Criminalizing the Charitable: Food Not Bombs story on Alternet

Tom Boland (
Wed, 22 Apr 1998 20:41:20 -0700 (PDT)

FWD via Food Not Bombs list -archive:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights
-- Art. 19:  "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression;
this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to
seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless
of frontiers." -- Art. 20:  "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful
assembly and association." -- Art. 25:  "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 ..."

By Jenna E. Ziman
Original to AlterNet

In cities throughout the world, a silent "war against the poor" is brewing,
and control over food distribution if one of its most effective weapons.
Food Not Bombs, a non-violent activist organization, is fighting this
silent 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 alone, Food Not Bombs members have faced over 1,000
arrests for such charges as trespassing and giving out food without a
permit, since 1988. Thousands of dollars of cooking equipment and 12 of the
group's vehicles have been confiscated by the police. 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, video taped, interrogated and harassed by

This pattern of harassment faced by the fastest growing grassroots
political organizations in North America attests to the way many cities are
confronting the ill of society: by criminalizing poverty.

"The fallout from the reduction of Food Stamps, the Welfare Reform Bill,
the increase in police and money going to building prisons, and the
dismantling of Affirmative Action, I think will cause a crisis to come that
is larger than the Depression," said Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not

The organization 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 social change. They give their time to gather,
cook and serve food to homeless people in response to the ever-growing
problems of poverty, homelessness and the lack of adequate food

At the heart of Food Not Bomb's 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 injustices of poverty. If you ask
the organization's members why they are choosing to volunteer, you might
hear, "... because food is a right, not a privilege; because we need
community, not control; or because we need homes, not jails."

Project Censored, a non-profit group that culls national stories that are
grossly under-reported by the mainstream media, ranked a food scarcity
report put out by the Worldwatch Insitute, among its top 10 most censored
stories of 1996. Lester Brown, the report's author, found that "since the
bumper crop of 1990, there has been a no growth in grain production at all
-- while population has grown by some 440 million people, or the equivalent
of 40 New York cities."

But rather than praise the efforts of Food Not Bombs members for taking on
the task the government has turned a blind-eye to, city governments
continue to punish the volunteers. 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, all in the
name of protesting tourism and the merchant economy.

The city of Arcata, Calif., passed a preliminary injunction prohibiting
Food Not Bombs from serving food to the homeless. Soon after, the police
began photographing the group's 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 Arcata's Food Not Bombs.

After numerous applications, the group was denied a permit, and now, to
avoid the police surveillance that began after the initial citations, the
members sometimes have to just leave the food at the meeting place.

"We felt that compassion towards the homeless shouldn't and didn't require
legal approval," said Sam Smotherman, a member of the volunteer group.

In Whittier, Calif., 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 of 1996. One of the member's cases was
dropped; the other's (Carrie Chandler), goes to trial some time 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 won't back down."

Police Officer Keith Boyer, who issued the citation, said, "We have
received numerous complaints about crime in the park."  Boyer said that the
Police Department have received complaints from the residents who live in
the homes surrounding the park where Food Not Bombs set up. They blame the
influx of crime on the homeless who congregate there.

"A basic human right is to have food -- and not just for rich people," said
Matt Hart, a member of the group. "We should be focused on protecting life,
not destroying it."

Police harassment continues, largely steered around food serving permits.
For example, in 1989, San Francisco's courts ordered Food Not Bombs to stop
serving, until they receive permits from the Parks and Recreation
Department. Soon after however, the city's Parks Department voted to
eliminate all permits for serving food to homeless people. The group's
avenues for continuing their work legally were closed.

Even so, the Food Not Bombs members continued handing out food despite the
1989 injunction barring the activity without a permit. Members of the group
say they have applied for permits more than 130 times and have been denied.

San Francisco's mayor, Willie Brown, said that the poor will be left alone
unless they break the law. "If people violate the law -- I don't care who
they are -- the 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 street. Officers
issued countless citations for various offenses, ranging from drinking and
urinating in public to camping in parks.

"Even though there have only been two arrest of Food Not Bombs members in
the past six months [in San Francisco], I'm not particularly impressed with
how Willie Brown treated Food Not Bombs in the past," said Hugh Mejia, a
member of the group. "... There is more Willie Brown could be doing to
address homelessness in general."

"In a certain sense, the homeless crisis is much worse, "said McHenry,
organization co-founder. "Instead of 'Matrix,' it's now called 'business as
usual.'  Such is the politics of Willie Brown: don't name it, and then do
it twice as much."

McHenry has been tackling the problem head-on with speaking tours around
the world. During his tour around Europe of last year, he devoted his time
to spreading information about the organization, strategies for starting
one's own chapter, human rights issues and violations in the U.S. and
anti-homeless and anti-immigrant repression. A North American tour is
presently in the works.

"Homelessness is just beginning to become an issue in these [Eastern
European] countries, like the U.S. in the early eighties," McHenry said.
"People are just beginning to feel the effects of cuts in social welfare
and the reduction in unemployment benefits, and they're 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 of last year (St. Jean Batiste Day). more than 80 people were
arrested in Quebec City, after riot police attacked a crowd of youth who
were protesting French National outside the Provincial Capital. The next
day, the 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 don't 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 Montreal's Food Not Bombs. "The police have used the new bylaw as
a tool to clean up the park and choose who they want there."

Whom is it these cities governments want on the streets? The few for which
a massive accumulation of wealth is enjoyed; not those who have been
relegated to hunger and homelessness.

Now, organizations including Amnesty International, Food First Information
and Action Network (FIAN), The Humanitarian Law Project and the United
National Human Rights Commission have taken up investigations of the
government harassment faced by Food Not Bombs members.

Amnesty International sent California state and San Francisco city official
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 19, 20 and 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, which are guaranteed under U.S. and International Law.

-- Art. 19:  "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression;
this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to
seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless
of frontiers." -- Art. 20:  "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful
assembly and association." -- Art. 25:  "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, and so the
organization declared that it may declare 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 today's 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 American one
illness or one paycheck away from the streets about to join them."

Last Year Kahn spent 28 days in prison for serving bagels to homeless people.

[Author Jenna E. Ziman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.]


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