Neil Robinson - continued from previous page
I met you on the Primate Freedom Tour, when you were touring with bands and speakers as a complimentary component to a cross-country activist tour targeting primate research laboratories. And I remember you were touring with not just Aus-Rotten, Anti-Product and Harem Scarum, but also with Mark Bruback, Sarah O'Donnell, and Fly, you were incorporating speakers and activist literature, and that's not really the typical punk tour at all. Was there anything specific that motivated you to include different aspects to the shows?
I think touring with bands, it wasn't like we were all one scene. There's this impression that punk/hardcore is all the same. it's definitely not like that, there were definitely different communities that had different styles of touring, of how the music was presented, of how the shows were presented. I'd always been open to trying something new. And people in New York would criticize me for putting the craziest bands on the same bill. I just wanted to bring people together and try and have them hear a different way to present it. Mixing straight edge bands with completely fucking drunk Casualties-type bands, and it was fun to see where it would go and how people would react. Touring with bands like Avail, they were not just your everyday anarchist-dressing tattooed... well, they were tattooed, but had really good lyrics, some of the similar struggles that everyone else faces day to day, but when they played their shows it was just a different vibe.
The idea of that tour was to raise money for the activist part of the tour, and also to kinda activate from the punk anarchist communities who had already been kinda doing stuff around animal rights issues in those areas, to hopefully get them out and onto the frontlines at the university demos. And I met Mark [Bruback] on a Citizen Fish tour. I had just gone to a show and Mark was doing his spoken word and I really enjoyed it. I had also met Sarah O'Donnell and I really liked her. And for something like the Primate Freedom Tour, it seemed really important to not just have bands screaming lyrics half the people couldn't understand, but also have some time for dialogue. And again, I was pushing my boundaries. I had wanted to expose myself to hear what they were facing in their own daily lives. In Sarah's case, being a young queer woman trying to play at punk shows, and Mark doing spoken word at these crusty shows with people completely abusing you. I was blown away because I know when I was performing, usually I would end up getting in a fight with a heckler, and Mark would totally turn it around and he'd use his knowledge and his experience of things to diffuse the situation and have the crowd laughing at the person that had started heckling. I didn't want to just attract the punks, I wanted the activists that were already doing stuff in those communities to feel comfortable coming to a show, to offer it to everyone.
And I think I was getting tired of... I'd definitely started thinking about the fact that there were all these bands screaming about all this amazing stuff, but then in their daily lives they worked a shit fucking job for a shit fucking company, they drunk shit fucking corporate beer, they really hadn't plugged into small-scale food sources. It wasn't that I wanted to get sucked into judging or that but I was becoming aware of it myself, again, how all these different pieces are linked, you know? Where your food comes from, and the stores you're shopping at, and with the meager resources I had I didn't want to keep supporting them. On that tour, and I still think about this now, using a car to travel, flying around the world using up so many resources on one trip, and I kinda said to myself that the next time I fly, it will purely be to go back to Europe. It won't be to visit or vacation or something. At some point around that tour - two months I think we were out - even though it was enjoyable, going to each town, meeting young people doing cool stuff, I wanted to be part of the cool stuff that was happening here. I wanted this sense of laying down radical roots and starting to lead by example. So after that tour, I was like I'm done with touring, I wanna lay roots.
So you recently sold your entire record collection - including the records of your own bands. After being involved in punk for so long, after having the distro which was livelihood, what made you decide you wanted to part with the records?
I had moved all those thousands of records from New York out here, I had moved them again from one house to the Mississippi Co-Op House where I did the distro out of the space that became the Black Rose Infoshop. And when I moved out of the Mississippi Co-Op, I moved into another house and I just filled up the rooms with boxes. Then I decided to move into an apartment at a co-housing eco-village, it was very small, one bedroom. I wanted to move into a space that I felt my impact was less because of the scale of the place. And I realized I couldn't take all this music with me. I realized that there would be other young people that the message would have more value to than it did to me anymore. And all those images, all those record covers are all tattooed in my head anyway. The memories are all there, the music is still there. The values, the sentiments, all the imagery is all there. I knew at some point I would stop doing it and some other young person who had a passion would carry it on, plus I had started a farm, it would be nice to have that extra money, to invest that money into the farm.
Can you tell me about what led to your initial involvement initially with People's Food Co-Op and describe your progression into eventually becoming a farm owner?
