By ROSIE RIDDLE
I’ve been hearing the words, “community support” and “mutual aid” being tossed around a lot lately, generally being offered as an alternative to relying on often under-funded or inefficient government services.
But what does mutual aid look like? How does a community offer support? Well, a good example is Riot Ribs.
Riot Ribs is a small group of volunteers who have organized on the corner of SW 3rd Avenue & SW Salmon Street, right across the street from the Multnomah County Justice Center in downtown Portland.
They’re just a handful of folks with grills offering free food to anyone who wants it, living and operating out of Chapman Square.
The side of the blue tent where Riot Ribs operates. Signs hanging on it say “Free BBQ” and “Riot Ribs, Food is Free, Donations Appreciated”.
Photo by Rosie Riddle
They started when one man showed up to the nightly protests in Chapman Square with his grill, some ribs, and a desire to see folks get fed. Soon after a group formed and took over when he left.
They’ve since been operating 24 hours a day, for 8 days straight, stopping only long enough to sleep for a couple hours, before getting back to grilling. They’re offering breakfast, lunch, and dinner to all comers, and asking for donations in order to keep running.
That’s the community support part.
They’re entirely community run, being all volunteers working for free, grilling up food entirely donated by the community, or purchased with money similarly donated.
Most of their volunteers are houseless folks who understand what it’s like to not have their needs met; folks who want to make sure that the folks in the area have what they need.
A sign outside the tent where Riot Ribs is cooking that reads, “By Community, For Community”.
Photo by Rosie Riddle
I had the opportunity to speak with Isaiah, one of the folks grilling for Riot Ribs. He told me that part of their mission is to “empower folks to stay out there 24/7 and to support their community”.
Isaiah also told me that they have no intention of stopping any time soon. He said, “as long as there is a line for food we’re going to keep cooking”. In fact, they recently spent about 53 hours straight cooking, because the line simply never let up.
When asked if they had any long term goals for Riot Ribs, Isaiah said that they would like to start a restaurant here in Portland, and eventually expand to have food trucks in Seattle and down in San Fransisco as well. But they said that’s a long ways off and for now their only goal is to keep making sure that when people are hungry, they are fed.
At the prompting of, and with the help of, one of their volunteers (who asked to be referred to only as Beans) they’ve started a social media account on Twitter (@RiotRibs). Through this account, they are able to update the community on the things they need, and also post occasional status updates when necessary.
An info-graphic for Riot Ribs showing their Twitter handle, explaining what they do, and showing a list of items for donation that they are accepting.
Isaiah and another of the volunteers there, called Lil Dill, both have prior experience with food service, and work hard to make sure that the grill is constantly filled with everything from ribs and burgers, to vegan patties, and occasionally hot dogs.
They also often are able to offer sides to go with their barbecue whenever donations allow it.
I had a chance to try some lamb ribs straight off of the grill at one point and their skill in the kitchen is plainly apparent.
A picture of some ribs on the grill, with fire leaping up above them.
Photo by Rosie Riddle
As for mutual aid, while I was talking with the kind folks of Riot Ribs, I witnessed them asking to borrow a wheeled cart from a nearby group, The Witches, and in exchange they sent over a plate of their grilled goodies.
Later on in the night, Riot Kitchen, who had been doing something very similar to Riot Ribs but up in Seattle at the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, dropped by to donate all the food they had left, after police shut them down.
One of the folks who helped to run Riot Kitchen, called Mayhem, told me they had so much food left over and didn’t want to see it go bad, so they decided to come on down to Portland and see about setting up shop feeding folks down here, only to be surprised that Riot Ribs was already taking care of them.
I was absolutely blown away by everything I saw while I was talking with the folks of Riot Ribs, from their absolute dedication to supporting their community, to the lines forming outside the tent, forty-people long, for hours on end, to their commitment to upholding food and safety guidelines even given the fact they were operating out of a tent.
These people are, in my opinion, what community support is all about and I think that the hundreds of people they feed each day would agree with me.
A picture of Riot Ribs, the grill in the foreground, the tent in the background. Pictured are Isaiah and Lil Dill who are “just vibing”, their faces blacked out for their privacy.
Photo by Beans, @ComradeBeana on Twitter
Rosie is a houseless trans activist and writer with a focus on tech and queer advocacy. Originally from California, it’s been a Portland resident for over a decade.