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Gimme An A (radical cheerleaders, S Fla. anarchists)

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  • Benny Rizzo
    http://www.newtimesbpb.com/ [from New Times, Broward/Palm Beach, Aug. 2] Gimme An A Anarchists in Lake Worth have spread their subversive good cheer from
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 2, 2001
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      [from New Times, Broward/Palm Beach, Aug. 2]

      Gimme An A

      Anarchists in Lake Worth have spread their subversive good cheer
      from Seattle to Quebec City and Beyond

      By Amy Roe

      On an otherwise quiet, balmy night in Auburn, Alabama, in an
      otherwise empty, over-air-conditioned Taco Bell, three young, blond
      women huddle over a fast-food dinner. Suddenly, the door to the
      restaurant swings open and about 50 people -- mostly young women --
      burst inside, chanting in unison:

      Hey Taco Bell
      You better listen,
      listen cause we ain't kiddin',
      kiddin' and we are stayin',
      stayin' till you are payin',
      payin' a living wage (clap-clap-clap-clap)
      for blood (clap) sweat (clap)
      and tears! (clap)

      Some clang metal mess kits; others shake water bottles full of
      pebbles, forming a makeshift percussion section. The restaurant has
      protest acoustics: The sounds echo off the walls. A tall, thin,
      blond woman in a hot pink pleated tennis skirt waves pompons made of
      strips of shiny, blue-and-gold Mylar. Punk kids and anarchists in
      tattered T-shirts and olive-drab army fatigues dance and stomp on
      chairs and tables, their flesh pierced and tattooed, their noses and
      mouths covered, cowboy-style, with bandannas.

      The customers in the corner are outnumbered by protesters by more
      than ten to one. They stare in disbelief; eyes wide, hands clasped
      over mouths full of refried beans. In their surprise they seem to
      forget their food. Bean burritos, chalupas, and tacos lie amid
      sheets of waxed tissue paper like abandoned Christmas gifts.

      After a couple minutes, an employee phones the police, then calmly
      informs the protesters of that fact. They don't leave immediately
      but instead start another round of chants, gleefully circling the
      dining room as if taking a victory lap.

      Regrouping outside on the sidewalk, they debate the legality of
      blocking the drive-thru. Two police cars glide up, without sirens or
      lights. A bespectacled, middle-aged officer emerges, inquiring what
      they're up to.

      A young woman comes forward and raises her trembling voice. In an
      awkward, roundabout way, she explains that Taco Bell is the largest
      buyer of tomatoes from Six L's Packing Company, Inc., an Immokalee,
      Florida-based firm that, she says, pays its workers paltry wages
      with no benefits.

      He gives her a satisfied smile and pauses. "OK," he drawls
      patiently, "so if y'all are through with Taco Bell?" In other words
      it's time to leave.

      These activists aren't nearly finished with Taco Bell, but for
      tonight, at least, the protest is over. Their display was bright and
      brief, excess enthusiasm burning off like the flame from a kerosene
      lamp. Though it seemed to come from nowhere, the ten-minute
      spontaneous demonstration had been building since early afternoon.

      The participants in this impromptu action were among the roughly 500
      activists in town for the Third Annual Southern Girls Convention at
      Auburn University July 20 through 22. Southern Girls was organized
      to make radical feminism visible in the South, to combat
      discrimination, and to challenge stereotypes about life here. It was
      also devised, the program explains, "because we have an intrinsic
      desire to revolt." It was summer session, though. Few remained to
      hear them scream.

      The show went on anyway. The schedule included workshops on
      do-it-yourself pet care; ecofeminism; preparing for the upcoming
      International Monetary Fund protest in Washington, D.C., this fall;
      and "big women in the porn industry." There were also a few
      workshops organized by and for men, including one about peer
      education to end violence against women.

      Because the weekend of workshops, discussions, speeches, and
      impromptu parties drew attendees who'd met at earlier radical
      conventions, Southern Girls had the friendly feel of a reunion.
      Participants were mostly white women in their early twenties along
      with a sprinkling of Asians, blacks, and Hispanics; a few men; and a
      few who identify as transgender.

