This post was guest-written byNation intern and freelance writer Kevin S. Donohoe.
Since the beginning of June, more than twenty members of the anti-hunger organization Food Not Bombs have been arrested in Orlando, Florida for the "crime" of providing free meals to the homeless and working poor.
Food Not Bombs has long been serving free, vegan food in Orlando’s public parks. That all changed last month, when the city began enforcing a 2006 ordinance limiting groups who feed more than twenty-five people in parks to only two permited events per year. Food Not Bombs unsuccessfully appealed the decision in federal court and its members are now refusing to obey the law.
As tensions escalated between the police and FNB, city officials took to the press to vilify the group’s members and recipients. A spokesman for the city says that FNB recipients have been responsible for trash, public urination and crime in city parks. The mayor of Orlando, Buddy Dyer, went even further, calling the organization’s members “food terrorists” and accusing the group of having “different purposes” than helping the homeless.
FNB activist Benjamin Markeson is filing a defamation lawsuit against the Mayor for his terrorist comments — and said that the real terrorist acts are being committed by government officials. “We think that it is terrorism to arrest people for trying to share food with the poor and hungry in the community,” Markeson told Democracy Now!.
The arrests have received international press coverage and solidarity rallies have been staged at local universities as far away as Michigan. On June 20th, hacktivist group Anonymous shut down the Orlando Chamber of Commerce’s website and posted a “boycott Orlando” message on the site of Universal Orlando Resorts. Now, local officials from across the state are watching the standoff between FNB and the city closely as they consider imposing similar permit regulations in their own communities.
This is not the first time a Food Not Bombs chapter has been targeted by local government officials. Last year officials in Middletown, Connecticut tried to shut down a chapter of the group for lacking a license. The dispute ended after Attorney General (now US Senator) Richard Blumenthal changed the state’s law to accommodate food sharing. In February, Fort Lauderdale Police twice raided a home shared by local FNB activists.
The organization was founded by eight anti-nuclear activist thirty years ago, as Jennifer O’Mahoney explained in this space last September, and now has 1,000 chapters across the country. Members collect surplus food from bakeries, restaurants and grocery stores and prepare vegan meals, keeping regular hours in the same locations so that community members in need know when, and where, to find them. Although local chapters vary in organization and orientation, all are bound by a shared commitment to nonviolent social change, economic equality and the idea that access to food is an inalienable right.
You can sign the Food Not Bombs online petition asking the city of Orlando to stop arresting people for sharing food with the hungry or a petition on Change.org calling for an end to the arrests. If you would like to get involved with or support Food Not Bombs, this list will tell you if there’s a chapter near you. If not, you can start your own group by e-mailing email@example.com. Money is also desperately needed so, if you can, please donate a dollar for peace here.