Criminalizing the Charitable
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 police.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 Bombs.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 distribution.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 weed 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.