Mounds of clothing and toys, crafts and kitchenware, a library-worth of zines and books — even a clothing repair booth — filled the upstairs stage hall at St. Stephen’s Church in D.C. on the third Saturday of this month. It was Christmas for children and utopia for adults, for a simple and radical reason: all of the treasures were completely free.
The D.C. Really Really Free Market (RRFM) is organized by a few individuals affiliated with Black Lives Matter DC, Peace House DC, and Resist This. Unlike a sanitized shopping mall, friends and acquaintances organically formed circles to catch up, and strangers from all walks of life smiled at one another in recognition of the event’s novelty. People rummaged through a hodgepodge of items on tables throughout the room, commenting on what they discovered to one another, and expressing disbelief at the response to the usual question: “Where can I pay for this?”
Unlike a sanitized shopping mall, friends and acquaintances organically formed circles to catch up, and strangers from all walks of life smiled at one another in recognition of the event’s novelty.
A radical history
RRFMs — or “free stores” — are reciprocal exchanges: community members bring belongings they no longer want, or skills they would like to share, and receive items and skills from others. They function similarly to gift-economies, as opposed to barter systems, since what you take is not contingent on what you give (and vice versa). In its earlier years, RRFMs used the slogan “Because there’s enough for everyone, because sharing is more fulfilling than owning, because free trade is a contradiction of terms.” All organizers do is publicize the event, help set up, and find a space for left over items at the end of the event.
RRFMs were reportedly first organized by anarchists in the United States during the anti-globalization movement, which began in the early 90s to critique and combat multinational corporations, deregulated global trade, and the exploitation of cheap labor that accompanies global capitalism. Part of the intention of early RRFMs was to facilitate an anti-capitalist economic vision.
The anti-globalization movement was subdued following the 9/11 attacks, since NGOs and other liberal groups did not want to seem “un-American” — and the anti-globalization movement never fully recovered. But Really Really Free Markets continued to expand throughout the world, sprouting up in Singapore, Canada, and Australia.
In January 2019, organizers of the Singapore Really Really Free Market put out a statement to mark their tenth anniversary. It posed questions we all grapple with: “How do we equitably share the wealth of our society, both in terms of knowledge and material goods? How do we live our lives in compassionate and sustainable ways? How do we put people before profits? How do we embrace freedom together?”
RRFMs begin to address questions — or at least allow us to envisage — how societies could function more equitably, compassionately, and sustainably. They operate under the principles of “mutual aid,” the idea that humans and other animals evolved in close-knit communities and are quick to understand giving and taking freely: “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” Although the term mutual aid was first coined by zoologist Karl Kessler and popularized by Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin in the 1800s, societies throughout human history have lived under principles of reciprocal exchange and communalism. (There is ample evidence that the emergence of patriarchy contributed to increased competition, imperialism, private property, the patriarchal nuclear family, and centralized governance.)
Mutual aid is antithetical to Social Darwinism, the idea that human society should function according to “survival-of-the-fittest” principles. Though this philosophy has been discredited, many individuals cite our “competitive human nature” as a justification for capitalism, and racist, classist, and patriarchal ideologies.
“RRFMs were reportedly first organized by anarchists in the United States during the anti-globalization movement, which began in the early 90s to critique and combat multinational corporations, deregulated global trade, and the exploitation of cheap labor that accompanies global capitalism.”
Really (really) free in D.C.
The first D.C. RRFM I could locate online was organized in 2010. According to organizer Fariha Kay, Peace House DC began organizing a free store at their collective house roughly four years ago; individuals from the two other collectives joined forces with Peace House about four months ago in order to expand the project. Fariha was first introduced to the really free market concepts by a fellow immigrant woman who lived in NYC, and Fariha told me that she immediately loved the idea of exchanging items — and “interrupting the capitalist dynamics of our white supremacist, colonialist world.” She also joked that she is “cheap” and likes free things.
Building togetherness and active participation in community life are some of the RRFM organizers’ key goals. They encourage community members to set up a skill-sharing table and to build relationships. “Many of us (activists) are so busy organizing marches and protests, that we never actually get to know the many talented and gifted members of our community,” says Kay. “Without intentional community building efforts, it can be easy to become isolated.”
Their efforts seem to have been fruitful. I met several new people, and ran into others I hadn’t seen in a while. Materially, I left with an Xbox, a printer, a vacuum cleaner, the nicest pottery I’ve ever owned, a U.S Army survival skills book, and a rainbow lava lamp. Fariha said someone brought a few swords to one market, and someone else brought vintage cameras to another.
“These markets are a blessing to get second-hand clothes and toys for my young daughter, since she grows out of everything so quickly,” one woman at the market told me. When she asked her daughter to pick out a “new best friend,” the blonde-haired toddler came back with a large stuffed black panther from the child care corner. Attendees also recognize the big-picture benefits of the event, too; “I also come here for the environmental benefits associated with thrifting,” she added.
“Without intentional community building efforts, it can be easy to become isolated.”
Beyond the store
The principles of mutual aid are upheld outside the walls of St. Stephen’s, too. At a demonstration organized by Black Lives Matter DC, Stop Police Terror Project, BYP100, Howard University Resists, Occupation Free DC, DecrimNow DC, Mijente, and the They/Them Collective, activists blocked off an intersection in D.C. by unfurling banners that read “Abolish Pol(ice)” and “Free Black Lives.” Organizers and supporters set up several tables as barricades with free food, water, coffee, deodorant, and other toiletries. For hours, pleasantly surprised people stopped by to pick up supplies or contribute items to the pile. Food Not Bombs DC operates under similarly communalistic principles; they bring free food to events, protests, and to Franklin Park every Saturday at 3pm. All are encouraged to bring or take food.
While the Really Really Free Market — once set up — essentially runs itself, there are roadblocks to initiating self-organized projects. By design, free or low-cost space for hosting events can be difficult to find in societies that prioritize private property over public space. And some laws are written to discourage mutual aid. Organizers of Food Not Bombs in Tampa, Florida, for example, have been arrested for feeding people in the park.
Some roadblocks are invisible until we attempt to organize our communities outside of governmental bodies and non-profits. Once we hit obstacles, we more clearly see that a force manages poverty and inequality. They are not inevitable.
The next Really Really Free Market is March 16th at St. Stephen’s. What will you share? What will you take? Who will you meet?
How can we embrace and build freedom together?