      Workshop organizers took pains to include minority participants. On
      the fourth page of the convention program is a "trans policy" that
      advises which of the student union's toilets transgendered
      participants should use. "We apologize," it reads, "for the
      gender-segregated bathrooms."

      Meanwhile, parts of the conference were intentionally
      gender-segregated. A man was asked to leave a workshop about sexual
      assault, while a white woman was kicked out of a workshop aimed at
      women of color.

      No one, however, was barred from attending a radical cheerleading
      workshop held by Classic City Chaos, a squad from Athens, Georgia.
      About 60 mostly female conventioneers scattered about the
      sun-scorched grass in front of Foy Student Union to learn stunts,
      cheers, and matching moves from a squad of young women dressed in
      matching camouflage miniskirts and black T-shirts with the squad's
      name emblazoned in red letters across the chest. They focused on
      popular feminist and anticapitalist cheers; the repertoire also
      includes chants against harassment, consumerism, sweatshops, and
      work and in praise of bicycles, anarchy, gender-bending, and being

      One woman wondered aloud whether Cara and Aimee Jennings of Lake
      Worth, Florida, would show up. When another gave her a blank look,
      she smugly launched into a spiel about radical cheerleading's
      origins, proud to be an insider in an outsider's scene.

      The Jennings sisters never did make the workshop, though their
      attendance at Southern Girls lent the event an aura of authenticity.
      They wanted to go but were stuck at a nearby copy shop, battling a
      jammed paper tray while furiously reproducing copies of a
      cheerleading handbook. "Story of our lives," Cara moaned afterward,
      sprawled on the floor of the student union.

      If the nation's anarchists sat down and (collectively, of course)
      drew a map of Florida, the Villa de Vulva would be marked with a
      red-and-black X. An unprepossessing ranch house on B Street in Lake
      Worth, the Villa sits 15 minutes north of the posh shops of Boca,
      past the throbbing, well-lit worlds of Crate & Barrel and Victoria's
      Secret yet just out of the reach of the grasping hands of
      acquisitiveness. By comparison, the Villa is a clenched fist. There
      are real wooden crates and barrels here -- and, one suspects,
      secrets too.

      Above the front door, in place of say, a windsock or a welcome
      banner, Villa denizens have hung a flag that reads, "Rise Up!"
      Plastic Halloween skeletons are strewn atop the hedge like the
      grisly remains of garden gnomes. Behind a door plastered with
      posters for upcoming political events lies one of South Florida's
      most active cells of all things radical feminist, anticapitalist,
      antiracist, anarchist, queer, vegetarian -- or none of the above. An
      ever-changing configuration of four to six residents lives in the
      four-bedroom, two-bathroom, one-loft house they rent for $1050 a
      month. (At least one resident's parents pay a share of the rent.)
      The Villa is also often crowded with visitors. It can get hectic,
      and in the summertime, sweltering, because residents choose not to
      use the air conditioner.

      Although they no longer live here, Cara and Aimee Jennings
      established Villa as an anarchist collective two years ago. The two
      now live together at another nearby house, but the Villa still
      functions as the unofficial headquarters of the area's radical
      cheerleaders and local anarchist scene.

      Villa regulars are punks, skateboarders, students, slackers, riot
      grrrls, or hippies, but with their potluck suppers, food- and
      literature-distribution, sewing circles, and movie nights, the group
      has the cozy feel of an interdenominational summer camp. People come
      from all over the country to visit. In fact, in winter, when the
      Florida sun is most sought after, legions of fellow travelers
      inhabit the sparse living room, crashing on a futon, the floor, or a
      lumpy sofa bed.

      As its name suggests, the Villa is woman-identified: "There's no way
      you're going to be sexist here," says Melodie, a resident who, like
      most of the Villa people interviewed for this story, asked to be
      identified only by her first name. A male counterpart, Casa de Cock,
      existed nearby for a while, but it was short-lived. Most Villa
      residents say the Casa was about partying.

      Melodie helps keep the house anarchist yet orderly. There's a phone
      list and a nonhierarchical chore wheel on the wall. Above the sink
      is a hand-written reminder: "First the dishes, then the revolution."
      Food is stored and cooked communally. Some residents are vegan, but
      in practice, the house is "freegan" -- meaning members will eat
      dairy as long as they don't have to pay for it. Decisions are made
      by a long-winded process of consensus, a practice in which several
      residents have been trained.

