A hand-painted sign leaning against a tree read: "NO MONEY. NO BARTER. NO ADS. EVERYTHING IS FREE." What appeared from a quarter mile away to be a makeshift flea market in a neglected corner of Dolores Park revealed itself at close proximity to be an eclectic mix of bohemians, families, tourists and activists united for the monthly Really Really Free Market, a shape-shifting collective enterprise which rallies around the mantra that the capitalist system promotes over-consumption and corporate thievery and worsens poverty and inequality worldwide.
The idea, according to Dolores Park RRFM founder Greg Dervin, is to bring whatever one wishes to give, from material goods no longer needed to a skill to teach to a service to provide. It is a reminder that monetary compensation is not the basis for all exchanges because, as the unofficial RRFM slogan says, "there is too such a thing as a free lunch." No business cards are allowed, and the market premises are cleaned of leftovers and debris when the event has ended.
Philosophically similar to other radical projects such as Food Not Bombs and Ruckus Society, which use vibrant, public demonstrations of social ills to draw attention to a cause, the RRFM is meant to attract passersby and those who would not generally be involved in activism or anti-capitalist discourse. "I wanted this to be for San Francisco, not just Bay Area activists," says Dervin.
Google "Really Really Free Market" and you will find hundreds of listings, including the 2004 G8 meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina, the United States Green Party Web site, and postings on craigslist, university mailing lists, blogs, and community calendars. It is difficult to estimate the breadth RRFMs hold nationwide because most are not held regularly. Rather, RRFMs have been held outside of right-wing diplomatic conventions in recent years as a form of protest to illustrate the irony of the "free market" oxymoron espoused by the North American Free Trade Agreement, which critics say exacerbates Third World poverty by reducing trade barriers, undermining labor rights, and imposing privatization of services.
The interest and sustainability of the RRFMs may be a testament not only to the truism that 'giving feels good', but also to how weary some Americans have grown of a system of exchange which binds them to a cumbersome lifestyle. "I don't like [capitalism]," said Sandra Gutierrez, an Alameda County social worker and mother of two, "but nowadays there is no other way to live; we're all neck-deep in it. But I like to remember that we can all … come together and offer what we have for another person we may not even know."
Dervin, a San Francisco resident and social justice activist, first attended a RRFM at the 2003 FTAA summit in Miami. In the aftermath of the police brutality against FTAA protesters, Dervin said he found great solace in the in the spirit of giving at the market. Powerful because it is as much a bold statement of an alternative to free market capitalism as it is a protest of it, Dervin took the feeling home with him to San Francisco.
The June 2004 Biotechnology Conference in San Francisco was the big break for Bay Area RRFMs. The protest against the conference, which was thousands strong, culminated in over 1,000 participants gifting seeds and vegetables, tarot card readings, rental advice, hypnotherapy, and spoken word performances in the middle of Union Square. Liking what he saw, Dervin "put out feelers" throughout his Bay Area activist networks to promote a regular RRFM in San Francisco. He spread the word through online networking site Tribe.net and posted information on craigslist, and when the first RRFM convened at Dolores Park on April 30, 2005 there were over 400 participants from throughout the Bay Area. The monthly gathering has witnessed a sustained local commitment to promote and contribute to the cause. Another monthly RRFM emerged in Berkeley this July, and has likewise enjoyed a solid attendance and mounting public interest.
Kevin Ahern, who initiated the Berkeley RRFM, said that he had once written to Dervin for guidance. "So, you just put up some fliers and get a permit from the city?" Ahern recounted. "And they said, 'This is a non-commercial event; we will not get a permit from the city!'" The rest, as they say, is history, and the Berkeley RRFM is off the ground and anticipating its third meeting this October.
As the Dolores Park RRFM now goes into its sixth month of operation, many of the original participants have dropped out of the forefront as newcomers have taken a lead. This is all part of the fluid nature of the RRFM; the project, according to the Web site, is "the sum of its participants … [in which] each of us decides our own level of involvement."
While the current discourse of globalization and the merits of free trade relies on the re-invocation of Margaret Thatcher's platitude 'there is no alternative', the Really Really Free Market is proving otherwise.
For more information, visit the RRFM Web site www.reallyreallyfreemarket.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org