|The Food Co-Op and the Hate Group|
Published in Artvoice Magazine on October 20, 2005. Written by Michael Niman.
It seems wholesome enough, looking at the loaves of fresh locally baked organic whole grain bread lined up at the Lexington Food Co-op – each one bearing the homey label of Hamburg's Common Ground Bakery. An actual visit to the bakery reinforces this bucolic image. There you'll find a small shop with smiling friendly bakers and the lofting aroma of fresh bread. What's not readily apparent is that shoppers on four continents are simultaneously walking into Common Ground Bakeries and experiencing the same illusion of a small independent community bake shop. In actuality, however, what they're walking into is the local franchise of a growing multinational organization, The Twelve Tribes, dedicated to spreading a reactionary racist, anti-Semitic, sexist homophobic ideology.
The press started paying attention to Twelve Tribes around five years ago when their Common Ground bakeries entered into the concert/events catering business, showing up at music festivals in Europe and Australia as well as stateside venues such as Buffalo's Elmwood Festival of the Arts (where they were subsequently banned). Along with their tasty snacks and sandwiches, came leaflets, booklets and a recruiting spiel.
At Britain's Glastonbury Festival in 2000, they caught the attention of The Guardian after disseminating pamphlets describing Jews as a "cursed" people, and magazines arguing in favor of racial segregation. A year later at Australia's Woodford festival, Australia's Courier Mail cited the group's reclusive leader, Elbert Eugene Spriggs, as claiming "It is horrible that someone would rise up to abolish slavery—what a wonderful opportunity that blacks could be brought over here [the U.S.] as slaves."
The Boston Herald reports that the group teaches their home schooled children a doctrine of white racial superiority. They go on to cite Spriggs, who argues that submission to whites "is the only provision by which [blacks] will be saved," and that the civil rights movement brought "disorder to the established social order." Spriggs defends slavery as the natural order, explaining that "if the slaves were mistreated it was the fault of the slaves." The antebellum south, he argues, maintained a proper social order—where black slaves "had respect for people. They got along well because they were submissive."
The Twelve Tribes follow up Spriggs' quotes by advocating for racial segregation both in their publications and on their website. In a piece entitled "Multicultural Madness," for example, they tell the story of a "rich young yuppie" living in an integrated neighborhood. "From one side of his house," they write, "comes the throbbing bass of his neighbor's stereo as they gather out back for some reggae." On the other side, the mud people are "laughing raucously over the grating syncopation of something called rap" [italics in original]. The piece goes on to explain, "Let's face it. It is just not reasonable to expect people to live contentedly alongside of others who are culturally and racially different. This is unnatural." People, they explain, have an "instinctive desire to live with those of like mind, to congregate in neighborhoods with those of the same race and ethnic origin." This, they claim, is because we have a "natural loathing of perverse and immoral people."
The group, however, still purports not to be racist, arguing that segregation is part of God's natural order, in essence blasphemously passing the racist ball to God. They're not racist, you see, they just worship a racist god. Whenever communities question Twelve Tribes businesses about racism, the group parades John Stringer, an African-American, to personally counter the charges. Stringer, who they shuffle from city to city and pimp on their website, argues that "our race is becoming increasingly known for its self-destructive behavior." According to Stringer, blacks are responsible for their history of subjection. "The only way to save our race," he explains, "is that we would submit to reason and responsibility, just as all the other minorities who are thriving." This simplistic and ahistorical rationale fits right in with the enlightened racism often espoused in liberal circles, while obfuscating persistent institutional racism and supporting racist stereotypes. This is obvious to people who actually listen to Stringer, instead of just looking at him. In actuality, Stringer needed to submit to more than "reason" and "responsibility." The Boston Herald again cites Twelve Tribes leader Elbert Spriggs, who explains that blacks "must come to [the Twelve Tribes] with the attitude to be a servant."
