April M. Short

People in LA are feeding each other the food that would be wasted

In any given U.S. city, on any given night, chances are that dumpsters are sitting full of perfectly good food discarded by grocery stores, hotels and restaurants—while people just a few miles away struggle to get enough food on their plates. Even though there is plenty of food in the U.S., many Americans still continue to go hungry.

Between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply in the U.S. is wasted, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. Food deserts exist within the nation's urban centers, and according to the USDA's latest Household Food Security in the United States report published in September 2020, more than 35 million people in the United States experienced hunger in 2019. Households with children were significantly more likely to experience food insecurity, and even before the coronavirus pandemic, more than 10 million children lived in food-insecure households according to the report.

Hunger was already a serious issue in the U.S. prior to COVID-19, and the situation has gotten worse due to the economic impacts of the pandemic. Many businesses have been forced to shut down since March 2020 as a result of these ongoing economic impacts, which has displaced millions of workers. The U.S. unemployment rates have skyrocketed in comparison to the figures before the pandemic.

While many of the numbers are still being tallied, the nonprofit Feeding America estimated that 45 million people "may have experienced food insecurity in 2020" because of the coronavirus pandemic. Volunteers in cities around the country have been implementing emergency food drives, free grocery deliveries and mutual aid projects like community free-food fridges to feed their neighbors since early 2020. Notably, it is individual community members, not the government nor large institutions, who are at the forefront of the effort to help people who are facing food insecurity.

In Los Angeles, a series of projects powered primarily by volunteers have been working to connect hungry people with excess food that would otherwise be wasted—an effort that has doubled down since the beginning of the pandemic.

Genevieve Riutort, deputy director of LA's Westside Food Bank, says the need for food assistance doubled in 2008 and had just begun to return to pre-recession levels when COVID-19 hit.

"The biggest change now is that in addition to low-income families already needing food assistance, so many local people who had never before needed help—parents and children, homebound seniors, people working in the entertainment industry, gig workers, housekeepers and custodians, restaurant workers, college students and veterans—now rely on the food assistance network to feed their families," she says. "Some of our member agencies, those that were run mainly by older volunteers, had to close [due to the pandemic], and many of the new programs are staffed by new volunteers who are now starting to return to their jobs. Some are operating out of sites that may no longer be available as businesses reopen."

In addition to working with member agencies, the food bank has also been supporting local community-led programs in an effort to mitigate the increased need for food assistance and provides food to more than 60 local food programs. Among them is a volunteer-based community food distribution program, Nourish LA, which was founded by Natalie Flores of West Los Angeles to meet the stark increase in food insecurity due to the outbreak of the pandemic. Nourish LA connects people in need of food with establishments that have excess food to offer. They collect donations from farms, community trees and gardens, and they intercept food from supermarkets that would have otherwise been thrown out. She says the need to connect hungry people with food, which LA has in excess, remains critical even after more than a year since the pandemic began in March 2020.

"It's still an urgent need," Flores says. "Just because one parent has gone back to work doesn't mean it's enough because our cost of living is so high. People are trying to cut costs however they can… We're actually finding that we're busier now [as] more people have access to us [Nourish LA]."

The organization gets the word out about what they're offering through case managers and local schools, as well as area flyers and online outreach.

"We really try to put the word out to make sure that people who are really in need can come and get some food," she says.

The idea to start Nourish LA was sparked by a moms group Flores was part of on Facebook.

"I'm a mom of a three-year-old… and I was just seeing so many mothers [in the Facebook group forum] asking for help, whether it was help buying their family a pizza or buying groceries, and I just thought it was absurd," she says. "My background is in urban farming and waste management, so I had already come to find that there's a ton of food waste going on in the city and it's not being mitigated or shared properly with the people who need it. For example, every major grocery store generates an insane amount of food waste."

According to the USDA's Economic Research Service, food waste equated to about "133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010." That estimated 30-40 percent of the food in America that gets wasted, the USDA points out, negatively impacts society. The USDA website states:

"Wholesome food that could have helped feed families in need is sent to landfills. Land, water, labor, energy and other inputs are used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing, and disposing of discarded food."

The issue of hunger in America is not one of food scarcity, but of distribution and access. The challenge comes in connecting people who need food with the excess food that exists—and is likely to be wasted.

Because of her background, Flores says she knew that the systems required to redistribute the wasted food in her area to the people who could use it were not in place. So, she began partnering with various organizations in her area—from restaurants and farms to nonprofits, to the local Westside Food Bank.

Riutort of the Westside Food Bank says the need for food assistance reached a record high level when the pandemic began.

"[The pandemic] created food insecurity for tens of thousands of additional households in our service practically overnight," she says. "To help meet this unprecedented surge in need, several grassroots food distribution [programs] like Nourish LA sprung up, and agencies that previously did not have food programs, like YMCAs, also began distributing food."

The Westside Food Bank supports these new distribution programs by providing them with free, nutritious food from their warehouse each week. Riutort says beginning in March 2020, the Westside Food Bank doubled its wholesale food purchases and increased the amount of food it distributed to member agencies as well as new community partners.

"Programs like Nourish LA are reaching people who need food assistance for the first time because of the pandemic, and truly focus on a neighbor helping neighbor model that reduces stigma, encourages participation among immigrant communities, and focuses on providing nutritious and culturally appropriate foods," she says.

Riutort notes that for many, the impacts of the pandemic will be long-term when it comes to food insecurity. While a small number of people who lost their jobs and sought food assistance for the first time will be back on their feet soon, she says many thousands of local households will face up to a decade of food insecurity after having depleted their savings, accumulated debt and cashed out retirement plans. With the rent relief and eviction moratoriums put into place in response to the pandemic likely to expire soon, "many face the imminent threat of becoming homeless," Riutort says.

"The pandemic has changed the face of food assistance for years to come," she says. "We are concerned that as the health crisis eases, we may see a reduction in community support for food programs. We are working to keep people informed about the ongoing need to support local food assistance programs. We also intend to maintain our higher level of food purchasing and distribution for the next several years to better meet the local needs. We tailor our food purchasing based on the best available wholesale prices and the specific nutritional and cultural needs of our community."

Starting a Local Food Assistance Program

Many people who live in urban centers may not realize that there are urban food deserts in their area, or that the need for community donations and food distribution is widespread in most U.S. cities. Riutort says Westside Food Bank's service area, for example, which encompasses about one-tenth of Los Angeles County and houses "well over a million residents, has a reputation of being a wealthy area. However, [many households can barely afford] the cost of living in the area, which is particularly high."

"The rate of food insecurity in our area matches the national average with one in six households with children lacking enough food on a regular basis," Riutort says. "That figure is even higher among Black and Latino households… Prior to COVID-19, our food was reaching about 110,000 people annually; now we are nourishing more than 200,000 local people, nearly half of whom are children."

Flores says if someone wants to start something similar to Nourish LA in their own area, partnering with local churches is the easiest route.

"This is because you need refrigeration, and a parking lot—and you need space," she says. The other reason, she says, is that churches already have their own nonprofit number, and having nonprofit status is key to collecting food donations and giving food away. The "Good Samaritan Act provides liability protection for food donations," according to a blog on the USDA website, and requires a third-party nonprofit in order to establish this protection. This protection incentivizes businesses like restaurants and grocery stores to donate their excess food.

"Often businesses will be concerned with, 'What if somebody gets sick [after consuming the food]?' and the nonprofit status [entity] acts as a third party so that stores aren't liable for the food anymore," she explains. "Once food is given off to a third party, stores [or individuals or other businesses] don't have liability relating to this food."

"I began by casting a big net," Flores says, noting that she had recently learned about FoodCycle LA, which works to prevent food from major grocery stores from going to the landfill.

Nourish LA now partners with FoodCycle LA in addition to a number of other local programs. Additionally, Flores had already worked with the Westside Food Bank and Food Forward, which focuses on gleaning surplus fruit and veggies.

"I called on my network and I told people, 'I want to create a food drive to help people in need gain access to healthy food,'" she says. The groups she contacted were immediately on board.

Flores made a flyer for an event and got friends and neighbors together for the effort. They recycled the plastic and paper bags that had been sitting in their pantries and used them to pack up healthy food products, fruits and veggies that were donated, to distribute to neighbors. In their first event, they helped 60 families and ran out of food in an hour. Next, she called up a friend who owns the local restaurant the Wood Cafe and asked to host an event there. Being a restaurant, the Wood Cafe was able to get a hold of a significant amount of food donations. Even so, the event ran out of food in 20 minutes.

"I knew that we had to expand, and we had to reach more people," she says, because "I knew there was more food" being needlessly wasted.

Nourish LA and its partners put the call out to people to glean the fruits from their trees—all the grapefruits, lemons, avocados and oranges (which are ample in LA most of the year)—and donate them.

"Sometimes there are elders who own parcels of land that have fruit trees, and they don't have the energy or the capacity to harvest them, but we'll harvest them. We'll go there and talk to them, and they almost always say yes. I always tell people, please do not sit on that fruit. It's not good for your trees, and you can feed people [with the fruit]."

In addition to the fruit, donations from restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses, Nourish LA also began to receive canned foods, dry goods and other donations from local households. They expanded the call for volunteers and eventually gained traction.

"First we were reaching 70 people, then 100, then 1,000," says Flores.

Now, they reach about 3,000 people every weekend. They serve West Los Angeles but also deliver to people in Inglewood, Culver City, Mar Vista, Venice and Santa Monica.

"What's great is that it's not garbage food, it's really healthy food. It's fresh baked bread, vegetables, eggs and organic milk," she says.

Nourish LA has 50 regular volunteers that help throughout the week with everything from picking up and transporting food to setting up and breaking down their events.

Nancy Beyda, executive director of FoodCycle LA, says there are "major issues in the food distribution system in the U.S., and these barriers are mirrored in the system for recovering excess food." FoodCycle LA approaches food waste as a systemic issue that contributes to hunger as well as the climate crisis. She says organizations collaborating and partnering when possible is key to creating large-scale change.

"We're focused on creating systemic change, and in order to do that we want to create a network that is large enough to have a big impact," Beyda says. "Our current food system is deeply broken—moving away from ideas of scarcity and competition for resources toward values like sharing and collaboration is a necessary part of the shift in consciousness that we need in order to truly fix the system, and save the planet."

Beyda says their organization's food distributions grew more than 1,000 percent during 2020, made possible by community collaborations.

"Creating these partnerships with local organizations allowed us to expand dramatically in response to the pandemic," she says. "We currently work with almost 330 different community-based organizations that are serving food-insecure populations."

Since 2019, FoodCycle LA has been implementing Hack for LA's online database Food Oasis, which collects up-to-date information about all the organizations in Los Angeles helping to feed people and maps them out. They also use the ChowMatch app to help people connect with food resources.

Unlike many community food distribution programs, FoodCycle LA accepts perishable foods, because they have the systems in place to get them to people before they go bad.

"We understood that in order to best direct resources and make sure that donated food is used, rather than wasted, it was important to know exactly where to send it," Beyda says. "The food that we receive is perishable and is often near the end of its shelf life, so it needs to be used immediately. We have to know where they can distribute it as soon as possible, so that it doesn't end up spoiling and getting thrown away later. We also believe that it is important to help community-based organizations where neighbors are helping neighbors."

Beyda says one challenge in the food recovery space is that many of the food recovery processes in place were not set up to pay attention to the environmental impacts of recovering and transporting food, or whether that food was being used once an agency received it.

"I discovered this personally when I spent weekends getting farmers market donations for a homeless organization that ended up tossing much of it later in the week as it went unused," she says. "These donations were being tracked as diverted from the landfill but were actually being ultimately thrown away. Part of this problem can be solved by technology and better matching donations where they are truly needed. At the onset of the pandemic, we worked to move food around from some of the large food pantries that were going to throw away excess donations and distributing it to smaller organizations that actually had a need for more food. We also have incorporated electric vehicles in order to offset the environmental impact of transporting recovered food. Looking at the systemic issues that exist and incorporating technology to address them has helped us to do a better job of recovering food and making sure it gets to the people who really need it."

Beyda says 2020 demonstrated the new system of community-based food distribution "really works."

"We can have an amazing impact and help many, many people by taking a step back and looking at ways to do things more consciously and also by collaborating and working with other like-minded folks," she says. "One of the unexpected blessings last year was being introduced to so many amazing individuals like Natalie [Flores] and seeing how much we could do when we joined hands and supported each other."

There is increasing pressure on grocery stores and restaurants not to waste their perishable foods. Flores notes that grocery stores and other establishments in California in particular face this pressure as the state has adopted the first mandatory organic recycling bill, AB 1826, which went into effect in 2019 and 2020, making it mandatory for businesses that create more than 2 cubic yards of solid waste to compost.

"[Businesses] are looking to get rid of their excess food as easily as possible, so now there's even more of an incentive for stores to give out their food to people like us," she says.

In addition to distributing food to people in need, Nourish LA offers accessible gardening education, through a partnership with Shemesh Farms in which they collect the farm's leftover seeds and seedlings to give away to people who want to plant vegetable gardens. They gather with master gardeners to answer people's questions and provide education around planting and care.

Flores says a project like Nourish LA is replicable almost anywhere, and all that it requires is people who are willing to organize and take action to get it off the ground.

"I want to encourage people to get up and do something," she says. "If you're tired of the way things look and you're tired of the way things are, then what are you really doing about it? We actually have a lot of power."

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The lasting impact of the 2020 Oregon wildfires

The summer of 2020 was a time of fire and devastation for much of the Western U.S. The combination of human-caused climate change and pervasive forestry mismanagement created the conditions for August 2020's thunderstorms to cause record-breaking wildfires across California, Oregon, and Washington (as well as additional fires all across the Western states into September). Because of the many factors—torrential winds, hot and dry terrains following drought and logging practices like clear-cutting, worsening storms due to climate change—the situation quickly grew into a disaster as individual forest fires connected and turned into megafires and scorched more than 10.2 million acres of land, destroyed more than 10,000 buildings and took at least 37 people's lives. In the midst of a global pandemic, people were forced to evacuate to crowded public spaces, as toxic chemical smoke made the air unbreathable and entire cities were advised not to open any windows or go outdoors, for weeks on end.

The Bike Brigade and Mutual Aid

Those who were not impacted by fires might not realize how long it takes to recover from them. In Southern Oregon's Rogue Valley communities of Talent and Phoenix, just north of Ashland, many remain homeless after being displaced by the fires. The area, home to about 80,000 people, remains in full swing fire recovery mode eight months after the destructive Almeda Fire incinerated entire neighborhoods in early September 2020.

The fire particularly impacted low-income communities, burning up entire mobile home parks, which accounted for three-quarters of residences lost in the Almeda Fire. Many of the people most affected by the fires are Latinx immigrants—many of whom are farmworkers—and their families, who are unable to qualify for basic safety nets like bank accounts, housing insurance and recovery loans. In addition to their homes, these people lost their life's savings, their jobs and any semblance of stability they'd had before the fire.

Dani Leonardo, a longtime Ashland resident who works with the nonprofit Post Growth Institute and volunteers with the local foundation Mi Valle Mi Hogar / My Valley My Home (which supports Latinx communities in Ashland and the surrounding region) points out that the Rogue Valley already had an affordable housing shortage prior to the fire. Following the fire, this shortage turned into crises for low-income immigrant communities.

"Affordable housing, in particular, has increasingly been hard to find here in the Valley," says Leonardo. "More than 2,000 homes burned, and so many of those homes were the only affordable housing options in the Rogue Valley. So many of the folks that have been impacted by this fire are from the Latinx community; they're working families and farmworkers. These communities that were already at a disadvantage and among the most marginalized people in this valley are now facing a really painful nightmare situation."

Laura Loescher, an Ashland resident who works as a philanthropic adviser and leadership coach, notes that while Ashland is a more affluent community, the communities that were most devastated by the Almeda Fire were more lower-income, worker-based communities living in mobile homes and other small neighborhoods.

"It was so heartbreaking that the economic divide and injustice and inequality that was already present was furthered [by the fire]," she says. "Many people were aware of that divide, and in a couple of days right after the fire, there was no sense of what the official response would be or what the [relief] agencies were doing. There was no sense that anyone was coordinating anything. And so, regular people just started jumping in and offering things."

Directly following the fire, the towns of Phoenix and Talent were inaccessible by car and people were living without access to power, water and basic supplies. Leonardo was among a group of volunteers from Ashland who organized a mutual aid effort on bicycle called the Ashland Bike Brigade directly following the fire. They loaded up their bicycles with basic supplies like water and toilet paper and rode through smoke and heat to offer aid.