      Despite this, Nicole insists the Villa is women-led. "The women are
      paying the rent, doing the activism," she says. "The boys are pretty
      much staying on the couch."

      Among the current couch crashers is Blake, an 18-year-old Miamian
      with a mop of wild curly hair and a theory he calls
      anarcho-robotics. Obsessed with electronics, Blake believes a class
      of servant robots could eliminate class distinctions and liberate
      humans from the evils of capitalism. Others just laugh and call him
      Dr. Roboto.

      For the record Blake thinks radical cheerleading is silly.

      It is nearly ten o'clock and still humid and hot by the time Aimee
      and Cara Jennings arrive at the eerily empty Villa one recent
      evening. Hungry and exasperated, they show up separately. They were
      supposed to meet earlier at Kmart but somehow missed each other. Now
      they're bickering about who went to the wrong store. Ladling
      leftover tofu curry into bowls, they collapse at the table and dig
      in hungrily. Within minutes the tension has dissolved, the food has
      disappeared, and Aimee leans back in the chair and sighs. Stomach
      full from dinner, she unzips her pants.

      Self-professed loudmouths, the Jennings sisters are delightfully
      unselfconscious, yet it is with trepidation that they agreed to be
      interviewed. They shun publicity but not because they're shy. As
      anarchists, they don't want to create a hierarchy or lay claim to
      the radical cheerleading concept. Decisions are made by consensus;
      there is no leader.

      Their faces glow in the humid air as they turn to catch the breeze
      from a nearby fan. Though they are of the same mind about politics,
      the Jennings sisters are hardly twins. Aimee is 25 years old, tall,
      and imposing, with freckles and long reddish hair she often wears in
      braids or ponytails. Cara, by contrast, is short, with brown hair
      cut in a blunt bob, a wide, ruddy face, and impish grin. She is 24
      years old. They like to be called the Jennings sisters; they are
      more powerful, they insist, as a unit.

      Radical cheerleaders fascinated the mass media at recent
      "antiglobalization" protests, but the Jennings sisters complain that
      their message gets obscured in a fixation on pompons. Though the
      cheers are straightforward, the essence of radical cheerleading
      involves complex political theories that, for corporate media
      conglomerates, are both difficult to put into sound bites and rather

      In the interest of countering this, Cara stipulated that a cheer of
      their choice be included in this story so that if the whole thing
      missed the point, at least one unadulterated message would make it
      through. The cheer they chose is called "Hell No":

      Hell no we won't
      Hell no we won't
      Hell no we won't
      Go there with those tired old chants
      My activism is more like a rant
      A rant of rage of resistance
      This system I speak out against.
      One, two, three, four
      Boring protest no more
      five, six, seven, eight
      Resistance let's activate
      No justice
      Here's a piece of my mind
      No justice
      A piece of my behind
      No justice
      Piece it together you'll find
      Radical cheerleaders on the frontline.

      It's a mild cheer compared to others, like the one that encourages
      the assassination of the President. ("Guaranteed to get you
      arrested," Aimee warns.) "Hell No," by contrast, barely hints at

      Perhaps this is no accident. After all, the media's
      most-talked-about anarchist is Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
      Environmental anarchist John Zerzan also draws much attention for
      his antitechnology stance, which frustrates Villa anarchists who
      don't share his views.

      Moreover, in their quest for strategic anonymity and solidarity,
      protesting anarchists have often hidden beneath the hoods and masks
      of the "black bloc." As such they have been categorically dismissed
      as terrorists by the media and relegated to political irrelevance.
      This is another reason why the Jennings sisters agreed to be

      "I think it's super important to put a face to anarchism," Cara
      says. "Anarchism isn't chaos, anarchism is..."

      "Mutual aid," her sister chimes in.

      The second and third of five daughters, the Jennings sisters credit
      their parents, devout Catholics, for instilling in them a strong
      sense of social justice. Growing up in the Cutler Ridge neighborhood
      of Miami with their three sisters, Cara remembers feeling tremendous
      empathy for the plight of homeless people and panhandlers. She would
      go home and make food and gather clothes for them; her parents would
      patiently help her.

