Published on Zmagazine, bx Dan Read, July-AQugust 2007 (scroll down).
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 … (full text).