"It was a unique, feel-good thing that came together in the first days after the fire," Leonardo says. "There were people who were literally just stranded out there without drinking water. A few people here in Ashland learned about this—and one person, in particular, Donnie Maclurcan, who I work with at the Post Growth Institute—and rallied a small group of us."

The first day following the fire, a small crew loaded up as much bottled water as they could carry, biked to Talent from Ashland and handed out water to anyone around, amid the still-smoldering ashes.

"It was both devastating and beautiful and I feel privileged to have been a part of that," Leonardo says.

The initial bike brigade group, on the first day following the fire, was made up of just about eight people. The next day, 100-plus people from Ashland showed up for the effort.

"It was just this epic response from the community," Leonardo says.

Over the next week or so, the Ashland Bike Brigade morphed into a larger mutual aid effort. People began to donate additional supplies—like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, face masks, food and clothing—as well as other forms of immediate relief. Many of the people who had taken an interest in the bike brigade began to help with things like coordinating volunteers, directing supplies to the correct places, and so on. The Rogue Volunteer Initiative, whose headquarters happened to be directly next door to where the bike brigade organizers were meeting, joined forces with the project. The efforts merged, and the Rogue Volunteer Initiative became a volunteer coordination and mutual aid organization hub, which at its peak encompassed 10 different distribution locations for supplies and resources around the Rogue Valley, all operated by local volunteers. The Rogue Volunteer Initiative also became a community Facebook group, which Leonardo says jumped from zero to 2,000 members in just over a week. The online group provided a space for people to match offers with needs organically.

"The positive impact and support that the volunteer initiative effort, including the Ashland Bike Brigade, was able to make is really immeasurable," Leonardo says.

After the initial community rallying response began to slow down a bit, Leonardo says, the local foundation My Valley My Home became a sort of umbrella for the efforts of the Rogue Volunteer Initiative and the bike brigade. As of December 2020, there was just one community volunteer distribution site still in operation in Phoenix, but the Rogue Volunteer Initiative Facebook group remains active. Community members continue to use the group to connect people with supplies; some people post offerings of furniture they have to give or share information about local events related to fire recovery and response.

Long-Term Recovery, Listening Circles and Earth Altars

While larger aid programs like the American Red Cross and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) did show up to aid with fire recovery efforts in Phoenix and Talent, they only participated in the immediate emergency response, Loescher notes. After the early relief stage of recovery concluded, those groups, for the most part, left. Long-term fire recovery has fallen to the generosity of community members, via donations, home-sharing, and mutual aid organizing.

In addition to on-the-ground mutual aid volunteer work, a significant influx of money donations—including some creative fundraising initiatives—has helped to sustain the community fire relief efforts. Loescher says she was heartened by the many donation stations that cropped up around the community—including one at the local Shakespeare Festival theater, which closed to the public because of COVID-19.

"It was absolutely stunning to me [to see] the generosity of everyone wanting to help and do something [and] the level of coordinated action that began to happen among people who don't know each other," she says, noting that social media was a key tool to organize people. While she says goods donations were essential, she realized early on that the community would need an influx of money.

"There were a lot of donations pouring into nonprofits, but that wasn't going to help a lot of the people who had lost their homes, who might've been undocumented or otherwise unable to access certain agency funding—plus, agency funding is limited in what it can be used for," Loescher says.

So, being a philanthropic adviser, she reached out to her clients and connections.

"I just sent out a letter to a bunch of my clients and friends and family members and started raising money from outside of the community that I could then give directly to people as cash," she says. Because she doesn't speak Spanish, she contacted the people she knew who were connected with the local Latinx community and invited them to be the flow funders.

She called the effort the Community Resilience Flow Fund. At first, she raised money in large chunks from clients and friends, and then as word spread, money started coming in from the grassroots.

"I just started getting $50 and $100 sent to me on Venmo, [which I used to withdraw] cash," she says. She then gave the money to four volunteers she had operating as flow funders in the community. "I would just give them cash and they would [distribute] it directly to families [in need]."

Flow fund donations continued to trickle in over the months, and by January 2021 Loescher had raised and given out about $120,000 in cash directly to families, in addition to other funds she raised for relief organizations.

In addition to working as an adviser and coach, Loescher is an artist, and as a way to contend with the grief of 2020 on a personal level, with the pandemic, racial justice upheavals and the enormity of the climate crisis, she began to create Earth Altar art pieces in 2020.

Her Earth Altars pieces are "impermanent art co-created with nature," according to the website, and are made with material found in nature that is arranged in mandala-like circling patterns and shapes. They are circles of deep green fern leaves interspersed with orange trumpet flowers; spirals of bright blue chicory arranged with petals and acorns. They are eye-catching patterns of grasses, ferns, sticks, seeds and nuts and flower petals, leaves and rocks arranged in "beautiful ways." If it is something that can be found walking around outdoors in Ashland, chances are good it will appear in an Earth Altar. After she arranges the altars, she photographs them, and the effect is a striking contrast of bright, circling color against a dark backdrop.

Loescher started out creating Earth Altars, one each day, for herself as a personal practice that helped her feel grounded and connected with the planet. Eventually, she began to share her art with the community and was offered an art show where she could display the altars via wall-hanging canvases and greeting cards. After the devastation caused by the fire, she had the idea to turn them into part of the relief effort.

"[After the fire] I immediately decided that that art show was going to be a fundraiser for this flow fund," she says. All proceeds from the art show went directly into the flow fund toward fire relief, and then she donated art to families and local businesses impacted by the fires.

She also worked with local filmmaker Katie Teague to organize an event for families who had been impacted by the fire as well as those working on the front lines of disaster relief. They gathered people to create a Community Resilience Earth Altar as a healing ceremony, in a field near the location where the fire started in Ashland.

"We got a bunch of donated flowers from local farms and pulled together a group of people to create this giant altar," she says. "It had a tree of life in the center, [four smaller circles] representing the four directions [and the four triangular sections coming out of the main central circle] representing each of the communities that were impacted."

Loescher says that fire recovery in the Rogue Valley is far from over. Because there is a serious housing shortage, there are still many people without homes, people living in trailers, and families sharing space with generous neighbors or living in hotels and motels.

"One of the biggest challenges is that people are having to move out of the area, and [they are] the workforce and the backbone of the local economy," she says. "[Having to leave] has a negative impact on them personally and on their families, and then also on the local economy here… families have broken up as marriages have ended out of the stress of dealing with [the aftermath of the fire], so now there are a lot of single moms with their kids, trying to make their way through this situation. What I'm focused on right now in particular [with the flow fund] is helping these single-mom families."

Leonardo says in addition to the initial triage of the fire's damages, My Valley My Home has begun to focus on what recovery really means, into the long term.

"[My Valley My Home is] looking at how to help ensure equity and inclusion in the long term, as we rebuild," she says. "There are two catchphrases I've been thinking about in the last few months. One is 'it's a marathon and not a sprint,' and another is 'we're building the plane and flying it at the same time.' There's something unique about the challenges of such an immediate and dire crisis that also has these long-term consequences. We need to create and build mechanisms that will carry and get us all the way through the marathon, but can also respond to that immediate need."

My Valley My Home offers mentorship and support groups and held weekly listening circles and storytelling events in various places around the Rogue Valley, for individuals hit hard by the fires to share their stories with each other and be listened to.

"It's also about having a place to put their grief," Leonardo says. "One of the things I think that we are collectively aspiring toward [via My Valley My Home] is to create a model [for future aid and support] that can be replicated." And, she says in order for the response to be worthy of replication, all of the elements involved in true recovery and creating a healthy community must be present in the effort: grief-tending and well-being, mutual aid and people-care, sustainability and environmental justice.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

This anthropologist explains how humanity can realistically end war — forever

We live in a time in which we face many global challenges, including the climate disaster, dwindling biodiversity (due to international industrial practices), polluted oceans, nuclear proliferation and a worldwide pandemic, just for starters. Realistic solutions to the hurdles humanity faces will require international cooperation—which will require the adoption of viable alternatives to the predominant systems of conflict and war.

While conflict and war have written much of modern human history, they offer an incomplete narrative. Anthropological evidence suggests war is not innate to humanity, as detailed in a recent Independent Media Institute (IMI) article on the topic. Further, war can be successfully stopped and can be prevented in the future when societies shift their cultures and values and adopt intentional systems of peace, or what are now called peace systems, due in large part to the work of anthropologist Douglas P. Fry. Fry, a professor and chair of the department of peace and conflict studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has studied existing clusters of neighboring societies that do not make war with each other, and how they operate, for years. These peace systems exist both in smaller, Indigenous groups like Brazil's Upper Xingu River Basin tribes and Aboriginal Australians, as well as in larger societies, the most obvious modern example being the European Union (EU)—a peace system which would have been assumed impossible, even ridiculous, just decades prior to its adoption.

Fry says peace systems like the EU demonstrate the ability for peace to eclipse systems of war.

"Today, the idea of the European nations waging war with each other is absurd," he says. Fry notes that humans are flexible, and sweeping changes in the way we operate are the rule, rather than the exception.

Fry was one of the leading authors of an article published on January 18, 2021, in the scientific journal Nature titled "Societies Within Peace Systems Avoid War and Build Positive Intergroup Relationships." It offers a comparative anthropological perspective to demonstrate not only that some human societies avoid war but also that peaceful social systems exist—and they work.

The article's abstract states:

"The mere existence of peace systems is important because it demonstrates that creating peaceful intergroup relationships is possible whether the social units are tribal societies, nations, or actors within a regional system. Peace systems have received scant scientific attention despite holding potentially useful knowledge and principles about how to successfully cooperate to keep the peace. Thus, the mechanisms through which peace systems maintain peaceful relationships are largely unknown."

The study's authors hypothesized that there are certain factors known to contribute to intergroup peace and demonstrated that those factors are more developed within peace systems than elsewhere. These factors include:

  • Overarching common identity
  • Positive social interconnectedness
  • Interdependence
  • Non-warring values and norms
  • Non-warring myths, rituals, and symbols
  • Peace leadership

The study explains that "a machine learning analysis found non-warring norms, rituals, and values to have the greatest relative importance for a peace system outcome." The findings of the analysis of peace systems also show that they may have policy implications regarding "how to promote and sustain peace, cohesion, and cooperation among neighbouring societies in various social contexts, including among nations. For example, the purposeful promotion of peace system features may facilitate the international cooperation necessary to address interwoven global challenges such as global pandemics, oceanic pollution, loss of biodiversity, nuclear proliferation, and climate change," the study abstract states.

April M. Short, reporting for IMI, recently interviewed Doug P. Fry about his work studying peace systems and their potentially global implications.

April M. Short: How did you first come to study alternatives to war, and what made you begin to question the predominant narratives around humans and war (which have typically assumed war is a given)?

Douglas P. Fry: This goes way back for me. I was a teenager toward the end of the Vietnam War, and in that time period I certainly picked up on the movements against the Vietnam War. Unlike more recent wars, there were, on the nightly news, pictures of bodies, Vietcong bodies, civilian bodies and American troops who'd been killed in combat. War was really ugly, and it came onto our TV sets. As a young person, I realized that I was going to turn 18 in a couple of years, and that really pushed me to a personal set of reflections. "Would I really engage in a war that I felt was wrong?" That was one. Then, much more philosophically, or deeply, I asked myself, "Could I really find it within myself to kill another human being?"

I went through exploration by reading and talking to a few friends, and talking to my father, who was very supportive, and reached the decision that I should apply for a conscientious objector status (and the military ultimately classified me as 1-H; H is for holding. It was like I was in limbo, and if they needed more troops, they would call me up, but they never did). At about the same time, I started university at UCLA and I discovered anthropology, and it has been a love affair ever since. I think anthropology is just a wonderful field… it takes into consideration all the world's cultures and what it means to be human. It asks, where did we come from in the past, and what's our nature, and so forth. For me, in particular, the guiding question was, at first, to understand human aggressiveness and the violence of war, and then I morphed over the decades to try to understand how we can get rid of war. What actions can we take as alternatives? How can we promote peace? How can we promote nonviolent forms of conflict resolution to deal with our differences without war?

AMS: How did you eventually come to study systems of peace and intergroup cooperation, or peace systems?

DPF: Around 2000, I realized that in anthropology there were not really any central books that dealt in a holistic or complete way with peace. So, I formulated a scheme to study peace (and eventually systems of peace). I was living in Finland at the time and working part-time. I thought, "I've got the ideas, I've got the time, this is an opportunity." I started working on a book that eventually became The Human Potential for Peace. For that book, I was reading avidly about internally peaceful societies and conflict resolution across cultures. I was thinking about archaeology and delving into the question of, "How old is war?" I was also looking at evolutionary theory and doing a bit of a critique of some of the primatological work that Brian Ferguson mentions in your recent interview.

Out of this exploration, I came across the work of Thomas Gregor, who is one of many anthropologists who had worked with societies in Brazil's Upper Xingu River Basin. What Gregor nicely summed up was that there are about 10 tribes there that have four different language groups represented, and that they are a peace system. He used that term, "peace system," and I just thought that was very cool. In chapter two of The Human Potential for Peace I gave a pretty thorough review of all of Gregor's work, as well as other anthropologists who had studied the region—and I mention this because it's rather unusual when you find a rich description from different people and they all pretty much correspond with each other over decades and over sources. These Upper Xingu River Basin societies really do not engage in warfare with each other.

They don't like violence. They perceive themselves as civilized, and morally superior to neighboring Indigenous groups that do engage in warfare because they don't believe in killing people. Now, they will engage in warfare to protect themselves, so they're not total pacifists, but they are non-warring among themselves. And that's the key way to define peace systems, or at least that's the way I've done it across a series of articles: clusters of societies that don't make war with each other. Sometimes they don't make war at all, but sometimes they do make war outside the system.

I enjoyed reading everything I could find on these societies and writing it up for chapter two, and that's how I discovered peace systems. Since that time, I've made many personal moves between different countries, different jobs, and focuses for my work, but I always somehow come back to peace systems. It happened that in 2014, I was invited by a colleague, Peter Coleman, who's an eminent peace psychologist and social psychologist at Columbia University, to be part of a project he was launching on mapping sustainable peace, now called the Sustaining Peace Project. I was a core member there, and my wife, Geneviève Souillac, is involved with the project as well. Early in 2014, I was considering how I could really contribute to this as an anthropologist. I went home after the first day of meeting for the project and woke up thinking: "Peace systems, of course!"

That was really the birth of the article in Nature. You'll notice there's a whole team that worked on that article, including my former students who collected a lot of the data and coded it. My wife, Geneviève Souillac, and I have been talking about, and thinking and writing on, this subject since we've known each other… Peter generated and pushed the button to start the whole thing by starting up this sustaining peace project and including us. It was very labor-intensive to find all these societies and code all this data. Here we are literally six years later, and it has finally come out in print.

AMS: In the article, it is noted that not only do some human societies not engage in war, but peaceful social systems or peace systems exist. Will you clarify the difference between simply an absence of war between groups and societies that actively engage in peace?

DPF: This is an interesting point. In peace studies, we sometimes talk about negative peace and positive peace. Negative peace is simply the absence of violence or the absence of war, and, therefore, there's peace. Sort of what the person on the street tends to think is, "Oh, we're at peace for now," or, "War is coming; we're now at war." That's a negative definition of peace, in peace studies.

Then there are all sorts of variations on what we call positive peace. These would include the positive elements, so not simply the opposites of violence. These are things such as people having equal rights or access to resources; being part of decision-making for the group (and democracy would be one model for this; another might be nomadic foragers who were egalitarian and made decisions out of discussion and consensus). Having your basic needs taken care of is generally thought to be positive peace, so things like safe drinking water, enough to eat, and access to health care. In a way, if you start ticking the boxes for what is a good life, in terms of having your needs taken care of and living safely and happily, that's where a whole variety of different positive peace elements come in.

For this article in Nature, I remember my wife and I were talking and discussing peace systems a year ago. She was telling me, "We've got to make really clear this distinction between positive and negative peace. The definition that you started with is a negative definition of these clusters."

She was absolutely right, and I hadn't thought of it that way. My next thought was that what we are actually looking at are the conditions and features that lead to a peace system.

There are some societies where it has just been noted in the literature that they don't engage in warfare, and there are different ways to look at this. There's been a big presumption on the part of anthropologists and others, as part of the traditional view, that, of course, everybody engages in warfare.

