Shutting Down A Whole Foods; Opening Up Awareness
On September 10th, local members of Buddhist Peace Fellowship joined Black organizers and allies to picket the Whole Foods in Oakland, where less than a week prior, a Black male customer was brutally beaten by a private security guard.
For an inside perspective on the action, below are reflections from three of the protesters: Buddhist Peace Fellowship Bay Area Training participants Maegan Willan and Leora Fridman, and BPF Co-Director Katie Loncke.
The most powerful part of this experience for me was a conversation I had about an hour and a half into the action, as I was heading to unlock my bike and ride off to meet my dad for dinner. Whole Foods in Downtown Oakland had been transformed into a celebration of Black power and love, full of song and speech and very little business-as-usual.
As I was about to leave, a young white man was locking his bike up and he seemed like he was coming to shop. I asked him if he wanted to talk about what was happening and after he said yes, I explained why people were picketing the store. With barely contained harshness, he replied (something like), “I’m an activist too, I work for [a well-known environmental non-profit], and I have found that making people feel guilty is exactly the wrong way to convince people of your cause. Calling people who shop at Whole Foods racist is ridiculous and wrong and divisive.”
I could feel my righteousness and judgmental mind start to fortify me for a fight. But I was coming off of the high of witnessing the Black Seed folks do something so good and generative and utterly beautiful and hanging out with other Buddhist Peace Fellowship people who remind me how the dharma relates to all possible experiences. I felt grateful to have another choice available in that moment.
So we got into it for twenty-five minutes. Two white people with very different understandings about what was happening in our world. Both of us hung in there way beyond our comfort zones as we talked about effective strategies, the point of civil disobedience, guilt vs. responsibility, truth vs. hair-trigger assumptions, and whether all white people raised in the U.S. are racist due to their inevitable conditioning.
In the middle of it I remembered an exercise we had done maybe 4 months earlier at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship training in Dharma and Direct Action, where we practiced internally grounding in our dharma superpower while role-playing a heated exchange much like this one. Remembering this made it possible to slow down, stay out of contempt, maintain eye contact and stay connected.
At some point his tone of voice changed and he said softly “I don’t know why I get so triggered about this kind of thing…” Realizing that I was 20 minutes late to meet my dad and that this might be a good time to end, this moment of self awareness and uncertainty after all the back and forth debating, I put my hand on his arm and thanked him and rode off. I felt more invigorated than angry even though so many of the things he had said seemed ignorant, untrue and hurtful.
I know that I don’t have enough opportunities to talk with people who don’t think like me in this way and I wondered if that was true for him as well. In that moment it seemed that part of the possibility of these types of actions happens when there is enough of an interruption in modern commerce, enough of a shock to the system for people sheltered from the impact of oppression, that new forms of exchanges are inevitable. For me, participating in these new forms of exchanges is more possible when I root myself in the home base of the Dharma and BPF.
I’ve often felt confused and over-eager when meditation starts with the body. How am I meant to rest in compassion, emptiness, anicca (impermanence) anatta (no self) if I am essentially focused on my body? I thought, how do I get to the bigger stuff, and, why do I have to start here?
More and more, I come to believe that it’s the starting here — in the body — that makes the rest possible. If I could rest quietly watching my mind, I must not essentially be my mind. Though I felt afraid at first, and even angry — why should I let go of the small things that make me me? Don’t I need them to survive? — my awareness gradually relaxed as I eased into something larger than this body. I watched my fear and anger pass on, return, and pass on again as I eased in.
One of the things that struck me most about angry customers’ reactions to the protest was how steadfastly these customers seemed stuck in their own individual experience.
I experienced a similar body-as-gateway sensation during last week’s action to protest the assault of an unarmed Black man by a Whole Foods security guard. Once protests had shut down cash registers inside the store, we allies were able to enter the store to support the shut down and link arms across the line of cash registers. I felt a deep sense of ease as I linked arms with strangers and friends. Action leaders led chants, songs, accounts of the assault, and action demands, and we projected their speech across the store. Though I’ve stood in solidarity with racial justice before, on this evening, I felt my body arrive.
Several customers attempting to purchase groceries were convinced not to shop at Whole Foods that evening, but several customers were also quite angry, yelling, I’m on your side, but I’m hungry, and you don’t have any compassion for those of us who are just trying to buy food. One angry customer with a cart full of food attempted to drive his cart through the space between my body and the person next to me. As our bodies parted to avoid the cart, his cart crashed into a display of wine directly behind us and several bottles fell to shatter on the floor. As I made space to help the Whole Foods employee cleaning up the mess, I felt my body arrive. I felt present. Not just because of the little shot of adrenaline from a small pile of glass shattering next to me. I felt my body as a gateway to something larger.
One of the things that struck me most about angry customers’ reactions to the protest was how steadfastly these customers seemed stuck in their own individual experience. So enclosed in their small sense of self and the immediate needs of that self, even in the face of the deep pain and suffering bravely presented in the bodies, words and faces of Black activists.
