Homefront Rising is a cultural revival led by military veterans and allies from all walks of life.
Playwright and Marine veteran Melvin Ishmael Johnson leads the workshop every Wednesday evening. He trains veterans to work as stage managers in the Los Angeles theater community, and coordinates internships with local companies.
Those who are interested in housing/farming projects that enrich the lives of veterans and their communities, should check out the Salvation Army Bell Shelter about seven miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. What Patriq Luo and I saw there last Saturday is almost precisely what we've been envisioning as a template for nationwide facilities that provide the local population with fresh food, and veterans with vocational training and housing. The Bell farm is a joint venture of the Shelter and GrowGood. The former was founded by Judge Harry Pregerson in 1988, and the latter is a nonprofit founded in 2010 by his grandson, Brad Pregerson. Various Pregersons, friends, colleagues, neighbors and service providers – including Stephanie Stegall of Help the Children and Christina Giorgio of Public Counsel – were on hand for the Southeast LA Community River Fest held on April 11. The houses that can be seen bordering the farm in the slideshow below, are transitional homes for formerly homeless veterans.
On March 31st, I saw the documentary film, Occupy the Farm (directed by Todd Darling). For close to 90 minutes I was glued to the events unfolding in front of me in living color, even more colorful politics, and beautiful music. But the thing that brought out my anger and laughter were the young protagonists in this unrehearsed political drama staged on the theater of a small piece of land belonging to the University of California-Berkeley.
Like all other land grant universities in the United States, the University of California has forgotten its mission of working for the public good. Corrupt federal and state officials have been looking the other way while the University of California has been privatizing nearly everything, including its public land. In fact, the University of California is so far away from the people of California and the United States, it could easily be called the university of agribusiness. Almost single handedly, it created most of the scientific and mechanical infrastructure of giant agriculture.
In the 20th century alone, this giant agriculture put out of business 98 percent of America's black farmers and more than 60 percent of the white small family farmers. In addition to this giant undemocratic effect, large farmers are the worst offenders of the natural world. Their storms of poisons are giving cancer to countless humans and animals. In fact, almost half of global warming gases come from animal factory farms and the destruction of forests for the "production" of crops like soybeans and corn.
With this toxic footprint coming straight from its creation, and its metaphysics of the public-be-damned, the University of California-Berkeley had no problem inviting the luxury grocery store, Whole Foods Market and other business to buy its small farm.
This betrayal began to unfold in 2012 when the so-called recession had spread hunger in the impoverished neighborhoods of Albany and Oakland, not far from where the university has this choice ten plus acres of land.
But the news spread fast and dozens of students and urban young farmers "occupied the farm." The invaders arrived with small tillers, shovels, and, above all, thousands of vegetable seeds. They immediately cultivated a fraction of the land and sowed the seeds.
A university researcher growing a genetically engineered corn refused to return to his plot for fear he would clash with the occupiers. The university cut off the water to the farm and sent the police.
The police chased the student farmers and did what police do. But the struggle continued. Students trucked in water and managed even to harvest their vegetables.
The university sent its lawyers to court suing the organizers. The university threatened and talked to the occupiers.
I kept admiring the resistant student farmers while feeling contempt for the university. After all, the students were doing what the university should have been doing.
Outside (in the neighborhood of the university) there was hunger and disintegration, and inside (the university) there was icy indifference for the public good. The student farmers demanded the university act like a public institution, not like a bank.
The student farmer occupation of the farm mobilized the community and embarrassed the university, which cancelled some of its business plans for the so-called Gill Tract.
University officials were saying outrageous things. The land was their "property" and the occupiers were "trespassing." Their statements resembled those of a private farm invaded by extraterrestrials. Their bureaucratic nature and trappings made then blind to the naked truth in front of them: unemployed and hungry youth all over the empty public land.
Miguel Altieri, my friend and professor of agroecology at Berkeley, saved the day. He argued the students were right in resisting the conversion of the university's public land into luxury food stores and apartments. He volunteered to teach appropriate methods of urban farming for raising food for the neighbors of the university.
Watching this dramatic action brought me to my experience and scholarship on agrarian reform. Throughout the world, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America, landless people occupy empty land. Sometimes, the state protects these occupiers. But most of the time the state joins forces with the owners of the occupied land. The result is terror, mayhem and murder. Colombia has been fighting land wars for the last century.
So was the Berkeley land conflict a beginning to land reform struggles in America? I hope so. We simply have to shake up the land grant universities. They need to return to their mission of assisting genuine family farmers or cease to exist.
It's also a shame to ignore the injustice of disinheriting so many black and white family farmers. And it's a gigantic tragedy to ignore the stealing of the land from Native Americans. These are grave political and moral problems. Unless this country does something positive about them, America remains a conqueror. It certainly cannot claim democracy and justice as its key virtues.
See Occupy the Farm. It's more than a great documentary film. It's another way of viewing your neighborhood and the world.
Patrick McCaffrey joined the National Guard the day after the 9/11 attacks. He is the first California Guardsman in his unit to die while serving in the Iraq war. His mother, Nadia McCaffrey, has since devoted her life to housing veterans and nurturing their resurgence. 29 former service members lived in her house at various times, and Nadia helped launch several veterans communities that combine housing with supportive services and career training. She is leading the campaign to end veteran homelessness by December 2015, and Camp Patrick will soon be established in honor of her son.
Architect Carl Welty developed an emergency housing concept for Haiti after its major earthquake. Because veteran homelessness deserves the same type of urgent response, Carl has been enlisted to adapt his vision, and apply it to a plan for nationwide regenerative housing and agricultural communities.
Small-scale farming and cutting edge green building technologies connect veterans to nature and their communities. In the process, veterans - as well as their families and partners - are afforded opportunities for healing and financial security.
In collaboration with farmers and other partners, we’re designing homes and communities that address seemingly unrelated problems, and demonstrate holistic solutions. It's not enough to provide a house or shelter for veterans. We're creating systems that enable veterans to build communities that meet their unique needs, and that harness their skills for the greater good.
Click here to see our New Model for Veterans Housing.
The Vet Hunters conduct daily search and rescue missions in pursuit of homeless veterans. It's by necessity that Travis Goforth, Jose Gonzalez and founder Joe Leal – all of whom served in the Marines and now volunteer their services – trudge remote areas, where they frequently discover veterans inhabiting all sorts of hiding spots. Jose describes their difficult quest: "We go to encampments under the freeways. We go to different areas where a lot of people would never think that there’s homelessness. We’ve found homelessness in hills in Elysian Park, for example, where one Army veteran took 12 months to dig into the hill.”
Joe explains why the homeless problem is particularly difficult to solve in Los Angeles: "Other states like Ohio, Arizona, they’re shipping their homeless to Skid Row. San Francisco sends them to Skid Row. You want to know why? Here’s why. Because they'll tell them, 'Go to Los Angeles. Here’s a bus ticket. Go there, because they have the mecca of services. Go to Skid Row. Everything is there.'"
Santosh Sundaresan runs the USC Mobile Dental Clinic, and has been providing homeless veterans with pro bono services at Stand Downs for several years. In partnership with HomeFront Rising, he and his team are now prepared to expand their outreach and help other dentistry schools around the nation establish similar programs for veterans. Although services are donated, funding for dentures is urgently needed.
Many corporate sponsors have stepped up to the plate on behalf of veterans, but Marc Zavat of Community Bank in Pasadena has distinguished himself as an unusually dedicated hands-on supporter who inspires us to think big every step of the way.