One interesting reflection of this, historically, is this monumental work done during World War II, by political scientist Quincy Wright and a whole team of scholars. When they looked at ethnographic data from many different angles that they pursued in the study of war, they only used four classifications for the different types of societies, for almost 600 societies. They said a society could either engage in warfare because it was a social phenomenon or economic phenomenon or political phenomenon, or defensive, and they classified it as defensive for only about 5 percent of those societies. In their descriptions, they said these people are not particularly warlike, but if they had encountered a fighting force, no doubt, they would have used their simple tools and their digging sticks to fight back and defend themselves. Hence, the label they put on these societies: defensive war.

I went through some of these "defensive war" societies. I looked at enough of them to realize that some and maybe all of them really were non-warring societies. And there had been a misclassification because of the starting presumption that all societies make war. There was no category called non-warring societies. That was one thing that I just found psychologically and historically pretty interesting as an apparent bias. And it was, otherwise, a very carefully done, and monumental, study of war.

What I did in writing The Human Potential for Peace is I started collecting a list of non-warring societies. And to classify them as such, it had to be very clear that they did not engage in warfare—the ethnographers or the historians had to really spell this out, I wasn't just taking vague statements like "these were peace-loving people." I came up with 74 examples, across different types of social organizations, of non-warring societies. So, most societies do partake in some sort of collective, violent engagement with other societies, but some do not. The difference there is that peace systems really are clusters. They could be as few as say three societies, or they could be 27, as with the European Union. They are a given number of clusters of neighboring societies that don't engage in war with each other.

Many of the non-warring societies might exist as members of a peace system, or they might be somewhat isolated in some cases, or it could be ethnographically or historically unclear as to how many societies they were in contact with. There is a wealth of further studies that need to be done, and could be done, on non-warring societies and peace systems. We're just touching the tip of the iceberg with our 16 examples of peace systems that we talk about in the recent article. What we have is a relatively small, well-described number of peace systems. Then we've got a larger number of societies that are just being reported by historians or anthropologists as non-warring. They sort of overlap, but that would be the distinction or the difference.

AMS: In the article, you hypothesize a list of features present in societies that contribute to peace systems. One of these is "overarching common identity." Would you explain that a bit further?

DPF: In working on the Nature article, these different features that would promote peace came to mind as hypotheses, based on the social science literature as well as our studies of existing peace systems. These include things such as having an overarching identity, not just a parochial identity. Rather than just identifying, for example, as, "I'm a Finn," it's, "I'm a Finn, and I'm a European." And that is happening in the EU as we speak. The idea is, there's this overall identity where people perceive themselves as Europeans.

Another example of a peace system is the United States (which is in some ways sort of a problematic one, because we did have a civil war in the middle of the country's history, among other issues)… but what's really telling to me is that when we were still 13 colonies and fighting that Revolutionary War and then grappling with what the way forward would be, people's identities were connected with that of the former colonies. People identified with their states. People from Virginia were Virginians and people from Georgia were Georgians, and that was their primary identity. At some point, this all shifted to include this higher level of identity of being American.

Overarching identity is just one of the features of positive peace, and it's a really important factor that promotes positive peace and a peace system. As you know from the article, there are others that we discuss as potential factors, and we could probably come up with a few other ones in addition to them.

AMS: I read the chapter you co-authored with your wife, Geneviève Souillac, for Ronald Edsforth's A Cultural History of Peace in the Modern Age (1920-present), which was titled "Human Nature, Peace, and War in the Modern Era Since 1920." In the chapter, you break down and confront the classic narrative of human history that says war is basically human nature and explain that this is a perspective that is at least as old as Greek civilization. What made you think to challenge the common assumptions around war and human nature?

DPF: I tend to take a very holistic view, as does my wife, meaning we look at information interdisciplinarily as much as we can. Now, the common theme for that particular chapter is on history, but there is also the thesis that we could take a totally new perspective. The dominant perspective is just steeped in Western tradition and it's basically not supported by evidence. That leads to the question, "What evidence are you talking about?" In the chapter you mention, we thought it would be good to just give a rather brief and understandable sampling of the various types of evidence that you can find across sub-disciplines, and across the disciplines that really support a totally new way of looking at humanity that's not in accordance with the traditional view. We look at evidence for nomadic foragers and ask whether or not they are warlike, and to what degree, and what sort of violence they practice. The reason anthropologists look at nomadic foragers is because we as a human species have lived as nomadic foragers for almost our entire existence.

In getting at human nature questions, there's going to be a mix of genes and environment, or nature and nurture and so forth to consider. We acknowledge epigenetics—the term used to consider gene-environment interaction—and in this case it plays into the way we live, the types of societies we lived in and the physical environments along with the social environments (both of which are important to take into consideration). So we consider, "How are we in the so-called state of nature?" The answer, shortly put, is that nomadic foragers are not particularly warlike. They're very egalitarian. They have a lot of space and low population density, and because they move around, they don't have material possessions. They don't really have much to fight over.

Then, of course, another line to look at is archaeology. In the traditional view, they usually acknowledge, somewhat begrudgingly, that there's no real evidence of warfare back beyond roughly 10,000 years ago, which is about the time agriculture started to come in. If you look at archaeology, the evidence really isn't there for war forever backward, as Brian Ferguson likes to put it.

What some of the proponents of the traditional view say is that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and I recall that was in the [IMI article with Brian Ferguson] and Ferguson explained that that's not a scientific claim because you can't disprove it, which I thought was a lovely point. There are also multiple sequences around the planet that show the origins of war, so if you think about it, the evidence sort of undermines this whole idea that war is ancient. If it had evolved long ago and always been with us, then why do we find archaeological sequences from Oaxaca, for example, in Mexico, or from several parts of the Northwest coast of America, or from the Kodiak Island area in Alaska and so on that show that there's a long period of nomadic foraging and no evidence of warfare; then people start settling down and they tend to settle down in specific places where there are resources? They develop surpluses, and this leads to social hierarchy, which is what I'm calling complexity or the complexity complex.

Complexity is new. It has occurred, generally speaking, within the last 12,000 to 13,000 years, at different times and at different places. And it's often much more recent than that. There may be a few cases that are older than that, but the pattern, which we've documented recently, is that when you have nomadic foragers that have become complex and settled down, you're much more likely to have war there. We can see these origins of war archaeologically, and they are recent, which is a whole other line of evidence in this chapter we wrote ["Human Nature, Peace, and War in the Modern Era Since 1920"].

Then, we can start looking at some other things, like what military science suggests. And there has not been a lot of research in this area, but there have been a few key studies that really are showing how humans and modern military or historical military situations are not really inclined to be so gung-ho for war. It's not the Hollywood movie that we've all been brainwashed with. On the contrary, if you start looking at the evidence during whatever war you pick—let's take World War II, for instance, there are numerous situations where German troops and U.S. troops understood that the enemy was right nearby, and decided, "We're not going to shoot at you. You don't shoot at us. You go your way. We'll go our way." There are many of these types of anecdotes, and there is also some more systematic evidence.

In one case that I like, somebody got the idea to examine all of the muskets collected off of the Gettysburg battlefield. I think they collected around 27,000 or so muskets. Many of the muskets were loaded twice, some were loaded thrice and a few were loaded 21 times or something absolutely crazy. Overall, 90 percent of all 27,000 muskets were loaded one or more times. If you work out the statistics around how long it takes to load a musket, and all the time there was a battle going, then if people are loading their musket and firing, you'd expect only about 5 percent to have been loaded. Of course, we don't have videotapes of what was going on, exactly, but it points to the idea that there was a whole lot of reluctance to actually be shooting at the enemy. Now, that's just one case from our own U.S. history, and there are others. There is a wonderful, descriptive book written by a military man and historian who served in the U.S. army [during WWII and the Korean War] named S.L.A. Marshall called Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command (published in 1947). He did a series of interviews and found out that a vast majority of the combat troops were not firing at the enemy. Some were firing into the air. Some were firing into the bushes. Some were firing over the heads of the enemy. Many weren't firing at all.

Most scientists are specialists who take on something specific and they try to research it carefully, and that's valuable. However, when you have larger questions around… human nature and whether or not we are warlike, what makes sense is to draw from all types of information that you can find, from history and prehistory, to social organization and, in this case, military science. What we're arguing in that chapter you mentioned is these multiple lines of evidence are all pointing in the same direction, and we are arguing that they demonstrate a new paradigm, or at least a new perspective, for looking at war, peace and human nature. Of course, we're capable as a species of engaging in warfare, that's obvious—we're not making some crazy argument that humans don't war, as we sometimes have been misunderstood as arguing, intentionally or not. That's silly. We're just saying that we're not necessarily inclined toward war, and especially across huge spans of our evolutionary history, there is an absence of war. Therefore, there's not something built into us, or hardwired into our genes evolutionarily, that pushes us toward warfare.

The application here is: If war is related to social organization, or socializing culture in a broader sense—and other circumstances, like economic factors coming in and complexity, as I was just discussing—then you can design systems where you don't have warfare. So, here we look back to peace systems once again.

AMS: In looking at peace systems that already exist, you've factored in smaller-scale tribal societies such as Brazil's Indigenous tribes and Aboriginal people in Australia. Then, you also look at broader peace systems like the EU. I find that to be significant, that non-warring systems can and do apply on a larger scale to developed-world nations and "aren't just curiosities of the ethnographic world," as you put it in your 2009 paper, "Anthropological Insights for Creating Non-Warring Social Systems." Would you expand a bit on the peace system that is the EU?

DPF: Historically, following World War II, people had just been through absolute hell. Just about every European had lost family, friends, colleagues, villagers. Even in small villages in rural France—almost all of them have a monument to those killed in World War I and killed in World War II—there's a list of names, and sometimes you can tell from the surname, they were probably brothers who lost their lives. Everybody was touched by this. Right after World War II in Europe, food shortages and infrastructure—bridges, railroad lines, and everything—had been destroyed. France was on the verge of starvation, at one point and the Dutch went through a starving winter. For five or six years, in some way or another, everybody had suffered the horrors of war, close up and personal.

You had a public who just recently had gone through this catastrophe of a huge magnitude and understood the horrors of war, but they were not really catalyzed to do something creative until Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the EU, came in with his message, sharing it with anybody who would listen. He was an influential and very clever man. He talked to people incessantly, he organized a think tank and he lobbied for a unified Europe. He was very explicit about why he was doing this: he was doing it to bring peace and prosperity. And the peace was the first part, after the horrible war. The prosperity was just something that would make sense, and it was easily sellable that you could have a much stronger economic basis and support people better through economic collaboration and cooperation. And all of this has proven to be true in the recent decades, since World War II.

The key idea that Monnet had early on was that we could make a supra-national organization that would be in charge of coal and steel, which were not only the foundational ingredients to warfare but also to a peaceful economy. He realized that across history, France and Germany, in particular, were often at the roots of wars in Europe and that they had access, literally along their border, to steel production and coal mining and so forth. He pulled this off through his magic of convincing, and also due to a willingness of people to try something new.

The first six countries that joined were the Benelux countries, along with France, Germany, and Italy, which was a good, solid core. The Brits were reluctant—and of course, they're the ones that have just exited [the EU]. When they tried to get the Brits into the union, they wanted special consideration. This might sound familiar after Brexit. Monnet conferred with the others and they said no, no special consideration for the Brits. It's, "we're all in, we're all equal." Long story short, as this evolved into the common market, the Brits wanted in, and the EU founders had predicted that would happen.

As I look at the European Union, I see it as a huge success story. I'm putting that label of peace system on it as I don't know of anybody else who has called it a peace system, but it absolutely is. It's a cluster of neighboring societies that don't make war with each other (ever since World War II, that's been the case). And, like some other peace systems—not all, but some—they have engaged in military expeditions elsewhere (the French going into Mali a few years ago and contributing some troops and forces in Afghanistan and so forth). I'm not making an argument that this is a peace system that is totally pacifist. They have their security forces and different countries, to different degrees, do engage in military expeditions elsewhere. But the key factor is they've set up certain structures of economic interdependence, beginning with the coal and steel community and evolving to the Commonwealth, the economic unification of Europe, and then ultimately the European Union. And they are a strong economy. They're giving the United States and other countries that are strong a real run for their money, economically. It's a peace economy, in a way. You could look at it that way.

Another great example that overlaps with the European Union is the Nordic countries that are sometimes called Norden. I was reading recently about the first Nordic non-war story where, in 1905, Norway declared its independence from Sweden. Troops lined up on both sides of the border and it looked like Sweden was going to go to war with Norway to keep it as part of Sweden, but that didn't happen. This became the first Nordic non-war. This whole region, which somewhat overlaps with the EU (but not totally, not all nations are members of the EU), has been at peace for over 200 years now. There have been no wars within this little sub-peace system. And there have been conflicts, but they have evolved a different way of dealing with conflicts. The idea that there would be warfare within the Nordic countries now is basically considered absurd, just as the idea that there would be war in the European Union is considered absurd (Europe is the most peaceful region on the planet, as is thoroughly documented).

In the case of Norden, the peace system doesn't have a lot of political bite. It is structured, it exists, there are agreements made in order to be part of it, there are ministers from all countries represented. But it's more of an agreement to cooperate because that's the right thing to do. There is a document that's available to download, from another entity that is supra-international, called the Nordic Council of Ministers, titled "New Nordic Peace: Nordic Peace and Conflict Resolution Efforts." This document blew me away, in a sense, because it basically argues that there is a "Nordic Peace brand," internally and externally. It's pretty cool.

AMS: You mentioned peaceful societies, and systems of peace, have typically received scant attention from historians, scientists and the academic world. Why do you think this is? Why has the traditional view been so self-assured that war is always the go-to in human societies?

DPF: I think, in part, it is that if you're so enthralled with looking at conflict, war, aggression and so forth, you don't look for peace, so you don't really recognize it. This has been reflected in the records. One of my colleagues in anthropology, Leslie Sponsel at the University of Hawaii, crunched the numbers. He looked at given examples. He did things like, "Let's look at all these journals and see how many articles are actually on conflict and how many are on peace." He found that these are really lopsided numbers, like 95 percent on conflict and 5 percent on peace. There are very few articles, relatively speaking, that deal with peace or nonviolence compared to all the ones on genocide and war and abuse and everything else. There's this academic bias.

I think there is also a person on the street type of bias. Hollywood, of course, has come up with the formula that violence sells, and to my thinking, some of this is because our culture is accustomed to violence. If you have a culture that's so steeped in violence then, yeah, it sells. You create a self-fulfilling prophecy, generation after generation, by promoting violence as something that's interesting. I'll share two things that I think illustrate this idea. First: in one of his popular books, the very famous primatologist Frans de Waal (who is from the Netherlands originally, but he's lived most of his life in the United States, working as a professor) said that in the Netherlands, people like breasts but are afraid of guns; in the U.S. people are afraid of breasts but love guns. He was comparing the converse values, as a cultural outsider commenting on America.

The second thing I'll share is about one of the non-warring and extremely internally peaceful societies, the Ifaluk of Micronesia. They are out in the Pacific with a low population density, living on this atoll and having some interaction with neighboring islands. They are extremely peaceful, according to various anthropologists who have described them. Catherine Lutz is the most recent anthropologist that I know of to observe them. When she did her fieldwork there, people told her how the United States Navy came by on goodwill visits and anchored their ship off the atoll. They brought projectors onto the beach and set up a screen, and they showed the people these lethal Westerns and other movies that were popular at the time—I think we're talking 1950s, 1960s.

Catherine Lutz discovered, when she did her fieldwork in the '80s, that people were traumatized by the films. It literally gave them trauma. Some of them said that they ran away in fear for their life. They refused to watch the movies after they saw what was going on. It led them to ask her questions like, "So in your country, people really do kill each other?" To which, of course, she answered yes. And they were just astounded at this. Three anthropologists that I've read, all on this same Ifaluk culture from different time periods, say that they could find no evidence of any rapes or murders. The most serious aggression they saw was when one time a guy was really agitated and put his hand on the shoulder of another guy, which was considered most inappropriate. This non-warring, peaceful Ifaluk culture was traumatized when they saw our Westerns, with people having fistfights and shooting each other with guns (I guess they didn't quite know what a gun was but they could see the person fall over and the ketchup come out, Hollywood style). I think an extreme case like this just gives us some perspective to reflect back on our own society.

Why have peace systems not been studied? There have been different people who have used the term peace system, but they've used it in different ways… When I became really interested in peace systems, I looped in some colleagues, and, hence, we started to approach it systematically for the first time. In 2009, I wrote an article that started by laying out just three of the factors of peace systems in a descriptive way, with no statistics. Then I was invited by Science to write an article called "Life Without War" in 2012. And when one of the reviewers wrote back and said, "This is a science journal, shouldn't these be hypotheses?" I thought, that's brilliant. Of course, they should be hypotheses. So, all of a sudden it turned into, at that point, six different hypotheses as to what could contribute to a peace system. That led to the first step toward [the] study published in Nature in 2021.

