I hate to write about the Mateel Community Center, because there’s a baby in that bathwater, and because we really need a community center in Southern Humboldt. Much as I enjoy criticizing the gross excesses, pathetic deficiencies and laughably dishonest mythology of this community, I don’t want to be the one to tell us that our baby is dead. However, the Mateel Board’s decision to suspend the Mateel Meal program indicates to me that this latest trip to the Intensive Care Ward might be too little too late.

As a community center, the Mateel has always been exceptional. I don’t know of any other community center that could pull off an undertaking like Reggae on the River, or even Summer Arts and Music Festival, in its present incarnation. As we now see, big festivals are a big gamble. They have the potential to make a lot of money, but they cost a lot to produce, and if attendance falls the losses can be catastrophic. Most community centers would never take that kind of risk with the community’s resources.

Summer Arts and Music Festival used to be the kind of event a community center would put on. In fact, Summer Arts and Music Festival predates the Mateel as a community function. Before SoHum became a marijuana monoculture, a lot of people around here made and sold art, pottery, cabinetry, candles, clothing, musical instruments and other handcrafted items, and relied on that income to survive. I know because I was one of them. I used to make a living selling my crafts at mostly community-center sponsored craft shows all over Northern California and Southern Oregon. SAMF used to be one of the better ones.

Since the Reggae Wars, however, the focus of SAMF has changed. I wouldn’t call it an arts and crafts show anymore. I’d call it a music festival with arts and crafts. Now, instead of sponsoring a festival for the benefit of local artists and craftspeople, the Mateel expects artists and craftspeople, increasingly from out of the area, to finance a music festival, for the benefit of the community center.

Artists and craftspeople need community support, and they rely on institutions like community centers to survive and thrive. Helping local artists is an important function of a community center, and it pays to help artists in your community thrive. Supporting the arts builds economic diversity; it builds local culture and it encourages creativity. The goal of Summer Arts and Music should be to help local artists, craftspeople and musicians get their careers off the ground, not to make money off of them. If the local arts scene diminishes while the community center thrives, something’s wrong.

Reggae on the River also used to help people in our community much more than it does now. ROTR used to bring a lot more people from out of the area, and more of those people needed weed. Local growers sold a lot of pot at Reggae on the River. Today, everyone in California has easy access to cannabis, and there are plenty of reggae festivals to attend. Now ROTR relies on local people to buy tickets, and since it’s just us, nobody needs weed, so growers don’t make much money at Reggae on the River anymore.

Reggae On The River is a massive undertaking that consumes people’s lives and our community center’s resources, and now it demands that we, as a community, make a commitment to spend a bunch of money to attend a four-day drug orgy where we drink way too much beer and chain smoke fat spliffs of ganja while he choke on dust in the August heat. That’s a lot to ask of a community. What’s more, it probably isn’t very good for us.

Things change, and sometimes we forget why we do things. One thing that hasn’t changed very much is the need for a hot nutritious meal. Every community has hungry people, and ours is no exception. The need for a hot free meal in Southern Humboldt remains as strong as ever. People in our community would feel better, think better and make better decisions if they got a good nutritious meal that day. Children in our community would do better in school and have a better chance for success, and mom would have an easier time making ends meet if they could get a free meal every once in a while. A free meal could help a lot of self-employed people get through a rough month or two, and really help unemployed people stay strong while they look for work.

Besides that, we benefit from sitting down to a meal together, as a community. We have a lot of lonely people here in SoHum. A lot of people around here are hungrier for company than they are for food. In many ways, bringing people together to share a free meal is the essence of community, and the Mateel used to do it pretty well.

Bob Binairs invited me to help out in the Mateel Meal kitchen back when we first moved here, and it was a great experience. Good food, good company and good vibes. The Mateel had enough of that revolutionary radical hippie spirit that made people proud to eat there. I was proud to eat there, and I met some great people there. Every free meal strikes a blow against capitalism and feeding people is a revolutionary act. It felt good to share a meal with comrades at the Mateel.

Over the years, however, those radical, revolutionary hippie ideas like “community” have steadily withered away in people’s minds in the face of an onslaught of even more radical, right-wing “free-market” rhetoric from corporate mass media. Fewer people understand ideas like “community” anymore, let alone believe in them. Unless the idea of “community” lives in people’s hearts and minds, they’ll never understand the importance of a community center, or what they should expect of one.

This constant barrage of disempowering messages from corporate media, and a changing culture, not to mention the greed that sparked the green rush, has changed the way people around here think and see the world. Today, a lot of people want to make Southern Humboldt more exclusive. They don’t want to help their neighbor; they want to exclude needy people from their neighborhood. Here in SoHum we have a lot of people who want to use hunger as a weapon to drive poverty out of town.

The Mateel Meal program has been under attack for years by a growing faction who believe that feeding hungry people only encourages more of them to come here. They don’t want to see needy people, let alone eat with them. They prefer to use their money to exclude people, rather than support their neighbors, and they intend to make Southern Humboldt more exclusive and upscale by starving poor people out.

The Mateel Hall is overflowing with donated food. The kitchen remains there in the hall, mostly unused, and all of the labor to put on the Mateel Meal is done by unpaid volunteers. At the most recent Mateel meeting, it was reported that the reasons for suspending the Mateel Meal included: the donated food is taking up more than its allotted space, and that the Mateel Meal puts extra wear and tear on the floor because the floor has to be mopped after every meal.

The easy solution to too much donated food is to feed more people, and if we wear out the floor of the Mateel Hall by providing free meals, that floor will have been well used indeed. I don’t see any excuse for preserving the floorboards at the expense of hungry people in our community. People here need this food, today, before it goes bad, and the people who donated it, wanted it to be eaten, not thrown away. The Mateel Board has not only gambled with the community’s resources, they’ve used their bad decisions as an excuse to block this genuine volunteer effort to feed hungry people in our community.

Things change, and after 30 years of divisive rhetoric, gangsta rap and the rise of Randian, libertarian social Darwinism, there might not be enough people left around here who even understand that radical, revolutionary hippie idea we call “community,” let alone believe in it enough to support a community center anymore. Today we see that even a majority of the Mateel Board of Directors seems unclear on the concept. What are the chances they can convey it to the rest of us, convincingly? If the Mateel Community Center fails, it won’t be because they lost too much money at ROTR, it will be because we no longer understand, or believe in, the revolutionary concept of community.


John Hardin writes at Like You’ve Got Something Better to Do.