The Hate Group and the Grassroots Music Fest
by Michael I. Niman 7/15/10
Adapted from ArtVoice 10/20/05
It certainly seems wholesome enough, a small tea house with staffed by friendly smiling and seemingly down to earth folks. What’s not readily apparent is that shoppers on four continents are simultaneously walking into Mate Factor and Yerba Mate tea houses or Common Ground Bakeries and experiencing the same illusion of a small independent community business. In actuality, however, what they’re walking into is the local franchise of a growing multinational organization, The Twelve Tribes, which is dedicated to spreading a reactionary racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist and homophobic ideology.
The press started paying attention to the 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), and the Grassroots Festival, where they will be welcomed as vendors next week.
When they set up shop at Britain’s Glastonbury Festival in 2000, they caught the attention of The Guardian after disseminating pamphlets arguing that Jews are a cursed people, and magazines arguing in favor of racial segregation. When they appeared at Australia’s Woodford festival a year later, 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. The Herald cites Spriggs as arguing that submission to whites “is the only provision by which [blacks] will be saved.” Hence, he explains, the civil rights movement brought “disorder to the established social order.” Spriggs goes on to defend slavery as being part of the natural order, explaining that “if the slaves were mistreated it was the fault of the slaves.” He then croons on about how the antebellum south maintained a proper social order – how black slaves “had respect for people. They got along well because they were submissive.”
While the Twelve Tribes has never officially explained or denied Spriggs quotes, they currently follow them up 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 of their besieged yuppie, neighbors 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.” It’s apparently natural, however, to sell them drinks and snacks at music festivals such as Grassroots.
People, the 12 Tribes explain 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 argue, is because we have a “natural loathing of perverse and immoral people.” This category apparently describes most Grassroots fans.
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. The Twelve Tribes isn’t racist, you see, they just worship a racist god. Whenever communities question local Twelve Tribes businesses about the group’s racism, the group parades John Stringer, an African-American member, to personally counter the charges. Stringer, who they move from city to city and promote on their website, argues that “our race is becoming increasingly known for its self-destructive behavior.” According to Stringer, blacks are responsible for their own 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, black folks like Stringer need to submit to more than “reason” and “responsibility.” The Boston Herald cites Twelve Tribes leader Elbert Spriggs, explaining that blacks “must come to [the Twelve Tribes] with the attitude to be a servant.”
Twelve Tribes members 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-Semitism 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 supposed Jew, Shalom Israel, as it turns out, is actually a practicing Christian.
The Twelve Tribes argue that all Jews 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.” This is “why God has not been able to protect the Jews from century after century of abuse at the hands of wicked men.”
The Twelve Tribes 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 Twelve Tribes business 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 work at Tribe business for long hours without receiving a paycheck. This natural order seems to have bestowed upon the Twelve Tribes a competitive advantage over other bakers and food and beverage sellers who still have to dole out Caesar’s image to their heathen work forces.
The Twelve Tribes has come under repeated fire for child labor violations in many of their factories and businesses. In one celebrated case, The Twelve Tribes’ Cambridge, New York based Common Sense Natural Soap & Body Care division, lost a lucrative contract manufacturing Estee Lauder’s Origins line after Estee Lauder found children working in the Common Sense factory. The Twelve Tribes call the charges “false, unfounded and slanderous,” claiming that the 14 year old boys were simply helping their fathers at work. In a similar incident, Robert Redford’s Sundance mail order catalog cancelled their contract with the Twelve Tribes’ Common Sense Furniture division after the Coxsackie, New York furniture factory became the subject of a child labor controversy. By contrast, Grassroots organizes seem unfazed by the group’s history.
The New York State Department of Labor also busted the group for using child labor in a Palenville, New York candle factory and for assisting in construction work in another group-owned facility in Oak Hill, New York. 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 Twelve Tribes 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 abuse at the Island Pond community. 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 his mother was sick with cancer, but the Twelve Tribes denied her medical care. Wiseman explained how, in addition to beating him and locking him in basements, the group mentally tortured him. When his mother died, they told him his mother’s death was an example of how God punishes sinners. Wiseman claims that he was shuffled between Twelve Tribes communities and was beaten daily from the time he was five until he was fifteen. Among the sins for which he would be beaten, 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.
Twelve Tribes children are home schooled until they are teenagers – then they go to work, wage-free, in one of the group’s businesses. 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 if they leave the Twelve Tribes. Essentially, the organization is breeding its own work force.
The Guardian quotes a 24-year old Jewish woman attending the Glastonbury Music Festival as being “shocked on two counts.” She was shocked “first,” she explained, “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 off of 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’s signature Commons, despite Ithaca’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. In my hometown of Buffalo, our newly expanded Lexington Food Co-op was once The Twelve Tribes largest independent bread retailer, with Common Ground bread dominating their shelves. They’ve since banned Twelve Tribes products from their shelves.
The aforementioned concertgoer explained to The Guardian that “People forget there is no such thing as a benign racist, no mater how tasty his vegetarian couscous.” This is the problem. The bread is good. And the Mate Factor 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.” Dentan goes on to explain that “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.”
Yes, the Mate Factor folks in Ithaca are “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 on Common Ground breads goes directly to supporting Spriggs’ group’s multinational business and real estate investments. As self-indulgent liberals continue to buy Yerba Mate tea, or deal with businesses and festivals that support the 12 Tribes, they continue to fund a growing economic empire that continues to target vulnerable minorities around the world.
Put simply – when health conscious consumers spend money at the Mate Factor, or on Yerba Mate products, they fund, for example, the publication and distribution of anti-Semitic literature in Brazil. Or perhaps they contributed to the purchase of a “rod” to beat a Twelve Tribes child who came home with a forbidden copy of this newspaper. The problem is that self-indulgent Mate Factor customers get immediate gratification through the enjoyment of tasty baked goods while not directly, at this moment in time, suffering the effects of the group’s hate speech.
To quote a tired cliché, this isn’t rocket science. 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. It certainly shouldn’t be accepted by organizers of a Music fest that supposedly celebrates multiculturalism.
Joseph Wetmore provided research assistance for this article. Michael I. Niman’s previous columns are archived at www.mediastudy.com. To read the Twelve Tribes / Common Ground response to charges of racism etc., see their website at www.twelvetribes.com/. Twelve Tribes products are sold under the following brand names: Common Ground Café; Common Ground Bakery; Common Sense Natural Soap and Body Care; Common Sense Furniture and Yerba Mate Teas.