So, why are people not interested in peace? My hope, to be honest, is that this online publication in Nature, which is open access, will stir up a lot more interest in peace systems—whether the historical examples or the ethnographic examples. What's unique about this approach that we're taking is that people tend not to look at what the similarities are across all types of different cultures, from nomadic bands to modern states or regional entities like the European Union. Instead, people tend to look more locally, either with one pet theory or one model or in some sort of geographical regional context. We've really bitten off a huge chunk and tried to look across time and across culture and compare peace systems with non-peace systems, to really try to find out what are the special things that are going on with positive peace and peace systems. Why has somebody not done this before? Fundamentally, I don't know. But I think it is an area that shows real potential.

AMS: In the Nature study, you discuss the idea that the purposeful promotion of peace system features may facilitate international cooperation necessary to address interwoven global challenges such as global pandemics and ocean pollution. Do you think that now is the time when people are ready to look to peace systems and more global, widespread cooperation—because we need these new ways of thinking and looking at solutions to our global catastrophes?

DPF: Right. Here we are at this point in history—we're facing global warming, just to take one example. … I thought it was very interesting, or almost ironic, the number of the peace systems that seem to come into being due to an external military threat of some sort. So, that's one ingredient here. Perhaps, some groups hang together because then there will be more of them and they'll be able to put up a common defense. Many times, it's an external threat that causes people to adopt a peace system… Global warming is an example of a real, external threat. The classic example is, of course, the idea that Martians will invade and all of Earth will come together and defend ourselves against the Martians, creating global cooperation. No, the Martian is us, actually, manifested through various things like the pandemics and not being able to deal with them effectively; or pollution of our oceans, this lifeblood; species lost. We're going to be in really bad shape if we have an equal ecosystem collapse regionally bit by bit, or more globally. These are all really, really serious threats. If we can only adjust our mentality a bit to redefine things to understand that, really, the only way forward for humanity is going to be to pull together and address these common threats to our species survival, or else the future is not looking good.

But one thing about the peace system model is it shows time and time again that across history, in different cultures and space, humans do realize the necessity of cooperating when faced with an external threat. So again, if we can just do a little bit of reframing the narrative, the external threat is not necessarily the Russians or whatever. No, it's the conditions we've made and the conditions we face. So, we really have to pull together as a peace system.

AMS: Is there hope and potential, do you think, for global peace systems to become the more dominant model?

DPF: Yeah, of course, there is. You have to have some hope. In this case given our common, global threats, maybe we'll develop a global peace system. I don't know, but I hope so, or something similar to it. As we just talked about, I think it's really necessary to have much greater international cooperation. We would solve so many problems if we could develop that expanded level of identification all the way up to humanity, all the way up to the planet level, and basically think about the Earth also, and all the creatures on it, as being part of the same bio life system. We need to get this, as in Buckminster Fuller's book, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. We're all on the same spaceship, so we can't be fouling our nest with pollution and so forth. It's just foolish to be fighting among ourselves, or as the old saying goes, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We need to actually be steering the ship away from icebergs. There is hope.

Another way to approach this, and I've done this in some of my writings, is to understand just how flexible we humans really are and how huge changes really are the rule, not the exception. Things that people thought just never would change, have. If you're talking about the fall of the Soviet Union into pieces, the breaking down of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany, in some way these are sort of child's play compared to the larger magnitude of changes between our lives today and all of us running around as nomadic foragers for millennia upon millennia. Now here we find ourselves with mobile phones and everything else. The immensity of the changes that have occurred and can take place in the human future is huge.

As I see it, if you're going to put forth the pessimistic view that we've always been this way and always will be, that we've always made war—well, first of all, that's totally wrong. That's just nearsightedness. And then if you follow that with a pessimistic view to the effect that this is just a mess we're in and there's nothing we can do about it, well, that's wrong, too. People all the time have been making huge social movements and improvements. I also like to look at social improvements such as reducing the chance of war or successfully tackling climate change as two steps forward and one step back. You just have to maintain some optimism. Sometimes it's two steps forward and four steps back. Okay. That's a real bummer. Don't get too depressed. Just work on going forward again.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How Austin is actually responding to the call to transform its police budget

Homelessness in the U.S., which was already on the rise prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, increased in 2020, exacerbated by the economic realities of the pandemic. Austin, Texas, is no exception, with an estimated 11 percent increase in homeless people counted in the city and Travis County between 2019 and 2020, according to the point-in-time (PIT) count reported in the Austin American-Statesman. Of Austin's population of roughly 1 million, an estimated 2,500 people experience homelessness on any given night, according to the 2020 PIT count. Austin City Council member Gregorio Casar says this is a number "a community of [more than] a million folks should be able to care [for]."

In an effort to do so, the city of Austin has been purchasing underutilized hotels and transforming them into housing and services for people experiencing homelessness. In a February 4 meeting, the Austin City Council approved the purchase of a fourth hotel—which will provide 150 new homes to the homeless population in the city. Casar says the city plans to move forward on purchasing a fifth and a sixth hotel in the future.

"We have found sufficient resources in the city budget to acquire more hotels because we really believe that it's a strategy for significantly reducing homelessness in the city," he says.

In addition to providing long-term and transitional housing to people experiencing homelessness, the hotels purchased by the city will also provide supportive services, including mental health services, trauma services and job services.

"We are working with trusted community groups and nonprofit organizations to provide services at the hotels because we know that there are lots of folks who have experienced real trauma while living on the street and who need support so that their homelessness can permanently end," Casar says. "And then there are lots of other folks who just need a connection to a job and a stable address for a while so that they can get back on their feet."

According to Tara Pohlmeyer, communications director for Council Member Casar, Integral Care and Caritas of Austin have submitted letters of interest in operating the hotels and providing services, and the Homeless Services Division (HSD) anticipates negotiating a contract with a service provider/operator for each hotel in April.

He says while shelters provide an important service, oftentimes, they're just temporarily addressing the issue. The plan for the converted hotels is for them to serve as a more permanent housing solution, to address the real needs of each person they house.

"That's the way that we can reduce the amount of homelessness in the city, instead of just sort of hiding it, or moving [the homeless population] around while the numbers grow," Casar says.

To pay for these supportive services, the city will reallocate dollars originally assigned to the police budget, as part of its project to reimagine safety, in response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and public demand. Funding for operations and services of the hotels will come from Austin Public Health, using a portion of the additional $6.5 million added to the Fiscal Year 2021 budget to address homelessness during the city council's efforts to reimagine public safety.

"We have never had so many people engage in local government before [the BLM movement]," he says. "There were tens of thousands of people that contacted my office alone. In the weeks of protest over the summer [in 2020], we had hundreds of people testifying at city council meetings, for hours, about the changes that they were calling on us to make. I think that was really important. It shifted all of our perspectives. The community here in Austin is calling on us to be real leaders for our community and for people across the state and across the country. Austin, I think, actually responded to the call to transform police budgets in a way that very few cities across the country did."

Casar says while cities often have the dollars to make the capital investment in property to house the homeless, the long-term funding for operating those buildings and providing supportive services tends to be the challenge. He says prior to last summer's BLM movement, which pressured cities across the nation to reallocate police funds into supportive services, one of Austin's greatest challenges regarding homelessness was related to finding that long-term funding.

"The dollars from the police budget are going to provide the services and operate the hotels," he says. "No matter how many changes I and some others have tried to make to the budget in years past, we've, oftentimes, struggled to make really transformative change because so many dollars get wrapped up in the police budget. This last year, there was finally an opportunity for us to rethink that budget and recognize that we were spending so many dollars on jailing folks experiencing homelessness and policing people experiencing homelessness—but that actually doesn't reduce homelessness."

Between the four hotels the city has purchased, there are about 300 rooms, some of which might be able to house a couple of people, and many of them just a single person. The plan is for the city to continue to purchase additional hotels and expand the programs offered, Casar says.

"We have to pull hundreds of people off the streets this year," Casar says. "I think that would make a really significant difference."

The extreme winter weather experienced in Texas through February and March makes the need to provide safe shelter and supportive services for people living on the streets all the more urgent.

"In a city as prosperous as Austin, no one should have to live on the streets, period. That became even more clear as we saw folks still sleeping out under bridges when we knew that zero-degree temperatures were coming—and sometimes there were hotels or lit-up buildings right across the streets where they could have safely stayed," Casar says. "It's clearly already so dangerous to live outdoors and without a home, and these extreme weather events make it even more clear why we can and should reorganize our resources and our priorities to make sure that everybody has a place to lay their head at night that is safe."

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

This historical anthropologist wants to upend the conventional wisdom about human nature and violence

War and all of its brutality is attention-grabbing and memorable. Recollections of war and conquests tend to stick around and take up the spotlight in historical records. However, a war-centered narrative paints an incomplete picture of human history—and human nature. While there is a popular opinion in the anthropological community that war is an evolutionary, inborn tendency of humans, there is also pushback to that theory. There is a growing argument for a human history that predates war altogether and further points out that war is not innate to human nature, but instead, is a social and cultural development that begins at certain points around the globe.

However, once war takes place, it tends to spread, explains historical anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson, who has spent more than 40 years researching the origins of war. Ferguson, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, notes that war is not the same thing as interpersonal violence or homicide. War implies organized, armed conflict and killing sanctioned by society and carried out by members of one group against members of another group. Ferguson argues that current evidence suggests that war was not always present but began as a result of societal changes—with evidence of war's origins appearing at widely varying timestamps in different locations around the world. He estimates that the earliest signs of war appear between 10,000 B.C., or 12,000 years ago.

"But in some areas of the world you don't see any signs of war develop until much more recently," he says, noting that in both the U.S. Southwest and Great Plains there is no evidence of war until around 2,000 years ago.

Ferguson wrote an article in the Scientific American in 2018 titled, "War Is Not Part of Human Nature," in which he details his take on war. In the article, he summarizes the viewpoints of two anthropological camps, dubbed hawks and doves by late anthropologist Keith Otterbein. The hawks argue that war is an evolved predisposition in humans dating back to when they had a common ancestor with chimpanzees. Doves, meanwhile, argue that war has only emerged in recent millennia, motivated by changing social conditions. In the article Ferguson writes:

"Humans, they argue [doves], have an obvious capacity to engage in warfare, but their brains are not hardwired to identify and kill outsiders involved in collective conflicts. Lethal group attacks, according to these arguments, emerged only when hunter-gatherer societies grew in size and complexity and later with the birth of agriculture. Archaeology, supplemented by observations of contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures, allows us to identify the times and, to some degree, the social circumstances that led to the origins and intensification of warfare."

Ferguson has studied the anthropological and archeological records throughout ancient, and sometimes into more modern, human history. He says there is a lack of evidence of war or large-scale violence, in many places around the world throughout various periods of history. He has spent four decades researching and historically contextualizing the various origin points of war around the world. He has also contextualized incidents of group violence in humanity's closest ape cousins, chimpanzees. He argues that war is not innate, evolutionary nor inevitable behavior for humans.

Ferguson spoke with Local Peace Economy correspondent April M. Short about his findings and theories surrounding war and human history.

April M. Short: The big questions are: have humans always gone to war, or is there a point of origin for war? And, is war innate to the human species (or maybe just men)? Is there an evolved predisposition to war or is it a social, learned behavior that emerged with particular organizations in societies?

Brian Ferguson: There is a great deal of interest regarding this in anthropology in particular, and in archeology, and political science as well. It's been a very active field and they are many different issues that are involved [here] that are connected to each other.

To mention one issue about whether war has always been with us, there is the related question of how war was affected by the expansion of colonial systems. In particular, related to Western Europe, but other [colonial systems] as well. I maintain that colonial expansion generally led to more intensive warfare than a lot of the fighting that we've seen around the world in the past few hundred years, from the Age of Exploration onward. This is not a reflection of human nature but a reflection of circumstances, or the contextual situation.

But, even before the beginnings of colonialism, war was quite common around the world. War leaves a number of different signs, which is indicative of violence in the archeological records, the most important of which are skeletal trauma and settlement data of different sorts. There are other indicators as well, but if you have a lot of information on those two things, then if war is present, it will show up.

AMS: Another, related question is whether there is evidence of a clear starting point for war?

BF: Everybody wants to know when war began. It's difficult to give an answer that will satisfy people because you have to ask where you're talking about. Evidence for war appears at different times in different locations. And, once war began, sometimes it went away for a while, though that was not the case most times. Oftentimes war would spread, and it would change over time as political systems changed. It's a very complicated field.

But the question people really want to know the answer to is [whether] war [is] human nature? And in one sense, the answer is definitely yes, because humans make war, we're capable of making war, it's one of the things humans do. But I think the more meaningful question that people are trying to get at is: is there something that has evolved in human beings, or maybe just in men, that makes them inclined to try to kill—or at least to act with extreme fear to—people outside their own group. Is it a natural human tendency or predisposition to kill outsiders? That is what has been argued by a lot of people. [cognitive psychologist and science author] Steven Pinker is one, there are many others.

Other people have argued something a little different than that, which is: maybe there isn't any inborn tendency to want to kill outsiders, but war will happen naturally unless you have some kind of system in place to stop it. That's sort of what Thomas Hobbes was talking about in Leviathan, right? He didn't know about genes and this was before [Charles Darwin's theory of evolution]. He wasn't saying people had an "evolved" predisposition to kill outsiders. He just said that people pursuing their own interests, without some kind of larger civil society, will naturally turn to violence to further their own interests, and that will lead to war. And what that means is war is a natural condition of human society. So, is [war] part of human nature or is it the nature of humans in society?

The bottom line is, in one view, humans have always made war since they've been humans. But what I have been arguing for some time now is that if you look around the world, in the archeological records, the earlier remains don't have evidence of war.

Now, when we go very far back—say 30,000 years or more—there is almost nothing to indicate the humans were even there. Maybe you have a stone tool or something, but you can't say based on evidence whether there was war or not. But, when you come closer to the present and you look at the material evidence, you do not find evidence of war for some time.

What you find is a global pattern. At different times in different places around the world, if you go from the earliest archeological evidence [and move] forward, there will come a time when evidence of war will start to appear. Those changes occur without a dramatic increase in archeological recovery. It's not like we're starting to get good [evidence in] archeology, [or] good data, and only now are we starting to see [signs of] war. We had all of it but there weren't any signs of war. Then signs of war started to appear.

A colleague of mine, Doug Fry, works in this area and has been making a bigger point about this, and it's a very good point. We've been accumulating a number of cases from the archeologists who work in particular areas, and archeologists themselves aren't interested in the question of when war began, they're just digging their own digs. They're generally not interested in making global comparisons like I am. But we find that when archeologists provide summaries of the evidence of interpersonal violence of a deadly nature, more and more of them are showing that war has a starting point.

AMS: You mentioned this is the pattern everywhere you look, is it the global pattern?

BF: In the Americas alone, which I've been working on lately, [the pattern of evidence of war emerging during a given time in the records] includes the Andean region, it includes the Oaxaca region in Mexico, it includes the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada, Northwest Alaska, the Eastern Woodlands, the Great Plains. I'm not sure whether you can say the same for Western California, because Western California is unusual for having a lot of violence that goes back very far, so I'm not sure whether you can say there's clearly a time before you have evidence of war there. But it's the case in all these other places. I also looked at the patterns in Europe and the Near East where you see the same thing: you don't have any evidence of war, and then war shows up.

One more note on this: it's often said that an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so if you don't find evidence of war, that doesn't mean war [didn't happen] there. For any particular case, any particular [archaeological] dig, that is absolutely true. But if you are talking about a larger region with multiple excavations, that is not a scientific statement, because it cannot be challenged, it cannot be falsified. If you're saying: "Even if you don't find evidence of war, war probably [still happened] there," how do you disprove that? But if I'm saying that in these different areas you're not going to find any evidence of war before certain periods of time, because no war took place there, that's easy to disprove. You just find the evidence.

It's a little tiring to me to have the phrase repeated, "just because you don't find the evidence doesn't mean it isn't there," because the pattern of seeing [war] start-up is so clear in so many places. It's time to consider the possibility that, really, war wasn't there at all before a certain point.

AMS: Why do you think the popular theory has been that war is innate to humans, or we've always had war?

BF: That's a great question, and it's a difficult question to answer. If I'm talking about whether there are signs of war in Europe in a particular year, I can talk about that in terms of evidence. But when you get to the question of why people tend [to lean] toward either the theory that "people are innately belligerent" or "people are innately good," (which is often suggested to be the Rousseau versus Hobbes point of view), some of it is individual variation in opinions. But I also think when you look at the prevalence of these ideas, they're time specific.

