At the Thunderdome's last public appearance, a protest against the Colorado Democrats banquet at the Sheraton on Sunday, no one was arrested. Instead, the former Occupy Denver kitchen and erstwhile symbol of its activism served finger food. The point was clear -- feeding the homeless directly in front of $2,500 tables -- but the menu was foremost: lemon mushroom arancini, asian caprese, vegetarian tea sandwiches and "assorted crudités."
In recent months, the Thunderdome's push for autonomy has evolved into a more organized, if occasionally more polite, political offshoot. For its latest protest, held February 11, the Thunderdome worked with Occupy Denver as part of its "No Confidence Rally" to indicate distrust in both of the country's major political parties. But the group effort wasn't particularly coordinated: Both groups kind of just showed up, says Justin "Crunchy" Gwin, the Thunderdome's first cook.
Since November 13, when three arrests took place after a scuffle in Civic Center Park, the Thunderdome has distanced itself from the organization that became its original home. But Gwin is quick to point out that this is not the occupation's fault. Although the two bodies continue to disagree on occasion, most often in regard to the movement's homeless population, the move for autonomy was motivated by the group's increasingly tense relationship with the Denver Police Department.
On November 13, for example, Thunderdome cook Corey Donahue was arrested along with two other protesters when police officers entered the park to remove a card table set up to serve food. The city's anti-encumbrance ordinance, and the now regular enforcement of it at Civic Center Park, placed a significant damper on the Thunderdome's ability to continue to provide free food. In November and December, food items weighed heavily in the piles of items Public Works trucks removed from the occupation after altercations.
"There's no reason to get a felony because you set up a card table," Gwin says. "Every time we set up a table, they came in and knocked it down and arrested people and ruined the entire experiment. It was a pretty hard decision to make, but since we're all facing charges from the occupation we really couldn't all afford to continue to buck the system at the time." Click through for more photos and the group's future plans. In the coming months, the eight regular volunteers who comprise the Thunderdome's core are working to make the organization's face a more public one. On February 22, Gwin and Occupy Denver protester Scott Greene will launch an online Thunderdome radio show devoted to humor (the Thunderdome is notorious for sarcastic and sophomoric one-liners), food activism and guerrilla gardening.
True to form, however, Thunderdome activists are also plotting ways to continue to serve free food by navigating around the city's anti-encumbrance law. So far, this includes three mobile food wagons, which the group is augmenting today to include serving spaces and compartments to better fit their needs.
The goal is somewhat akin to Food Not Bombs, though on a much smaller and more local scale. With anarchist roots and a mostly vegan menu, the Thunderdome hopes to provide healthy and free food to a wider swath of local movements. (When asked what separates the Thunderdome from other free anarchist kitchens, Gwin laughs before answering, "the dick jokes.")
As the project grows, it is aided by contributions from online grocers and local farms donating food that, while not in photo-ready shape, serves the Thunderdome's purpose without costing it anything. "Nobody wants to eat a carrot that looks like a hand," Gwin jokes, "but it tastes fine."
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Recent food events include ties to the Denver Anarchist Black Cross, the Colorado Street Medics, the RedLine art gallery, an anarchist group in Boulder and Food Not Bombs. For a large-scale meal like the one served outside the Sheraton, targeted for roughly 300 people, the group can spend around $100 on materials, and it is currently promoting an online drive for financial donations.
"We have lost so many resources from police action that we feel it's important to be autonomous," Gwin says. "I, for one, am sick of begging for resources. And it's hard to get people to give you anything when they think you're just going to give it to houseless people -- which we are."
Additional fundraising techniques include starting a small catering business on the side in order to raise money to provide free meals. "The hardest part of our job is to find the most nutritionally supportive food at the cheapest price and turn it into a menu we can be proud of," Gwin says. "If we can only feed three or four people with a hundred bucks, what's the point? We could just take people out for a nice dinner, which is not exactly anarchist vegan free kitchen material."
More from our Occupy Denver archive: "Photos: Occupy Denver shuts down traffic during first mass event of 2012."