      As teenagers the two sisters attended Peace Camp organized by the
      Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice -- Aimee reluctantly. "I was
      forced to go," she remembers with a laugh. "I wasn't gonna have none
      of that hippie shit!"

      In 1996 the sisters attended the Active Resistance anarchist
      conference in Chicago. "That's when the pendulum swung," Aimee
      recalls. Their compassion morphed into radicalism. Cara had been
      considering leaving Florida State University; the conference helped
      convince her. "I traveled," she says, "and that broke the mold for
      me in terms of how you could live your life."

      They went on to Sister Subverter, an anarchist women's conference on
      a remote patch of land in the Midwest, then hitchhiked back to
      Florida, staying with and meeting anarchists and radicals throughout
      the country.

      While excited about this newfound world of activism, the Jennings
      sisters were also critical of it. Protests too often seemed
      dominated by whoever held the megaphone (usually a man), could be
      intimidating to newcomers, and frequently devolved into senseless
      mugging for the omnipresent television cameras.

      Later that summer, in a van on the way to the Youth Liberation
      Conference at New College in Sarasota, Aimee, Cara, and their sister
      Coleen ("the third cofounder," Cara quips) came up with the idea of
      cheers instead of chants. "Part of it was wanting to have more of
      our voice be heard and wanting it to be fun."

      When they taught three cheers at an impromptu "radical cheerleading"
      workshop, 25 people showed up, some of whom the sisters vigorously
      recruited. "We're obnoxious," says Aimee. "That's the hidden secret.
      We were like, "So, are you coming to our workshop?'"

      The next summer they performed at a talent show at Sister Subverter
      in Arkansas. Seemingly all of a sudden, radical cheerleading went
      from being "really dorky" to universally embraced. "We got an encore
      to do [the cheer] "Shoot the Rapist' again," Cara says, smiling
      wistfully. "Still a favorite."

      After that conference, a number of attendees went home and started
      their own squads. "That's where radical cheerleading broke," Aimee
      says. Though there is no formal organization of members, squads now
      exist all over North America, plus a few in Europe.

      At the time, late 1997, the Jennings sisters had no idea how far
      radical cheerleading had spread. It wasn't until nearly two years
      later, in the summer of 1999, that Aimee got a glimpse of the
      concept's contagion. When activists were being arrested at a land
      struggle for the Minnehaha Free State in Minneapolis, protesters
      broke into the Jennings' "Pigs" cheer. They called out "Give me a
      P," and so forth, and when they got to the end, the crowd
      spontaneously did the whole cheer.

      Aimee was amazed at the sight -- "I had to keep my jaw from
      dropping," she says -- but the scope of radical cheerleading did not
      hit Cara until several months later, when friends returned from
      World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in December with mini
      cheer handbooks protesters had made and circulated among themselves:
      "I was really shocked. Then at the IMF/ World Bank protests in
      Québec City last April, we were on the street and someone says, "You
      should do a cheer.'" She did, and 50 people called out the response.

      "I was floored," Cara remembers. "I was like, We didn't even know

      Radical cheerleading had by then seeped into Canadian activism. Kate
      MacLean, who works at the Womyn's Center at Carleton University in
      Ottawa, Canada, first learned about radical cheerleading from an
      out-of-town friend of a friend. Enamored of the idea, the
      23-year-old helped form an 18-member community squad for Access
      2000, a Canadian national students' strike in protest of high
      tuition fees. After another action, at the fall 2000 March of Women
      in Ottawa, MacLean was invigorated. "I was like, "I want to meet
      everyone who does this. Let's have a conference!'"

      Her Web-posted conference notice garnered responses from all over
      the world, including queries from would-be radical cheerleaders in
      Germany and the Philippines, who, MacLean notes, have since started
      squads. She invited the New York City radical cheerleaders, a
      close-knit and active troop, but one of them said she wouldn't feel
      comfortable attending unless the Jennings sisters were there.

      MacLean agreed, obtained the sisters' e-mail address, and offered to
      fly them to Ottawa.

