Eric Montanez could hardly be considered a criminal. As a volunteer with
Food not Bombs (FNB), Montanez worked distributing food to the homeless
in his native Orlando, Florida. Just 21 years of age, he is one of many
volunteers who serve meals to the hungry and work to create a community
atmosphere with those in need. If you find yourself wondering how such
a person could be considered a clear and present danger requiring police
intervention, nobody could blame you.
But on April 4, Montanez was working his usual stint, dishing out rice
and stew to 30 or so dispossessed citizens that populate Orlando’s streets.
Meanwhile, his actions were being monitored by two plainclothes police
officers, who called for assistance to arrest Montanez and take a vial
of stew as evidence of his crime.
Despite vibrant protest from other FNB volunteers, he was swiftly hauled
off to a local police station. Phone calls to the mayor and other civic
officials were not returned, but fortunately Montanez was released from
custody later in the day after posting bail.
Montanez was the first to be arrested under a new city ordinance against
“large group feedings.” Aimed at stopping individuals or groups from feeding
the poor and homeless, the new rule claims to address the concerns of business
owners who fear that customers may be put off shopping by the sight of
a “rough sleeper.” Other Orlando residents have also complained that parks
are being “turned into soup kitchens,” despite the fact that such activities
fulfill a vital role in the lives of many of the city’s poor.
Even though the official word coming from local government is that the
legislation would not be enforced until ratified by a court decision in
2008, unofficially the Orlando Police Department appears eager to begin.
Keith McHenry, one of the co-founders of FNB, commented that the recent
police actions amount to “a pattern of trying to drive the homeless out
of sight.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any other reason for the city ordinance
other than restricting the movements of the homeless to preordained areas,
paving the way for further gentrification of working class neighborhoods
and brushing poverty under the carpet. Such measures have been tried on
and off over several years, with authorities in a number of urban areas
across America often toying with the idea of reintroducing them, despite
the staunch resistance they have provoked in the past.
Unfortunately, after having been inspired by the example of Las Vegas—which
has successfully cracked down on the feeding of the homeless in city parks—various
Orlando political figures seem eager to quash any further resistance. Orlando
FNB is now witnessing a constant police presence at their feedings, with
officers on at least one occasion being fully outfitted in SWAT uniforms.
FNB feels that the police presence is intended to intimidate both the volunteers
and the homeless, in the process paving the way for the expected full-
scale implementation of the ban next year.
A Turbulent History
The situation may not be as grim as some fear. FNB has a proud history
of vocal opposition to anti- poor legislation, having endured widespread
surveillance and persecution over the course of its existence. Since its
beginning in 1980 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, FNB now has hundreds of
chapters, each playing an important role in the lives of the homeless.
Activists not only hand out food, but also political literature that takes
a strong stand against the occupation of Iraq and the ongoing “war on terror.”
Over its 27 year existence it has been a vocal component of the wider progressive
movement for peace and social change. The first recorded arrest of a volunteer
was on August 15, 1988, when nine activists were taken into custody at
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Over the next 9 years, over 1,000 similar
arrests took place; 700 of them directly due to an alleged violation of
a court order prohibiting the feeding of homeless citizens.
FNB has been dubbed one of the country’s “most hardcore terrorist groups”
by the U.S. military. How such a label could be applied was difficult to
see, but after September 11, FNB clearly lived up to its “terrorist reputation”
by supplying hot meals to rescue workers returning from the disaster area.
In the wake of the Asian Tsunami, FNB helped feed many who might otherwise
have gone without. In New Orleans FNB volunteers were among the first to
respond after Hurricane Katrina.
In a climate of fear, it does not take much for organizations opposed to
the status quo to be branded as “terrorists,” no matter how absurd it may
seem. The difficulties affecting FNB and other organizations are a reflection
of the current reactionary epoch. In order to change, we need a refreshing
breeze of progressive politics to counter the stuffy rhetoric of capitalism
and stake a claim to a future where food is not a privilege, but a universal
Dan Read is an activist based in the UK.