The Chaos of Free Police Protest Food in Portland and Seattle

The Chaos of Free Police Protest Food in Portland and Seattle

For nearly a month, Riot Ribs served barbecue, tacos, jalapeno poppers—whatever they had on hand—from a series of tents near the site of ongoing protests in Portland, Oregon. Then, on Tuesday, the food collective announced an abrupt closure. Someone was impersonating the group and swindling money, members said.

Riot Ribs was among an emerging network of mutual aid groups aimed at distributing free food to protesters and the homeless in Portland and Seattle, where rage over the police killing of George Floyd, racism, and U.S. law-enforcement has resulted in months of marches. 

But Riot Ribs’ sudden dissolution—the result of a former member allegedly going rogue—highlighted the challenges of the mission. Beset by local police, federal authorities, right-wing trolls, and friendlies-turned-grifters, the Pacific Northwest’s protest food groups have spent the past month struggling to do what should be one of the least controversial jobs there is: handing out free food. 

Launched on July 4, Riot Ribs was the latest in a series of food groups to pop up around racial justice protests. Some, like Seattle’s Riot Kitchen, began operations even earlier. The latter started as an initiative to feed the homeless and protesters around the temporarily police-free Capitol Hill Organized Protests (CHOP, previously CHAZ), but has outlasted the short-lived autonomous zone and continues dishing out meals to demonstrators.

Maehem, Riot Kitchen’s founder (who, like many people interviewed for this article, requested anonymity amid police scrutiny of activists nationwide), said the project emerged in the first days of the George Floyd protests. That’s when she and friends marched for hours without eating and—after learning that other activists were also marching on empty stomachs—the former chef started a fund to make and distribute free sandwiches. 

The project exploded.

“So many people wanted to donate to my sandwich fund that I decided to turn it into a kitchen project. I was a sous chef, so I had the skills and resources to get hot meals to people,” Maehem told The Daily Beast. When the CHOP started, “people were choosing to sleep outside, so I thought the least I could do was cook them some breakfast.”

Riot Ribs launched with a similar mission, opening up with a single grill. Its sole operator, an original Black Panther, was tear-gassed by police while he cooked the first night, the group told Bon Appetit.

Tear gas would become an all-too-common feature of Portland protests, as federal agents waged nightly confrontations with protesters in a crackdown ostensibly aimed at protecting federal buildings that was best known for throwing people into unmarked vans

But Riot Ribs appeared to be a particular focus of law enforcement ire. Unlike Riot Kitchen and another Portland group called Resistance Assistance—which currently assemble food off-site and bring it to protests—Riot Ribs was a full-time encampment. On July 16, the collective tweeted that members had been arrested by police who declared the park where they camped to be “under renovation.” Police hauled away their growing operation, which had expanded to include multiple grills, coolers, and donated money.



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