I felt like it was recently after the Vail action, the first big action that got national media attention around the burning down of a new ski resort in Vail [Colorado] that had pushed into lynx habitat. The Earth Liberation Front had taken responsibility, and the Liberation Collective put out the communique. All of a sudden the heat came down on everyone, and I hadn't been working for quite a while. The forest movement was very strong here. And that was very influential on me coming from New York, you come to the northwest and you're out there in pristine wilderness and you're hearing the chainsaws and watching the trucks. So there was a lot of anti-logging action. Tree spiking was still happening. There were cop cars being burned in Portland. Concrete trucks were being burnt. Things were really escalating as far as... I still look at it, to me it's still non-violent direct action, that whole thing is still... that really divided the movement and I think the establishment really relied on that divide and conquer, and it was kinda sad in those early days watching these mainstream environmental groups denounce... But things started heating up. And when the feds came around knocking, because of my status here, I was an alien resident, and as an alien resident, if you commit any federal crime you can be deported, I kinda felt like I might need to get a real job. And again, I wanted to set some roots and settle down.
And food was your particular interest with that?
I wanted to explore a little more subsistence, taking myself and the community I was living in out of the marketplace a little bit. I saw food access as a powerful tool, of both oppression but also a healing power. Around the Lower East Side there were many guerrilla gardens. A lot were started by Latino and Puerto Rican people, and I loved the sense of community around them in the summer, when people would go there and have barbeques. I remember the first time I done Food Not Bombs in New York City. I cooked at home and I made all these different lasagnas, and I took it in. I think it was a Saturday and I went into the park and we set up in the bandshell. Me and my partner, we walked around and told people we had free food. Damn! In the end police came to escort me out, because people were just so hungry that this power trip happened, some of the stronger homeless people who had just come out of prison, some people just started getting really abusive, trying to get the food, they weren't being orderly. Next thing I know, people are fighting each other trying to get something, and then the police came and they're escorting me out of there. But I saw the power in food. And then when I came here, sometimes I'd go down to the Food Not Bombs servings. And often it would be that the recently-freed prisoners would just come up and thank me for giving em such good food. They would complain that all they ever got in prison everyday was meat, and now they could eat this food, and the smile on their faces, I totally got sucked up into the power of food. And it's becoming very apparent that both food and water access is probably going to be the fuel of the revolution, where people's access is going to be the tipping point.
Can you talk a little about the nuts and bolts process you went through of acquiring the land, about what skills you did or didn't have, and what knowledge you gain as a grower that differs from what you knew previously as more of a consumer?
I'd been helping a farmer for four years, he'd been a volunteer at People's, and I volunteered with him at his farm. I started doing the farmer's markets for him downtown, and when I was doing the market, I shared a booth with this Irish woman named Paula, and she was leasing land up where we are now. She was doing small-scale, just under an acre. She worked at an Irish pub three days a week and the other four days she worked on her farm, doing it all on her own. We shared a booth and she was growing beautiful produce, beautiful flowers, and we just talked. She inherited some land in Ireland and wanted to go back. At the time I was living at the Mississippi Co-Op and it seemed like the perfect way for the house to get involved in its own food production. I threw out the idea to them, and a few housemates got involved, a few people from the community got involved, and we just went out there and, you know, we had just kinda simple knowledge of doing food in our backyards, we'd read a few books. We'd done that first year and made a lot of mistakes, but so much food came out of it. We were putting stuff out on our free porch at the Black Rose, but there was still so much food. So we went down to the co-op farmer's market and I went to one of the vendors and asked if she would mind selling some of the extra food we had. So for about a year I would take produce down there Wednesday mornings, and she would sell it for us. So we were producing food for our homes, giving some of it away, and selling some of it at the market.
After that first year, I was excited about the new way I could relate to farmers I was dealing with at People's. I could talk to them about fertilizers and amendments they were using on their soil, the organic processes they were doing. I could talk about certain seeds, varieties. And I noticed as I was doing that, all of a sudden there was a new respect for me. Because I could talk to em, and I started understanding more about the issues of labor they faced. The migrant labor issue hadn't really come out when I first started farming. And most of the farms I was dealing with, especially the larger ones, were using migrant labor. Migrant labor was the unopened can of worms that neither left nor right wanted brought out because there's not a simple answer. But I knew the farmers I was dealing with paid them way more than the minimum wage. Even today we still talk about if we were to kick out all the Mexican workers, my friend, a Mexican farmer, always says, 'oooh, you going to get the gringos to work?'. You work for 8 to 12 hours a day in southern California strawberry picking, whoo! I have this plan that every single American will work 8 hours a year in a field somewhere, because it's brought me a whole new respect about the food that I eat, a whole new respect and appreciation. I understand struggles behind it, beauty behind it now that I don't just take for granted. I know how many hours go into the garlic that's being used in here. That garlic's been in the ground for eight months. And I want other people to share in that appreciation of the food.