      "They said, "We're tickled pink!'" MacLean recalls with a chuckle.
      "You know how cute they are."

      About 100 people attended the conference in March 2001 at Carleton
      University. Meanwhile in Florida, many activists were still
      oblivious to radical cheerleading's origins. When the Eve Chapter, a
      newly formed women's group based in Boca Raton, was setting up Femme
      Fest, its first annual women's celebration held at Florida Atlantic
      University in March, organizers were hoping to find some radical
      cheerleaders to perform.

      "We were hoping to fly some in," says Justina Hook, one of the
      event's coordinators. Hook says she was surprised when an
      out-of-state radical cheerleader informed her that the movement had
      started just a few miles away.

      The disconnect is far from arbitrary. Though the Jennings sisters
      see radical cheerleading as a collective phenomenon and assert no
      ownership of the concept, the success of radical cheerleading is due
      in part to the sisters' charisma. They know a lot of activists, and
      they make sure the activists know the cheers, which speak for

      "It's genius," says Hollywood activist Ali Bateretz. "Not many
      people these days pay attention to protesters, but with radical
      cheerleading it's performance."

      Bateretz, who is 30 years old and uses a wheelchair because of a
      nervous-system disorder, is hoping to start a Miami-Dade/Broward
      county squad including cheerleaders who, like herself, have

      Bateretz also admires the way radical cheerleading inverts gender
      stereotypes. Many radical cheerleaders would not be found on a
      traditional cheer squad. Some are fat, some have hairy legs and
      armpits, some are male, some are transgender: "You're taking
      something that's not exactly a feminist thing, and you're making it
      into something so powerful and feminist and nonhierarchical."

      But it's not wholly or intentionally satire, though some squads,
      much to the Jennings sisters' chagrin, read it that way. When they
      see such ironists, Cara and Aimee give them dirty looks. While the
      protests are supposed to be fun, the cheerleading is no joke.

      "I was a junior-high cheerleader," Aimee exclaims, proudly throwing
      her arms into a stiff V for emphasis. "I'm like, "I'm glad you
      asked. I did make the squad.'"

      "I was rejected," Cara says with a sideways smirk at her sister.

      Aimee is not the only former cheerleader to turn radical. Narrowing
      her eyes in mock scrutiny, Cara says the sisters can usually spot a
      squad member with previous experience: "It's like, Hey, where'd you
      get those moves?"

      Both say they're inspired by the skill and athleticism of
      conventional cheerleading, and it motivates them to perfect their
      moves. In fact, Aimee says, the aggressive sexuality of modern
      cheerleading inverts the demure moves of old-fashioned pompon girls:
      "There are some stomps and some grinding the hips that I don't think
      cheerleading ever intended," she says, arching an eyebrow.

      Aimee cheers every day, repeating her favorites like a mantra and
      busting out the steps to boost her mood. It bothers her, for
      example, that the squad's most daring stunts are so-called "cheater
      pyramids" -- not the legit, stacked formations of the top teams.

      "I'm constantly practicing," she says. "If I pass by a full-length
      mirror, I'm like, "Tighten it up!'"

      Even though it conflicts with their goal of inclusiveness, the
      Jennings sisters admit they can't help but cringe at the sight of
      limp, sloppy moves. They want their cheers loud, their moves tight,
      and their routines synced. Aimee dreams of elevating radical
      cheerleading to its sporting-world equivalent: "I'm all watching
      ESPN and saying, "We can do a basket toss!'"

      The cheerleaders strutted their subversive stuff at Fort
      Lauderdale's Museum of Art last December as part of a program by
      their friend, Miami artist Naomi Fisher, who designed the squad's
      posters. While preparing for that show, Cara had to keep her natural
      perfectionism in check. She wanted the squad's performance to be
      impressive, but "you know we're antiauthoritarian, so we can't be
      that tough!"

      The national media is also beginning to catch the spirit. Cara says
      Seventeen magazine contacted the New York City radical cheerleaders,
      hoping to accompany them to anti-FTAA rallies in Québec City, but
      the squad ultimately said no.

