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Criminalizing the Charitable
Jenna e. Ziman
I Dreamed I Was In â€¦
Welfare Rights Activism
John potash and laurel Carpenter
Rural Prison as Colonial Master
New Party Report: Making Work â€¦
Human Rights Watch World Report â€¦
Haiti: The Roof Is Leaking
Word Tricks & Propaganda
Liggett Narcs Joe Camel
Cleaning up the Hamptons
Mobuto Was Chaos
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Criminalizing the Charitable
Jenna E. Ziman
In cities throughout the world, a silent "war against the poor" is brewing, and control over food distribution is one of its most effective weapons. Food Not Bombs, a non-violent activist organization, is fighting this war by providing free food to homeless people in over 130 cities around the world, and various city governments are trying to stop them.
In San Francisco, since 1988, Food Not Bombs members have faced over 1,000 arrests for such charges as trespassing and giving out food without a permit. The police have confiscated thousands of dollars of cooking equipment and 12 of the groups vehicles. In such cities as Montreal, Quebec City, Arcata, Whittier, Chicago, and San Diego, members sharing food with the homeless population in their cities have been arrested, cited, photographed, videotaped, interrogated, and harassed by police. This pattern attests to the way many cities are confronting the ills of society: by criminalizing poverty.
Food Not Bombs was first formed in Boston in 1980, as an outgrowth of the anti-nuclear movement in New England. Its members are committed to the use of non-violent direct action to create sustainable institutions that prefigure a movement for progressive social change. At the heart of Food Not Bombs philosophy is the belief that poverty is a form of violence, and by sharing food the organization challenges this violence and attempts to highlight the injustice of poverty.
Most cities have adopted a cite-the-poor-until-they-go-away pattern of policies. As a result, shelters are overcrowded, police citations are given to people who cannot afford to pay them, and Food Not Bombs members continue to be harassed.
The city of Arcata, California passed a preliminary injunction prohibiting Food Not Bombs from serving food to the homeless. Soon after, the police began photographing the groups members, as well as those who ate their meals. Five members of the organization were cited for contempt of court for violating the preliminary injunction, and one person was arrested.
"If we get a political or legal victory, it may be influential in getting some of these other places to stop the police harassment," said Lawrence Hildes, attorney for Arcatas Food Not Bombs.
After numerous applications, Arcata Food Not Bombs was denied a permit, and now, to avoid the subsequent police surveillance, members sometimes just leave the food at the meeting place. "We felt that compassion towards the homeless shouldnt and didnt require legal approval," said Sam Smotherman, a member of the volunteer group.
In Whittier, California, where there is only one church-affiliated shelter open from October to March, two members of Food Not Bombs were cited for serving food without a permit in March 1996. One case was dropped; the other went to trial in April. "Why should we have to have a permit to feed people from this community?" Chandler said. "Even if we go to jail, this is something we believe in, and we wont back down."
Police harassment continues, largely around food-serving permits. For example, in 1989, San Franciscos court ordered Food Not Bombs to stop serving until they received permits from the Parks and Recreation Department. Soon after, however, the citys Parks Department voted to eliminate all permits for serving food to homeless people. Legal avenues for continuing their work were closed.
Even so, the Food Not Bombs members continued handing out food despite the 1989 injunction barring the activity without a permit. They have applied for permits more than 130 times, but have been denied.
San Franciscos mayor, Willie Brown, said that the poor will be left alone unless they break the law. "If people violate the lawI dont care who they arethe law must be enforced," he said. "But we should not be arresting people for feeding the homeless. They are doing us a great service." Pledging to adhere to a more compassionate approach to the problem of homelessness, Brown promised to abolish the so-called "matrix" program (installed during the Jordan administration) that used aggressive police harassment to try to get the homeless off the streets. Officers issued countless citations for various offenses, ranging from drinking and urinating in public to camping in parks.
"In a certain sense, the homeless crisis is much worse," said McHenry, cofounder of Food Not Bombs. "Instead of Matrix, its now called business as usual. Such is the politics of Willie Brown: dont name it, and then do it twice as much."
McHenry has been on speaking tours around the world. "Homelessness is becoming an issue in these [East European] countries, like the U.S. in the early 1980s," McHenry said. "People are just beginning to feel the effects of cuts in social welfare and the reduction in unemployment benefits, and theyre slowly admitting that there is a homeless crisis."
In recent years, many European cities have adopted unyielding attitudes towards the homeless population. Already in such cities as Frankfurt and Berlin, homeless "sweeps" are beginning, where homeless people are arrested because their presence is believed to be hurting business and tourism.
On June 24, 1996 (St. Jean Batiste Day), over 80 people were arrested in Quebec City, after riot police attacked a crowd of youth protesting outside the provincial capitol. The next day, a SWAT team raided a house where members of Food Not Bombs were staying, arresting three people. They were first charged with sedition, heinous propaganda, and organizing a riot, but the charges were later changed to growing marijuana. The three were refused bail, because the judge said that "they are dangerous anarchists, and we dont want them out during the festivals."
In Montreal, police have been targeting homeless and youth in Berri Square (renamed "Parc Emilie-Gamilin"), handing them $116 tickets for minor bylaw infractions, such as walking on the grass, taking up more than one space on a park bench, or walking through the park at night. A "Midnight Snack" protest was held on July 28, 1996 in response to this harassment, and the police arrested 70 the following morning.
"Berri Square has been a safe haven for homeless...to unwind from the hardships of street life when the police are not around," said Michael Caplan, of Montreals Food Not Bombs. "The police have used the new bylaw as a tool to clean up the park and choose who they want there."
Recently, organizations including Amnesty International, Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN), the Humanitarian Law Project, and the United Nations Human Rights Commission have taken up investigations of the governments treatment of Food Not Bombs members.
Amnesty International sent California state and San Francisco city government officials letters in October 1994, November 1995, and June 1996. In the letters, Amnesty states that the government attacks on Food Not Bombs are serious violations of articles within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which are guaranteed under U.S. and International Law.
- Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.
- Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
- Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing ...
Amnesty did not receive a single response to any of the letters. The organization is considering declaring any Food Not Bombs members in jail "prisoners of conscience."
"History judges political leaders by whether or not they respond to the great issues of their time," wrote Brown in his global food scarcity report. "For todays leaders, the challenge is to achieve a human balance between food and people on a crowded planet."
But as Robert Kahn, a San Francisco Food Not Bombs member, observed, "The real martyrs are the 11,000 to 14,000 homeless on the streets of San Francisco (competing for 1,390 beds) and the millions of Americans one illness or one paycheck away from the streets about to join them."
Kahn recently spent 28 days in prison for serving bagels to homeless people.
Jenna E. Ziman is a San Franciso-based writer who collarborates with Project Underground, a human rights and environmental organization.