The online flyer that drew an estimated 10,000 protesters to San Francisco’s Mission District on Wednesday didn’t say to bring food. It mostly showed the name and image of George Floyd, the black man whose May 25 death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer has lit a fuse of outrage and unrest around the country.
But Briana Lawson, like many in this crowd, still came prepared.
“It’s really anything a protester could need,” said Lawson, a San Francisco State University kinesiology student whose folding table at the corner of 18th and Dolores overflowed with pizza boxes, boxes of orange juice, fruit snacks and other reserves.
She’d heard that friends at other anti-police brutality gatherings this week had been getting hungry during these massive marathon demonstrations. So Lawson fundraised $700 from friends and family to keep marchers fed and hydrated. She said she plans to donate the $300 left over from her shopping trip to Black Lives Matter and justice funds for Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the black woman who was shot and killed in her home by Nashville police in March.
A group of friends swarming the table helped Lawson hand out items to appreciative sign-holders walking past. Soon they’d break down the stand and join the protest themselves. “I’m already thinking about doing another one of these, if we’re successful,” Lawson said.
Scores of like-minded people arrived in the area with full inventories of pandemic-sensitive protest materials. They came with face masks, Rice Krispie treats and Fritos. They pointed signs to the cases of drinks at their feet and Mylanta mixtures — used for counteracting the chemical sprays that police have used on protestors in the last week — in their hands. Many said they’d spent hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets or from collected donations.
The pro-bono snacks of the Floyd protests reflect a common feature of mass movements in response to crisis — mutual aid. “Mutual aid means that every participant is both giver and recipient in acts of care that bind them together, as distinct from the one-way street of charity,” Rebecca Solnit explained in her 2009 book “A Paradise Built in Hell.” “In this sense it is reciprocity, a network of people cooperating to meet each others’ wants and share each others’ wealth.”
Although formally organized mutual aid networks have popped up at other protests around the country, none of the snack-givers CityLab spoke with on Wednesday identified themselves as part any group: They just said that they came out of a spirit of peace and support for a cause that they felt deeply connected to. Such impromptu no-charge community support often emerges in response to crisis and disaster. After the 1906 earthquake, San Franciscan residents set up cooperative kitchens in the Mission District and beyond; more recently in the coronavirus pandemic, neighbors have self-organized grocery and supply-delivery networks. Mutual aid efforts involving donations and medical necessities are a feature of protests all over the world, including in many U.S. cities during this recent wave of unrest.
A block down Dolores, a camera-toting high school student handed out bottled water spilling from the underbelly of a vintage yellow school bus tricked out for Burning Man. He decided to help despite not knowing who its owners were, or where the drinks came from. An SFPD officer’s rubber bullet had bruised him at a downtown protest on Saturday after people nearby started throwing objects.
On 18th Street, a married couple was handing out $300 worth of refreshments; after losing their bartending and restaurant jobs due to coronavirus, they said they’d become “full-time protesters.” Across the street, three women held cardboard signs advertising water, snacks, first aid, and phone charging, courtesy of a $130 battery block they’d purchased for the occasion.
At the Mission Station of the San Francisco Police Department, where thousands of people rallied, chanted, and kneeled, another trio of friends from Oakland stood by with two backpacks stuffed with Gatorade and medical supplies — donations that one said she’d collected from her dog-walking clients. A separate group from San Jose said they’d spent $100 at a dollar store to pack up 200 baggies of gloves, masks, and earplugs.
Back on Dolores, an East Bay resident named Eliana Morales said she’d raised nearly $800 in donations to build her inventory. “I went with healthy and fun,” she said, pointing to a box of pastries, bananas, and a few remaining N-95 masks, which were going quickly. She had attended another protest in the Los Angeles area this week that had turned rowdy with police encounters, and wanted to find other ways to support San Francisco’s big day. Any leftovers would be brought to another march on Friday. “I hope for all peaceful Bay Area protests,” she said.
Not all Bay Area protests had been calm — police in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Vallejo, and other communities have used force on demonstrators in recent days, and protesters have thrown projectiles at officers. Looting and property damage has also occurred. But on Wednesday night Morales got her wish, mostly. Though about 20 people were arrested after 10 p.m. for breaking curfew in San Francisco that night, there were no reports of arrests during the heart of the Mission District march, nor among the 8,000-strong who gathered across the bay in Oakland.
Maybe the Pop-Tarts and Doritos helped; maybe it could keep helping. A mountain of bagged lunches and Clif bars in front of Mission High School would be distributed to the homeless after the march, said Erik Geovany Locon, who said he’d been raised in San Francisco and was at the protest to try to build a world where his son wouldn’t face discrimination for being Latino. As for the donations he was handing out, “we’re trying to help everyone be safe,” Locon said. “It’s OK to show love and give to others.”
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