It's interesting how little you ever hear the word 'radical' applied to food growing, in relation to other things such as diet, which is essentially consumption.
I watched that film, Power Of Community, it's the film about Cuba after they had their food crisis. I really like the way that the government there really got the people to look at farmers as the leaders in their community. Here farmers still struggle to gain the respect that they should be getting. We leave them on their own. I mean the capitalist model they force us into is very much based on looking after yourself, it's what perpetuates that. If we are really revolutionary, we need to come together in communities and we need to look after each other. And I think that experience I had in New York City living in the Puerto Rican community, in the Dominican communities, damn, the whole family looks after each other. Later in life, it's really hit me the beauty that later in life the young person will be the person looking after the grandparents. It's what they do. I mean look at what we do, we stick em away.
I was talking to someone earlier who moved from Portland to a farm in a smaller town on the coast around the time that I moved from Portland to a town with 8000 people. I always thought my town was a community, but I went down and stayed with her for a week and the difference was down there everyone was showing up for dinner with food they had prepared using ingredients from their gardens, from their farms, or had picked earlier that day in the wild. And I realized food is what makes community - your relationship to it. And my town was just totally disconnected, just is still urban, regardless of the smaller population. It wasn't the size of the place the creates the community, it's food.
For me, I really became aware... as undomesticated animals, there's two things we have in all of us, to get food and shelter. They're the two basest instincts we all have. So when someone tells me they don't know how to grow food, I say, you may not know how to grow it, but I'm pretty sure if you were out in the forest, you somehow would know what was there to eat. And to find shelter, you put someone out in the forest, they're gonna know how to make shelter. I started thinking a lot about the undomesticated experience we have, and I think this urban experience, like you say, I think they want to get us away from the knowledge of how to grow food. And if you look back many many many years ago, so many revolutions and so many conflicts arose around access to land and growing food. But things are shifting in Portland, and everywhere. I read about in New York City where they're covering massive warehouse spaces and filling em with dirt, and filling boats with soil and putting them on the East River.
I think something you might have seen a lot of from music in the past and and also in the more recent efforts to really bring back a more sustainable environment around food is co-opting and greenwashing by larger companies. For instance, on the West Coast, there's one company that now controls all of the distribution of packaged health food. Do you feel that there's any room for only changing consumer habits, or do you feel like that might only be doing more harm than good?
You know, when I look at Hot Topic selling Nausea t-shirts with my Smash Racism logo, it pisses me off to no end. I think Chumbawamba tried to take that on: can you be popular with a simple message and can you control popularity. I do feel that the industry learned from the early days when they feared punk for going on its own, for doing the DIY thing. All of a sudden you had these major labels setting up these so-called DIY subsidiaries so that they would have street access, they kinda learned how to get in there and control it.
I'd say with food, people are aware, I would't say the general public, but the co-op community, the natural food community that's been supporting small natural food stores are definitely aware of the big chains plugging into it. You know, Wal-Mart rolled out their organic line, and now they're even downsizing to smaller stores. Safeway's doing it, and I feel like they've all started at such a late stage that people are wary of them and are not necessarily plugging into the prices they offer without knowing the issues that go into getting those prices. You know, at People's we decided to stop carrying corporate sugars, because what we found out was a lot of these even organic corporations are destroying rainforests to plant sugar plantations. So we plugged into a company that does fair trade sugar. What we're finding out is, especially on a global scale, demand for good quality environmentally- and community-rewarding food is higher than what can be sourced. Even corporate stores are plugging into fair trade. So now we're at a point where we can't bring in the fair trade sugar because there's not enough of it being produced.
Another thing that's going on is the issue with quinoa, in places in South America where quinoa is their diet, they don't have enough for their own communities. They're exporting so much of it to Europe and North America, they're losing their cultural diet because they're getting paid more than keeping it local. So there's certain things people are starting to realize, they're starting to link population growth, demand for good food; if you get a demand swing one way, we can't fulfill that demand. Bananas are coming to an end as we know it, because all bananas are a clone, so what we're eating right now is called the Cavendish banana, and there's already a disease that's starting to wipe out the Cavendish. Back in the 50's, we lost the banana that was before the Cavendish, it got wiped out by disease. Well the next bananas are nothing like what we're used to, there's little finger bananas, and the red banana. So for me it's the perfect time to bring up the local food discussion.
I think we all have the obligation to start finding land that's on the outskirts of towns, to start purchasing that land, to keep it from being developed. It's cool doing these small green spaces in the city, but you're not going to grow enough protein from beans on a half-acre plot in the city. Now if you have a hundred acres on the outskirts of town, you could make a dent.
