Not long after I start talking to Rico, I hear a thumping in the background of our phone call, then the alarmed barks of his dog.
“One sec,” he blurts.
There’s a few seconds of muffled shouting before he returns in a huff. “Sorry about that. Some crazed Trumper was banging on the van’s windows, yelling at me to get the fuck outta here,” he says. “This happens almost every other day.”
Rico’s gotten used to it. The 26-year-old works and lives out of his sprinter van, which is decorated from nose to tail with spray paint that loops into neon messages of “BLM” and “FUCK 12.” The aesthetic may attract the wrong kind of attention in some neighborhoods, but no matter. Every single day, Rico wakes up with a plan to feed someone, somewhere — whether it’s during police protests in Portland, at antifa events in Oakland or on the crowded streets of L.A.’s Skid Row, the homelessness capital of America.
In one way or another, the itinerant lifestyle has always suited Rico. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, he moved to New Mexico some 13 years ago, landing in juvenile detention centers over drug charges and ultimately moving back to Puerto Rico in 2018. But last spring, he had a revelation while talking to a friend in Portland, who described a utopic street scene where people could comfortably live for free and cop good marijuana for cheap. In May, Rico bought a one-way ticket to Oregon, and spent his last $200 on a tent, cooking equipment and supplies when he arrived.
Then, just a week and a half later, protests erupted over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police. Portland, already an epicenter of anti-police protests, exploded with furious energy. Right in the middle of it — quite literally, given he was sleeping downtown — was Rico. “You couldn’t ignore what was happening in downtown Portland. You’d have to be outside of the city to ignore it. And what happened naturally was that the houseless folks were the ones showing up and showing out every night of the protest,” Rico tells me.
A formative experience came about a month later, when Rico met a Black Panther named Lorenzo and saw him get tear-gassed by police while serving free barbecue to hungry protesters. Incensed, the local activist community came together to donate a mountain of food and gear. Now, all hands were on deck — including Rico, who joined the crew (dubbed Riot Ribs) and witnessed more nights of vicious police action while feeding a hundred people at a time.
The group eventually went their separate ways in the fall, but Rico found an old van and decided to take his cooking abilities up and down the West Coast, turning up wherever protesters did. Thanks to small-scale donations from people across the country, he’s been cooking up vegan tacos, glazed barbecue seitan, ribs, roast beef, hash, eggs and even French toast for the masses, working under the moniker Revolution Ribs and often joining forces with other mutual-aid groups like Riot Kitchen.
Rico is one of a number of young people who have, in the last year, dedicated their lives to directly assisting protesters and vulnerable communities on a grassroots level. The consequences can be steep: He’s been harassed by police, arrested countless times and even shot in the chest with tear gas. In the following conversation, we discuss what he’s learned in the last nine months, the challenges of feeding protesters in the face of police and why he wants more people to quit their jobs.
Your plan wasn’t to move to Portland to be a part of a protest movement, but it happened anyway. When did you first realize that feeding people was going to be your mission?
It was the start of Riot Ribs, with Lorenzo. I just watched him cook for one night, on Fourth of July, when everything went down and he got tear-gassed by police while cooking. Within the next two days, the reaction was huge. People brought in their grills, food, so much stuff, and it’s not like we physically asked anyone to do so. We never even created the Twitter for Riot Ribs — some folks from Portland thought of the idea, and molded what Riot Ribs should be.
The biggest lesson from that was just how easy it is to give back to the community around you and help one another. And how sad it is that we don’t care for one another in the basic ways, as we should. We can’t even ask our neighbors for sugar, you know what I mean?
How has serving food put you into so much conflict with the police? How has being unhoused shaped your experience?
The violence has always been there. So have violent people. The cops have always been there. I’ve always dealt with them because I’ve dealt drugs for most of my life. I’ve spent seven or eight years of my life, starting from when I was in juvenile [detention], in the system. Two years of that was just for selling weed. And during that time, I lost my grandma. It felt like they took everything from me.
So I guess I’ve been conditioned to the point where I feel like, I can’t be hurt by this. I’m happy as long as I’m helping people and not hurting anyone. Their violence will not change my values. Wherever the van goes, police come to try and intimidate me, trying to find any charge to put on me, arresting me for unclear reasons and releasing me without charges four, eight, 12 hours later. When I kept coming back, that’s why my tires started getting slashed. Yeah, cops slashing tires became a thing in Portland.
It escalated from that to getting raided for nothing at all when a group of us stopped in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to support the Jacob Blake protests. Police took the bus, the food truck, personal laptops, everything. They arrested us and then released us on foot, basically stranded. It took two months to get our vehicles back, and even now, the same thing happens. Police keep looking for any reason to impound our vehicles. They know we live out of them, and know taking them away will immobilize us.
Do you plan on staying unhoused?
I choose to be unhoused. I actually have a place to live, if I need. But I’m free. Why would I put myself in a cage when there’s this whole world around me? People assume the only ones who are homeless are so because they’re unsuccessful. But they ignore the actual huge problems in life. What do they teach you from a young age? If you go to school, you have a great job, you won’t be homeless. You’re going to have a great career, happy life, happy wife. But it never goes down like that.
What do you hope to see in 2021?
People turning out for our food. And I hope people stop working. I hope everybody that works in corporate jobs or whatever just stop, sit the fuck down, and realize they’d be happier if they learned to grow some food or something. Figure it out.