      The Jennings sisters have also been interviewed for an upcoming
      article about radical cheerleading in Spin magazine and were sent an
      application to be included in a show at the Whitney Museum of
      American Art in New York. Though the concept has changed in ways
      they never imagined, the Jennings sisters don't sweat it. Dissent
      always gets co-opted, Cara notes. Ideas that were once radical get
      absorbed by the mainstream and commodified.

      For example she heard that the Spice Girls were a commercial
      outgrowth of the riot grrrl movement, and while they might not be
      explicitly feminist or anarchist, Cara concedes that the perky
      girl-group does have attitude -- and a song in praise of

      "It'd be nice, though, if they looked like other women," Aimee

      "OK, I take it back," Cara says dryly. "The Spice Girls are fucked."

      Radical cheerleading may have struck a chord globally, but it's only
      one aspect of life at the Villa de Vulva. On Tuesdays the residents
      hold a "stitch and bitch," which is sometimes suspended in favor of
      99-cent bowling at a local alley. (To save money, they share shoes.)
      Thursdays they put on a theme movie night using a borrowed VCR.

      Villa residents work to keep things free, cheap, or DIY -- a
      practice for which un- or underemployment is both cause and effect.
      Since it's hard to keep both your job and your principles, residents
      are sometimes fired or forced to resign for speaking their minds.
      It's just as well, they shrug, for while they usually need to work
      to live, they don't live to work. Chronic joblessness forces Villa
      residents to rely on the excess of capitalism, which they find all
      around them in forest-green bins.

      Everyone who Dumpster-dives, like everyone who fishes, loves to tell
      the story of his or her greatest catch. For Mel it was the time she
      found a pink Hello Kitty hair set in an Eckerd Dumpster. "I was so
      happy," she gushes. Another time she and a fellow Dumpster-diver
      unearthed a perfectly good boom box with just a few messed-up

      Peter's fondest memory is the time former Villa resident Waffle
      found toy swords in the trash behind a drug store and the two fought
      a Dumpster duel amid the garbage. He laughs, but Sue keeps a
      straight face. Things have changed at that particular Dumpster:
      "They got a compactor now. Fuckers. All of them."

      In fact Sue says Dumpster-diving has gotten tougher as more and more
      stores padlock their trash bins or do away with them altogether in
      favor of irretrievable methods like compaction. She doesn't want the
      location of the remaining Dumpsters revealed. It's not that she
      worries they'll get caught. "No," Sue laughs, "we don't want the

      Villa residents Dumpster-dive the way some people shop at 7-Eleven.
      If they pass one late at night, they pop in to see what's available.
      Like most consumers, Villa residents go to the store that
      specializes in what they need, be it auto parts or home-improvement
      supplies, but instead of grabbing a cart and perusing the aisles,
      they wander out back to "browse" through the trash.

      They don't always wait for things to be thrown away. Most
      anarchists, including those who live in the Villa, feel it's OK to
      steal from corporations because they are corrupt and oppressive. In
      essence such stealing is a strike against the capitalist system and
      also happens to have the added benefit of letting one take what he
      or she wants or needs. Moreover, anarchists argue, stealing from
      corporations enables those who steal to work less, which is good,
      since work under capitalism is inherently oppressive. Some don't
      keep the things they steal but instead return them for cash.

      There's no telling a pro-theft anarchist (and most of them are) that
      filching merchandise from a corporation drives up prices, thus
      hurting the working poor, or puts the screws to the workers and
      management, who are paid to prevent theft. Prices, they argue, are
      artificially low because they don't account for true labor costs,
      and if workers get fired as a result, well, they should quit working
      and take to stealing, too. Theft, one anarchist giddily suggests,
      could help hasten revolution.

      For most anarchists, however, there is a sort of ethical code to
      theft. Stealing from individuals is wrong, as is stealing from
      independent, mom-and-pop stores. Stealing overpackaged merchandise
      is not as acceptable as stealing bulk foods, for example, since
      overpackaged products are wasteful. But ultimately, they say, the
      ethics of stealing are (conveniently) left up to the individual,
      which means some forgo deep thought in favor of impulsive
      shoplifting: "I'm not fronting like that," says one Southern Girls
      participant when the topic turns to "revolutionary" theft. "If I
      want a candy bar, I take it."

