Moneyless exchanges a twist on free markets
By MARCELLE HOPKINS Columbia News Service | November 19,2006
NEW YORK — The police were prepared for the worst. They had received word that anarchists were rallying in downtown Raleigh, N.C., one summer Saturday in 2004. Museums were closed, a Civil War re-enactment was cancelled and parking meters were hooded. A helicopter circled overhead while police mounted on horses and bicycles patrolled the empty streets around the Children's Garden.
"There were 40 fully geared-up riot police waiting in the building next door while we were folk dancing, giving free massages and exchanging old books in the park," said Liz Seymour, 57, a freelance writer and community activist.
Dubbed the Really Really Free Market by organizers, the event did not turn out to be the sort of anti-globalization protest police had expected. It was, instead, a peaceful gathering of about 200 people who came to give and get free stuff and services. There was an old-time string band playing under a tree, used clothing and knickknacks laid out like pirate's booty on bed sheets, and a bike-repair workshop to fix flat tires. Everything was free. That's right, really, really free — no trading or bartering and absolutely no money being exchanged.
The purpose of those who began the Really Really Free Market movement was to offer it up as criticism of the international free-market economy, which they say exploits people and resources by lowering trade barriers, reducing the influence of unions and favoring multinational corporations.
The first Really Really Free Market took place in Miami during protests against a 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting. Since then, the idea has spread across the country, taking on a life of its own.
From Philadelphia to San Francisco, Really Really Free Markets are trying to change the way people think about the economy. Many are advertised with the unofficial slogan, "Because there's enough for everyone, because sharing is more fulfilling than owning, because free trade is a contradiction of terms."
Although Really Really Free Markets are often promoted by political activists, organizers want to make them communitywide events, attracting people who don't normally participate in politics.
"It was born out of the idea that protests had become very reactionary," said Ryan Empire, a college student in St. Paul, Minn. "We wanted to be more proactive, to do things that are relevant to people's lives."
Really Really Free Markets are held throughout the year in various cities and are heavily promoted at the neighborhood level. Organizers pass out multilingual flyers and advertise through social service agencies, community groups and publications.
They appeal to the hip as well. A recent market in New York City was featured in the arts and entertainment magazine Time Out New York and in the urban trend-tracker Daily Candy, a Web site and e-mail newsletter that claims to be "the ultimate insiders guide to what's hot, new and undiscovered."
Tracy Hopkins, a 36-year-old corporate Web site editor, attended a Really Really Free Market at St. Mark's Church in Manhattan, where about 400 people showed up. She emptied two large bags of her own clothes, housewares, books and magazines onto a blue plastic tarp in the sandy courtyard of the church. Her boyfriend sat in on a print-making workshop while Hopkins rifled through piles of other people's cast-offs.
"People have so much in this city," Hopkins said. "You don't need to buy anything because there's too much excess." She held up a foot-tall plastic Christmas tree trimmed with gold ribbon and smiled, "I've been wanting one of these." She squeezed the tree into her bag beside black sandals with a rainbow strap, a flower-print dress and a maroon "Free Tibet" T-shirt.
Aside from stuff, there are free services and workshops at Really Really Free Markets. People offer haircuts and face painting and lessons in how to silkscreen or play guitar. At a summer market in Greensboro, N.C., a woman put up a sign that said, "I'm a really good listener, and I promise not to give you advice."
"Her blanket was full all day," Seymour said.
For many marketgoers, the Really Really Free Market is a social event — a place to go, something to do. "People need a place to gather. We've lost that space in our society," said Fiona McNeill, 38, a professional writing coach who offered shaman energy-healing sessions at the market in Manhattan. "I think people go into stores to be around other people. We can get that here without spending money."
Since the 2004 market in Raleigh, Really Really Free Markets have managed to stay free of confrontation. But a monthly market in nearby Carrboro, N.C., has recently run into administrative hurdles with the town government. The town requires a reservation for the use of the Town Commons, the site where the markets are held. In March, the Really Really Free Market stopped making reservations because the town required a $100 fee.
"Having to pay to use a public space is contrary to what we're trying to do," said Neal Ritchie, a 23-year-old schoolteacher. "It just didn't feel right to put out a donation jar at the Really Really Free Market."
A dispute erupted between officials and market supporters when town staff proposed a new law criminalizing the advertisement of an event at the Town Commons without a reservation. Dozens of market supporters went to a town meeting to protest the new rule, and it was rejected.
Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, who personally paid the reservation fee for the October market, says he wants to find a solution. "We're in the process of considering the possibility of changing" the fee, "partly because they requested it," Chilton said. In the meantime, the Really Really Free Market continues in Carrboro and around the country.
Sam Downs, who organized markets in Kansas City, Mo., said, "It's wonderful to see people from different walks of life interacting with each other: eating, sharing clothes, listening to music, hanging out in the sun."
Marcelle Hopkins is a master's candidate at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.