Twelve Tribes members, sort of like wiggers, dismiss charges of racism, explaining that they can't possibly be racist since they sing black spiritual songs in their homes. Likewise, the group claims that charges of anti-Sem itism are also false, because they sing Israeli folk songs, give themselves Hebrew names, and have a purported Jewish person traveling the country saying so. Their Jew, Shalom Israel, as it turns out, isn't Jewish.
All Jews, they argue, are born "cursed." According to the group, Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus and hence "called down the guilt of his murder on themselves and their children." They argue away the fact that today's Christianity and Islam both descend from the Judaism of Christ's time, explaining that the curse of the Jews is cancelled by renouncing one's Jewishness. "For Jews who follow our master, however," they write, "these curses are removed." This, they argue, is why they aren't anti-Semitic—because they will help any Jew who is willing to renounce their culture, history and beliefs. If the Jew ceases to be a Jew, they are welcome among the Twelve Tribes. Likewise, African-Americans willing to blame themselves for their own historic oppression are also welcome among the Twelve Tribes.
While individual blacks and Jews can earn the right to work wage-free in a Common Ground bakery by renouncing their people and struggles, women have no such option. They will always be women, who, according to the Twelve Tribes, were created solely "to be a friend and a helper for man." Sort of like a dog. They explain that women have two basic purposes: "to be a wife and a mother." As a mother, a woman is supposed to raise her children as directed "according to her husband's heart." Any additional or alternative life goals, or failure to "submit" to a husband's "loving" demands, goes against "God's proper order."
They lament that, "Sadly enough today though, many women strive to be something 'better.'" "Woman," they explain, "is not meant to rule over man." Hence, according to the group's website, "they strive to be what they are not. They want careers, or money, or whatever they think will give them identity and fulfillment…" A true woman, however, they argue, "doesn't need to become 'greater' than she was created to be." Interestingly enough, one of the things it seems the Twelve Tribes believe that women were created to do, is bake bread for long hours without receiving a paycheck. This natural order seems to have bestowed upon the Twelve Tribes a competitive advantage over other organic whole grain bakeries who still have to dole out Caesar's image to their heathen workforces.
The Twelve Tribes has come under repeated fire for child labor violations in many of their factories and businesses. In one celebrated case, their Common Sense Natural Soap & Body Care division lost a lucrative contract manufacturing Estee Lauder's Origins line after Estee Lauder found children working in their factory. The Twelve Tribes call the charges "false, unfounded and slanderous," claiming the 14 year old boys were simply helping their fathers at work. In similar incidents, the New York Department of Labor busted the group for using child labor in a Palenville candle factory and the Sundance mail order catalog cancelled a contract with the group's Common Sense Furniture division after the Coxsackie, New York furniture factory became the subject of a child labor controversy.
The Twelve Tribes claim that it is beneficial for children to help their parents work instead of, they explain, "wasting their free time on empty amusements and dissipation, which leads only to bad behavior." The group seems obsessed with "bad behavior," writing off entire "countries like Scandinavia" [sic] as plagued with the malady. Their response to bad behavior on the part of their children, however they define it, is for the adults to indulge themselves in bad behavior of their own, whipping kids with a reed-tipped device they call "the rod." On their website they explain that "To discipline your children is tantamount to loving them…it shows the child they are loved and cared about."
Children who have escaped from Twelve Tribes compounds, along with adult ex-members, talk of abuse, not love. Noah Jones, for example, left the group's flagship compound in Island Pond Vermont at the age of 22. In an interview with Burlington's ABC TV affiliate (WVNY), Jones claimed "They spanked me from my feet to my neck, all the way. I was black and blue, basically head to toe." He recalls being beaten with the rod and locked in basements as a child and later, when he got older, he says he was beaten with a two-by-four.