At the same time, though, the trend is more and more people moving into cities and urban environments.
You look at Europe, whereas the squats in the urban areas got busted, all of a sudden in France and Germany they going out of the cities and finding farm houses that had been abandoned for ages and starting communities. There weren't any cops that really cared. They done a lot of work to get to know the neighbors, to work with them, and a lot of them have become really successful. I want to have those relationships on the edge. I need the urban environment. I need to be forced to socialize. I don't want to keep pushing out. It bothers me that we have this easy convenient access to what we call the wilderness. We have this relationship where we're either conquerors of the wilderness or we're observers, and I've never felt this necessary need to escape and climb a mountain. I realize with the farm it's taught me to sit and observe nature, because really all farming is is becoming a steward of what nature does. You know, nature was the first farmer. Conventional agriculture and even large-scale agriculture tries to take on nature by faking it, and I'm interested in permaculture, in, you know, can we let nature do its thing and grow the food, but there also be a commercial relationship. I feel like we're kinda experimenting with that on our farm.
Understanding that people tend to struggle against the oppression that's most directed toward them, such as being Black, being queer, being poor, I think a lot of people don't look at food as being a struggle. Do you feel like healthy food is something that can coexist with people's more direct struggles, that food is something that people can actively dedicate energy to?
I mean good food access is definitely around class struggles. Every community that struggles with class is talking about it. People are looking at obesity issues, heart issues, why is it that the African American Black community has such high issues of heart disease, of cancer. And you can't help but link it to the food that's available to single parents, people on welfare or getting food stamps. You know, finally parents at schools are realizing that kids going to school and getting their food out of vending machines... The Oregon Food Bank here has its own farm, and people who are getting food from them are invited to come out. It's both a demonstration farm and a food-producing farm. And then you're starting to see where groups of people are coming together and say things like, 'you see that piece of land over there that's got the abandoned house? can we knock it down and grow food on it?' Or there is a lot up in North Portland where they're just taking over pieces of land.
I've been talking to a group that's now working in the West Bank [Israel] to replant olive orchards along the border, and they're looking for people from Europe and the US to go out because soldiers are taking potshots at the farmers. In Mexico, they've completely lost all their access to their ancient foods because the US put pressure on their agricultural system to grow stuff for export, to where they have no corn for themselves. They bring their corn in from America, and who grows it in America? Migrant laborers who had to come up here. And again, I think we're at that tipping point where many communities are having to think about the access to food, where learning to grow food and learning about the food that's already around us is going to be really important.
In your mind, what do you think it is that keeps people from doing anything about these issues, what is it that keeps people content and stagnant in their current habits? What do you think it would take to make people overcome those barriers and take an active interest in pursuing those issues?
I think the root of it all is the self-serving capitalist model, especially in this country. I mean you look around the world, and... I don't know what to call it, socialism, communalism, cooperatism, on an international scale is happening; people are saying we want to work together. But for some reason this country... I still can't help but... I know we need to be patient, this is a very new country still. I don't think we realize how new it is, and I have definitely thought about these issues, especially growing up in newer communities of recent immigrants and my own personal experience of 'this isn't home for me.' And when you start looking back on who can call this home, you realize this country's made up of people that cannot call this home. Then you got this very strong rugged individualism. I mean unfortunately now freedom to practice commercialism also falls under the first amendment. It's no longer freedom of religion, now it's also freedom to consume. When you go out into the mainstream and you start talking to people, people get really defensive, 'you're gonna take away my access to that cheap meat?!' I see that even here within the vegan movement, sometimes it feels like there's that selfish entrepreneurship, just pushing their own success, and unfortunately it still feels like success is measured by how much money your business makes. Even at People's we struggle with it because it was only when we started breaking a couple million dollars, all of a sudden the industry wanted to hear 'how are you doing it? What are you doing that makes you money?', but not really focusing on all the community building that goes behind what People's is, forgetting that it started in 1970 and there's still people who are owners who were part of the original store.
And maybe that's one of the issues of punk, is that it tries to replicate, because when you try to replicate you're losing some of the genuineness. Whereas if it's a groundswell, if the music, the politics, the values, if it's grassroots from within, you know, it has a genuineness that people can plug into. I think there's also so many divisions, economic divisions, racial divisions, and I think a lot of people are trying to heal them, but then we have policies on a government level, on a state level, that still just perpetuate and keep those walls up. The English were good at it, and the US has learnt from it. So really, to me, until the capitalist model goes down, and then, we start working on mutual aid and building communities that really do care about everyone in the community, it's gonna be hard. It's gonna be very hard. That step from convenience and access to everything to having to make hard choices, I don't know how that's going to happen. But it will.