Back in the late 19th-century when Darwin's work was new, there was a real emphasis on this struggle for survival. There was a racial part to it too, which was the idea that some races are superior to others, and the struggle and fight [between the races leads to] the superior ones conquering the inferior ones. That whole Social Darwinist ideology was very common, and it fed into other theories back then, which were a bleak view of humanity. Freud was very bleak. Early psychologists were very bleak and would talk about humans having instincts, and one of the big instincts was the instinct of pugnacity. Pugnacity is a word we don't use much anymore, but pugnacity was said to be the instinct in which people just wanted to fight. So, if you wanted to know why wars exist, it was because we had the instinct for pugnacity.

World War I provoked a kind of revulsion against war. There was a change in how people looked at things. There was a 1915 study that was really revelatory, titled, "The Material Culture and Social Institutions of the Simpler Peoples: An Essay in Correlation." It looked at a number of different societies around the world (in what today would be a very crude method). It said that the simplest societies may have some war, but they had less war than more developed societies. It began to seem like war wasn't part of human nature, it was part of developing larger-scale, hierarchical societies. It came with that political evolution.

Time went on and in the 1960s there developed a very strong intellectual argument for war being innate. There were several writers who were key in [the development of] this [argument]. One was an Austrian ethologist (ethologists are people who study animal behavior) named Konrad Lorenz. He was on the German side during World War II. He was of the view that if you play a martial tune, men will drop everything and go off to war. He wrote the book On Aggression that was very influential.

Then there was Raymond Dart, an Australian paleobiologist (though they didn't use that word at the time) who found early skulls and remains, and was convinced that in every skull he found he saw evidence of a violent death and cannibalism. Dart's work was picked up by a very gifted writer, Robert Ardrey, who wrote several books, including African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative, which were part of his Nature of a Man series. That was the basis for Stanley Kubrick's movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." If you've ever seen the beginning of that film, these proto-apes had something changed in their minds by black obelisks from outer space, and they start killing each other, and that's the beginning of human creativity. That's what Ardrey basically believed to be the truth about humans, and he popularized it.

And then, there was the famous book, Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Golding came up with this idea that people were just real pieces of work. All of these concepts were part of the popular culture in the 1960s, and it was very influential. It became the accepted wisdom that that's the way people are.

The Vietnam War made a big difference. Anthropologists had not really been interested much in the study of war before Vietnam. The Vietnam War went on for a long time, and demonstrations against it were very big on college campuses, which is where anthropologists are. I was a draft-age student back then and that's really when the anthropology of war as a field first developed. It grew from there and different perspectives developed. Some of them held that war has always been with us, some said it was a biological instinct, some argued that war was a cultural product, and a relatively late development. Margaret Mead [cultural anthropologist] was one of those, who said "Warfare is Only an Invention, Not a Biological Necessity." And I think she was right. Since then, this argument has continued on in a more scholarly way, with people producing evidence. Now we've been doing that for a couple of decades and we've got a lot of evidence.

AMS: You mention in your Scientific American article that the people who argue that war is innate often use the example of chimpanzees being warlike. They point to the common ancestor shared between chimpanzees and humans to argue humans are innately warlike. You have spent two decades analyzing all of the recorded incidents of violence relating to chimps, and you have written a book on the topic, which is soon to be published. In your book, you theorize that chimpanzees are not, in fact, warlike but that their incidents of violence can be attributed to cultural and social contexts, largely involving human interference. Can you share a bit about your work on chimpanzees?

BF: I'm not a primatologist. I've never worked with chimpanzees. I'm a historical researcher, so I read the observations by other scholars, and I contextualize those observations. I did that with war, and I've done it with chimpanzees.

Back in 1996, a book came out called Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. It painted a really grim view of human nature, as evolved to kill strangers. And the argument was that chimpanzees do this… not because they're hungry or they're in some kind of immediate contest over resources. It's just: they're programmed biologically, by evolution, to do it. And the argument was that, then, so are humans because chimpanzees and humans got it from their common ancestors anywhere from six to 13 million years ago.

I started [going through all the literature] in the late 1990s, and now the book is finished. I've called it Chimpanzees,"War,"and History. And you'll note I put quotes around "war." For the book, I went through every site [where chimpanzee group violence took place]. What I found was that while people would say their [warlike] behavior of looking for outsiders or strangers and killing them is normal chimpanzee behavior, it's really rare. If you talk about a war as being sequential killings of members of another group, then there are only two chimpanzee wars that take place in a span of about nine years. I mention this in the Scientific American article:

"My work disputes the claim that chimpanzee males have an innate tendency to kill outsiders, arguing instead that their most extreme violence can be tied to specific circumstances that result from disruption of their lives by contact with humans. Making that case has required my going through every reported chimpanzee killing. From this, a simple point can be made. Critical examination of a recent compilation of killings from 18 chimpanzee research sites—together amounting to 426 years of field observations—reveals that of 27 observed or inferred intergroup killings of adults and adolescents, 15 come from just two highly conflicted situations, which occurred at two sites in 1974–1977 and 2002–2006, respectively.
The two situations amount to nine years of observation, tallying a kill rate of 1.67 annually for those years. The remaining 417 years of observation average just 0.03 annually. The question is whether the outlier cases are better explained as evolved, adaptive behavior or as a result of human disruption. And whereas some evolutionary biologists propose that killings are explained as attempts to diminish the number of males in rival groups, those same data show that subtracting internal from external killings of males produces a reduction of outside males of only one every 47 years, fewer than once in a chimpanzee's lifetime."

The gist of my argument is that evidence shows deadly intergroup violence is not a normal, evolved behavior pattern of chimpanzees, but a situational response to a local history of human disturbance. That is what the book demonstrates.

AMS: I've read that bonobos share just as much DNA with humans as chimpanzees and are not warlike or violent—in fact, they're practically nonviolent. Do you look at bonobos in your book?

BF: Yes. My book has 10 parts and part eight [is about] bonobos. Bonobos are a fascinating comparison. They're as related to humans as chimpanzees are. We have, however, never seen a bonobo kill another bonobo (although one killing of an infant is suspected, but very possibly didn't happen). Another thing that's different about bonobos is that they have on occasion accepted outside adult males into their groups. Now, chimpanzees have accepted adolescent males to their groups, and they've also temporarily tolerated stranger adult males in their groups, so it's kind of a fine point, but it is a qualitative distinction between [chimps and bonobos].

The saying was chimps are from Mars and bonobos are from Venus. Chimpanzees are partial to violence, aggressive and totally male-dominated; and bonobos are, as the story goes, female-dominated and not as hostile, not as aggressive… I wouldn't say bonobos are matriarchal, instead, I would say their society is gender-balanced—which is very different from chimpanzees.

And this takes us back to the question of inborn predispositions because if chimpanzees are born to kill, and if the bonobos don't kill, is that because somehow [bonobos] evolved out of the killing mode? Are they biologically evolved so that they don't kill?

Other than the two extreme behaviors I mentioned, accepting outside males into their groups and killing, almost everything a chimpanzee has been seen doing, a bonobo has been seen doing. There's a lot of overlap in what they do. It's kind of a difference in frequencies rather than cut and dry differences.

… Bonobos don't have the things that I think make chimpanzees fight, which is a scarcity of resources connected to human impact. Bonobos haven't had that. And at the same time, they have something that goes against fighting, which is a social organization that's very different from chimpanzees. I don't think this is a result of instincts or inborn predisposition.

I spend a lot of time in the book laying out the fact that a young male chimpanzee grows up in an adult world where males dominate females, and females don't spend a lot of time with other females. Males spend a lot of time hanging out with other males, so they've got a sort of boy club there, and this leads them to engage in status competition that's male-on-male. Very often a group of two or three males together will kind of rise in the social hierarchy by hanging together and attacking any other males as a duo or trio, and that's how they beat the alpha. And [being an] alpha has a lot of advantages.

For chimpanzees but not bonobos, the second hypothesis in my book is that the unusually aggressive, high-status males may, in some circumstances, engage in what I call 'display killing' of helpless individuals, even infants within their own group, in order to intimidate status adversaries.

But bonobos have a tendency of females to bond (which may have to do with the genito-genital rubbing that females engage in, although that's not entirely clear), and they will attack a male who is too aggressive. If a male wants to rise up in the status hierarchy of bonobos [they need to be less aggressive]… because the society structure is [based on] a bisexual ladder. For a male to rise in the status hierarchy, what they do is they stick close to their mothers. The best ally for a bonobo male in getting access to feeding, getting access to mating and going up in the status hierarchy means being close to a high-status female. The status game is played with mothers, not brothers. That's how a bonobo male takes care of his own business. It means that they're attached to females and very often not attached at all to other males.

AMS: For me, just as a layperson coming into this, learning that we are just as related to bonobos as chimps undermines the idea that human warlike tendency is due to the common ancestor with chimpanzees. It's interesting to consider how much social structures may be influencing behaviors, for humans as well as other apes.

BF: It's a big area of research now, and field research has changed for a number of different reasons. One thing that's happened in primate field research, and in laboratories too, is that work in non-intrusive studies that look at hormone levels and genetics has expanded. [Researchers] can get their samples by placing tarps under trees and waiting for chimpanzees to pee in the morning. And then they can collect data on the hormone levels and genes.

There is interest right now in the biology of these primates, and the argument in biology has been that chimpanzees and bonobos really are biologically different— genetically, hormonally and behaviorally. It's a really interesting area that I find complicated because of the nature of these biological studies and the nature-nurture interaction. The idea that biology and environment combine and influence the development of any organism and these changes may be epigenetic and may have to do with the birth environment. The main action of epigenetics, [the study of heritable changes in gene expression] is based on what happens in early life, though epigenetics works throughout life and may be transmitted through generations, too.

The way I put my argument at one point [in my book] is: what if they were switched at birth? If an infant chimpanzee was put in with bonobos and vice versa, what would they grow up to be like? Would a chimpanzee raised among bonobos grow up to act like a chimpanzee with all the aggressive notions, male bonding and all that stuff? I argue that they would follow the local customs [of the bonobos], they would do what they saw others around them doing. Then along came epigenetics, and as it was applied to chimpanzees, it seemed to fit perfectly that the early childhood and the social experience of a chimpanzee and a bonobo at birth is very different.

AMS: To bring it back full circle to humans, how do you argue this idea of nature vs. nurture, epigenetics and socialization, might come into play anthropologically, and in relation to war?

BF: The implication, or lesson here, for humans is that humans are flexible. I think chimpanzees are very flexible, I don't think that they have innate patterns to do things like fight with each other. I think it's acquired in chimpanzees and bonobos. And I think that that goes for human beings too. And humans go a lot farther than that in the complexity of culture.

A lot of people will say that chimpanzees and bonobos also have cultures, they will use the word culture for these great apes. I think what chimpanzees and bonobos have is clearly learned traditions. They learn things to do, things that others in their group do. I don't think that's the same thing as culture, because culture involves a symbolic and linguistic medium to exist. And that culture exists in our thoughts and our language and our speech. That's how you learn it. That's how you communicate it. That's how it's passed on.

Human culture has cumulative development—and it needs language and symbols for this. You learn what one generation did, then you can do something on top of that. Everything we have in this world goes back to thousands and thousands of innovations, all of which have been based on the innovations that came before. Chimpanzees do not have cumulative innovations.

For war, I think the difference plays out in that humans do not have inborn predispositions. Some anthropologists will argue that humans have an inborn predisposition to not kill other human beings, that they're born against doing that, and they have to unlearn that [in order to be violent]. That's an optimistic way of thinking about human beings, and it certainly goes against the idea that people are natural-born killers. I hope it's true, but I'm not convinced. I think that could just as easily be a result of the way that we're socialized in our own societies.

What I'm saying is that, at a minimum, we don't have a predisposition either way. We're certainly not predisposed to kill. We're not predisposed to be xenophobic. Ethnocentric is a little different because ethnocentric simply means at the basic level, that the way you were brought up is the way you think things should be done. Every culture teaches every new infant. Everybody thinks: "My way is the right way to do things." But going beyond that, to the concepts that other people are inferior, or dangerous enough to be killed—that's certainly not part of human nature. When we look at tribal people, when the Europeans first showed up, the initial response typically was to look at these strange people with curiosity. It's not a natural reaction of fear, not this kind of tribal hostility that everybody always talks about, which is a lot of bunk.

The lesson is that humans have a great deal of plasticity. And we can be molded in different ways. We can be molded to be Nazis, or we can be molded to be passivists. Thinking that it is something that comes from the genes, that it's evolved and that's the way we are, is not going to help you understand what's going on, and it's going to confuse you.

At the end of my book, I summarize all the work I've done over the years on war. For the past few years, I've been talking about human nature and war. Before that, the big question for me was not, "Is it human nature to make war?" but, "How do you explain the wars that actually happened in tribal societies, and in modern society?" The book isn't just about debunking theories about chimpanzees, it's about: If you have this idea of culture that I just described, it leads you to ask a lot of other questions that are a lot more interesting, and probably more meaningful in terms of understanding why real wars happened and why people really get killed.

There's an article I wrote in 2006 called Tribal, Ethnic and Global Wars, where I summarize my approach to wars that are going on around the world, based on what I know about tribal warfare. In it, I try to show how it is that wars have happened, and the relationship between practical self-interest and the symbolic values people have in a society. That, to me, is where the action is, and it explains what the cause of war is: it's practical, and it's also symbolic.

AMS: In this current moment in human history, where we have much more globalized and ongoing warfare than our ancient ancestors—and a more globalized world culture in general, is there hope for a future that's not so war-inclined?

BF: Is there hope? Yes, absolutely. If you look at the long history of the world as I do as an anthropologist, you see that we've gone from having thousands of independent societies on this planet, which at first I don't think were making war. Over time war developed in more places around the world and spread. Since then, over time we've had a consolidation of societies. There are fewer independent societies in the world today—and you've got to be independent to go off and make war. I've been using Europe as an example now for over 20 years. You would have never expected Europe to come together into the community that it is now [looking at where it] was heading toward [in the past]. The war between Germany and France and England and other parts of Europe was world history for quite a long time. Europe is just one thread, but it's a strong example of how things have changed.

I wrote an article in 1988 called How Can Anthropologists Promote Peace?, and one of the things I said was that as an anthropologist, you can say that there are other possible worlds out there. The things that we can't imagine to be possible now could become true. And in this article that came out in '88, I said that one thing we can say with certainty is that at some point the militarized East-West frontier in Europe will cease to exist. It was hard to imagine that happening then. But the next year [after the article], it went away. So, we don't know. There's no general direction toward peace, but I think an important part of it is for people to mobilize themselves, for people to promote peace, for peace to be of value.

It's important for people to see that a world without war is a realistic possibility. Maybe not now, but a world without war is something we can aspire to realistically, and work toward. If you think that's something that can never happen, well that fatalism is one of the main props that is keeping war going. It's good to break out of that mindset.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

A breakthrough agreement in Philadelphia could become a template to curb the housing crisis

Months of protests led by homeless residents over the lack of affordable housing in Philadelphia have led the city and the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) to agree to cede 50 vacant homes to a public land trust. The land trust will be managed by Philadelphia Housing Action, which is a nonprofit formed by homeless encampment organizers. The agreement is largely "unprecedented" and marks the first time a transfer of power and property ownership rights of this scope—from the city and PHA to protesters occupying an encampment—has taken place in the United States.

The new land trust designates 50 "properties for use as low-income housing, defined as $25,000 and below, and they would be controlled [and managed] by local committees," PhillyVoice reports.

Philadelphia is dotted with empty, abandoned houses that have sat vacant for years, and in some cases decades, explains protest organizer Nadera Hood. Meanwhile, at least 5,700 Philadelphia residents are homeless. Many of the city's homeless residents are working families with children who find themselves unable to afford the city's increasing rents, Hood says. The city and PHA have been breaking up homeless encampments that have been called "untenable" by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and other leaders in the city. However, for many residents, the encampments offer the only living space that feels safe, as overcrowded shelters have led to COVID outbreaks and deaths of homeless residents living in shelters.

Talking about the agreement to cede homes to the public land trust, Mike Dunn, deputy communications director for the City of Philadelphia, says, "The agreement was the result of a lot of long discussions since June with the protest camp leaders about the need for affordable housing for the lowest-income Philadelphians, a concern that the mayor has long shared."

Dunn notes that while many of the logistical details surrounding the transition of the land trust properties are still being worked out, camp leaders, the city and PHA are working together to identify vacant houses that are in the public inventory, "to convey to the community land trust, which they will rehabilitate to make habitable. The land trust will identify its own resources [to carry out] these repairs."

