The Dumpster Diving Anarchist
by Kathrine Anker
Taking on the world, one garbage bin at a time
Many blame the global financial crisis for ills in their lives, but not Justin Gilbertson. He claims that the financial downturn has made life a lot easier for him and others who steal and eat out of supermarket bins in protest against capitalism.
The sun is setting over Kyle of Lochalsh, a tranquil fishing village on the northwest coast of the Scottish highlands. As the few shopkeepers in the village are closing up, fishing boats are coming in and families are reuniting for the evening, I am following a tattooed, tie-dye clad man into the backyard of the local Co-operative supermarket. He is here after hours, but he is still going to get his dinner.
As he lifts the lid of a big, grey container and the sour stench of bin juice reaches our nostrils, a smile spreads on his face:
"It's like Christmas - every night is like opening a new present!"
Justin Gilbertson, 29, is a self-proclaimed activist, shoplifter and "dumpster-diver". He spends his life travelling the world, hitchhiking to get around and stealing to feed himself, in a political attempt to avoid spending money.
Gilbertson has allowed me to accompany him on a foraging mission that's frowned upon by supermarkets and authorities alike.
Continue ReadingKyle of Lochalsh on the left, Kyleakin across the water on the right
raiding the bins
We're going "dumpster diving" in the big containers outside the Kyle Co-operative, where food from the supermarket is thrown when it is no longer fit for a for a life on the shelves. I stay next to the container, nervously looking over my shoulder at the CCTV camera as Gilbertson jumps in - seemingly unaffected by the thought of being seen.
"Of course I have the fluttering butterflies in my stomach, like, oh my gosh, I could get caught, but that's not what drives me. For me it's more of a political statement, the way I live my life. Dumpster diving and shoplifting basically suit those political statements more than anything else."
a protest against consumption
Gilbertson is one of a growing number of dissatisfied anti-capitalists who are trying to bypass capitalism because they find the system exploitative and unfair. Like Gilbertson, many come from well-to-do families, and they are choosing this lifestyle as a protest rather than out of need.
Reluctant to be too tightly labelled, but inspired by anarchism, Marxism and anti-globalisation sentiments, these people disagree with the concept of working in return for a wage set by the capitalists. For the same reason, they do not want to support the system by putting money into it.
Recession - a shoplifter's heaven
But not playing the game of capitalism means you have to find other ways of surviving. Not a problem, according to Gilbertson, who claims that the global financial crisis has actually made life easier for people who live off the dumpsters.
"Regularly I shoplift. Every country has a large corporation exploiting their workers and the environment so there's always somewhere to shoplift from."
Stealing, or "acquiring" food, as he calls it, is of course risky. Gilbertson got caught in a supermarket in Italy earlier this year.
"They made me pay and I walked off. Luckily my partner, Annica, had a bag full of stolen food along on her arm, about €50 worth. They were so interested in me that they didn't bother her and she walked out while I was getting yelled at."
He laughs: “It’s a lot easier for Annica because she is female and cute and innocent-looking. I’m male, bearded and tattooed – I look more suspicious.”
Gilbertson is not too worried about the consequences, even if he does get caught stealing again. “In most European countries, unless it’s over a hundred Euro’s worth, they can’t really do anything – they can just say, ‘oh, you’re a bad person’ and ‘don’t come back here’. If you keep it under £100 or €100, they can’t really do anything, it’s just a slap on the wrist type-of-thing.”
Had Gilbertson been caught shoplifting in the Co-operative, he might have faced charges. Steve Broghton, a spokesperson for the Co-operative, said: “you can be prosecuted for any theft regardless of the value, and the Co-operative takes any instances of theft from stores extremely seriously. However, decisions on whether to prosecute are a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service, or the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland.”
At the Procurator Fiscal, no one would confirm the ‘under £100 rule’. An urban myth, perhaps, or the sum of a growing group of activists’ shared experiences.
Regardless of the consequences, Gilbertson intends to continue stealing and eating out of bins. He and his friends think it is a positive act of protest against the system. Anything that damages the capitalists is a step in the right direction, and dinnertime is not the only occasion for Gilbertson to break the law for what he sees as the greater good. He is a keen activist, involved in animal rights actions all over the world.
“Nothing that I can talk about with you,” he grins, “but yeah I definitely try to be involved in… err… certain aspects to make the world what I think is a better place and to make retribution to what are injustices in my eyes.”
Is it worth it?
Gilbertson believes that his actions have had positive results, even if just on a small scale. But Dr. Jonathan Pattenden, lecturer in development studies at the University of East Anglia and specialist in grassroots activism, is not convinced that the actions of disgruntled anti-capitalists actually make a difference. “On a small scale it is a complete irrelevance”, he says. Dr. Pattenden admits that on a larger scale, grassroots activism can help change the way society views and talks about an issue. But he adds: “It might also have a negative impact on economic growth, which would hurt the uninvolved marginalised more than the rich - as the current recession makes abundantly clear.”
Gilbertson is aware that there are contradictions in the way he and his friends live their lives: “I know that the way we live is a hypocrisy because the further we try to get ourselves out of the system, the more in the system we are,” says Gilbertson, who defines the way he lives as a “parasitic lifestyle”.
“If we didn’t have the system, we wouldn’t be able to dumpster dive, we wouldn’t be able to hitchhike, we wouldn’t be able to shoplift because without the stores raping the earth we wouldn’t have any stores to shoplift from, without the stores throwing out the food we wouldn’t have anywhere to dumpster dive from, without our dependency on oil we wouldn’t have our cars to hitchhike from. So I realise it can be a contradiction of terms the way I say “getting myself out of the system” but I guess at the end of the day we all have to be comfortable living with our own hypocrisies.”
Free from the worries of society
For Gilbertson, the theoretical and practical problems of his lifestyle are outweighed by the freedom he gets from it: “When you take yourself out of the system, when you take yourself out of being… you know, basically a whore to society, you have so much spare time. […] When you’re not worried about your next pay check arriving and you’re not worried about whether you’re gonna be able to pay rent or you’re gonna be able to afford food, you have time to focus on things that really make you feel happy.”
It is getting dark at the Co-op’s backyard. Batches of bread and packs of sponge cakes are still flying out of the two-meter tall container as Gilbertson rummages through the last of the bins. “This is an unusual find”, he says, and hands a six-pack of Dr Pepper cans over the top of the bin, wrapped and in perfect shape.
"“This actually pisses me off – do you not think the people working here would have wanted some of this? It’s disgusting how much we waste on this planet”.
Gilbertson crawls back out of the container and lands on the asphalt. One of his colourful trouser legs have attracted a reddish, undeterminable substance, but his eyes are gleaming as he stacks vegetables, bread loafs, cakes and soft drinks in a cardboard box he has found in the parking lot next to the bins.
No one seems to have noticed us, and we set off back to Gilbertson’s tent with a heavy box of food. As we stop to rest our sore arms, I ask him if he is happy. “I’m extremely happy now because I’m living the lifestyle I want to live. I’m not being a part of anything I don’t what to be part of. To me that’s all that matters and that’s a sign of success right there, I’m doing what makes me happy.”