeding people is good – such a simple concept that even I can understand it. It kind of sounds like a Canadian peacekeeping mission, except this actually works and doesn’t ask for oil in return. There’s no catch here! Better yet, they’ve been based in Kitchener so that the “bums” – rubbing their own bums after having them not only kicked by Mike Harris, Stephen Harper, and NAFTA, but also having landed on them upon being dumped off downtown – can actually be fed, for free. Many downtown businesses even helped Food Not Bombs, donating their slightly expired shelf products to the cause.

Yes, all was well with the world in downtown Kitchener’s business-as-usual community: corporations were closing plants and moving to Mexico; former workers were buying cat food with their welfare cheque in order to feed themselves; the homeless were being moved away from the nice, clean, white streets- sorry, street of Waterloo while the SUV-driving soccer moms bought their compact flourescent lightbulbs to sleep well at night; and dirty hippy-loving no-good geeks were giving away free food and opposing war. This was the Kitchener I’d grown to know and love. The Kitchener I’d become used to. The Kitchener I knew we could depend on.

Then came the cease-and-desist order.

Someone (for “someone,” read: local businessman) had complained to the council about Food Not Bombs being based right beside City Hall every Saturday lunchtime. But who? And why? My contact in WPIRG called me and suggested that the next time Food Not Bombs went to City Hall anyway and gave away hot meals to the homeless as usual, I ought to show up with my camera. So I did.

It was almost possible to begin to understand why someone complained. I mean, nice, attractive, smiling young people? Giving away free food to the homeless? Promoting peace?! Why, in this day and age it was almost “terrorism”! After all, people have been arrested for less. But as you can see from the footage, no one was. And there I was carrying my camera like a tourist, expecting to see tazer-happy mounties zapping people. But it didn’t happen! No one was even asked to stop serving up the soup.

What I don’t show in the footage is my conversation with the kids in cool t-shirts – I asked them if they thought the culprit could be the David’s Gourmet store, a recent arrival on King Street right opposite the place where Food Not Bombs stand; the group figured that the people there seemed nice since coming downtown and wouldn’t complain about them. I asked them if it could be William’s “Coffee Pub” (no, they don’t serve booze and I have no idea why it’s called a pub); they said they’d been beside William’s for years and already settled a misunderstanding with them a long time ago. So, “whodunnit?” What a mystery! I wanted to take a trip to Baker Street and find Sherlock Holmes himself. But I had a movie to premiere.

At the screening, aside from, y’know, the proposed mass destruction of CCTV cameras and light things of that nature, other issues arose, and given the number of homeless people attending the screening as well, the Q&A session moved onto the topic of Food Not Bombs (I’d like to be able to take credit for the homeless people in attendance, but they were on site due to an awareness-raising action outside, no doubt organized by more freedom-hating terrorists or communists; regrettably, one of them was drunk and too vociferous during my opening speech and was removed by security). I handed the mic over to my friend Evan Coole, secretary of SilenceBreaker Media who also happens to work for WPIRG, and who explained the situation far better than I ever could have, for obvious reasons.

Just a few days later, a public meeting about Food Not Bombs took place, and the cover was blown: David’s Gourmet had indeed been the NIMBY submitting complaints to the city council, and David himself was there, backed-up by like-minded members of the small business community (well, one: a representative from Petsche’s Shoes), to be greeted by the public – including Food Not Bombs and all of their supporters. He’d have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those pesky kids! There were some heated exchanges: from some guy shouting at the mayor (but, unlike the homeless dude at my screening, not being removed, presumably because he was middle class), to the Petsche’s Shoes woman actually claiming Evan Coole and his ilk were probably in cahoots with Al Qaeda (I told you it was terrorism). But the worst – the absolute worst – was yet to come.

I was still recovering from the official May Day launch of SilenceBreaker Media, the screening, and the film festival submissions and distribution deal pursuits to be able to make it to the public meeting, but once I found out about it, I was pretty peeved – aside from, of course, having a smug smirk on my kisser for correctly suspecting David’s Gourmet (hey, it’s good to make up for all the times I’ve been wrong!) I mean, here was a PIRG action group distributing pamphlets on peace and feeding people failed by a flawed system, and some businessman comes from Waterloo to Kitchener and formally complains about the kinds of people and behaviour it attracts!

Being from the battered (you guessed it) post-industrial town of Doncaster, England, I found this even more sickening – back there I’d been harassed, abused and assaulted numerous times, so I knew what a rough town really was, and to suggest Kitchener is ever at all unsafe – let alone in the city centre on a Saturday afternoon – shows what a bubble some of these prejudiced middle class Canadians have lived in all of their coddled little lives.

David launched a blog of his own in order to either soften the blow of bad publicity he was receiving (even by mainstream media standards) or to actually capitalize on the buzz by bringing people into his store (perhaps believing there is, in fact, no such thing as bad publicity.) I couldn’t resist writing a response to it, as politely as I could. David then pushed his proposed campaign, “Take Kitchener Back,” adopting the same principles of cleansing as uptown Waterloo, and only stopping short of the concept of eugenics that was, funnily enough, spearheaded by local hero A.R. Kaufman (appropriately, seemingly the inspiration for the city’s yuppie condo building The Kaufman Lofts). Finally, when David’s rants revealed his pro-military, pro-capitalist politics and he began to further angrily condemn Food Not Bombs, I posted a second time and suggested he must prefer “Hunger and War” and challenged him on almost every point he made – only for him to bypass my post and pick on some of the other, more emotional (though no less valid) posters.

Note: Since writing this blog post, my comments have been deleted from David’s page, and has been pulled at time of writing

During this dialogue, despite the membership to a Facebook group called “Boycott David’s Gourmet” rising to a staggering 500 people in mere days, David said his business hadn’t at all suffered, and claimed sales had actually risen by 30%, which was brilliant considering he’d barely had a few days since the controversy began let alone a full financial year to estimate from, and neither I nor my partner ever seemed to see anyone shop there anymore while across the street working on our laptops. But hey, I could be wrong. I could be wrong about all of this.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe it’s okay to say you’re not racist, or sexist, or homophobic, but talk about “those kinds of people” – those without homes. Maybe it’s okay for the police to rough up the homeless simply because they asked for change while corporate charities that prop up this sick system we live under essentially panhandle on the streets, harassing passers-by to sign up and donate just a few dollars a month from their bank account so charity company executives can drive their fancy cars and condone capitalism. Maybe I’m totally wrong. Maybe it’s time we started supporting our CEOs and fat, rich, white businessmen like David by standing outside his store with signs saying “Take Kitchener Back,” “Food Not Bums,” “I’m Buying Food – Jealous?” and “Homeless Go Home (or somewhere)!” Yeah. Maybe it’s time to stop beating up on the little guys like David (figuratively speaking) and tell the homeless people to keep moving on, to somewhere a little further south, like Cambridge. But wait – then the problem goes somewhere else, instead of going away, right?

So maybe I was right all along. We need to take Kitchener back, alright. Because the day we start believing that we’re so desperate that we need a single gourmet food store more than we do the delivery of decency and a basic human right – to eat – is the day we die. Kitchener’s future lies with activism and arts, two things that merged that day of the world premiere of Escape from Doncatraz, the day SilenceBreaker Media launched – the day Kitchener had been taken back already.

To address the issues raised here and help the working class, go to the Ontario Coalition for Social Justice.