Dunn says the protest camp residents' cause is "right and proper, and their needs are valid."

"We hope this agreement could serve as a model for the many U.S. cities whose residents struggle to find affordable housing," he says.

Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homeless Law Center in Washington, D.C., which has held consultations with encampment organizers, explains the significance of this agreement in a Philadelphia Inquirer article by Alfred Lubrano and Oona Goodin-Smith. "We haven't seen a protest encampment like this one that's led to this kind of result," Tars says in the article. "I'm going to tell advocates and other city mayors about how this is a different way, a better way, to deal with people experiencing homelessness."

The Demand for Housing

The protest effort in Philadelphia led by homeless residents successfully transformed itself into a nonprofit organization and a public land trust, and won an unparalleled housing agreement with the city that puts ownership and management into the hands of encampment residents.

Across the United States, there has been an increase in people experiencing homelessness due to the COVID pandemic, and homeless residents have been among the most heavily impacted by the virus. Philadelphia is no exception, and crowding in shelters, often following encampment evictions, has led to a spread of the virus among homeless residents. In May, after the PHA broke up and evicted an encampment outside of the Convention Center, a man who had been evicted from the encampment died from COVID after catching it in a shelter where there was an outbreak of the disease that infected more than three dozen people.

Hood, a leading organizer for the group Occupy PHA, says the death of the resident in the shelter prompted action among homeless residents and existing activist groups in the city.

"The encampment was evicted just as the COVID shelter-in-place orders came," Hood says. "People were moved to the shelter, and there was an outbreak, someone from the encampment died, and that was part of what organized and rallied people."

In March, moms with children, and some other houseless residents, occupied and began living in several vacant Philadelphia homes, inspired, in part, by similar occupations in Los Angeles, Oakland and elsewhere during the coronavirus outbreak.

"All of the people who moved in and have been living in these vacated homes are working people, they're people with families, who can't afford rent in the city," Hood says.

Hood says the racial uprising across the United States following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 catalyzed the various existing homelessness activist camps to join forces and inspired enthusiasm among encampment residents who were previously intimidated or fearful of taking action.

"All of our groups had been doing a lot of work around land disposition, gentrification and property rights and ownership in the city," Hood says. "Occupy PHA, which is my group, was fighting the housing authority's role in gentrifying neighborhoods and over-policing; Black and Brown Workers Cooperative was fighting against councilmanic prerogative (which basically gives council members full authority over what can and can't be [done] in a neighborhood, and is mostly used for them to build relationships with developers)," Hood says. "[Black and Brown Workers Cooperative] also focused on land reclamation efforts. For example, they built a little mini-shelter out of corrugated plastic for a homeless person who slept on church steps; they reopened and took over a park that was gated up by new people who moved into the neighborhood. And then the Workers Revolutionary Collective was doing various kinds of outreach with the homeless population."

Following the encampment evictions in January, the groups began to meet and collaborate more frequently. Ultimately, they decided to organize themselves into a collective called the Philadelphia Housing Action to protest the city's handling of housing allocation, and pressure the city and PHA to rethink their response to the housing crisis. This led to the parkway protest—an encampment was set up at Benjamin Franklin Parkway to protest and draw attention to the issues of homelessness and the housing crisis in Philadelphia. This eventually prompted the recent deal with the city, after months of occupation by hundreds of homeless residents, and organized protest actions.

Hood notes that the agreement between protesters and the city does not skip over existing housing waiting lists by giving homes to people from the encampment protests. The homes under consideration that will become part of the public land trust are properties that would have been allocated to private buyers.

"The houses that we were putting people in and demanding that [PHA] give us would not have housed a family on the waiting list; they would have been sold to a developer and been a part of the process of gentrifying our neighborhood," Hood says.

Hood notes that across the country, there are resistance movements forming around housing and land allocation, and says it's up to every person to advocate for affordable housing options.

"It's really everybody's duty," Hood says. "People need to preserve affordable housing and low-income housing. We have to try to find innovative uses for the land. We have to acquire land and homes and build things that are more community-based and not reliant on the administration, or on government funding or [other such] things. I would like to see a national coalition form, to demand [allocation of] land from the government, to be able to preserve affordability, and the culture and values of the neighborhoods."

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How Californians came together to deal with wildfires during the pandemic

It was no fluke that the entire western U.S. was choked by wildfires and blanketed by smoke this past summer. The global climate disaster promises worsening fires, floods, droughts, storms and other natural disasters. The rate of these disasters has doubled over the last 20 years, and this rapid increase is caused by humans, according to the top climate researchers around the world. On October 12, the United Nations warned that the Earth will become "an uninhabitable hell" for millions of people if world leaders continue to fail to take drastic actions necessary to curb the climate crisis.

In a report released in 2020, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction calculated that at least 7,348 major disasters had occurred between 2000 and 2019. The report, titled "Human Cost of Disasters: An Overview of the Last 20 Years," estimates that these disasters cost 1.23 million people their lives, impacted 4.2 billion people, and cost about $2.97 trillion in "economic losses worldwide."

In an effort to mitigate increasing climate impacts, many cities in the U.S. are implementing climate emergency preparedness plans. And at a micro-level, individuals around the nation are working to mobilize their neighborhoods to prepare for increasing climate impacts. In the surf-meets-redwoods city of Santa Cruz, California, about 70 miles south of San Francisco, a coalition of neighbors came together mid-pandemic to mitigate the potential impacts of foreboding disasters. The neighbors were prompted by the efforts of one woman, Nora Shalen*, a small business owner who became increasingly concerned by the research reports coming out about climate change. Her neighborhood formed an emergency preparedness network to offer mutual aid and a plan for resiliency when faced with increasing challenges in the future.

As it happened, the network was formed just in time, before the devastation struck the Santa Cruz region. While much of the West Coast has experienced historic wildfire impacts this year, the blaze in Santa Cruz, dubbed the C.Z.U. Lightning Complex fires, caused some of the worst damage to date. As James Ross Gardner wrote in a September 28 New Yorker article, "of the more than seven thousand five hundred structures damaged or destroyed by California wildfires so far this year, C.Z.U. burned a fifth of them."

And, Gardner further reports, "Climate change undoubtedly played a role, scientists affirm. The fires this summer resulted from a confluence of factors, including a severe drought that California began experiencing in 2012 and this year's unprecedented heat waves, in August and early September, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a University of California wildfire expert, said, adding that, together, these factors produced 'a condition in California where our fuels are basically drier than they've ever been. … Then we get this slightly unprecedented lightning storm' with thousands of strikes 'within thirty-six hours.'"

In Santa Cruz, the smoke grew so thick over the city that daytime passed for night. Residents were ordered to evacuate amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and local aid workers and volunteers rushed to piece together emergency shelters that would allow for social distancing.

Shalen, a Santa Cruz resident of 17 years, recalls having to turn on the headlights of her car to see in the middle of the afternoon. She says having the emergency resilience group helped the neighborhood to navigate weeks on end of unbreathable air, darkness and encroaching fires.

"One piece of feedback people kept giving me was that before we started doing this they were feeling really anxious and alone about the pandemic, about what's happening in the country," she says. "They realized once they started participating [in the emergency preparedness effort] that they were feeling a sense of well-being, feeling connected, feeling empowered."

How to Start

While Shalen had no community organizing experience and wasn't sure how the idea would be met by her neighbors—many of whom she had never spoken with before—she decided to take action. She began by distributing flyers in the neighborhood and inviting people interested in the project to email her. She says it's important to note that she, along with her husband, framed the initial outreach as an invitation to people to enter into a mutual aid agreement and bring their best selves to the project.

"All this happened organically, as people just wanted to find a sense of purpose," Shalen says. "I didn't really know these people and it was a lot to ask of strangers, so my husband and I wrote this email introducing the idea of mutual aid. This turned out to be very important, it's what distinguishes what we're doing from other neighborhoods," she says. "We explained that mutual aid is based on an ethic of mutuality, care and resourcefulness, and attending to the most vulnerable. I really wanted to start off with a certain mindset rather than saying, 'This is scary.' It was about introducing the idea with an expectation of agency and capability in the face of disruption."

In the email, she linked to an article predicting that the 2020 fire season would be worse than the previous year and explained that because the pandemic was already impacting the city and county emergency budgets, in a widespread emergency, those emergency services were likely to be overwhelmed and residents faced the possibility of having to be their own first responders.

"I mentioned [in the email] that if we approach these preparedness exercises [prior to an emergency], we will make a giant leap in our ability to respond or to have a resilient outcome; and if we choose to go it alone, we will all be weakened," she says. "If [we recognize] that we are each other's immune system, and we prepare, it will strengthen each of us individually and make us all more resilient. I also said that if we have a clear plan, it helps our chances of being able to think clearly and calmly as a group."

Then, a small coalition of interested neighbors began to hold meetings online, then in socially distanced ways outside. The group quickly grew into a structured one, with each person working together to come up with a plan to tackle any given emergency and assist neighbors in need. While not every household was interested or able to participate, those involved took stock of what resources and skills they collectively had to offer by filling out shared Google Document questionnaires. They shared specifics about their professional skills, adjunct skills, medications and/or special needs during a given emergency. The group discovered that the few blocks of residents who had responded to the survey had all the requisite qualifications needed to form an emergency preparedness team: they ranged from doctors, nurses and EMT workers willing to become emergency medics, to mental health professionals, firefighters and many others who offered a range of additional skills. From there on, they began to form teams based on specific skill sets.

In an initial Zoom call, they reviewed their basic emergency prep plan, agreed on an emergency meeting place, and one family offered their home as a care shelter for seniors and/or families with small children that might be vulnerable during a disaster. Another person offered their home as a place for anyone experiencing emotional or physical trauma.

"If you can have some basic clarity, [decide on] practical steps and roles, it makes a big difference," Shalen says. "We all know where to meet and have a place where we can go if we're injured. If you're elderly, you have a place to go where you will not be alone and there will be someone to help you."

Among the group's many Google Documents is a personal preparation sheet, which includes a checklist of items to include in an emergency grab-and-go bag, how to prepare for fires or an earthquake, how to prepare for a three-day emergency or a month-long emergency, and so on.

Shalen says that because the Santa Cruz neighbors prepared themselves for a number of potentially dangerous scenarios—from earthquakes to water shortages—prior to the fires, the group was able to mitigate feelings of panic or helplessness when the fires hit. Her hope is that their neighborhood collaboration can serve as a replicable model for how any community in any part of the country might become better prepared.

Mapping the Neighborhood

One of the resources the Santa Cruz group used is a program offered by the Emergency Management Division of the state of Washington called Map Your Neighborhood (MYN). This program offers step-by-step guidance to improve emergency preparedness in small neighborhood communities. According to the MYN website, the idea is "to improve disaster readiness at the neighborhood level, 15-20 homes or a defined area that you can canvas in 1 hour."

The group also looked to Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) programs, and two members completed an online CERT training through the University of Utah, followed by a COVID-compliant in-person CERT training in Santa Cruz.

Richard Roullard, one of the members who completed the training, says CERT has been a key resource. "Much of what we were trying to create [in our neighborhood] already exists," he says.

Once the group had formed and agreed to participate, Shalen sent each member a bright yellow folder including the MYN program's nine crucial steps to take immediately following a disaster. The folders also included an emergency contact list the neighbors had filled out online and a map of the street, as well as a laminated sign to indicate whether anyone needed assistance with one side reading "HELP" and the opposite side that said "OKAY," which the MYN program recommends placing on the front door or in a window visible from the street during an emergency.

The neighbors also masked up to meet in person and walk around the neighborhood, physically mapping out the locations of potentially dangerous utilities, like gas and water mains, electrical lines, etc., in their surrounding blocks, as recommended by MYN.

"We all put on our masks, and we brought our folders, we showed up at our meeting place and then we went from house to house and carefully marked and took note of where the gas and water turn-offs were," Shalen says. "What was really amazing is that everybody had a blast. People were talking to each other, everybody was getting to know each other. And in the end, we put a portable speaker at the center of the street and we had a little dance party and raffle to celebrate."

Next, the group formed action teams within the larger group.

"Everybody was so energized by the in-person MYN event that during the next Zoom call we started thinking about our different skill sets," she adds. "It turns out, we have two retired surgical nurses, a firefighter and a paramedic [along the street]. There are several neighbors with wilderness survival skills training… We have people who know CPR or have emergency first responder training."

The group created an emergency medical responders' team, an emergency radio communications team, and a team dedicated to going door-to-door to check on seniors, differently abled individuals, or those with little kids. Several neighbors with professional water resources expertise became dedicated to a water resilience information team. One member created a Google Drive folder dedicated to water, which includes a dynamic FAQ where neighbors can post questions for the member to respond to.

Another group, made up of trauma survivors and mental health experts, formed as an emotional resilience team dedicated to helping those experiencing a fight-flight-freeze trauma response or other mental health impacts during a given emergency. Shalen, who joined the emotional resilience team, says it's been critical to offer this kind of support throughout the fires and pandemic.

"The emotional resilience team is what distinguishes our group from other neighborhood disaster approaches that focus on known impacts of natural disasters and are often motivated by fear," Shalen says. "Our approach is more proactive. The emotional resilience team has emotional first aid tools for emergencies, but we also have practices for strengthening trauma resilience in advance of an emergency. My hope is that this will create the conditions for our street being an island of sanity and stability as things unravel in unpredictable ways following the election."

Plan in Action

Not long after the emotional resilience group was formed, the skies darkened, the air outside became unhealthy to breathe and emergency evacuation orders began to take effect as the wildfires began to threaten Santa Cruz. While Shalen's neighborhood is located closer to the ocean, and most of the fire devastation happened up in the forested hills, she says she and her neighbors were aware of the fires that had spread to destroy entire towns in Northern California recently so they were on alert. She adds that rather than panicking or adopting an "every house for themselves" attitude, Shalen's neighborhood put their plans into place.

"It was really good that we had a system in place," she says. "We all had roles. We had clarity about a lot of things, and mostly we had the trust and communication, and that was what we relied on the most."

The team assigned to check on neighbors who were elderly and/or differently abled began to go door-to-door every day. Neighbors stayed in communication and took advantage of the support system.

"We knew who the vulnerable people were," Shalen says. "We went to their doors and asked 'Are you doing okay? Can we do anything for you? Do you have any concerns?' A lot of the seniors really just wanted to talk because they felt alone, [since] they don't go online as often or stay in constant communication in the same way."

Since the fires, more neighbors have joined the resilience group.

"We had a resilient response and it actually made us feel closer," she says. "What's really nice is I now have some very good friends on the street, which was kind of a happy accident… it's been deepening the trust among us, and there's a lot of appreciation. All of us are so glad we had this in place."

She adds that looking toward the future, with the election and the uncertainty that lies ahead, she is especially glad the resiliency group is in place.

"I'm glad we started with the mindset of collaboration, care for the vulnerable, and coming to it with our best self and a sense of inner resourcefulness and agency," she says. "I think what lies ahead is going to come down to your capacity for self-regulation. And I think we really do need each other. Even if it's just a few neighbors, our capacity to endure what lies ahead will be much more enhanced if we have a foundational mindset that we are in this together. It creates a better chance of group and individual emotional resilience. It helps our capacity to remain clear, calm, connected, flexible, compassionate and collaborative. It ensures a much more resilient response to whatever comes at us—whether it's social unrest or even violence, or overlapping things that we can't anticipate."

*Name has been changed to protect their identity.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

From Your Site Articles
Related Articles Around the Web

How artists have been on the front lines of political resistance for the past 50 years

"There's no us versus them—there's just us. Everybody in the world is us."

Shepard Fairey's voice rings out over a haunting Damned Anthem cover of the Muse song "Uprising," as images of recent protests in the U.S. flash across the screen at the beginning of the trailer for a new feature-length documentary, "The Art of Protest." It is a montage of the scenes that have come to define American protests: police lined up in riot gear, a car that was dented after it sped toward a crowd, a woman with a bloodied face, men shouting and carrying Confederate flags, people cheering as a statue is torn down, climate activists carrying a large model of the Earth, a structure on fire and law enforcement aiming pepper spray and water cannons at people from behind shields and tanks.

The film, released for free to the public online in October via the Rolling Stone website, is executive produced and distributed by Zero Cool films. The project was created by the anarchist artist collective Indecline and "Saving Banksy" director Colin Day. Indecline is responsible for many notorious art pieces, including the famed statues of a naked Donald Trump that popped up in cities across the country overnight prior to the 2016 election.