      In any event Dumpster-diving poses fewer risks than stealing, though
      the spoils are often exactly that. One recent night, on the way home
      from a show at Soundsplash, an indie record store in West Palm
      Beach, Peter and a friend pulled behind a certain health-food
      grocery store and snagged some grapes, lettuce, and a papaya from a
      mass of smelly wet cardboard. It was a disappointing Dumpster run,
      Peter admits, but it was better than nothing.

      The best thing about Dumpster-diving, everyone agrees, is the
      donuts. Dumpster donuts are a diver's manna, and the sugary
      serendipity is surprisingly easy to find. Donuts packed in boxes,
      often only a few hours old, can be salvaged from grocery stores,
      Dunkin' Donuts shops, and Krispy Kreme franchises. "Oh yeah,"
      Melodie agrees, "Never buy donuts."

      The wheelchair hits a crack in the pavement and shudders to a halt
      just steps outside the Villa de Vulva. Melodie leans over -- again
      -- and frees the stuck wheel. Plastic boxes the size of steamer
      trunks sit in the chair, loaded with surplus food. Under the weight
      of the load, the wheelchair-turned-roach coach picks up speed on the
      sloping street, wobbling with the comic unpredictability of a
      toddler's first steps.

      It rained earlier, leaving the sky dim and bluish gray, bereft of a
      postcard sunset. The streets are empty save the omnipresent prowling
      of police cars. Battered pickup trucks that ferry migrant workers to
      their farm jobs out west have long since come to rest beside boxy,
      putty-colored one-story homes bordered by small, sparse front yards.
      Curtains made of sheets or tapestries are pulled back from open
      windows in hopes of catching an infrequent breeze.

      "Quieres comidas gratis?" Melodie calls out. It is a rhetorical
      question, an open invitation yet to be accepted. An ice cream
      truck's tinkling theme plays in the distance, interrupted only by
      the bleating reveille of a low-rider horn.

      Melodie takes a few steps and calls out again. Her simple Spanish
      query would seem an unlikely chant for an anarchist, but the ritual
      known as "distro" is the very sort of direct action that anarchists
      such as Melodie consider revolutionary.

      Waffle began distributing food about a year ago in the Lake Worth
      neighborhood just west of downtown, inspired by his work with the
      Miami chapter of Food Not Bombs, which cooks free community meals.
      He's traveling now, so Melodie has taken over the route.

      Her social-justice efforts weren't always this straightforward;
      while a student at Rollins College near Orlando, she spent time
      working for a film festival but was turned off by bureaucracy. In
      May 1999, just two classes shy of graduation, she moved back to
      South Florida and into the Villa. Now about once a week she instead
      takes to the lettered, grid-patterned streets, which are riddled
      with one-way signs and crisscrossed by low-slung chainlink fences
      that, like a length of butcher's string, seem to both dissect and
      restrain the neighborhood.

      Melodie modestly says she's not nearly as good at distro as Waffle
      -- in part, she suspects, because her Spanish is lousy. She's also a
      bit shy. With tiny hair clips tucked into her short, brown, bed-head
      hair, she has a grrrlish look and a warm, irrepressible grin. Her
      short, wool tartan skirt and lavender T-shirt were culled, like most
      of her wardrobe, from thrift-store racks -- a practice she adopted
      in high school, where secondhand clothes were considered cool. Now
      24 years old and usually un- or underemployed, Melodie wears
      thrift-store clothing and eats a steady diet of expired food.

      Every week or two, Melodie or one of her housemates backs her
      turquoise, late-model pickup truck behind local health-food stores
      and produce stands to collect damaged and past-pull-date merchandise
      the stores cannot sell. There is usually more than can be
      distributed in the neighborhood; the Villa people eat the rest. No
      one, Melodie notes, has ever gotten sick from it.

      At a house overgrown with foliage, a white-haired man in a tank top
      with "Key West" printed across the chest emerges, a ball of plastic
      bags in hand. He opens one and begins to fill it with food, and
      hands the rest to Melodie, so she can give them to her other

      From a nearby alley, a man and a woman holding a little girl walk
      barefoot in the gravel. They take a few items and wordlessly express
      gratitude, their smiles revealing gold teeth.