Jones was ushered to freedom by a sort of underground railroad that, according to WVNY, has "helped dozens of teenagers and children" to escape Twelve Tribes abuse. One of the 'conductors,' speaking to WVNY, explained "The anger of these kids coming out is amazing. They've been hit by so many people that they can't even count …"
Zeb Wiseman, another escapee, told The Boston Herald that when his mother received no medical care when was sick with cancer. When she subsequently died, they told him his mother's death was an example of how God punishes sinners. Wiseman claims that he was then shuffled between Twelve Tribes communities and beaten daily from the time he was five until he was fifteen. Among his sins, according to Wiseman, was listening to "outside music." He also claims that his schooling stopped when he was 13 and that he began working when he was ten years old. As a rule, Twelve Tribes children do not receive high school diplomas, and they are forbidden to apply for GED degrees or to attend college. This lack of education hinders escapees in their search for work. Essentially, the organization is breeding its own free labor force.
The Guardian quotes a 24-year old Jewish woman attending the Glastonbury Music Festival as being "shocked on two counts." "First," she explained, she was shocked "that they [Common Ground] were there at all, and secondly, that no one else seemed to care." It's this apathy—this gross willingness to silently acquiesce to the presence of a hate group, that is truly appalling. But it's also enlightening.
The Twelve Tribes is building its empire by feeding on the resources of some of the world's most progressive communities, specifically because they are also apathetic and self-indulgent enough to support even those organizations who are ideologically opposed to their very presence. Hence, we see the Twelve Tribes prospering, for example, with a restaurant on Ithaca, New York's signature Commons, despite that city's history for progressive politics. And we see them opening up on the fringes of alternative and activist communities across New England—often finding a distribution network for their products among food co-ops and hip health food stores. Here in Buffalo, the newly expanded Lexington Food Co-op is The Twelve Tribes largest independent bread retailer, with Common Ground bread dominating their shelves.
The aforementioned concertgoer explained to The Guardian that "People forget there is no such thing as a benign racist, no matter how tasty his vegetarian couscous." This is the problem. The bread is good. And the Common Ground people seem friendly enough. Peace Studies scholar and anthropologist Robert Knox Dentan writes: "The impoverishment and polarization of U.S. politics means that we expect our enemies to be all-evil, but they're not." Dentan goes on to explain that "Heinrich Himmler famously loved dogs and children. There's a chilling photo of him hugging a little Jewish boy as the kid was waiting for the train to Auschwitz. The Twelve Tribes," Dentan surmises, "would be nice to that little boy too, as long as he converted to their brand of Christianity. They're not, most of them, mean people." According to Dentan, "fascism isn't going to come to the US in the form of goose stepping Stormtroopers (SWAT teams aside). It's certainly going to depend on the help of extreme religious groups like the Tribes."
The Co-op's Response to Hate
The analogy is frightening. Three weeks after I shared with the Lexington Co-op management and board the data which I subsequently used in this article, I received an official response signed by their store manager and a member of their board. It started out reading, "The Co-op takes it very seriously that one of our primary, longstanding local producers is being labeled a 'hate group.'" On the next line, however, they write "We have never found Common Ground or its members to be anything but friendly and warm to our customers and staff." No doubt this is true. But by all accounts Osama bin Laden is also very personable, soft-spoken and has gentle eyes.
Yes, the Common Ground bakers in Hamburg act "friendly and warm." But their money is supporting a white supremacist empire. Their leader, Eugene Spriggs, is cited in The Boston Herald as lamenting the end of slavery and celebrating the assassination of Martin Luther King. Money spent at the Lexington Co-op on Common Ground breads goes directly to supporting Spriggs' group's multinational business and real estate investments—including a new "mega development project" the group is currently putting the finishing touches on in Tampa, Florida. As self-indulgent liberals continue to buy tasty loafs of bread from "nice" bakers, they continue to fund a growing economic empire that targets vulnerable minorities around the world.
In their letter, the Co-op management goes on to explain that they will look into the allegations presented here, writing, "Our plan is to research the available information in greater detail and within context. We will share this information and consult with spiritual and moral leaders from the community, member-owners, Common Ground themselves, and other co-ops. We will then make a decision on how to proceed."
Companies such as Estee Lauder and LL Bean, which are not particularly progressive, figured this out long ago and stopped carrying Twelve Tribes products. There is no context in which such hate speech is acceptable. And it shouldn't take consultation with a "spiritual" or "moral leader" to figure this out.