The film moves through a series of interviews with resistance artists from around the world, coupled with B-roll images of protests and art projects in the making. Its interview subjects range from Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova; to Jello Biafra, former Dead Kennedys frontman (and so many other punk rock artists that the filmmakers plan to convert unused footage into a short documentary dedicated to punk); to Black Panther Party's artist Emory Douglas; to gonzo illustrator Ralph Steadman; to transgender porn star Buck Angel, and many more. Colin Day estimates the film team has interviewed at least 40 people.

A filmmaker and founding member of Indecline who spoke with the Independent Media Institute anonymously says it was important to the film's creators to include a range of artists—not just the big names.

"We've got people you wouldn't expect to hear from, from different corners of the art world," he says. "[There are] some people who you've maybe never heard of, like Jodie Herrera, an incredible artist out of [northern] New Mexico. I think she's just as good if not better than a lot of the artists that we have in the documentary who are household names."

He said the film offers a "timestamp of this moment," in the lead-up to the critical upcoming election on November 3, and he also hopes it will remain relevant into the future.

"Hopefully, it can serve a double purpose and 15 years from now, you can still put this thing on and listen to Tom Morello [of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave] or Noodles [of The Offspring] or someone from Indecline talk about why it's important to use your privileges to go creatively fight for people who don't have those privileges or don't have a voice or a platform or the means to do these things."

Day, the film's director, says "The Art of Protest" is the film he and his co-creators at Indecline wanted to watch: a film that could offer insights from artist-activists around the world, across decades, and provide inspiration—even some "how-to guidance"—to the next generation of resistance artists.

"It started with us wishing that [a] movie [like this] existed, so we decided to make it," he says. The film, he continued, is "really about freedom. We feel like that's what's at stake: the freedom not to be brutalized by law enforcement with no repercussions. Because it's looking more and more like that's just a normal thing that can happen to anybody, a 70-year-old man, women, kids, it's a whole spectrum now. We don't want to see that become normalized."

Day says while the team had been working on the film for over a year, interest from artists became "electric" following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25.

"It was almost like a lightning bolt… people wanted to do something," he says. "In the movie, you'll hear a bunch of people talk about using their art to activate people. And that's [one of our goals for the film]… to touch people on a sort of firmware level where they're not even thinking about it, but when they see something like an anti-masker doing something racist in a 7-Eleven, they won't just ignore it. They won't just walk away. They'll have the courage to stand up for what's right."

He says that while he was making the film, hearing from Oakland-based Emory Douglas who created well-known artwork for the Black Panther movement throughout the '60s and '70s was particularly poignant for him.

"The Black Panthers' reputation was run through the mud by the press at the time, and the FBI [targeting the group], and the disinformation that was occurring, but they did a lot of good, a lot of social programs and good work for their communities—which were just being left to fend for themselves," Day says. "I feel [Emory Douglas] should be a household name."

Day adds that he finds Douglas' work inspirational and resonant today, as the current movement toward racial reckoning parallels with protests during the civil rights era. He points to the moment in the 1968 Olympics when Black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists upon accepting their medals during the national anthem to "protest the treatment of Black Americans," as a parallel with former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the anthem in 2016, before his team's preseason games, to "protest racial and social injustice."

The filmmaker from Indecline says it was key for the film team to release the project prior to the 2020 election.

"The term 'resistance art' has become a household term, and in the last four years, it's been in your face more than it has in any other time I've been around—definitely since the '70s," he says. "The idea is to put this thing out and have it serve as a call to action."

Indecline began in the Bush administration years as a group of disenchanted "punk skater kids" in Los Angeles for whom street art and punk rock were outlets to protest the general direction the country seemed to be going. It has since grown into a collective that includes artists from a range of mediums and backgrounds across the country. While not solely focused on Indecline, "The Art of Protest" does include many projects of the collective in its decades of bringing resistance art to the public.

"It's hard to explain to somebody who doesn't know who we are, what it is we do, because one week we might write a play and the other week we might be scaling down the side of a building, painting it," says the Indecline member. "We [work with] performance artists, poets, teachers and all kinds of people."

Day says he hopes the film will inspire young and upcoming artist-activists and adds that for him, art provides a way to address the many traumatic realities of the world without losing himself in the trauma. In the same way, he says while the film gets into the difficult territories of protest artists, addressing things like oppression, racism, misogyny and fascism, it also shows the joy and the light that are inherent to art and activism.

"We want it to be positive. There are some intense parts, but we wanted to also show resistance art as fun and welcoming, and something people would want to do. We have artists talking about how art has been good therapy for them, self-help even, and why it's good to be having fun and enjoying yourself when you're fighting against the powers that be," he says. "If we could get an army of people out there creating art, mission accomplished."

In addition to the new film, Indecline recently announced an upcoming exhibit in Las Vegas focused on drawing attention to mass shootings in America, which repurposes 600 decommissioned guns into a sculpture titled " On Second Thought." The piece is a takeoff on the iconic Auguste Rodin sculpture "The Thinker," and went on display on October 1, which is the anniversary of the Route 91 Harvest festival mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Day notes that the film licenses two songs from the English band Idles, which has an album called "Joy as an Act of Resistance."

"For me, that became a mantra this whole last year [2020], because every day it's like a damage report, you feel like you're taking blows," he says. "But when I see that album [by Idles] and I hear those words… it is kind of true that just having fun, that in itself is a form of resistance nowadays. Not letting them destroy you emotionally or psychologically, that's a win."

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How activists across the US are using street art to protest Trump

"Defund the wall—fund our future." This is the message painted in giant yellow letters as a street mural that fills the entire block's worth of asphalt in front of the federal courthouse in Laredo, Texas.

Laredo is a city of about 260,000 residents that sits along the north bank of the Rio Grande. The river marks the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and early efforts to move forward on the Trump administration's proposed border wall project have already begun to negatively impact life for residents of the city, many of whom have relatives and friends who live just across the border in Mexico.

Melissa Cigarroa has lived in Laredo since 1993 and is board president of the Rio Grande International Study Center, which seeks to preserve the river's water and its surrounding environment. Cigarroa was present at the protest in front of the federal courthouse where the street mural was painted and says she has also been involved with several other local protests against the border wall. Concerned about the prevalence of misinformation on the border wall situation (much of which comes from President Trump), she strives to make sure her community is aware of the facts.

"It's just an idea of standing up for what's right," Cigarroa says. "The wall is a lie. It's based on a lie. It won't solve the problems that they say it will solve. The whole promotion of it is this gross, capricious promise that was just a [campaign] line—and then a bunch of racist people started promoting it. It's just so deeply disturbing."

On July 14, the U.S. Office of Inspector General released a report detailing the shortcomings of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in its analysis and acquisition process of the southern border for the "Wall Acquisition Program."

Cigarroa says the wall project threatens the health of the Rio Grande's ecosystems and greenery—and could significantly worsen flooding that is already an issue in the region. Removing trees and plant life surrounding the river, as is the proposed plan, also threatens the health of the river's drinking water, which is the city's only drinking water source, and doing so could lead to increased pollution.

A lawsuit filed by landowners in Zapata County—where Laredo is located—on July 6 claims that the wall project is also racist. The lawsuit has been filed against President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the CBP. Cigarroa, a Laredo landowner in neighboring Webb County, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit's complaint against the border wall is 51 pages long and alleges that the project is rooted in little more than racism and politics. It cites the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to due process and equal protection to any person in the United States. And, it quotes the president's own comments as evidence against the project's legality.

The lawsuit's introduction alleges that the DHS and the CBP under President Trump's direction "are engaged in a full-on assault against the people who reside in Zapata County and Webb County, Texas.… The people of Zapata County and Webb County, who are overwhelmingly Mexican American, are the targets of an animus that demonizes immigrants, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and people who live on the border."

The South Texas lawsuit is one among a number of lawsuits that have been filed against the wall, including a lawsuit filed by 19 U.S. states in March, and another filed by the ACLU, Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition asking the Supreme Court to block construction of the border wall. An appeals court ruled against the continued construction of the wall on October 10.

Laredo residents have been largely opposed to the wall project from the beginning, as has the Laredo City Council, which voted in favor of the "Defund the Wall" mural on July 27.

City residents organized by a coalition of anti-border wall groups, including LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), painted the enormous street mural across Victoria Street on August 15. A newly formed group that is part of the coalition, Veterans United to Stop the Border Wall, did maintenance on the mural on September 12, derailing a "Trump Train" car rally (which Cigarroa says was made up mostly of out-of-towners who came to Laredo to drive over the mural). Residents of the city have been organizing against the border wall for months. The street mural was a way for residents, many of whom have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, to collaborate while remaining socially distanced.

The Trump administration's border wall will cost Americans dearly—and those costs reach far beyond the hefty $5 billion price tag the project carries. The beginning stages of the border wall are already proving to cause serious environmental and cultural damage for U.S. communities. Laura Parker's article in National Geographic in 2019 outlined six potential environmental threats of the border wall. Work crews in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, for instance, have been destroying protected Saguaro cactus plants that are sacred to the Indigenous cultures of the region. It is a felony offense to cut down the cacti, which can live for more than 200 years, but the work crews have barreled through protected zones nonetheless. As the New York Times reported in February, Native American leaders in the area say the fast-tracked border wall project poses a range of environmental and archaeological threats.

In Laredo, residents are concerned not only over the racist motivations of the wall project but also about the threat the wall poses to the Rio Grande, their only drinking water source, as well as the beloved local wildlife trail systems and parks that run along the river.

Cigarroa says the current plans for the wall project include removing all vegetation surrounding the river for the length of half a football field to create a security enforcement zone. She is concerned that the river's ecosystems—already among the top ten most endangered rivers in the world—will become further polluted if the wall construction is allowed to continue, and since the river is her community's only drinking water source, that is a serious concern for humans as well as the river's plant and animal ecosystems. She also says the community would lose some of its most cherished outdoor spaces. And on top of that, she says, the wall would damage the local culture.

"Putting a wall in does a couple of things," she says. "Physically, it destroys the land, and you lose access to that land… Then there's [the fact that] we have this deep connection with Mexico because our heritage is Mexican. My grandmothers came over through the river and then married Tejanos who had been here since before the United States was the United States. [The wall is] a symbol of racism and hate against our ancestry—and so many Laredo families have a deep connection to Mexico… our identity is a bicultural bilingual identity, and it would be a slap in the face and an insult to all of that."

The Outpouring of Anti-Trump Artwork

The street mural in Laredo is far from alone when it comes to public art that stands against Trump and his administration's many degrading actions. Art has always been a tool of political activists, and the Trump presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic have inspired some particularly memorable works of public art.

In the lead-up to the 2016 election, a mural on the side of a restaurant in Lithuania showing Trump kissing Russian President Vladimir Putin went viral. Around the same time, a mural painted on the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico, depicting Trump with a ball-gag wedged in his mouth and the words "!RAPE TRUMP!" became a tourist attraction. Who could forget the day in 2016 when numerous naked Trump statues, sculpted by the horror artist Ginger, appeared overnight in Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Seattle for the project known as "The Emperor Has No Balls."

Both the Tijuana mural and the naked Trump sculptures were executed by the anonymous political activism artist collective Indecline. The group is also responsible for transforming a Trump Tower luxury hotel suite into a prison cell for the president, complete with live rats, in 2018, as the Russia investigation—which the U.S. Justice Department never fully examined—was ongoing.

Indecline, which began as a group of "punk kids" in Southern California looking for an outlet during the Bush administration years, has grown into a national collective of artists whose work makes headlines around the world regularly—especially since the Trump statues project.

"The best thing to do, for us, has always been to find a way to therapeutically make the best of these situations through activist art," said a founder of Indecline who spoke anonymously with the Independent Media Institute.

The idea behind Indecline, he says, is to use art to shock people into paying attention to the things they care about, but often feel too depressing to look at.

"This has been around forever… Since the first time some asshole came in and pulled some oppressive move on a community, resistance art has been there," he says. "Activist art or street art has ways of reaching people at an emotional level that more traditional forms of protest can't."

Indecline's mission, per se, is to get people into a dialogue around the hard things to look at and invite them to look from new angles.

"We break so many laws in the quest to create our art, and that in and of itself has always been a touchpoint for us with the general public," he says. "[We're asking people to think about] why they care more about the billboard that we put a sticker on to address school shootings, rather than the school shootings themselves… When people are choosing property over people, for us that [indicates] a clear need to readjust, recalibrate your moral compass."

The need to break laws in the name of civil disobedience and public awareness is a running theme throughout Indecline's new 40-minute documentary "The Art of Protest," which is distributed by Zero Cool films and premiered on the Rolling Stone website. Elisabeth Garber-Paul, who previewed the film in detail for Rolling Stone, writes:

"Indecline teamed up with Saving Banksy director Colin M. Day to turn that footage—as well as footage of their numerous installations since, from prison rooms fabricated in Trump hotels to walking a pack of leashed MAGA supporters—to illustrate the importance of art and satire in the movement for social change."

Rather than continuing to focus their efforts primarily in places that already have fairly progressive populations, Indecline is working to bring more art projects to places like the South, where they expect most Americans will not offer them as warm a reception as they've received in places like New York and the West Coast.

"We're trying to think of how we can go to Arkansas, for example, and do something that really wakes that community up," he says. The goal, he says, is not just for the sake of shocking people but rather "to try to engage with the small pockets in that community that wished they had a platform or some resources to make more noise in their community—rather than feeling like they're going to get shot for wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt to Walmart."

He says even if Trump loses to Biden in the upcoming election, there will be just as much need for community activism and public art: "A lot of things that we have to look at in the wake of a Trump presidency were always around beforehand—even though he's exacerbated them," he says.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

A strike by Portland strippers has grown into a nationwide movement

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, which erupted around the world following the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis on May 25, protesters in Portland, Oregon, carried signs with messages like "No Justice, No Booty," and "We Won't Perform Without Reform." The Stripper Strike is centered on exposing racially biased labor practices and calling for the equitable treatment of Black and other non-white dancers within sex-forward Portland's many strip clubs. The localized strike has since grown into a nationwide labor movement for racial justice, as well as better treatment overall of dancers in strip clubs around the country. Black dancers are leading the charge, mobilizing the nascent labor movement—and dismantling stereotypes and taboos along the way.

The problematic strip club environments that Black and other non-white dancers of color have put up with for years, according to the movement, include a range of loosely cloaked racial biases like disallowing hip-hop music or claiming a venue is a so-called "rock and roll club" going for a certain aesthetic that in effect alienates Black or other non-white dancers. Then there are more overt policies, like clubs that primarily hire white dancers, pay them more and give them the best time slots. These and other trends have been widespread throughout the strip club industry and until recent months received little pushback, largely for fear of retaliation among dancers. The Stripper Strike in Portland, however, drew widespread media attention to the issue.

The Stripper Strike and the ongoing movement it has inspired expose and seek to tackle the uncomfortable realities that, until recently, were only discussed among dancers in the dressing room or on closed social media threads, says Cat Hollis. Hollis is a Portland-based Black dancer and founder of the Haymarket Pole Collective, which is the central organizing force behind the Stripper Strike. The collective, which is made up of local dancers, advocates for "proactive policy and equitable treatment for Black and Indigenous workers by facilitating restorative justice in the adult entertainment industry." Haymarket Pole Collective seeks to protect the labor rights of dancers who belong to marginalized groups, including dancers who are people of color, queer, and/or differently-abled.

Hollis says fighting vocally to protect those who are most at risk of harm gives the whole industry of dancers a leg up. As reported in detail by Iman Sultan at ZORA, the Stripper Strike's demands include safer working conditions, fair wages, and protection from sexual assault. Sultan writes:

"Even though strippers are the main entertainers at strip clubs, most of them are independent contractors, who pay stage fees to perform. As a result, they are not guaranteed safety, fixed wages, health care, or recourse for the sexual harassment, stalking, and rape they experience on the job. And for Black women, the risks of sex work are magnified by racism."

In the U.S., Portland has the most strip clubs per capita, and it carries a sex-positive, sexually liberated reputation. However, as the Stripper Strike and efforts of the Haymarket Pole Collective have revealed in recent months, many of Portland's clubs have had injurious racial biases, racially discriminatory policies and a lack of racial and cultural sensitivity training.

The Haymarket Pole Collective has been gradually implementing cultural sensitivity training, led by dancers of color, throughout local clubs willing to comply with the strike's demands. Hollis says she has been in regular online meetings with organizing dancers and collectives that have emerged around the country in solidarity and with similar intentions for their local industries. The groups are collectively working to streamline the cultural sensitivity training processes.

Independent Media Institute (IMI)'s April M. Short spoke with Hollis about the Stripper Strike, its impacts on the strip club industry and the long-term goals and plans of the larger movement for dancers' rights.

