Source: Z Magazine Online
July / August 2007 Volume 20 Number 7/8
Helping the Homeless
The Right To Food
By Dan Read
Eric Montanez could hardly be considered a criminal. As a volunteer with [Orlando] Food not Bombs (FNB), Montanez worked distributing food to the homeless in his native Orlando, Florida. Just 21 years of age, he is one of many volunteers who serve meals to the hungry and work to create a community atmosphere with those in need. If you find yourself wondering how such a person could be considered a clear and present danger requiring police intervention, nobody could blame you.
But on April 4, Montanez was working his usual stint, dishing out rice and stew to 30 or so dispossessed citizens that populate Orlando’s streets. Meanwhile, his actions were being monitored by two plainclothes police officers, who called for assistance to arrest Montanez and take a vial of stew as evidence of his crime.
Despite vibrant protest from other FNB volunteers, he was swiftly hauled off to a local police station. Phone calls to the mayor and other civic officials were not returned, but fortunately Montanez was released from custody later in the day after posting bail.
Montanez was the first to be arrested under a new city ordinance against “large group feedings.” Aimed at stopping individuals or groups from feeding the poor and homeless, the new rule claims to address the concerns of business owners who fear that customers may be put off shopping by the sight of a “rough sleeper.” Other Orlando residents have also complained that parks are being “turned into soup kitchens,” despite the fact that such activities fulfill a vital role in the lives of many of the city’s poor.
Even though the official word coming from local government is that the legislation would not be enforced until ratified by a court decision in 2008, unofficially the Orlando Police Department appears eager to begin. Keith McHenry, one of the co-founders of FNB, commented that the recent police actions amount to “a pattern of trying to drive the homeless out of sight.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any other reason for the city ordinance other than restricting the movements of the homeless to preordained areas, paving the way for further gentrification of working class neighborhoods and brushing poverty under the carpet. Such measures have been tried on and off over several years, with authorities in a number of urban areas across America often toying with the idea of reintroducing them, despite the staunch resistance they have provoked in the past.
Unfortunately, after having been inspired by the example of Las Vegas—which has successfully cracked down on the feeding of the homeless in city parks—various Orlando political figures seem eager to quash any further resistance. Orlando FNB is now witnessing a constant police presence at their feedings, with officers on at least one occasion being fully outfitted in SWAT uniforms. FNB feels that the police presence is intended to intimidate both the volunteers and the homeless, in the process paving the way for the expected full- scale implementation of the ban next year.
A Turbulent History
The situation may not be as grim as some fear. FNB has a proud history of vocal opposition to anti- poor legislation, having endured widespread surveillance and persecution over the course of its existence. Since its beginning in 1980 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, FNB now has hundreds of chapters, each playing an important role in the lives of the homeless. Activists not only hand out food, but also political literature that takes a strong stand against the occupation of Iraq and the ongoing “war on terror.”
Over its 27 year existence it has been a vocal component of the wider progressive movement for peace and social change. The first recorded arrest of a volunteer was on August 15, 1988, when nine activists were taken into custody at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Over the next 9 years, over 1,000 similar arrests took place; 700 of them directly due to an alleged violation of a court order prohibiting the feeding of homeless citizens.
FNB has been dubbed one of the country’s “most hardcore terrorist groups” by the U.S. military. How such a label could be applied was difficult to see, but after September 11, FNB clearly lived up to its “terrorist reputation” by supplying hot meals to rescue workers returning from the disaster area. In the wake of the Asian Tsunami, FNB helped feed many who might otherwise have gone without. In New Orleans FNB volunteers were among the first to respond after Hurricane Katrina.
In a climate of fear, it does not take much for organizations opposed to the status quo to be branded as “terrorists,” no matter how absurd it may seem. The difficulties affecting FNB and other organizations are a reflection of the current reactionary epoch. In order to change, we need a refreshing breeze of progressive politics to counter the stuffy rhetoric of capitalism and stake a claim to a future where food is not a privilege, but a universal right.
Dan Read is an activist based in the UK.