All posts by Tyler Lee

Free food criminalized – free speech squashed

Orlando FNB

The Orlando, Florida Food Not Bombs chapter has fallen under siege by city-officials and law-enforcement over the past few months with dozens of people arrested for the crime of feeding the hungry. Volunteers with Orlando Food Not Bombs (OFNB) prepare vegan food to share with hungry people using ingredients that would otherwise go to waste. OFNB shares food to call attention to society’s failure to provide food and housing to each of its members. OFNB shares food in public places such as parks to reclaim public space for everyone, not just the privileged.

In July of 2006 the City of Orlando passed a law that limited the feeding of twenty-five people or more to twice a year. Several months later volunteer Eric Montanez was arrested by eight of Orlando’s finest. Police videotaped him from a tinted, black SUV parked a short distance away. They reportedly caught him ladling out stew to the hungry thirty times. The bastard! This is where the fight began…

OFNB hired an attorney and filed suit against the city. On September 26, 2008 Federal Judge Gregory Presnell ruled that the ordinance violated OFNB’s First Amendment rights to engage in activities that express political ideas. The ruling ordered the City of Orlando to pay OFNB’s attorney $200,000. One month before the payment was due, the city hired a private firm to appeal the case.

The 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case regarding OFNB on February 15, 2011. Nearly two months later, the Court of Appeals overturned the original ruling. While they agreed that feeding the homeless constitutes free speech, they claimed the ordinance does not unfairly limit the group’s rights.

During a food sharing on June 1 in Lake Eola Park, Orlando Police counted the number of people OFNB served and proceeded to arrest three members including Food Not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry. This began a string of over twenty-five arrests carried out at food sharings during June.

Mayor Buddy Dyer called OFNB members “food terrorists” and ordered the group to serve in a barbed wire feeding cage located under a highway overpass in one of the most dangerous parts of town, an order they refused.

As an alternative, Dyer offered the group the chance to serve on the steps of City Hall without a permit as long as they stayed out of Lake Eola Park. On July 1, OFNB served food and offered literature there for the first time. The group attempted to return to Lake Eola Park on July 6, but Orlando Police once again arrested several members. Since then, OFNB has continued their twice-weekly sharings at City Hall, serving Mondays at 9:30 am and Wednesdays at 5:30 pm. In return, all charges have been dropped against those who were arrested for sharing inside Lake Eola Park.

Food Not Bombs members are now attempting to gather enough petition signatures to push the ordinance onto the ballot in 2012, in hopes that voters will repeal it entirely. This would allow them to serve in Lake Eola Park, where running water and restrooms are available to the hungry – necessities that are unavailable at the City Hall location.

Orlando is a prime example of city-officials putting profit before their own people. Mayor Buddy Dyer is trying to suppress Food Not Bombs to crack down on shabby youth and homeless people alike in order to further his agenda of downtown gentrification and the criminalization of poverty. Over thirty percent of Orlando’s shelters claim they have had to turn people away in the last twelve months. Many of them charge the homeless a nightly fee for shelter. In the wealthiest country on earth, why do we find it acceptable to demonize the poor? It is up to us to end this pro-corporate system of political policies that are impeding on our lives more and more everyday. Lend your support by spreading awareness and urging Orlando city officials to end the criminalization of poverty. Sign OFNB’s petition at www.thepetitionsite.com, or send Mayor Buddy Dyer an email urging him to repeal the ordinance. You can reach him at: buddy.dyer@cityoforlando.net. Speak out – and speak loudly.