As customers repeated things like, I get it, but I’m hungry, let me through, protesters raised a chant of you’re hungry, but we’re dying — or, for those of us who are not Black, you’re hungry, but people are dying. You’re hungry, but people are dying. Are you willing to look at something a little bit larger than your hunger?
Watching a customer insist to protesters that getting her two small takeout containers of orzo home was more important than their protest, I saw and felt how strongly we cling.
I was grateful last Thursday evening, because I was offered an opportunity to step outside of my small sense of self, my small ego. Putting my body in a particular location because of my political beliefs allowed me to take a look at the small self. My small self and the small selves of those around me. And once I could observe that small self, that small body, I could see so clearly how fragile it is, and how constructed.
I had the opportunity to watch a few Whole Foods customers, like this man, who started from a place of fear and anger (Why should I let go of my groceries? Don’t I need them to survive?) that drove him to crash his cart into a display of wine bottles. Ten minutes later, there was ease and mobility in his manner: Okay, it sounds important. I’ll put this food back and leave. He seemed to have shocked himself with the crash into the wine bottles, a shock that maybe jolted him awake to what was going on around him. That jolted him into being open to listening.
I felt honored to support the action at Whole Foods, and grateful to protesters for being brave enough to use their bodies to publicly display pain and injustice. Watching a customer insist to protesters that getting her two small takeout containers of orzo home was more important than their protest, I saw and felt how strongly we cling. It felt so clear to me how directly I cling to the needs of my small self in order to avoid dealing with the larger pain and suffering around me. I pretend I am not connected to others in order to save myself that pain and suffering, because I have the white privilege that allows me to remove myself from that pain. Not everyone has that privilege.
I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to let my body be a gateway. I aspire to being offered this opportunity again. May this work for racial justice continue to be work towards the happiness, safety, health, love and joy of beings. May all beings be free.
Whole Foods has disarmed all security guards in Northern California stores.
They have vowed to discontinue products made from prison labor.
They claim to be training employees better.
In addition to disarming guards, we’re enhancing sensitivity and incident response training for guards and team members. More soon. #Oakland
— Whole Foods NorCA (@WholeFoodsNorCA) September 7, 2015
And behind-the-scenes info indicates that they are reaching out to community organizations about WF’s role in the gentrification of Oakland.
These measures are good, and they align with some of the grievances we brought to the store during the shutdown action. But the improvements are also mixed.
As local Black liberation organizer Alicia Bell pointed out, does the elimination of “prison labor” (a term that already sounds dehumanizing: a noun, an object, a thing) mean that some people inside prisons will simply lose their jobs?
Will the disarming of guards in Northern California stay local, not spreading to other regions?
Will Whole Foods issue a public apology to the man who was assaulted? (Probably not, now that they’re in the midst of litigation about it.)
Whole Foods might gain some positive P.R. from its reforms. Will that obfuscate its contributions to gentrification and displacement?
What will really change about the distribution of power?
In his classic book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche writes,
Ego loves to wait in ambush to appropriate spirituality for its own survival and gain.
… Enlightenment is ego’s ultimate disappointment.
Much as spiritual seekers can get tangled up in the trappings of feeling spiritual, as organizers and activists, we can get caught up in righteousness. Of course we can. Sometimes this might actually be healing — especially for those whose voices have long been silenced. But I try to notice how ego also loves to distract us from our true purpose by concerning us with the feeling of righteousness, rather than examining the long-term fruits of our efforts.
This is not to say that our actions should be grimly utilitarian. No way! The feeling of our political organizing is an important dimension, because it’s a way of expressing love and compassion as a process. Compassion for ourselves, for each other, and for everything with which we are interconnected: tragic, painful, neutral, holy, gorgeous.
But we are not engaging in bold action for the way it makes us feel: adrenaline, conviction, fleeting, pleasant sensations. We engage in bold action to plant good seeds for the future. For true, active peace and justice. For a moment, I can imagine even beyond #wholeaccountability into total transformation. I envision the cavernous, fake-eco-friendly Whole Foods store emptied out and refashioned as a true marketplace. A meeting grounds of local farmers and affordable small food vendors, kicked out of Oaxaca, Manila, or Alabama through some variant of U.S. imperialism or white supremacy, but here in Oakland now and passing down traditions of Black and Brown foodways in diaspora. Healers offering workshops on herbal medicine, food as medicine. The democratic culinary fusion and mashups that happen when people truly grounded in their own tradition make friends from other lineages and start experimenting in deliciousness.
We won’t get there just by dreaming, though.
So I am thankful to be part of communities, part of movements, that keep track. That pay attention to unfolding outcomes, long after we’ve sung our songs and shouted our slogans. As revolutionary Chinese-American philosopher, scholar, and organizer Grace Lee Boggs puts it, each victory yields new contradictions. No win is absolute in this long, long effort for freedom, justice, and peace.
Thank you for sticking with us. We’re in it for the long haul — spiritually and politically.