Criminalizing the Charitable

Jenna E. Ziman


In cities throughout the world, a
silent "war against the poor" is brewing, and
control over food distribution is one of its most effective
weapons. Food Not Bombs, a non-violent activist organization,
is fighting this 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, since 1988, Food Not
Bombs members have faced over 1,000 arrests for such charges
as trespassing and giving out food without a permit. The
police have confiscated thousands of dollars of cooking
equipment and 12 of the group’s vehicles. 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,
videotaped, interrogated, and harassed by police. This
pattern attests to the way many cities are confronting the
ills of society: by criminalizing poverty.

Food Not Bombs 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 progressive social change. 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 injustice of poverty.

Most 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.

The city of Arcata, California 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, Arcata
Food Not Bombs was denied a permit, and now, to avoid the
subsequent police surveillance, members sometimes 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, California, 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 1996. One case was dropped;
the other went to trial 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 harassment continues, largely
around food-serving permits. For example, in 1989, San
Francisco’s court ordered Food Not Bombs to stop serving
until they received 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. Legal avenues for continuing their work were

Even so, the Food Not Bombs members
continued handing out food despite the 1989 injunction
barring the activity without a permit. They have applied for
permits more than 130 times, but 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 streets.
Officers issued countless citations for various offenses,
ranging from drinking and urinating in public to camping in

"In a certain sense, the homeless
crisis is much worse," said McHenry, cofounder of Food
Not Bombs. "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

McHenry has been on speaking tours
around the world. "Homelessness is becoming an issue in
these [East European] countries, like the U.S. in the early
1980s," 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, 1996 (St. Jean Batiste
Day), over 80 people were arrested in Quebec City, after riot
police attacked a crowd of youth protesting outside the
provincial capitol. The next day, a 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

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."

Recently, organizations including
Amnesty International, Food First Information and Action
Network (FIAN), the Humanitarian Law Project, and the United
Nations Human Rights Commission have taken up investigations
of the government’s treatment of Food Not Bombs members.

Amnesty International sent California
state and San Francisco city government officials 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 within the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, which are guaranteed under U.S.
and International Law.

  • Everyone has the right to freedom
    of opinion and expression; this right includes the
    freedom to hold opinions without interference and to
    seek, receive and impart information and ideas
    through any media regardless of frontiers.
  • Everyone has the right to freedom
    of peaceful assembly and association.
  • 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. The organization is
considering declaring 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

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 Americans one
illness or one paycheck away from the streets about to join

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


Jenna E. Ziman is a San Franciso-based
writer who collarborates with Project Underground, a human
rights and environmental organization.