The following interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

April M. Short: Thanks for speaking with me—I know you've been busy taking interviews and getting the word out about all that you are doing. I'm hoping to hear from you about your future plans and long-term visions. Also, what has already come out of the Stripper Strike, what hasn't come out of it; what has changed?

Cat Hollis: I like to say stripper strike is a verb, right? And the noun behind stripper strike is Haymarket Pole Collective, at least for this particular strike [in Portland]. What has been really cool, as we've grown and continued to incite action, is we are finding these other autonomous collectives of dancers across the country and we're collaborating with them on a larger action.

A big part of me [wondered], "Are there other people doing this work? Are we overlapping with people who have been working hard for years?" What I realized is that, although there are a lot of autonomous dancer collectives, there are very few Black-led or Black-trans-Indigenous-centered collectives.

I was having a meeting with a bunch of different dancers from all over the country, and even though many of the dancers were people of color, it was Haymarket Pole's mission that brought up the need to highlight the struggles of Indigenous, trans and Black folks. It was really cool just to meet with this group… and they were asking whether we were ready to do a collaborative effort. I was like, I am, and you need to put it in writing that you're trying to protect these vulnerable communities within our communities. And they said, "Of course, of course."

But I feel like that "of course" is what has left these communities behind. We assume that these rights are inalienable. And if power wasn't real [then inclusion would be a matter] "of course," but power is real. It was great to lend a voice and lend weight to the voices of people who are in this community and are marginalized, on top of being sex workers. So that felt really good.

AMS: I think that's kind of a landmark of the era that we're in. People are realizing that in order for anything to shift, we have to say the thing rather than just assume it's implied.

CH: Yeah. And some of what I've learned through this process is that a lack of active language preventing discrimination is inherently discriminatory. And that's on a federal level.

There are so many rights that were fought for already, in the past, that aren't being fulfilled in the present. One of my favorite discoveries was that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that if there is not active language preventing future discrimination—so not responsive, but proactive language protecting those most vulnerable people—that is inherently discriminatory. It's just so important, as a bottom line, that we start off by including in our language.

… I've been talking a lot about fostering consent culture, and I think that a way that [people], especially white women, can more easily understand why these things are important is if you think about consent culture. Consent is FRIES. It's freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic and specific. A sex worker can still be raped if her consent was not fully informed or enthusiastic or specific, right? And that's if you're about to have a sexual encounter. The same thing goes if you want to touch a pregnant person's belly or a Black woman's hair.

In a similar way, I think it's important that we as allies get consent from the communities that we are assisting. We should look for enthusiastic and specific and informed and reversible consent. Do they want our help? What do they need? I think that the people who are in those communities have the best vision for what their ideal outcomes are. It's important to be putting them in leadership positions and in a place where they can advocate for their own, where they're the ones leading the charge, and they're the ones determining the opportunities.

One thing that I keep on thinking about is how people are like, "Oh, I can't believe that dancers are doing this." And I'm like, "Okay, but if you really see us as the lowest of the low, how are we able to do this work and vocalize for our rights, and yet you're still struggling with the idea?"

I've been saying that we're done teaching people how to jump over hurdles that have been there for years. People have been telling communities, "Hey, you're just not jumping high enough. We get that the hurdles are there, but let's teach you how to jump higher." And it's like, no, man—let's move these hurdles out of the way. As we go along, we're finding these systemic problems and hitting the glass ceiling, so to speak. And we have decided that every time that we find a glass ceiling, we break it so that it's not there for other people.

I think that it's so important to have people define where they want those hurdles lifted from. Because I think that it goes back as far as [white European colonists] giving blankets to the Native Americans [that gave them smallpox], for example. Intent and outcome are often completely different, and a lot of our intents are unknowingly harmful to these communities. The blankets are bad examples of that, because it was often fully cognizant [that the blankets could spread smallpox], but, you know.

AMS: I saw this meme or Instagram post that I think maybe you shared, about a similar idea: being given a "seat at the table." It said something like, "We don't want to sit at your table; we'd prefer a different table."

CH: Yeah, and we've always had a table and the idea that you're like, "Hey, let's build a little table next to ours." We're like, "Oh no, we have a table." And you [say], "No, no, no, no, no—our food is really good." And we're like, "I'm telling you that you've been hitting the fork out of my hand for 500 years." And then people are still [saying]: "I don't understand, is our table no good?" And we're like, "Well, you poisoned me at that table like six times before. Why would I want to sit there?"

There is a banquet of opportunities available that people of color have been trying to build for years. And it's been torn down over and over again in a variety of ways. I think that it's really important to think about that when we help these communities—we're not determining their outcomes; we're expanding their opportunity to choose their own outcomes.

Not all people are the same, and they don't all want the same opportunities.

AMS: Going off of that a bit, I wanted to hear about the cultural sensitivity trainings you've been putting together, led by dancers.

CH: Yes, so we're providing the trainings for clubs to do cultural sensitivity training with staff. And we've recently facilitated sex workers in learning to impart those trainings.

I, for example, have a really hard time—I upset white people a lot because I'll say things like "white people suck." And then someone's like, "What about me?" I'm like, "Oh, I mean, yeah, you're fine."

AMS: Right, some people take it personally rather than looking at the meaning or context.

CH: And the people who don't take it personally are already on their path to anti-racist action. So, how do we approach the people who do not understand and come from a place of confusion? And confusion leads to anger…

I'm having to learn to say things like: "Yeah, Greg, all lives do matter, but what we were trying to do was this and this…" You know? These are skills that I feel I'm learning. We have the wisdom to impart the path to justice in our communities; we just need to make sure that people have the skills to listen and to hear [when they lead these trainings]. Because these are our rights—it's not a game and it's not an option.

AMS: Can you tell me more about where you are in the process of cultural sensitivity trainings for club staff, and how it's been going?

CH: We have been actively training. We are fiscally sponsored through the YWCA of Greater Portland, which means we are a 501(c)(3) [nonprofit]. They have been doing the trainings for clubs. We have three clubs that are scheduled and in the process of doing these trainings on interrupting racism, how to approach a situation that is racially charged.

Originally the clubs were saying, "We don't need it because we're not racist." Well, when Dominique Dunn, a Black man, was shot outside of a strip club in Portland [in July] by a white dude, I think that brought to light the idea that it doesn't matter that your bartender or hiring manager or staff are racist; in this current political climate we are all, whether we like it or not, going to be dealing with escalating tensions surrounding race. No matter what your view on the progressive nature of Black liberation is, we can all see the benefit of reducing conflict in our communities. Learning how to approach the problems is really important.

AMS: Returning to something you touched on before—has there been significant pushback or difficulty getting through to people during trainings, and/or is there anything new or unexpected coming back to you from the larger community?

CH: Well, a part of what slowed down the street action was that COVID-19 cases were going up, but really what it helped us do is sit back and ask ourselves: are we able to provide the things that we are asking of these clubs? And we've been learning how to do that. For instance, we're asking these clubs to do these trainings, so we're taking the trainings. We're asking clubs to have nondiscrimination policies. Well, we're now forming our own 501(c)(3), so how does a model policy look? We're working with a committee of dancers who are at one of the clubs to help develop a model policy for folks.

One of the surprising things for me is that I feel like a lot of dancers are very hesitant to participate in asking for compliance with state law because of their lack of agency in their places of work. And, how do we expedite justice for those groups of people? I think the big change that we've seen is an educational standard of independent contractors asking to understand what their contract means and what their rights are.

Some of the pushback I feel is from a lack of communication, which is inherently the problem. At our first rally, for example, the venues said they did not get our demands. And it's like, "How?"

I think that the real issue that has come up in this is that these strip club owners and managers are trying to say that they did not know. And the question is, how was one dancer at 2 a.m. ever supposed to receive aid for issues surrounding the workplace, surrounding discrimination, clients, and things like that if it took 9,000 of us to get through to clubs? If it doesn't matter that we have 300 people standing outside of clubs with signs, we delivered the demands, we've emailed the demands, we've mailed the demands, and yet somehow [club management] still doesn't know? So the real question is: if you really don't know, isn't that an issue?

AMS: Right, at this point how could they possibly not know?

CH: Yeah. And if you don't hear us now, how did you ever expect things to be going so perfectly before this? If you really didn't hear us, maybe there's a lot more you didn't hear.

What I've been surprised by is the openness of some of the managers to improve their places of business. I've actually been really surprised by the support, and it has been lovely to see the support. That was something I was not expecting.

The other thing I was not expecting is that, even with pro bono legal services, even with extensive opportunities for training, there's still a level of fear in our community of retaliation. I think that that is something we need to remove because if someone is afraid to say no, how is their yes enthusiastic?

AMS: I was going to ask you about that potential fear of retaliation because in any line of work standing up to the boss is hard, no matter who you are—and then [there are] the added layers that dancers face, and people of color on top of that.

CH: Right. And, also just to admit that there's improvement that's possible. We like to think that we [in Portland] are the best because we have the most clubs and we have a lot of opportunities, but the question is, is that enough?… At the beginning, people were like, "At least you can wear tennis shoes." Or the attitude was, at least we can do these certain things. And I'm like, it's not really enough. Do you feel that extending your own privileges is going to remove something from you? Do you feel that by arguing for your indemnity rights somehow you were going to forego the caveats you have?

AMS: Could you talk a bit about the bigger picture of why sex workers' rights and strippers' rights are relevant and important in the larger BLM movement, and overall in society?

CH: I think the important thing that people can realize from any sort of a vulnerable community raising an issue is that marginalized communities are part of our communities. They're just on the fringes. If we have hardships or problems come into our communities, the first people to see them are those people on the edges. And it means that these things are coming for us.

People were really freaking out about [protesters] on the street getting nabbed and thrown into unmarked vehicles. And this is something that immigrant and Native and Black communities have been experiencing for centuries. In resolving harm for our marginalized communities, we can uplift the community as a whole. Black folks are a marginalized community, and within that community we do have even more vulnerable communities. Differently-abled people, trans people, sex workers are all vulnerable; harm is potentially exponential [for them]. We can also determine that if the harm is potentially exponential, the benefit is potentially exponential if we reduce harm for these communities. If we can reduce harm for them, we can see how quickly we can effect change for the larger community. It's too bad that often people don't realize until it's too late, or they're coming to help after a community is in crisis. What this movement is really bringing to light is the need to proactively address these issues before they cause crisis, before they cause harm.

For instance, we don't have support services, so when COVID-19 hit, these vulnerable communities were exponentially more likely to experience harm. So, if we can improve our health care system, if we can improve our social services system, if we can uplift communities and get people therapy and social services they need, we can reduce harm so that when a community is in crisis there's a lot less to deal with.

One of the important terms that I've heard within Black Lives Matter is all Black lives matter. We cannot forget our trans family and we cannot forget our differently-abled family and our Indigenous families. Because those are the people who walk the margins. And like we were talking about before, we've been trying to get a seat at the table for them, and at a certain point why don't we just protect them where they are?

AMS: On the Haymarket Pole Collective website there's a line that says: "Our existence has always been counter-culture, profiting off the male-gaze and relying on mutual aid. In an effort to alleviate the systematic pressures of the status quo, we now join hands, click heels, and dance together as a unified front." I would love to hear a little bit about that counterculture, and the mutual aid in particular. How and what are the ways in which the community has had to, and continues to, support one another from the inside? And why has that been necessary?

CH: I think that one of the ways that we are extremely proud of our culture is that the human body has been monetized in many ways through labor. I recently had an interaction with [my mother] where she said to me: "I just don't understand how I'm supposed to deal with you selling your body."

And I was like, wow, is that counterculture? Because in a capitalist system, we are all selling our bodies at some point, whether we are breaking our backs in an Amazon warehouse or sucking dick on the corner. There's survival sex work, right, where people are doing labor for survival, but there's survival [in] so many types of work.

[This movement] is about reclaiming the means of production. We're seizing the means of production in that our butts run these clubs. And as far as the world's oldest profession goes, I don't understand why people think it's going anywhere. If we can look at how to address the problems that are presented by patriarchal culture and by capitalist culture—because basically, if something doesn't work within the systems that exist, they throw it out—so if we can look at the systems that they've thrown out, we can see how to dismantle that system. We want to be the wrench in the gears of that system. And so, if we've been determined to be a wrench, then by all means let's get ourselves in the gears.

Especially in regard to mutual aid, I think Tennessee Williams said it best: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." Sex workers have been crowdfunding their rent $20 at a time way before GoFundMe. I think that we have a lot of unique skills that can help benefit our communities, and because we have been left out of discussions, we have not been able to help solve problems that affect everyone, including us. So we're using that rub, using that friction, to create heat and spark some change for all labor. We're done with trickle down and we decided to trickle up.

AMS: Could you share the challenges many strippers and sex workers face accessing basic social services like unemployment?

CH: [Dancers] cannot apply for [unemployment] because, for the most part, we're independent contractors. [Another] part of the problem is a lot of dancers have trouble providing documentation of their work. For instance, if I'm trying to apply for government relief as an independent contractor, I have to have a copy of my contract, and most clubs will not give you a copy of your contract. So then, when I am calling this club to try to confirm my contract with them for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), [since] I've been working on the strike, now they're saying that I never worked there.

It's an issue that strippers have faced for a long time: we signed this contract, we don't get a copy. It turns out the contract was only for three months, and then two years later after working breakneck shifts every single day, there's a raid. They find a condom in your purse. And the club says, actually, she doesn't have a contract. You're like, what? I signed a contract. And that was three years ago, and they're like, yeah, that contract fell out.

Also, for instance, when I was renting a house in Minneapolis, I would say that I was a waitress. Otherwise, they wouldn't rent to me. It is actually illegal to discriminate in housing because of your job—my job was completely legal, but that's what I had to say. So, you know, at a certain point there just comes a problem of anonymity.

AMS: And all of this is part of what the Haymarket Collective is working to change, yes?

CH: Yeah, and one of the demands that we're encouraging other economist collectives to include is that we would like clubs to start doing their due diligence as far as documentation [is concerned]. If you're going to terminate these contracts, then you should give them a reason in writing. Because for some reason, all of the Black dancers get fired for their attitude… And so the question becomes how do you seek retaliation for discrimination when there's no documentation?

Regulation is a slippery slope. We figure if it's coming either way, we would like to be part of defining what those regulations look like, because right now they're not serving us, they're serving these club owners who make millions of dollars a year off of our stage fees. And the thing is, these clubs don't run without us. At a certain point we do need to seize the means of pro-butt-tion, as I like to call it, and to say that without our butts, you make no money. And then there are no drink sales, and there are no stage fees.

Even though we don't necessarily have the right to retaliate like a lot of employees do, we do have the right to contract where we please. If a club does not have proactive language in their discrimination policy, those issues are going to trickle up to white dancers, to cis dancers. Ending these discriminations is super important to protecting us as a class.

AMS: I wanted to hear just a little more about efforts mobilizing nationally. You said you met with a group of different dancers from around the country. There's a national Stripper Strike. How do you see this movement growing and building into the future?

CH: I've been calling it a biogenesis, which is a scientific term for simultaneous beginnings to life. Currently, in our scientific display, we say there was a one-celled organism and it split into two, and then it developed into a plant, then a fish, and then it crawled up onto the land. And what science has shown is that a lot of times when the conditions for life are right, it will begin in many different places at once. I truly feel that the conditions for change are right. There are so many collectives that either started on their own completely separate and we're now just finding each other, or there are collectives that are seeing the actions being taken by their co-butt-workers, and seeing their power, and reclaiming their power.

It's just been absolutely beautiful to see those groups collaborate. We may not have the same laws or the same practices at our clubs, but a lot of the problems are the same. So, we can talk about which techniques are working, which aren't, and what we're asking for. We have a list of demands from four or five different states. There is now a Haymarket chapter in Chicago that started from our national meetings that happen on Sundays.

It cheers me up all the time when I look at the rage and empowerment and demand for better that is happening. We've been asking for this for so long. Dancers have been asked for a long time to fix their clubs, and the real thing is we don't have to fix our clubs. We just don't have to contract at clubs that are shitty. I think the solidarity has been really effective.

AMS: Yes, and like you were saying, it seems to be a moment right now of evolutions happening all over the place spontaneously, together.

CH: Yeah. Because the conditions are right, but it's not a coincidence or an accident. It is the sound of the wrench in the gears. We've all been thrown in, and now we're saying, well, actually fuck this machine. Let's rage against it. This isn't what we want… I think it really is a biogenesis. The conditions are right, and the other thing is they're not unique. The things happening [here in Portland] are things that have been happening all over the country.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.