In January of 1969, the Black Panther Party initiated the groundbreaking Free Breakfast for Children Program in San Francisco. The “Survival Program” flourished and spread nationwide, feeding thousands of hungry children and inspiring school lunch programs across the country.
This summer, social organization Operation Help or Hush has taken up the task of feeding disadvantaged children through its “Freedom Summer” initiative. Starting this month, and continuing through September, the group will be working with organizers in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Atlanta, Ferguson, Los Angeles and Oakland to feed free lunch to kids, as well as strategize for future actions and perform civic services. However, like the Panthers’ breakfast program (which was deemed by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as “greatest threat to the internal security of the United States”), the Freedom Summer lunches are not being well-received by all in the community. While Hoover sent his COINTELPRO minions to disrupt the Panthers, Operation Help or Hush has been subject to the threats and harassment by internet trolls and real life stalkers, like other prominent leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Operation Help or Hush was co-founded by Tasha Burton and Charles Wade shortly after Mike Brown’s killing in Ferguson. The original intent was to provide support for activists and protesters as they demonstrated in the streets, largely with funds raised by crowdsourcing efforts via Twitter. As the movement progressed, the focus of Operation Help or Hush shifted from the activists and protesters to the communities affected by the tragedies and unrest. The first action to “equip and enrich the community” was Baltimore Lunch, as the activists took to the streets of Baltimore to feed the children while schools were closed during the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray. This would become the foundation for the Freedom Summer lunch programs, which feed as many as 200 children in a day.
However, anonymous opponents of the lunch program took it upon themselves to report the organization for food safety violations in an attemp to shut the program down. Wade says, “It’s reached another level, because before, it was protester-driven. It was responding to the needs of the protesters, activists and organizers. As we moved more towards having this focus on the community-at-large, people see a disruption of a typical power structure. For us to come into communities every single day and serve lunch to more than a hundred children, and it not be through a government program, people don’t like how people are progressing and coming up with community-based alternatives for their own.”
“People see that as a threat because it inspires other people to say, ‘Wait a minute. I can just go out in my community and do this. I don’t have to wait for a USDA program to come into the community. I don’t have to go to the government. I don’t have to beg someone to make it happen in the community. I can do these things.’”
The opposition grew to a fever pitch when Wade was recently followed to his parents’ place of business. He knew that he had been followed because a certain Twitter account that had been harassing him tweeted out the name of his parents’ business as soon as he pulled up. Not even his parents knew that he was coming, and he’d never mentioned their business online. “This person had followed me all day long,” said Wade.
This caused Operation Help or Hush to temporarily call off the lunch programs in St. Louis and Baltimore until security could be guaranteed. “I have a lot of faith and do believe that we’ll be protected by God, by love and all that. At the same time, I have an equal measure of wisdom and I do know there are real people behind these accounts and there’s real hate. To always be dismissing these things in a climate when people are shooting up churches, I don’t think that’s wise,” explained Wade. “The safety concern wasn’t just for our volunteers. It really was for the communities that we’re in, because we’re going into other people’s communities, and if we’re causing a problem or bringing any sort of danger, we’re going to remove ourselves.”
This was the latest in a history of harassment for Wade since November, when someone canceled his plane ticket to Geneva, as he traveled with a delegation to accompany Mike Brown’s family to address the UN. Since, he has had to change his phone number because it had been posted on numerous Craigslist ads and an anonymous person called incessantly (when he answered, only heavy breathing could be heard).
“What you’re talking about really is a level of psychological manipulation. You’re really talking about people who are too scared to act out on these things on their own and don’t want to be found out,” Wade said. “We believe that a lot of these trolls are also in law enforcement or previously were law enforcement, but they’re baiting other people to do their craziness.”
However, after posting to the Twitter community about the organization’s obstacle, Wade was met with a rousing response from people with suggestions for security options and even volunteers, which included police officers, offering to lend their time. The response ended the brief cessation of the lunch programs. “We’re moving forward,” declared Wade. “In a short amount of time, we’ve done a lot of work to protect our volunteers and protect the children that we serve.”
The St. Louis lunch will continue in Baden at Hickey Park until August 13th and the Baltimore lunch is being held in the Gilmore Homes in West Baltimore (where Freddie Gray grew up) until August 26th. As a lesson learned from the events of the previous days, Wade reflected, “I think people need to be more vigilant. I think we’re in a time when people are being very watchful. I think we need to understand that as much good there is in the movement, the opposite of good is evil and there are people with evil intentions and that are hateful. It’s not just the internet, it’s not just Twitter, it’s not just critiques. There’s a real potential for harm to come your way. The majority of these events don’t have security. We really don’t have internal security in the movement. We have to look at the past and consider the things that the Black Panthers did to protect themselves, and look at the things that the Nation of Islam has done with the Fruit of Islam in terms of protecting themselves, and really have a strategic plan for protection.”