      Melodie speaks with persuasive authority when she advises an
      uncertain young mother about the food's safety. That bulging carton
      of milk is still good, she says. After all, she drinks it, too.

      Tonight's haul features a dairy mother lode. There are dozens of
      cartons of Stonyfield Farm yogurt in flavors like maple cream and
      "banilla" as well as the children's version -- tiny tubs called
      Planet Protectors. Melodie also offers stacks of soy cheese,
      water-packed tofu, cappuccino-flavored kefir, vegan "chicken"
      patties, organic orange juice, and the occasional tough loaf of
      millet bread, which costs about $4 when fresh. Cartons of Zendon soy
      milk are emblazoned with a panda and a series of haiku poems.

      To the neighborhood's population of mostly low-income Hispanics, the
      selections are often exotic. A man picks up a plastic bottle of
      cappuccino kefir and turns it over curiously.

      Melodie tries to explain. In Spanish she calls it "coffee milk," but
      her description doesn't quite fit the thick, sour, drinkable yogurt.
      Later Melodie confides that she feels a little guilty calling the
      rectangular cartons of vanilla soy milk leche de soya or meatless
      patties pollo. She laughs at the subversiveness of it: "I wonder if
      people go inside and say, "This isn't chicken!'"

      The man finally decides to take the kefir and smiles. "Gracias," he

      "De nada," Melodie replies and wheels the chair around a corner,
      following the route she knows by heart. She knows where people will
      sidle up to her makeshift cart, picking gingerly through the bins.
      She knows which families will take whatever she has left and which
      ones will always wave her away, her persistent but unheeded calls a
      shared joke.

      Like most of the Villa residents, Melodie is painfully
      self-conscious about her place in the neighborhood. "We're
      gentrifying it by being here," she says matter-of-factly. And she
      knows how weird it must look: a young, white woman with a wheelchair
      and rolling table full of exotic food, calling out like a barker
      from some bizarre carnival.

      A car drives by, a small, fringed Cuban flag hanging from the
      rear-view mirror. It slows down, and the twentysomething men inside
      refuse the food but suggest a house nearby: "The people are hungry

      Melodie continues down a potholed street to a cluster of small
      apartment buildings shrouded in weeds. At the gate an elderly man
      and woman wait, staring and gesturing anxiously. Another woman
      shuffles out, her white hair sticking straight up, as if she just
      hurried out of bed. She tries to speak, but her words are slurred
      and unintelligible, obscured by a picket fence of missing teeth. She
      asks for spare change.

      The elderly residents accept the food with apparent satisfaction. As
      Melodie leaves they stay at the fence, nodding and muttering,
      watching until the carts are out of sight.

      It is dark now; the streetlights cast an eerie amber glow. Cars
      drive by, and the drivers stop to chat with friends standing astride
      bicycles. They surround Melodie curiously, and she appears
      overwhelmed by the attention. No one takes food any longer. Instead
      they talk to Melodie in Spanish, Creole, and slanged-up English,
      flirting boldly in the patois of the street. A faint blush rises in
      Melodie's cheeks.

      Finally, with difficulty, she extricates herself from the throng of
      young men and starts home, but two young Haitians insist on walking
      her back to the Villa, one pushing the now-empty cart in a gesture
      of chivalry. She relents to this patriarchal courtesy, and they
      start back toward the house.

      Before long, a police car rolls up and stops. The officer gets out
      and walks around the car. He is tall and thin, his ramrod-straight
      posture making him all the more imposing. "What've you got there?"
      he asks, apparently meaning the cart but eyeing the two young men.

      "Yogurt," Melodie answers good-naturedly, explaining the food
      distribution. "Would you like some?" He declines and asks where she
      "operates" from. When she tells him, his face registers familiarity.
      He knows the house on Lake Street, he says cryptically. (Everyone
      does, Melodie says later, particularly the police.)

      Then he pauses, looking at the empty boxes, at Melodie, at the young
      men. She offers what's left of the food again, and again he
      declines, explaining that he's about to get dinner.

      After he drives away, the men, who remained silent during the whole
      exchange, look relieved and resume their conversation.

      "Fucking pigs," Melodie mutters under her breath.

      Everyone laughs.
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