Orlando: Not the Happiest Place on Earth

Feeding homeless in Eola Park

(Originally published at the Daily Censored for Project Censored.)

In the U.S., the selling pornography is a legally protected expression of free speech. Also protected speech is the publishing and distributing of racist, hate material that advocates violence. Marching in front of women’s health care clinics with graphic posters of aborted fetuses is also protected by the First Amendment. However, feeding homeless people in public parks can be a crime. In fact, feeding homeless people in public parks can land you on the FBI’s terrorist list or behind bars looking at 25 years to life in prison.

For thirty years, Food Not Bombs has been protesting nuclear weapons, war, and poverty by simply feeding people. Food Not Bombs (FNB) started off in May 1980 with a bake sale to raise money for cofounder Brian Feigenbaum’s legal fees after his arrest for peacefully demonstrating at the Seabrook Nuclear Station in New Hampshire.

In 1981, at a Bank of Boston meeting with nuclear industry officials, FNB dressed up like hobos and set up a soup kitchen with the message to the executives at the meeting declaring their policies could help cause another Great Depression.

Over the next thirty years, individual branches of the organization began sprouting-up, first nationally and then internationally. In September 1992, the first international FNB gathering was held in San Francisco. According to their website, it was here that the organization developed their three core principles: “Free vegetarian and vegan meals without restriction, dedication to nonviolent direct action and every group autonomous without leaders and using consensus to make decisions.”

While FNB has been active feeding anti-nuclear and anti-war demonstrators they also have providing hunger relief to natural disaster victims around the world. According the FNB website, “Food Not Bombs shares free vegan and vegetarian meals with the hungry in more than 1,000 cities around the world to protest war, poverty and the destruction of the environment. With over a billion people going hungry each day how can we spend another dollar on war?”

However, it has been their campaigns to feed the homeless in public parks that have caused the organization their greatest troubles, and led them to be labeled “food terrorists” by some government officials.

Throughout the 90’s, and into the first part of this decade, FNB volunteers have been routinely arrested in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tampa, Long Island, Middleton, Connecticut, and Denver. When several young FNB volunteers were found to be connected to anarchist groups planning to attend anti-war protests and political conventions, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force began to investigate the organization.

“Since when did feeding the homeless become a terrorist activity? ” asked ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson. “When the FBI and local law enforcement target groups like Food Not Bombs under the guise of fighting terrorism, many Americans who oppose government policies will be discouraged from speaking out and exercising their rights.”

Recently, the Orlando branch of FNB has been caught-up in the middle of an ongoing political legal battle. Here is how Orlando branch explains the ongoing conflict:

“In July 2006, the City of Orlando passed an ordinance that criminalizes homelessness and groups that share food inside downtown parks. Despite this measure, Orlando Food Not Bombs has decided to continue sharing food inside Lake Eola Park. Orlando Food Not Bombs was a plantiff in a federal lawsuit, filed in October 2006, that challenged the constitutionality of the City’s anti-homeless food sharing ordinance which, essentially, banned food sharing in downtown parks. On Sept. 26, 2008, a federal judge ruled in favor of Orlando Food Not Bombs and the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and permanently enjoined the City of Orlando from enforcing the ordinance.

In April 2011, the Federal 11th District Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled against Orlando Food Not Bombs in a 10-0 decision. Since then OFNB has continued to defy the ordinance by sharing food in downtown public parks such as City Hall Commons Plaza. While upholding the right of the City to regulate the “time, manner and place” of food sharing in public parks, the Court also noted that OFNB food sharings are “expressive conduct” that enjoys some protections under the First Amendment.”

Ever since the April 2011 ruling, the mayor and police of Orlando have been arresting FNB activists for feeding people in public parks. Over the last two months, no less than 29 FNB activists have been arrested for serving food in public spaces.

The City of Orlando has allowed FNB to feed people without arrest at Orlando’s City Hall. However, FNB does not believe the space adequately provides clean water and other necessary sanitary conditions. The city also offered a parking lot which FNB turned down. The organization claims that, instead of addressing the real issues of hunger and poverty, the city’s mayor and city council are attempting to gentrify the area near the parks and sweep the homeless into back alley lots.

Until the city overturns its ordinance prohibiting the feeding of more than 25 people in a public space without a permit, members of FNB will continue to violate the ordinance and risk arrest. According to their website: “Currently, Orlando Food Not Bombs shares three days a week: On Sundays, at 1 p.m. in Downey Park (the corner of Dean Rd. and E. Colonial Dr.) in the East Orlando area and on Mondays, at 8:30 a.m. (breakfast) and Wednesdays, at 5 p.m. (dinner), in the picnic area at Lake Eola (the corner of Osceola and Central Blvd.) in downtown Orlando.”

While I have tried to sympathize with the City of Orlando’s point of view, I have a hard time justifying it. The nation has just been hit with the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Millions of people have been thrown out of their homes. All the while the courts have ruled millionaires and billionaires can secretly spend unlimited amounts of money on political candidates and campaigns that will directly enrich the rich. However, the courts have ruled handing out sandwiches to hungry, homeless people in public parks can be limited and even criminalized. Call me a radical, but this makes no sense.

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